A Paradox of Integration

By Eve Fairbanks, The New York Times, October 19, 2014

FROM 2010 to 2013, I spent time on a historically white South African college campus to write its post-apartheid history. As I worked, I discovered what appeared to me to be a peculiar paradox: As black students’ access to the school had grown, so had their dissatisfaction with it.

The University of the Free State admitted its first eight black students into all-white dorms in 1992, two years before white rule in South Africa ended. When I tracked some of them down, their memories of this period were fairly rosy, but the contemporary black students I interviewed were unhappy. This was true despite the fact that by 2010, black students made up a majority of the student body.

In America, we are experiencing a similar phenomenon. Read more ...

Accused in Kenya

By Eve Fairbanks, OZY, October 12, 2014

As a writer working in Africa, I’ve come and gone from Nairobi, Kenya, a dozen times in the last two years. Always, the immigration staff has been friendly, welcoming me to the country or expressing the hope I had a good time when I left. Until June.

That month, trying to head out of Nairobi to meet my mother in Italy, a pair of passport-control officers accused me of forging my visa. The curious thing wasn’t the accusation itself, but the way they did the accusing. They alternated between fierce and nonchalant, and the most prominent feature of their interrogation was an attitude of total and contemptuous certainty I had done the wrong.

“Why did you do it?” the female agent asked, fingering the visa page in question and shaking her head sadly.

“But I didn’t do it,” I said. Read more ...

How Personal Essays Conquered Journalism

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, October 10, 2014

My Life as a Little Person.” “I Still Dreamed of the Abuser I Once Thought of as My Father.” “I Understand Why Westerners Are Joining Jihadist Movements. I Was Almost One of Them.”

They’re everywhere these days: stories along the formula “I Am an X, and Y Happened to Me!” These kind of confessional articles long constituted the barbarians lurking around the gates of traditional newspaper culture, appearing on XOJane or blogs or niche columns like Modern Love, while the serious journalistic real estate remained dominated by authority figures like Larry Summers or Aaron David Miller pontificating on the economy or Israel-Palestine.

Now, though, they’re in the citadel. Read more ...

How My Bougainvillea Taught Me to Live With Less

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, August 13, 2014

We didn’t know much about gardening per se, but we thought we knew the most important principle: Pay close attention! So when my boyfriend and I brought home a beautiful pink bougainvillea for our balcony, we pampered it: We fertilized. We watered every day. We tied its delicate branches around an arbor with string, to give it a frame on which to grow.

But instead of growing, it began to die. The marvelous flowers that drew our attention in the nursery faded and dropped, and then some leaves dropped, too, yellowing and curling in on themselves like wounded snails. 

Apparently we’d been too eager to court new life: We had over-watered it. According to the instructional Web sites we consulted after the damage was done, to save our plant now we had to prune it — aggressively. Pruning allows plants to recoup their energy, fruit trees to devote attention to fewer, but bigger fruits. Some plants have what’s called “epicormic buds,” buds dormant beneath the bark that are suppressed until living leaves are cut away. There’s even a process called “coppicing,” whereby continually cutting a tree back to its stump to regrow can, in theory, enable it to live forever. To revive our limp bougainvillea, we would need cut the whole thing down to a stump: to kill most of it so it could be reborn.

I read that a month ago, but I still haven’t been able to bring myself to do it. Every time I advance on the plant with my shears, I feel so sad about stripping it of the only, struggling green leaves it’s got left that I pause, then turn away.  Read more ...

All You Need to Know About "All You Need to Know"

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 22, 2014

On June 9, the data-journalism Web site FiveThirtyEight.com published its lead story previewing the World Cup. Its first two sentences read: “All you really need to know is this: The World Cup gets underway Thursday in São Paulo, and it’s really hard to beat Brazil in Brazil.”

