Enduring Divides: On Eve Fairbanks’s “The Inheritors”

By Jean HeyJanuary 10, 2023

Enduring Divides: On Eve Fairbanks’s “The Inheritors”

The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa's Racial Reckoning by Eve Fairbanks

A HUNDRED PAGES into The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning, Eve Fairbanks’s deep and far-reaching exploration of postapartheid South Africa, a Black activist called Gadifele attends a rally to welcome Nelson Mandela to Soweto after 27 years in jail.

At the end of his speech, Gadifele pushes her way forward, all the while saying to herself with amazement, “I am inside the picture.” She makes her way to the front of the crowd until she is face to face with Mandela, who grips her hand. For a few seconds, she almost passes out, but the flash of cameras revives her. In that moment, she realizes that after losing so much of her life to the Black-white struggle, she now has a chance to be reborn. Tears fall as she repeats to herself with a sense of wonder, “I am inside the picture.”

It is a moving scene that represents both a high point in the country’s history and a rare euphoric moment in this nonfiction account. The desire to be “in the picture” — to be relevant and to make a difference, to have agency and to feel no longer marginalized — fuels almost all the people who inhabit this intensely researched account of the years since Mandela’s inauguration. Fairbanks anchors her evocative narrative in three distinct characters: Dipuo, best friend of Gadifele and a fellow activist; Malaika, Dipuo’s gifted daughter; and Christo, a white Afrikaner who, as a young man, actualized his childhood dream to join the Special Forces of the South African army to fight “terrorists.”

It took 12 years to write The Inheritors — time needed for Fairbanks, perhaps, to grasp the country’s complexities and contradictions and to earn the trust of her main subjects. The book’s subtitle, An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning, speaks to Fairbanks’s ability to reach psychological depths in her interviews, even with minor characters, of which there are dozens. These tangential stories at times weigh down the narrative, and the reader may feel impatient to return to Dipuo, Malaika, and Christo. She portrays all three fully and with empathy, even though we sense her closest relationship is with the Black activist Dipuo — a vibrant character whose story is the most poignant.

Fairbanks frames these intimate portrayals and the subject of racial reckoning itself within a broader international context. An American from a conservative Virginian family, she begins the book by describing South Africa as a compressed version of the United States. To her eye, it is as if American malls, ranches, suburbs, and cities have been compressed into a country an eighth of its size. Similarly, she compares South Africa’s history of racial integration to that of the United States and finds 250 years squeezed into about 30.

Despite its own struggles with race, the United States was a key player in persuading South Africa to dismantle apartheid. Fairbanks posits that the international community needed to see the end of apartheid for its own reasons: to prove that at least one postcolonial country in Africa could be an unqualified success, to show that the money raised and sanctions imposed were not wasted, and to prove that racism and tribalism could truly be exorcized. The Western world wanted to see the country transformed and to bask in the glow of the miracle.

And yet, Fairbanks makes clear that, for ordinary South Africans, miracles didn’t materialize. The book’s prologue describes Dipuo’s daughter, Malaika, getting up at four in the morning to go to a formerly white school two hours away by bus. It is 2003, more than a decade after the rally where Mandela, fresh from prison, spoke to an ecstatic crowd in Soweto. Malaika still sleeps on the floor of a corrugated iron shack that she and her mother share with several other relatives. As the bus leaves Soweto and crests at the top of a hill, she looks down on the sleeping suburbs where only white people used to live and where now-wealthy Black people called “black diamonds” can also buy homes. Outdoor lights illuminate lush gardens and swimming pools, and to this 11-year-old whose shoes have broken soles, it looks like heaven.

