Life in Post-Apartheid South Africa Is Confusing For Both Sides
Dismantling the system of racial domination has triggered a moral reckoning in complex and unexpected ways with no guarantee of a happy outcome
The United States and South Africa have parallel histories in many respects. In both, white European settlers arrived in early-to-mid 17th century. In both, they displaced the indigenous people and quickly established their dominion over the new land. In America, the Europeans fast became the majority. They imported black Africans and then developed a horrific system of chattel slavery to control and exploit them. In South Africa, the white Afrikaners didn’t achieve majority status but they imposed a brutal regime of apartheid to segregate and subjugate the local black population. In 1964, America officially ended Jim Crow, its own nasty form of apartheid that succeeded 250-plus years of slavery. Exactly 30 years later, South Africa followed suit.
The one big difference between the two is that in South Africa, whites, faced with international pressure and a growing domestic protest movement, relinquished power without violence. Indeed, 68.7% of whites voted to give then President F. W. de Klerk the mandate to end white rule and negotiate a transfer of power to Blacks. In America, on the other hand, the North had to fight a bloody civil war to end slavery in the South and then, nearly a hundred years later, send in federal troops to oversee integration efforts and dismantle Jim Crow.
How is South Africa’s relatively less messy end to apartheid working out? Eve Fairbanks, a Virginia native who moved to South Africa, seeks to answer that question in her recently published book, The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning. She has the keen nose for stories of a journalist, the sharp eye for detail of a novelist, the attentive ear of a clinical psychologist for the tortured inner life of her subjects, and the sharp analytic mind of a political scientist. She uses all her gifts to dissect the incredibly complex socio-psychology of a country that has yet to come to terms with itself. There are good guys and bad guys, yet this is no simple morality tale. It is full of unexpected twists and turns, but the one thing that comes through loud and clear is that there is simply no clean way to dismantle injustices this entrenched. They warp everyone—the oppressed and oppressors— making it impossible for either side to simply move on.
This study of contemporary South Africa by an American implicitly shines a light back on America’s own struggle that has continuously oscillated between progress and reversal.
It gives me great pleasure to publish an excerpt from Fairbanks’ book. And once you read it, you’ll want to read the book that she lovingly and painstakingly put together over 12 years. And once you read the book, you’ll want her to write a sequel!
By Eve Fairbanks
Not long after I arrived in South Africa, in 2009, I went to visit a farmer named Andre. I’d read about him in a newspaper. Under apartheid—the rigid racial caste system that governed the country through the second half of the 20th century—Andre had supported the white minority regime. But then he changed his mind. After apartheid ended, he started a program to mentor Black farmers, who hadn’t previously been allowed to own large commercial farms. He got his farmers’ union—all old white men—to sign on. Before dawn, they would drive to their Black neighbors’ houses to put themselves at their service. Andre’s neighbor, Moses, who grew up poor in a segregated area, wanted help setting up a digitized accounting system, so Andre helped him.
It was a feel-good story. Andre received me in the farmers’ union building, a shed decorated with a line of framed photographs of the union’s presidents over history: a string of grave-looking white faces. “But we’re all people,” Andre said he had realized. “We sink or swim together, now I see.”
After I got into my car to leave, though, I heard a tap at the driver’s side window. It was Andre. I rolled the window down.
“Can I ask you a question?” he said, poking his head in. “As a journalist, you travel around. So. Our young people. Do you think they’re even more racist than we were?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, taken aback.
“My son,” he said. “To be honest, I’m doing this for my son. He’s sixteen. I want him to be able to take over our farm. If our Black neighbors go down, we all go down.”
But Andre was distressed by something he was observing in his son. He said his son lashed out bitterly about the new Black-led government, even calling Black people by a derogatory term Andre wouldn’t have used under apartheid.
This wasn’t supposed to be happening. It was supposed to be older white South Africans who might remain stuck in the past. It seemed to Andre, though, that other, strange, frightening changes were occurring. “I’m afraid for my son,” he told me through the window. He lowered his voice. “I’m afraid of my son.”
