Book review of The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning by Eve Fairbanks


The most dynamic storyteller at the most interesting cocktail party could scarcely achieve more than Eve Fairbanks has achieved in “The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning.” How this achievement lands with readers will depend on whether they want more than storytelling from a book on this topic.

The Inheritors” uses the stories of ordinary South Africans to examine the challenges of post-apartheid life. The topic of raising a democratic republic from the ashes of a white-supremacist state appeals to the American-born Fairbanks and will presumably appeal to many readers, both because of the intrinsic human interest of the stories and because of obvious parallels to the United States. Both countries explicitly, brutally and systematically organized themselves to benefit White people while oppressing everyone else. (We gave this names like Jim Crow and “Indian removal.” They gave it names like “apartheid” and “homelands.”) Both countries tried to reestablish their national projects on less-worrisome foundations, only to find that they had built much better than some of their faithful critics knew. Both found, as a result, that truly achieving what we called “Reconstruction” and what they called a “new dispensation” is harder than most people can readily accept. Now both countries struggle with what to do in the aftermath of this unhappy realization.

The general question of life after apartheid is really many smaller questions, all united by the pain of dashed hopes and the perils of contemporary conditions. Poverty, labor unrest, shaky infrastructure and many other ills remain prominent features of life for too many South Africans, long after the end of White-minority rule. These are policy problems with psychological overtones, rooted in the disappointment of finding the promised land as far off as ever.

Fairbanks explains that she was prepared to explore these issues during her youth in 1990s Virginia, when she found herself fascinated by Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson. Her interest centered not on his odious political commitments but on the existential questions he would have faced had he survived the Civil War. Every sincere Confederate faced these questions in some form, as the Northern victory signaled the official repudiation of the values on which they’d staked their lives. But Jackson’s famous commitment to personal rectitude gave them special resonance for Fairbanks. What does someone who cares passionately about right action and good citizenship do when the meaning of the right and the good changes overnight? How can this person contribute to the society that rejects the values that define his very being?

Of course, the United States never pressed these questions as seriously as it should have. White supremacy reorganized and reasserted itself, bought itself another century of open domination, and after that laid the groundwork for whatever it is that Donald Trump has laid bare. These halting attempts at racial reconstruction prompted Fairbanks to look to South Africa, whose people “never had the luxury of dawdling at the psychological precipice of great change. In the blink of an eye, in the tallying of a vote, they were in it.”

One might wonder if “dawdling” is the word for violent campaigns of racist terror and systematic programs of oppressive state policies, but Fairbanks is surely on to something. More than 50 years separated Martin Luther King Jr.’s rise in Montgomery and Barack Obama’s ascension to the Oval Office. By contrast, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela went from political imprisonment to the presidency in three years (albeit after nearly three decades behind bars). The United States is just beginning to grapple with the prospect of its White population no longer constituting a demographic majority. South Africa’s White people were in the minority all along. Looking southward, then, is supposed to give Fairbanks’s readers a glimpse of where the United States is headed.

The book’s through line comes from the stories of its three main characters: Dipuo, an activist from Soweto; Dipuo’s daughter Malaika; and a former special forces officer named Christo. We follow all three from childhood to the present, from Dipuo’s life in the township and Christo’s life in Afrikaner farming country, through their work in the struggles for and against apartheid, and into the upended, post-apartheid world that confronts them with the fraught consequences of their earlier choices. Here we begin to follow Malaika as well, from her conception a few months after Mandela’s release from prison, through university, into her own forms of activism, and into the good graces of a successful Black businessman and father figure.

As these lives unspool languorously across the book’s 34 chapters, the post-apartheid world comes vividly into focus. The main characters’ stories branch into stories about other people, and from there into wonderfully accessible summaries of South African history, politics and policy. Readers who already know something about the country will find helpful reminders and moving examples. Less-knowledgeable readers will find concise and engaging points of entry.

Fairbanks also shows considerable insight into the challenges of post-apartheid moral psychology. Her subjects grapple with racially freighted emotions like shame and guilt, pity and penitence, and she draws useful lessons from their efforts. A closer relationship to the vast scholarly literature on these issues wouldn’t hurt, but one happily exempts writers from scholarly specialization when their work provides other compensations.

Unfortunately, Fairbanks blocks the path to those compensations by clogging the book with secondary characters. Some of these people have names, some do not. Some are poor or working class, while others are middle class or even more comfortable. Their stories are richly drawn and often moving. But the book collects them haphazardly, and scatters them across chapters that are uniformly (with one exception) and uninformatively named for one of the three main characters. One comes away wishing for more authorial guidance about how to thematize these narrative riches.

The problem may be that guides have to start by figuring out their own location. For a writer, especially on a project like “The Inheritors,” this means examining one’s relationship to the subject matter. It means refusing the fantasy that one can move through the text without friction or remainder, like a ghost or a god.

It’s not that Fairbanks withdraws from the text altogether. In addition to reporting her youthful preoccupation with Stonewall Jackson, she confesses to trading the “gauzy, forced confidence” of her childhood for a growing sense of “frustration” and “dread” at the United States’ continued dawdling. She compares personal experiences, like arguments with old boyfriends, to South Africa’s civic fissures, optimistically assuming that the merits of these analogies will offset their faulty sense of proportion. She also routinely appears in her stories, talking to her characters and visiting hospitals and farms and schools with them.

This is presumably the intimacy promised in the book’s subtitle, but it is oddly one-sided. Fairbanks watches her friends and acquaintances struggle with the world they’ve inherited, and she listens as they question their choices and commitments. But she seems to have little interest in following their lead. One lesson of the book is that people reared in places saturated with complicated racial meanings ought to treat their convictions about race with diffidence and perhaps with suspicion. But it never seems to occur to Fairbanks that this lesson might apply to a White American writer who started her study of South Africa by puzzling over a Confederate general.

A more equitable intimacy might have led Fairbanks to say more about why she went to South Africa and how she met her characters. (We never find out, on either score.) Or to make better use of her Jewish mother, whose identity seems to have no bearing on the author’s racial politics. Or to set aside the old American obsession with Black and White, a habit of mind that allows her to avoid nearly all mention of South Africa’s large and important Indian and mixed-race populations.

I may be asking for a book more like Wendell Berry’s “The Hidden Wound,” which finds its White American author pondering whether he ever really knew the Black people whose stories he tries to tell. I wonder if this is an inappropriate request. After all, Fairbanks never set herself the tasks of a literary essayist. But then I think of Wesley Lowery’s book, “They Can’t Kill Us All.” Lowery, like Fairbanks, is a journalist. He approaches Ferguson, Mo., after the police killing of Michael Brown much as she approaches South Africa after apartheid, which is to say, by telling stories about the fascinating people he encountered. But he also quite explicitly asks what the politics of the Black Lives Matter moment mean to him, and what they require of him as a reporter, a Black man and a citizen. Fairbanks mostly sidesteps this kind of personal investigation, even though one could argue that her subject requires it.

Which brings me back to my opening thought about cocktail parties. Sometimes deeper investigation is simply out of place. Sometimes it is enough to entertain and provide some light edification, especially when the person holding forth draws from a wealth of material that they have gathered with great effort and are sharing with great skill. One might wonder what else the speaker might do with this material — write a novel, say, or a reflective essay. But that is ultimately their business, and for now they’ve chosen to share some of their hard-won wealth with you.

Paul C. Taylor is the W. Alton Jones professor of philosophy and a professor of African American and diaspora studies at Vanderbilt University.

An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning

Simon & Schuster. 399 pp. $27.99

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