The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa's Racial Reckoning
By Eve Fairbanks
Simon & Schuster, 416 pages, $27.99
In the opening pages of The Inheritors, Eve Fairbanks describes South Africa as a country that offers a glimpse of the turmoil that awaits the United States as it comes to terms with its history of colonization, slavery, and segregation. You might think you passed this point long ago, but you are only just beginning, says Fairbanks. “By denying the way the past still works on the present,” she says, “we may have made its influence more threatening. So what follows is a story that illuminates what lies ahead of us.”
This is an ambitious mission, and Fairbanks is brave even to attempt it. There is indeed much Americans can learn from South Africa, including about the burdens of the past. It was something I felt wretched about as a white South-African youth, and I remain willing to acknowledge a measure of collective guilt about Apartheid—provided the charges are correctly formulated.
But you first need to understand the mind in which they originate. Fairbanks is the daughter of a prominent university professor, raised in suburban Virginia and schooled at Yale. Her first job in journalism was with The New Republic, and she now contributes to such organs as The New York Times, The Atlantic and The Guardian. She isn’t woke in the strident sense, but her outlook is conditioned by the norms prevailing in the elite leftish media. She is also not your conventional analyst, eschewing socio-economic argument in favor of a relentless focus on the psychological interior of her subjects, of whom there are three.
Christo is a white farm boy who grows up to become a special-forces soldier, shoots an unarmed civilian but manages to duck the resulting murder charge. In the early 1990s, he finds himself at a university in the throes of convulsive change and doesn’t like what he sees coming. Rather than move beyond Apartheid, he retreats into the past, eventually becoming the owner of a business that provides segregated accommodation to Afrikaans students who find solace in residing with their own kind and submitting to discipline of the sort Christo absorbed during his time in the Apartheid military.
Christo’s explanations of himself revolve around “cultural” differences for the most part. In the old days, Boer frat boys submitted cheerfully to sadistic hazing and obeyed the rules, which required juniors to bow every time they encountered a senior and perform menial tasks like manning the house telephone. Black boys found this humiliating and refused to play the game, which is why whites withdrew after student residences were finally desegregated in 2007.
There was an obvious undercurrent of racism in all this, and Fairbanks wonders why the university’s Harvard-educated head tolerates it. She concludes that leftists found it worth their while “to keep Christo around—even inflate his power,” because he served their own ends. “To believe that vicious varieties of white supremacy are reemerging,” she says, “paradoxically afforded progressive white South Africans a sense of comfort about where they ethically stood.”
Is there a lesson for Americans here? Well, yes, at least implicitly: Failure to resist systemic racism can’t be justified by pointing to the power of deplorables and their stubborn defense of the status quo.
The rest of Fairbanks’ message is conveyed through the stories of a black woman named Dipuo and her daughter, who goes by the nom de guerre of Malaika wa Azania. Dipuo was a young lion in the final phase of Apartheid’s disintegration, running an underground street committee on behalf of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. Malaika was born in 1991, a year or so after Mandela’s release from prison and three years before his victory in South Africa’s first democratic election. On his first appearance, he is portrayed as a hero and bringer of hope, but Fairbanks soon dismisses Mandela as a disappointment, far too keen on racial reconciliation and capitalism. It was, she says, “as if the fall of Apartheid had let the gas of white people’s ideas into the highest echelons of black leadership.”
Among the many failures laid at Mandela’s door was the state’s inability to provide black children with the quality education Dipuo once hoped for, hence her decision circa 2002 to send Malaika to a fee-paying school in the formerly white suburbs. For a single mother living in a shack, this was a huge sacrifice, and Malaika was initially thrilled to wind up at Melpark Primary.
By now, the school was racially integrated but segregated along class lines; almost all the students, blacks included, came from comfortable middle-class homes. They had expensive clothes and cell phones, fancy lunches; Malaika had bologna sandwiches and holes in her shoes. Slender white girls smelling of “gardenia” or “lavender” bumped into her in the corridors as if they hadn’t seen her. Parents picked them up after school in expensive cars, while Malaika undertook a grueling bus journey back to her mother’s shack.