I moved from America to South Africa fifteen years after apartheid’s end in 1994. To many people outside of South Africa, the country’s story remains frozen in time: frozen, either, on the optimistic image of the power of forgiveness and great leadership to release centuries’ worth of pain and inequities—I’ve found people who barely know South African history can recall the iconic photograph of Nelson Mandela, its first Black president, spontaneously lifting its last white president’s hand at his inauguration—or frozen in an assumption of what will have to happen, given that history. Black South Africans will have to wreak revenge on white people someday. White people who supported apartheid will have to dig in.
I think these presumptions stick because South Africa seems instructive and archetypal, a rare test case in which history practically—as opposed to theoretically, morally—demanded a society rapidly dismantle a caste system and figure out how to make its most powerful people the subjects and its historically disempowered people the leaders. We think we want to know how such a scenario plays out. But maybe what we want is a Rorschach test, one that fulfills our philosophies about power—what we believe is possible or inevitable. Because over the twelve years I spent there, I found almost nobody in South Africa was having the experience of the post-apartheid country that I imagined they’d be having.
In the 1980s, the white policemen who broke up anti-apartheid protests had often saved their utmost venom for the handful of white protesters. In those years, a small but vocal white intelligentsia had spoken against racial segregation in journalism, poetry, and song.
White South Africans lived “guns at the ready and jackboots on Africa’s back,” the journalist Rian Malan wrote. The poet Breyten Breytenbach, arrested by the white government for aiding the Black-liberation cause and sentenced to seven years in jail, reckoned the “sickness” in white society could only be cured by “integration, however hazardous and dangerous.”
Before I got to South Africa, I assumed progressive white South Africans would be seizing the opportunity to acquaint themselves with Black culture— taking African dance classes, learning Black languages. Vanishingly few were.
Many of these formerly anti-apartheid thinkers are still active. But, intriguingly, they’re now much more likely to be arguing in favor of reclaiming aspects of the past from the moral dustheap. “We were once [an] almost first-world country,” one reflected recently in a newspaper, adding that a hospital in a white-dominated area “is very well-run, spotless … food for thought.”
One of the first books I read in South Africa was written by a white former anti-apartheid activist. She confessed she missed apartheid: it rendered every choice you made, as a white person, meaningful and potentially heroic—from the race of the people you dated to the books you read. Another anti-apartheid white journalist lamented that there was “no [clear] moral place” for a white person to “stand any longer” without apartheid’s extreme manifestation of evil.
In the mid-twentieth century, white South Africans had a term for dissolute aspects of the white colonial lifestyle: “white mischief.” White mischief meant doing things that, in Western society, would have been unacceptable and getting away with them. It incorporated a sense that Africa was for the wild ones, the people too hot for Europe to handle. The actor Richard E. Grant, who grew up in Swaziland—heavily influenced by white-ruled South Africa—sought to define “white mischief” by recounting a time when he was ten and his mother had sex with his father’s best friend in the front of a car while Grant sat in the back.
A formerly anti-apartheid friend, now in her fifties, told me that doing “white mischief,” in her youth, felt like a way of courting self-ruin. Coming of age in Johannesburg, she knew “people were getting shot and dying” in the townships. Treating your own life as casually as the white government treated Black bodies—driving rickety Beetles way too fast or doing drugs—felt like a protest.
But in post-apartheid South Africa, she confessed that she felt stupid all the time. She once thought of herself as daring, albeit in miniature. Now she didn’t know whether it was nice or insulting to ask her housekeeper to teach her daughter some isiZulu or whether giving the security guard a leftover pizza was generous or patronizing.
She could ask. But—she said apologetically—these kinds of situations occurred every day, and she got a sense that sometimes her Black colleagues and neighbors didn’t want white people to learn—or, at least, they didn’t want to help in that education. “I am asked too often to take time to explain my feelings,” a Black colleague once complained in a meeting. “I don’t exist to give white people TED Talks.”