Could “all you need to know” be the most insidious, reductive, and lame story formula currently conquering our reading life? Everywhere you turn there’s another purported ne plus ultra explainer purporting to tell us “absolutely everything we could possibly need to know” about some current event, some curiosity of history, some deep mystery of life on Earth. It’s in the Wall Street Journal (“all you need to know about the [Crimea referendum] vote”), Vox (often, like “Everything you need to know about Israel-Palestine“), Time (“all you need to know about sequestration”), CNN (“all you need to know about the Jerry Sandusky trial”), ABC (“everything you need to know about the Syrian civil war”), and, of course, BuzzFeed, which offers both world-historical contributions like “everything you need to know about the schoolgirl kidnapping in Nigeria” and  philosophic ones like “These 13 Questions Will Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Yourself.” (Subhed: “This is as accurate as it gets, people.” The questions directed me to visualize different aspects of a cube, and I learned that I’m guarded, bitter, and hate most people but simultaneously wish to raise 1,000 children. Time to accept my previously unrealized destiny as the head of a death cult.)

Explainers” and hubris have both been a part of journalism for a long time. “It isn’t journalism unless it comes packaged with a bunch of bragging,” Jack Shafer, the longtime media critic now at Reuters, told me, pointing me to the Chicago Tribune’s long-running billing of itself as “The World’s Greatest Newspaper.” (And, of course, there’s the New York Times’s “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” now repackaged for the web as “All the News That’s Fit to Click.”) But here’s why this journalism trend is worse: It combines both those things, and, stirred, together, they make something way worse than either one alone, like Cool Whip and dog poo. Read more ...

"I Have Sinned Against the Lord and Against You! Will You Forgive Me?"

By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, June 18, 2014

On August 1, 2006, the South African apartheid government’s most notorious police minister, a slight, 68-year-old man named Adriaan Vlok, stood before the Union Buildings—the presidential complex in Pretoria originally meant to telegraph the timeless glory of European rule in Africa. Sprawling, made of pink and beige sandstone, and surrounded by statues and fountains, the place looks like a cross between Britain’s House of Parliament, Versailles, and a Tuscan villa. Vlok had worked in it in the late ’60s, right at the beginning of his sparkling governmental career, when he still looked up to apartheid’s laws as the apotheosis of good governance and moral power.

And as he walked into his old workplace, he was astonished by how much it appeared the same: the same furniture, the same carpet, the same rococo wallpaper and trim. The main difference was that the black people his government had once oppressed now occupied the offices, and Vlok had come back as a penitent. He had come to wash the feet of a black man he had once tried to kill. Read more ...

What Lentils and Onions Taught Me About Relationships

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post: PostEverything, June 2, 2014

I started cooking Indian lentil soups because I was poor. Like many things you do by force of necessity, though, it made me understand far more than I’d anticipated. It turns out there’s nothing like cooking an Indian lentil soup to teach you about patience, and what David Brooks calls “the blooming virtues.”

When I started cooking them, dals of all forms, I was always startled by how small a quantity of spices the recipes called for: a quarter teaspoon cinnamon, two single cloves. I didn’t trust my recipes. I’d sniff the little heap of spices as I mixed them: not too potent, for such a lot of beans. I’d double the quantities. Read more ...

Oscar Pistorius's Paranoia

By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, April 16, 2014

A couple of years ago, a burglar climbed across my roof in suburban Johannesburg to get to a neighbor’s house. I never saw him, only heard him, but for months afterwards, I would awaken with the sense somebody was on the roof again. In the haze of half-wakefulness, I experienced this sense as an utter conviction: The certainty an intruder was there. I never knew what to do, especially if I was alone. In the clarity of the following morning my decisions almost never made any sense. Sometimes I went and huddled in the middle of the living room, the part of the house furthest from windows, as if I was anticipating a bomb blast; other times I flicked my bedroom light rapidly on and off to send a Morse-like message to the would-be intruder to let him know I knew he was there. Once, I even grabbed a cast-iron pot and lurked with it near the door until I realized the noise I’d heard was a branch scratching the roof, put in motion by a gust of wind. After the tension of the moment dissolved, I looked with bewilderment at my hands holding the pot as if they were a stranger’s. What had I intended to do with it?