“We had dreams,” Dipuo tells Fairbanks. “We wanted to have a better life. But there were no details.” Despite promises of free housing, electricity, and economic relief, little of that came to fruition for Dipuo. Far from considering Mandela a hero, she blames him for pandering to white people for fear of a mass exodus of white skills and capital. Her own trajectory since apartheid is disheartening. First, she worked for an internationally funded NGO, but the money dried up when the world’s interest in South Africa waned. Later, she worked as personal assistant to the CEO of an ad agency and was promised that she’d have a creative voice. In hindsight, she realizes that she was a token — one of the “previously disadvantaged” — and when she is ill and hospitalized, her position is terminated. Fairbanks writes:

It was a strange feeling, but Dipuo was becoming aware she envied white people their liberation — as if they had been freed more than black people. She perceived them to have been liberated from their pariah status at little material cost, while black people had been burdened with heavy new expectations.

The Inheritors is full of such responses likely to surprise those who have followed South Africa with a casual interest. Along with envy for what the “other” has — many white people now envy Black people for having an advantage in the workforce — Fairbanks encounters a great deal of survivor’s guilt. For white people, it is the guilt of never having been held fully accountable for apartheid despite the country’s renowned Truth and Reconciliation Commission; for Black people, it is the shame of surviving or thriving when many forefathers suffered, and comrades died.

Animosity and bitterness also thrive in postapartheid South Africa. Christo is bitter that with the end of apartheid he went almost overnight from esteemed soldier to social outcast. He dislikes any forced integration, and even when he becomes a lawyer, he remains in charge of a dormitory of his alma mater that houses only white Afrikaner students. Meanwhile, Dipuo hates that she is expected to be friendly to white people when previously her mission was to “kill every white person I saw.” Perhaps the biggest contradiction is that those who fought to end apartheid now miss it — not for its doctrine of white supremacy but for the sense of purpose and clarity it brought.

For Dipuo, the one clear benefit of having endured the struggle is her daughter, Malaika, born of a casual encounter near the end of apartheid. At school, Malaika earns pocket money writing essays for schoolmates, dumbing them down so as not to alert the teacher and charging white children more. She attracts attention for expressing pro-African, antiwhite views on Facebook and later, to her surprise, is paid handsomely to give international talks that berate her white audience’s attitudes and thinking.

These personal stories form the foreground in Fairbanks’s deft descriptions of modern South Africa — of apartheid, Mandela’s release, the catastrophic response to the AIDS crisis, and the rampant government corruption under Jacob Zuma. Together, they make for a fascinating account of a country still struggling to find its footing. Fairbanks writes that economic inequality has actually increased since apartheid; South Africa has one of the highest rates of sexual assault in the world; and the infrastructure is crumbling, although she argues that the frequent electricity outages are a sign of increased usage now that all South Africans have access. But the deeper troubles that Fairbanks illuminates are psychological wounds stemming from apartheid and a sense of grievance among many Black people that white people have so far escaped paying for the damage that they caused.

Malaika predicts that, without a true racial reckoning,

there’s going to come a time when black people are tired of being nice […] 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. I fear that the most.

Near the end, Fairbanks offers a flicker of hope from an unlikely source. She is with Christo when he goes to pick up his son from school, and they find the boy with an arm slung around a Black friend. Far from recoiling, Christo looks fondly on both boys and says he’s glad that his son’s school is racially integrated. “Those kids think differently,” he says. “I don’t think they’ll be as burdened as we were.”

Christo’s son and Malaika may well be the ultimate inheritors of South Africa, and Fairbanks suggests that within them lies a path forward. “I have to believe,” Malaika says. “I have to believe that things will get better.”


Jean Hey was a journalist in South Africa before immigrating to the United States. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Plain Dealer, Chicago Tribune, Solstice Literary Magazine, The MacGuffin, and Arrowsmith Journal.

LARB Contributor

Jean Hey was a journalist in South Africa before immigrating to the United States. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Plain Dealer, Chicago Tribune, Solstice Literary Magazine, The MacGuffin, and Arrowsmith Journal. She holds a dual-genre MFA in fiction and nonfiction from Bennington College and recently completed a collection of memoiristic essays about immigration and identity.


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