Overwhelmed by the unfairness of it all, Malaika exists in a state of rage that she hides from her mother for fear of ruining the fragile hopes invested in her. In time, she becomes a model student, blessed with a precocious writing talent that blossoms in high school into a lucrative sideline—ghost-writing essays for lazy white peers. Her earnings ease the pressure on Dipuo, who is able to move her family out of a tin shack and into a brick house, where for the first time Malaika has her own bedroom.
This idyll ends in Malaika’s junior year of high school. Her mother suffers a nervous breakdown, loses her job, and spends months in hospital. Left to fend for herself, Malaika’s grades start sliding until she falls into a psychosis of her own, smoking weed, missing classes, and once succumbing to a fit of rage that leaves windows broken and a teacher injured. For a while, it looks as though Malaika is lost, but she regains control and fights her way back into the game, eventually graduating with an academic record so stellar, she is granted admission to Stellenbosch, an elite Afrikaans university near Cape Town.
There Malaika encounters what she describes in her 2014 bestseller, Memoirs of a Born Free, as the “ugly face of white supremacy,” an experience so unnerving that she drops out and devotes herself to organizing a proper revolution—the one that Mandela should have delivered, but didn’t. After apprenticeships with obscure revolutionary sects, she joins forces with Julius Malema, now the leader of a mighty black nationalist formation known as the Economic Freedom Fighters. Much as she admires Malema’s plans to nationalize mines and land, she eventually realizes that masses aren’t quite ready for what she calls “rapture” and returns to university to complete a masters degree.
All the while, Malaika has been publishing outbursts of rage and pain on Facebook, eventually acquiring 100,000 followers while being hailed as the voice of a generation. Whites are fascinated by her ravings about whiteness and white supremacy, offering book deals and handsomely remunerated in-person appearances. Malaika is happy to take the money but offers no concessions in return. Fairbanks recounts how, when invited to speak at a major literary festival, Malaika pockets the cash and “basically” tells the white audience to “go fuck yourselves.”
Toward the end of The Inheritors, Malaika is a successful academic and newspaper columnist but still angry. She tells Fairbanks a time is coming when black people will tire of being nice. “There is nothing left to say,” says Malaika, “so perhaps we must show you … By the time white people decide, ‘Okay, it’s time to talk,’ black people may have turned to a point where they are no longer able to talk. They will want to kill. Or to destroy. That is my greatest fear.”
Well, that’s reassuring. Or is it? A page or two later, Malaika adds that she still dreams of “the possibility of a South Africa unoccupied,” which presumably means cleansed of people like me, an Afrikaner whose ancestors arrived here from France in 1688 and proceeded to conquer the tribes of the interior and make themselves masters of all they surveyed. Driving colonists into the sea is a commonplace trope in African nationalist rhetoric, so I take no offense. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to enter some evidence in mitigation.
Fairbanks spent 12 years working on The Inheritors, winning the trust of Malaika and Dipuo and convincing them to share their deepest secrets. They are admirable people, brave in the face of unbearable poverty and determined to rise out of it by cleansing the world of inequality and patriarchy. They are also capable of savage introspection and, at times, willing to laugh about themselves. It isn’t their fault that Fairbanks surrounds them with airy waffle about her own thoughts and feelings.
She feels, for instance, that being white in South Africa “recruits a person into constant unsubtle and subtle acts of cruelty and racial bias,” one of which involves “cruising past the half-dozen beggars you pass on your way to the grocery store.” Well, yes, some whites do exactly that, but the black beggars who congregate around every big city-traffic light are mostly there to meet white people.
Fairbanks acknowledges this elsewhere, telling the story of a beggar who approaches a car containing her and Malaika. Ignoring Malaika, the beggar addresses his plea to Fairbanks. Malaika laughs and explains the game: “He does not even bother to talk to me,” she says, because he’s thinking, “‘Number one, she is white, so she probably has money. And, number two … she probably feels guilty and is going to give whatever she has.’”
Fairbanks concedes that Malaika has given voice to a “universal” truth, thereby contradicting her earlier claims about cruelty and racism—which are also true, at least in part. If this sounds confusing, welcome to South Africa, a country where mutually annihilating truths coexist quite happily. Sometimes, they even coexist inside the covers of the same book.