Oscar Pistorius, the famed footless runner, claims he, too, was paranoid about an intruder when he shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year. Read more ...

Don't Cut the Fulbright! Its Benefits Are Immense

By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, March 28, 2014

The Fulbright program is under the knife again. There's a long and incredibly mistaken tradition of dumping on America's flagship international educational-exchange program, which sends 8,000 Americans and foreigners a year to each other’s countries to study things like physics and poetry in a completely different environment. The program started in the post-World War II peace-promoting glow; in the '50s, Joe McCarthy freaked out about it and tried to defund it, thundering that it was importing communism into the country; in the '80s Ronald Reagan sought to halve it, failing to see its value to the spirit of the country in a material age. Now President Obama has proposed a 13 percent cut to its budget, which will force major downgrades to the number of available grants, which are already extremely competitive to get.

The program is an easy target for budget cuts because its value has never been entirely quantifiable. Read more ...

Smile. Snap. Repeat

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Mail & Guardian

The morning after Nelson Mandela died, around 10am, I went to his house in Houghton. I stayed for three hours, just hanging around, paying respects, getting a sense of what the mood was like. A shrine of candles and flowers had begun to rise on a street corner. Some hundred bouquets were already there when I showed up; and hundreds more people arrived to lay down new flowers.

What surprised me, though, is that, save for one wizened old man dressed in a suit, hat and patent-leather shoes who left a carnation, not a single person who left flowers for Madiba did so without taking a selfie in front of the flowers. Young people, old people, everybody took grinning photos of themselves in front of the shrine.

It felt kind of weird, as though we were all tourists posing in front of the Big Hole, not mourners. "I want video. I want Instagram. I want everything!" one woman instructed her iPhone-wielding ­husband as she bent backwards over the pile of flowers to get the right background.

The smiling selfie Barack Obama, David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt snapped at Mandela's December 10 memorial at FNB Stadium unleashed a torrent of righteous indignation. The New York Times tsk-tsked that he "did not allow himself an uninterrupted time of reverie" appropriate to the event; even less generously, the New York Post suggested he had gone "into sugar shock over a Danish pastry" and "lost … his dignity".

But have we behaved any differently? Read more ... 

The Dark Spot on Nelson Mandela's Legacy

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic

The morning after Nelson Mandela died I spent a couple of hours standing along a police line dividing his Johannesburg house from the public mourning that had formed outside. Ordinary people and reporters pressed up against the line, gawking at the family and luminaries coming and going from the house.

The tone of the chatter on the line was surprisingly dark and derisive, given it was less than 24 hours after we learned the beloved hero had died. The black reporter standing to my left identified a clutch of men in ink-dark silk suits as Johannesburg city councilors, adding dourly, “You can tell because of the way they carry themselves, like they’re so much more important than everyone else.” On my right, two students discussed whether a tall man wearing a sharp blazer covered in what looked like military medals was Zondwa Mandela, Nelson’s grandson. “He’s the guy from Aurora,” one said with contempt, referring to a mining investment scandal for which Zondwa was later prosecuted for fraud.

Further down the line, a tall white woman tried to push through the tape. A policeman intercepted her, saying Mandla Mandela, another grandson, had specifically asked him to keep the public away from the door. “Maybe he’s doing something wrong,” the policeman said, permitting himself a wink and a slip of a sarcastic smile.  Read more ...