Like cattle wending their way back to a pen at dusk, after apartheid, white South Africans started to converge with each other in their tastes, even in their beliefs. White people who lived in illegally integrated “communes” in the ’80s traded their arty, junked cars for SUVs and retreated behind electric-wire-topped walls, peering through their gates to fret about a broken streetlight or an unfamiliar Black male walking on the road.
My friend who told me about “white mischief” said it seemed like posturing, now, to walk the streets toting a boom box blasting Kwaito or to live in a commune to send a message about capitalism. The white progressives who could afford to doubled down on having recessed lighting, Black nannies, and steel-fortified doors.
Even if we wouldn’t consciously articulate it, we tend to believe, in the long run, that people’s attitudes shift in a straight line. Progressives will become more committed to their causes as they see how much of the change they hoped would be accomplished remains undone. Revanchists, over time, will dig in.
But you can get a dizzy feeling in white South African society—an uncertainty as to which people were problematic and which were willing, if not enthusiastic, to accept serious material integration. Poor white people I met could be far more open to interacting with Black people than rich progressives. The latter often gamely talked up economic redistribution while underpaying their Black gardeners. Poorer white people tended to voice more racist views. Yet, since they didn’t have the cash to self-segregate, sometimes they had more ordinary, even affable interactions with Black people.
I once stayed with a friend’s father in a lower middle-class, integrating neighborhood in a mid-sized city. My friend had warned me his father was a racist. Indeed, he used racially derogatory terms around me more than once. But he’d also befriended his Black neighbor. During the week I stayed, I often saw the two men standing at the fence that split their backyards, chatting. He worked as a plumber and fixed his neighbor’s toilets for free. When his neighbor’s daughter got engaged, he threw her an engagement party, hosting a hundred strangers from the nearby township. In accordance with local Black tradition, he slaughtered a cow on his patio.
I had another friend—a very rich, self-identified white progressive—who had a Black man move in next door to him. His new neighbor owned a single chicken. The progressive got so stressed out by its crowing that he dug up an obscure noise ordinance to call the police on his Black neighbor.
When I told a Black friend that story, she let out a dark and knowing laugh. It felt taboo, but sometimes she thought she preferred rightwing, even openly racist white people to self-identified liberal ones. “At least with the racists,” she told me, “you know where you stand.”
Once, when I visited a rightwing, rural area, I asked some young Afrikaners a question: Do you think your grandchildren will still live in South Africa?
“Definitely,” one boy said.
“My family will never go farther than the borders of Botswana or Zimbabwe,” another said. “If you love South Africa like we do, you couldn’t leave.”
“I’ll never leave this country,” a third said.
“The liberals will think of it,” the first boy added.
I found that to be true. Far more liberal white South Africans leave the integrated South Africa than you might expect, and far more people who dislike the new regime stay on than you might imagine. Partly, this is about expectations. I had a friend who had felt deep admiration for how much music and art Black South Africans made under apartheid—for what he considered their cool in warped circumstances. For the way they’d made space for pride, even joy, while the white regime strove to crush them under the boot.
He rarely complained about South Africa. But he became strangely irate when he saw Black government officials driving BMWs. “I know it sounds stupid and naive,” he confessed. “But I was bitterly disappointed when Black people started buying BMWs. I hoped they would be better than us.”
By “I hoped they would be better than us,” my friend meant he hoped they would import the qualities they’d evinced under oppression into leadership. He hoped they would be both completely different from white elites and prudent, eco- nomically responsible, and not too revolutionary.
“You were hoping the new leaders would be like the Princeton economics department crossed with Bob Marley?” I joked.
He didn’t laugh. “Basically,” he said.
Ten years after I moved to South Africa, I spent five weeks in London. I ate at a bar in Dalston, a rapidly gentrifying part of the city formerly popular with Caribbean and Turkish immigrants. A young white sommelier with a fashionable bun told me we were on what was recently “the most dangerous street in London!” He sounded excited to live in a place that, for its longtime inhabitants, simply was life, and no symbol of courage.