For insights into this peculiar phenomenon, let’s take another look at Malaika’s story, this time emphasizing a different strand of narrative. We pick up the story at the point where Malaika, aged 11, has just arrived at the formerly white school where she feels constantly alienated and humiliated. One morning, her teacher shows up in tears, explaining that her beloved dog is missing. Malaika laughs out loud, saying, “Who cries about a dog?” This enrages Mrs. Martin, who scolds the child for being callous and bad-mannered.
To Fairbanks, this suggests that “white South Africans’ ostentatious love for animals served as a proxy for the tenderness they knew they ought to extend toward black people.”
Yet as soon as the dog incident was forgotten, Mrs. Martin made Malaika her special pet, lavishing the girl with praise and asking her to stay after class to talk. Later, says Fairbanks, she began to invite Malaika to her house after school. “‘She put me on a pedestal,’ Malaika remembered. ‘I could do no wrong.’ … If she talked out of turn or cracked jokes in class, Mrs. Martin just smiled benignly. If she showed up hours late to school, Mrs. Martin would accompany her to the principal’s office to defend her.”
With this kind of support, Malaika turns into a model pupil, elected class captain and showered with praise and prizes before moving on to high school, where she finds white teachers equally accommodating. “They didn’t want to antagonize me because I was black,” says Malaika in her memoir. “White people are afraid to confront us even on serious matters because they fear that exercising their authority, even necessarily, could be read by us as racism.”
Under this benign regime, Malaika blossoms into full precocity, winning prizes and acing exams until her junior year, when her mother winds up in hospital for several months. Only in her mother’s absence due to illness does Malaika begin to buckle under pressure. In her memoir, she describes the reaction as follows. “All my teachers were panicking,” she says. The school’s vice principal arranges for her to see a therapist who helps her reorient. Malaika claws her way back into the game and goes on to win the English prize at the year-end graduation ceremony. The trophy is presented by one of the teachers who had continued to believe in her. “We hugged for what felt like hours,” she says, “tears streaming down both our faces,” while the student body stood up to clap.
According to my sources, almost everyone involved in this rescue mission was white. These are people who care less for blacks than dogs? I don’t think so, and oddly, Malaika agrees. “If anything happens to me, the first people who will come to my aid are white people,” she tells Fairbanks. “The most generosity I ever get is from whites.” In almost the same breath, she adds something astounding: “It’s revolting.”
So now we have mutually annihilating truths residing in a single person. Malaika professes faith in radical black-power doctrines but tells Fairbanks she would rather become a whore than live in a township among black people. She loathes capitalism but shows Fairbanks photographs of the house she wants to live in, a double-story with four bedrooms and swimming pool. She acknowledges that whites have been kind to her, and yet she seethes with rage against us, mostly because she believes she is entitled to everything we take for granted and feels cheated because she doesn’t have it.
Why not? For both her and Fairbanks, the explanation is systemic racism, which holds that any disparities in racial outcomes are incontrovertible proof of the continued existence of a white racist plan to keep blacks down. South Africa, with its enormous disparities in income and education, is a bottomless well of evidence for this contention. At the same time, it is also a country where Malaika has to resort to exaggeration to dramatize the miasma of whiteness that is constantly choking her. Her own writings are replete with passages in which she imagines that whites despise her, even though nothing is said or done to confirm her suspicions. Even her life-changing encounter with what she calls the “ugly face of white supremacy” at Stellenbosch University falls into this category.
The first black students were admitted to Stellenbosch in 1977, and by the time Malaika arrives, the campus is integrated in proportions comfortably familiar to Americans—two-thirds white and the rest persons of color. Soon after her arrival, as she recounts in her memoir, Malaika attends a party where most students are blond and blue-eyed and seem to be looking at her in an unfriendly way. Plucking up her courage, she walks across the room to a counter where an older student is serving refreshments. This girl says, “Wat soek jy?,” Afrikaans for, what do you want?
Malaika wants lemonade but reads a dark subtext into the question. “I walked away with a sense that … [she] was asking me what I wanted in that place, on that campus, at that university … why I’d dared to interrupt her world with my blackness.”