The Scene Outside Nelson Mandela's Home Was Not That Dramatic -- Because His Country Has Become a Normal One

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic

“What will we do now that our father is gone?” Archbishop Desmond Tutu keened over the radio, his voice cracking, in a speech responding to former South African President Nelson Mandela’s death yesterday at age 95. Go shopping, evidently. On South African airways and in the international press, the mood is somber grief, but the vibe on the South African street itself is decidedly different: Life goes on. Around noon today I went to Nelson Mandela Square, a cobblestoned quad in the middle of a shopping mall presided over by a huge, grinning bronze statue of Mandela. It’s one of the most famous Mandela statues in the country, and the mall clearly anticipated a throng of mourners. Packs of earpiece-wearing security guards had been deployed, and two taped-off areas indicated where people should wait in line to take their picture with the statue and leave bouquets of flowers. But the flower area was less than a quarter full; I saw a guard bravely trying to space out the bouquets to look less sparse, but it still looked forlorn. The photo line was only a few people deep. A nearby poster exhibit on Mandela’s life had no visitors at all. Inside the mall, though, the stores were full. Families bought ice cream, young women perused handbags at Gucci and Louis Vuitton, and a middle-aged black man in a platinum suit shouted about a business deal over his Samsung Galaxy while another black man polished his shoes. Commanding more crowd attention than the Mandela memorial was a Christmas parade with characters dressed as South African candy bars and elves on stilts.

At Mandela’s home in a leafy suburb called Houghton Estate, the crowd that had come to leave flowers and gawk over a police tape at the train of official mourners arriving at the Mandela door was a little larger, but not huge, and in several hours there I saw no visible grief. There was a sort of carnival atmosphere, with small circles of singers and dancers, one group, rather mystifyingly, hoisting the flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A man hawked baseball caps with a picture of Che Guevara. Read more ...

 

 

The Angry Man

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By Eve Fairbanks, Foreign Policy

The first time I drove in downtown Johannesburg, four and a half years ago, I heard an eerie, captivating song on the radio. I pulled over to the side of the street in a congested part of downtown, despite being alone and in a rental car -- both things I'd been darkly warned made me a sitting target for a carjacking. I rifled through my bag to look for something with which to write the lyrics down; the song would end soon, and I knew I had to find it again. The words were in an unfamiliar language, but I recognized again and again the word "Mandela": "Uh-SEEM-bonanza Mandela," it sounded like.

As soon as I got home to Google, I found it: "Asimbonanga," an ode to the imprisoned Nelson Mandela written by a singer named Jonny Clegg in 1987. Clegg formed the first big-name integrated pop band in South Africa in the 1980s, in contravention of the apartheid government's rules. In moody, wistful harmony, "Asimbonanga" mourned an invisible leader: "We have not seen him, Mandela, in the place where he was kept," the Zulu chorus goes, referring to Robben Island, the prison in which Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years. (He spent the remaining nine years of his imprisonment in other jails on land.) The song's bereft singer tries to visualize the place where his shepherd is, somewhere across the cold sea, but fails. "We have not seen him, Mandela."

The song had a hymn-like quality, and it occurred to me that for such a large part of his time at the center of the life of South Africa, Mandela was vanished, almost like a Jesus figure, crucified by the law and spirited into darkness, leaving those who looked to him only the vague hope he would come again. Read more ... 

Nelson Mandela, Dead at 95

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, 

Soon after I moved to South Africa in 2009, I rode through Soweto, the historic black township south of Johannesburg, with a young black journalist and p.r. guru named Brian Mahlangu. The editor of a new design magazine, Mahlangu wanted to show me the township’s nascent sexy side. But the more we drove around, the more agitated he became. Soweto has some glorious houses, but where the lawns end and the sidewalks begin sit drifts of bleached-out Coke bottles, cheese-curl packets, empty KFC containers, chicken bones. South Africans litter profusely; Soweto’s parks are landscaped with garbage. Mahlangu told me he thought this was because young blacks still lack a “sense of ownership” of South Africa’s common spaces and of the country itself. Then he said something startling: “I blame Mandela.” He gestured out our taxi window at a median strip dusted in a snow of Styrofoam. “This trash is his fault.” Read more ...

 

Slum Infrastructure: A Local's Guide to Kibera

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By Eve Fairbanks, Wired, November 14, 2013

African maps are notoriously problematic. Much of the data is old; roads, particularly footpaths, languish unnamed. Africans often navigate by informal landmarks like bars or gas stations, places not represented on standard maps. The slums have it even worse: On Google Maps they figure as blank expanses, in keeping with their reputation as shadowy, marginal places.