I’d brought a manuscript to the bar with me. “What are you doing?” the sommelier asked, peering over my shoulder.
“Writing,” I said.
“Oh!” he said, looking more curious. “Does it have a good or a bad ending?”
People always asked me that. Does the South African story have a good or bad ending? Is the moral of the story happy or sad? Tourists asked where they could go to see “the truth” of the country’s post-apartheid experiment. It seemed frustratingly difficult to locate. Driving on the highways offered a stark view of townships to their left and plush formerly white neighborhoods to their right. Is that image—of enduring divisions—the one I should take away with me? they would ask. Because other things looked surprisingly good—integrated and prosperous. These friends would recount taking a new high-speed rail connecting Johannesburg with its airport and watching young Black men in trendy zip-up sweaters do business deals over iPhones.
Sometimes I thought Westerners obsessed over the question of whether South Africa had succeeded or failed because either answer would let them off the hook. If it had become a better society in spite of enduring racism and a burdensome history, then that meant their failures to combat white supremacy in their own societies might not be that deadly in the long run. Things could work out fine. If it didn’t—despite Nelson Mandela’s courageous leadership, and demographics that put Black people firmly in charge—then there might be little more we could be doing to forestall dark outcomes, which is its own kind of dark and cynical comfort.
Foreign white people were always situating themselves on the white-people spectrum by locating white South Africans at the reassuringly bad end of it. That put them in the pretty-good middle. Often, American acquaintances of mine brought up news stories about South Africa: in particular, ones that implied the country was failing solely because of white intransigence. I remember receiving multiple copies by e-mail of a story in a U.K. tabloid that claimed tens of thousands of Afrikaners were teaching five-year-old children how to kill black people at a secret shooting range.
I didn’t think the “tens of thousands” part was remotely true. I wasn’t even sure what Andre—the farmer I met who confessed that he feared his son was more racist than he was—said was necessarily true, either. Andre’s worry had sold itself as sincere concern. And, to Andre, I believe it felt that way.
But like so much of what I heard in South Africa—such an unexpectedly wide range of opinions and emotions—it ultimately absolved the speaker. If Andre’s son became racist no matter what Andre taught him, then that proved this instinct lies deep in human nature and can’t be eradicated. And so it wouldn’t be Andre’s fault that he hadn’t eradicated it in himself when he was young--nor, perhaps, that he hadn’t fully done so even now.
To believe that vicious varieties of white supremacy are reemerging paradoxically afforded progressive white South Africans a sense of comfort about where they ethically stood.
From THE INHERITORS: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa's Racial Reckoning by Eve Fairbanks. Copyright © 2022 by Eve Fairbanks. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
A couple of things Ms. Fairbanks writes of here ring true in light of some of my own experiences. One in particular is the phenomenon of someone who, for all intents and purposes, seems to be, if not outright racist, at least extremely bigoted. Yet their behavior and actions vis a vie individuals who are among the group that's the object of their disdain don't comport with their rhetoric. I had a friend who could say some very ugly things about Black people in general on the one hand, and in practically the next breath speak genuinely fondly and appreciatively of Blacks he'd worked with in other jobs in the past. And when a Black man was hired to work in the same department where he and I worked together, my friend went out of his way to give him a hand when the new hire had a question or needed a bit of help with something.
I'm not sure what this kind of behavior is about, unless it's about expectations. Either through nature or nurture, bias of one kind or another is instilled in all of us. We come to expect certain things from "certain people". But when we meet and interact with *those people* and those expectations aren't met, perhaps it throws us off our game a bit, and frees us to be a bit more the people we actually are underneath the blanket of bias that we've learned, or, more often than not, been taught.
I am going to buy this book. I will be honest I have never really given South Africa too much though as I was a little young for when all the change was happening and I don’t enjoy race issues naturally. However, recently I have learned that certain people in the media(fox) try and imply that the post apartheid governments have run a first world country into the ground. So I want ammo basically to know that is not true. This book sounds like it’ll give mixed ammo for me haha