One accepts that Malaika felt out of place and awkward and didn’t like being addressed in Afrikaans, a language in which she was uncomfortable. But then again, Stellenbosch is a famously Afrikaans university. If a bartender in Italy addresses a stranger in Italian, this doesn’t prove that the bartender and everyone else in the room is a Mussolini-adjacent fascist. Even Malaika admits that her diagnosis of the “contempt” in which white students held her was based on something so “minute” as the way they glanced at her.
Ah well, at least she is honest. I am not sure the same is true of Fairbanks.
If you had met me in the early ’70s, in the darkest days of apartheid, I would have introduced myself as an aspirant revolutionary, which was true if only in my own mind. I lived in a slum apartment in Johannesburg and spent my nights drinking and plotting with friends, two of whom later turned out to be secret members of the Communist Party underground. In that subculture, everyone was crippled by white guilt. We sought to escape it by turning our backs on bourgeois materialism and doing our own cooking and cleaning, lest we be mistaken for racist exploiters. It was our duty to agree with anything blacks said and to finish each other’s lines about the unspeakable racism exhibited by less enlightened whites. Like Malaika, we yearned for a revolution to bring on the rapture.
When I closed the covers of The Inheritors 45 years later, I felt as though Fairbanks had returned me to that depressing era. In her depiction, present-day South Africa is fundamentally unchanged; whites have yet to be “proportionately punished” and continue to bear full responsibility for black poverty, which remains as grim as ever. Fairbanks offers no coherent explanation as to why this should be, because politics and economics are not her thing. Indeed, she declares in a frontispiece that The Inheritors is “a fantasy,” thereby signaling that her book is to some extent a collection of impressionistic musings that don’t even pretend to be objective.
Fair enough, I suppose. Fairbanks is entitled to observe that she arrived in South Africa toward the end of a long decline in our crime rate, giving her the impression that white people’s obsession with their own safety was a paranoid delusion. Is she obliged to mention that crime rates have since risen again? Possibly not. She is also entitled to observe that in the l980s, the Apartheid regime hanged around 140 mostly black murderers a year, thereby underlining the legacy of racism we have yet to overcome. But is she also entitled to remain silent about the 1,200-odd extrajudicial executions that now take place each year? Known as “mob killings,” these are carried out by black people rendered so desperate by poor policing that they beat criminal suspects to death in the streets.
Consider Fairbanks’s portrayal of the electricity crisis threatening to cripple South Africa’s economy. “Books have been written about the black-led government’s mystifying failure” in this regard, she says, and whites often use it to illustrate their racist theories of black incompetence. In fact, she says, the government should be praised for extending electricity supply to blacks, a policy that almost doubled the number of electrified households between 1994 and the present. “The electric grid has been expanded, but it’s also overtaxed,” she adds. “Far more people have electricity, but blackouts occur in more areas.”
Really? South Africa reputedly had the world’s cheapest and most reliable electricity when the ANC came to power in 1994. By l997, technocrats were warning that demand would soon outstrip supply, but the government sat on its hands until 2008, when the national electricity grid went down for several days. Panic-stricken, the relevant ministry commissioned two new coal-fired power stations, both planned in haste and shoddily executed, leading to massive cost overruns.
At the same time, a breakdown in law and order created opportunities for rampant illegal connections, especially in the shack settlements that ring most South-African cities. Suburbanites and businesses continued to pay for electricity, but in many cases, municipal officials kept the cash rather than pass it on to the state power company, Eskom, which found itself saddled with billions in uncollectable debt. This coincided with an upsurge in corruption at Eskom’s headquarters, where salaries outstripped the private economy and executives often handed overpriced coal supply contracts to friends in return for kickbacks.
At the apex of the Eskom pyramid, commonplace graft gave way to looting on a truly epic scale, even as the utility’s fleet of power stations groaned and creaked towards terminal obsolescence. Now Eskom is saddled with $24 billion in debt upon which it can’t even pay interest, which is why the firm’s bonds are junk and banks close their doors when they see Eskom coming to borrow more money. If Eskom collapses entirely, which some say is inevitable, posterity might pose some awkward questions to Fairbanks for her minimization of the crisis.