Enter Spatial Collective and Map Kibera. These two organizations, a company and a nonprofit, are mapping a Kenyan mega-slum called Kibera—the name is derived from a word meaning “jungle”—according to how its 200,000 inhabitants actually navigate it. The maps started with crowdsourced landmarks important to locals: water taps, schools, pharmacies. Residents with Internet access were invited to add to an open source map; others contributed data by SMS or attended community workshops, where they wrote on giant empty maps. Read more ...

Africa's Obsession With Shopping Malls

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic

A year ago, a friend from rural South Africa called me full of excitement. His hometown, a large village called Burgersfort, was finally “getting on the map,” he said. I had read that the Burgersfort region had been selected to host 15 new chrome and platinum mines, a huge source of jobs in an otherwise jobs-starved country. I assumed it was the mines he meant, and congratulated him on them. But that’s not what he meant at all, he said. “We’re getting a shopping mall.”

There’s a reason the Al Shabab terrorists who attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi on Saturday chose a mall instead of a government building, a downtown street, or a transport hub. Malls are increasingly central to urban African life; they’re the social hearts of the continent’s rapidly expanding cities, places where everyone from Savile Row-tailored diplomats to surfer-shorts-clad backpackers to the upwardly-mobile local middle class and even to the slum-dwelling poor, gather to act out a dream of the African future, one without the gates and barbed wire that divide the rich and poor in their residential areas, without the provisionality and roughness that mar the continent’s public infrastructure. As the Westgate shooting unfolded, a narrative settled that the attackers chose it because it’s frequented by white expats. But the photographs that emerged from the scene showed a different story: An amazingly wide range of people got caught in the crossfire. Attacking a mall struck right at Kenya’s emotional heart, at its new consumer-class vision of itself, like the attack on the World Trade Center towers struck at America’s core vision of itself as a place where hard work lets you touch the sky. Read more ...

The Seafarers of Cape Town

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Mail & Guardian, August 30, 2013

When I first moved to South Africa in 2009 I chose Cape Town for the ocean. I’ve always loved sailing and the water. But I found it more a mountain city that happened to have a port than a port city graced by a mountain. ­Everybody hiked. Few sailed.

Only faintly visible in the haze of the day, it was at night that I felt the presence of the ships more than the mountains. At night, their lights shone out of the dark water like a handful of stars.

Often I watched them and wondered who was aboard and what their lives were like. I imagined them as romantic floating islands, populated by sea-lovers with a life calling to roam the oceans.

In time, I moved north to Johannesburg. But four years later I returned to Cape Town to investigate the worlds of the sailors aboard, in particular, the fishing trawlers that anchor at Cape Town harbour. I found something so much less romantic. The ships I imagined as peaceful can in fact be volatile cauldrons brewing despair, anger, even violence. Read more ... 

South Africa After Mandela

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By Eve Fairbanks, Salon, July 3, 2013

For years now, a theory has existed among white South Africans that the death of Nelson Mandela will mean the end of racial reconciliation in South Africa. According to this theory, Mandela, South Africa’s beloved first black president, was actually the only black South African who really forgave the white population who had supported apartheid, the strictest system of racial oppression ever instituted. By the ferocious force of his will, by the power of his persona, Mandela imposed a narrative of forgiveness on the rest of the country. But in truth, resentment and bitterness continued to seethe under the surface. After he dies, according to the theory,blacks will stream into Johannesburg in minibus taxis and murder whites wholesale with pangas, the kind of African machete used in the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya and the Rwandan genocide, in a kind of national auto da fé to finally cleanse the land of the sin of apartheid.

When I traveled through the South African countryside for six months in 2010, I reckon a good quarter of whites I talked to about the inevitable death of Mandela thought something like this would happen — especially the younger ones. Several volunteered to give me an underground DVD that outlined the evidence for the proposed uprising, which had been given a host of frightening and derivative names: “Night of the Long Knives,” “Operation Red October.” Read more ...