She does much the same with the Zondo Commission, set up in January 2018 to investigate allegations of corruption in high places. For the next four years, South Africans sat riveted to their TVs as whistleblowers revealed schemes whereby cabinet ministers and others diverted as much as $40 billion into their own pockets. The Zondo Commission transformed South-African politics out of all recognition, mortally wounding the ANC’s credibility and silencing the party’s last apologists in the northern hemisphere; Fairbanks doesn’t even mention it.
This leaves her free to make invidious generalizations about whites, generally depicted as the root of all evil. If we don’t help blacks, we are callous and racist. If we do, Fairbanks offers an interview in which one of her subjects opines that the real aim of white generosity is “to underscore—wordlessly—black people’s insufficiencies.” Spoiled rotten by unearned privilege, we whine ceaselessly about the hardships we supposedly endure under black rule. “Many white South Africans,” she says, “…need to believe they live in a dysfunctional country,” as if this is a psychotic delusion.
It isn’t, and it isn’t only whites who think so. Fairbanks introduces us to several black people who harbor doubts about black government, or in extremis, long for the return of a strict white government. One such is a black businessman who tells Fairbanks her belief in equal human capacity is pretentious and theoretical. “The day God makes me president,” he says, “I’ll bring more whites into the government. I’ll force my ministers to work for whites! And within five years, I tell you, I will have transformed this country.”
As always in such situations, Fairbanks finds a way to demonstrate that anyone who says such things shouldn’t be taken seriously. In this case, the speaker is said to exhibit a variant of the self-blame sometimes encountered in Holocaust survivors.
As if by divine intervention, the gods of algorithm have just provided my smartphone with a perfect rebuttal—a snatch of video in which a black radical harangues a sea of supporters about the dismaying state of the nation. “Love them or hate them, the Afrikaners gave us a country that was functional,” declares Joseph Mathunjwa, leader of a militant mineworkers union. “The Nationalist party was cruel to humanity, but they left us with a functioning state.”
Today, he continues, we are surrounded by omens of coming collapse. Cities where commuter trains no longer run, because infrastructure has been looted and sold for scrap. A bankrupt national airline. Hospitals that run out of medicines. Delivered in the style of a holy-rolling sermon, each of Mathunjwa’s utterances elicits a roar of agreement from the entirely black crowd, a sound that blows Fairbanks away, leaving me to pick over the ruins in search of lessons intended to illuminate America’s future.
She never clearly says so, but I think Fairbanks wants white Americans to understand that they won’t escape judgement for slavery, Jim Crow, and Wounded Knee. As one who has devoted years to a futile rearguard action on behalf of Afrikaner honor, I fear she is right; you will never live these things down. The best you can do is try to put your ancestors’ misdeeds in context and hope that Thomas Sowell’s dictum—“Most of history’s victims or villains are beyond the reach of human power”—achieves universal acceptance.
Beyond that, there is a warning that seems to have something to do with critical race theory. Fairbanks starts by admonishing Americans for “denying the way the past still works in the present” and then offers South Africa as a parable about what might happen if you don’t change. With this goal in mind, she has to portray South Africa as a backwater where progressive thought has yet to penetrate, which is absurd.
We are world leaders in the goal CRT pursues: forced equity of outcome. South Africa has enacted scores of laws intended to push the previously disadvantaged to the front of queues for almost everything—jobs, promotions, seats in the boardroom, university admissions, and slots in national sports teams. Atop all that, large corporations are required to hand chunks of ownership to persons with appropriate pigmentation.
Fairbanks’s failure to recognize this huge effort spares her from having to acknowledge its inadvertent consequences—economic growth that lags far behind rival emerging markets, even as the population grows and unemployment climbs to agonizing levels. Less than 40 percent of working-age South Africans have paid jobs, which goes a long way towards explaining the chasm between our haves and have-nots. It also explains why black respondents in opinion surveys always rate joblessness as their No. 1 problem, with racism of the sort that obsesses Malaika and Fairbanks barely making the top-10.
So yes. Take heed, America. Please.