"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 ...

Give Sokkie a Lekker Whirl

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Mail & Guardian, June 28, 2013

I remember the night I, an American, fell in love with sokkie. It was at a matric dance at Hoër Landbouskool Marlow in Cradock, one of South Africa's remaining live-in all-male agricultural secondary schools. 

I had come to write about what it was like to go to school at a place that was still so unabashedly Afrikaans. I was struck by how boyish the experience was: the residents haze their newbies, pull pranks and compete against each other in a series of contests. Each residence even has its own "cave", an outdoor version of the couch-pillow fort, which they spend countless hours decorating.

I had the impression the Marlow culture was sweet but immature – until night fell and everybody gathered for a sokkie in a main hall. Suddenly, as the treffers began to belt from the sound system, the Marlow boys turned into men.  Read more ...

A House Divided

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By Eve Fairbanks, Slate/Moment, June 24, 2013

(Recipient of the Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism Initiative award)

BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa—Billyboy Ramahlele heard the riot before he saw it. It was a February evening in 1996, autumn in South Africa, when cooling breezes from the Cape of Good Hope push north and turn the hot days of the country’s agricultural heartland into sweet nights, when the city of Bloemfontein’s moonlit trees and cornfields rustle sultrily beneath a vast sky glittering with stars. The 32-year-old dormitory manager at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein was relaxing in front of a wildlife program on the TV with his door open.

Suddenly, he became aware of a new noise. Could it be the trees, rustling in a gust? No, it was heavier, more like trampling. Could it be his TV? He switched it off. The noise grew louder.

Ramahlele got up and poked his head out the door. There he saw the students of the dorm he managed, which housed about 100 black males, some of the first blacks to attend the historically white university since it had integrated four years earlier. And he immediately saw the source of the noise: His boys were stampeding out of the dorm entryway and running toward central campus. Some of them were singing militant songs from an earlier era, when blacks fought against apartheid rule, including one that went Kill the Boer, a nickname for white Afrikaners. Many were holding sticks or cricket bats. Read more ...


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By Eve Fairbanks, Witness, Spring 2013

In South Africa, the road to redemption is a desert one. It leaves Johannesburg to the southeast, passing through the remains of white ambition here: the slag heaps of the mines that gave birth to the city; the sprawling township where black laborers were forced to live under apartheid; the oil refinery built to circumvent the apartheid-era trade embargoes, whose towers still flare like torches over the towns spread out beneath. After a couple of hours, the road narrows and enters farmland, but you cannot stop there and hope to find deliverance. No, you have to keep going as the villages grow scarcer and scarcer until they peter out and you are driving through nothing but an endless expanse of white grass, its long tufts lit into its own little flares by the sun. This desert is called the Great Karoo. Once it was an inland swamp, teeming with plants and frogs and reptiles, but now only their fossils remain, tucked in amongst the white grass and the dust.

Finally, after miles and miles of that white grass, another town suddenly appears, a grid of reddish roads, a church, low beige houses, little Toyotas plying the perfectly-squared corners. It is as tidy as a town imagined in a dream, because it is one.  Read more ...

The Rise of the Afrikaner Christian Jew

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Mail & Guardian, April 5, 2012

In 1996, an unusual preacher came to Willem Liebenberg's Pentecostal church. His name was Bennie Kleynhans and although, like Liebenberg, he believed in Jesus, that day he was riffing on his love for the Jews.

Liebenberg, a mechanical engineer, listened in rapt attention as Kleynhans preached on the intricacies of the Jewish marriage ritual that, he explained, actually expressed the essence of man's betrothal to the Messiah. Christians had made a mistake, he concluded, in forsaking their Jewish roots.

Liebenberg felt electrified. After the sermon he ran out and bought all the books he could find on Jewish ritual and the history of the Jews. "Since that day I approached scripture through the eyes of the Jew," he said. "I just became fascinated with all the Jewish things." Read more ...

The Brilliant Weirdness of Die Antwoord

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New York Times Magazine

“We r taking 1 day / nite off 2 get really drunk wif some homies in a dodgy hood in Johannesburg called FIETAS on New Years Eve,” the e-mail read. “Dere are always fights in Fietas on New Years Eve which should be fun.” And so Ninja, the leader of the South African rap-rave crew Die Antwoord, invited me to ring in 2012 in the lair of zef, the scene the band brought to the world two years ago with a viral music video called “Zef Side.” Zef is the nasty, freaky, gleefully trashy underbelly of post-apartheid white South African culture. It is bling and bruises and weed-whacker mullets like the one sported by Yo-Landi Vi$$er, the tiny blonde who orbits Ninja like a foulmouthed muse. 

On the appointed night, though, things almost got too zef for Die Antwoord. The photographer who was commissioned to shoot the band showed up to the party house with two boxes of white doves for Ninja and Yo-Landi to play with. A makeshift studio was assembled on the second floor. When I went to check out the shoot, the photographer gestured toward the room next door. “Look what happened to the birds,” he said.

Inside, a cat crouched next to a ripped-open box of doves, surrounded by feathers.

Yo-Landi once posed with a live rat between her breasts. But a dead dove? She winced. Ninja looked appalled. “I’m sorry,” he said, petting one of the remaining doves paternally.  Read more ... 

Trophies and Treasured Times

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Mail & Guardian, November 25, 2011

When Cameron Blake helped to open the Africa Star, a tiny shop for war memorabilia one enters through the back of a sushi bar off Long Street, in 2002, his initial clientele comprised mostly hard-core collectors and gay Capetonians scouting for cute naval outfits for costume parties.

But soon, in the mid-2000s, a new and intriguing kind of customer began to arrive. He would be in his 40s or 50s, white and clearly not a collector. He would approach Blake standing behind the display counter and ask for one thing: a Pro Patria, the blue-and-gold medal every South African soldier received in exchange for doing his mandatory national service during the border war in Namibia and Angola that the government pursued to bulwark apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s.

He was a veteran, such a customer would explain. But he had thrown away his own Pro Patria during the time of South Africa’s democratic transition in 1994. It had not seemed appropriate to hold on to a token reminding him of the years he had devoted to a cause that had then so ignominiously collapsed. He supported the new South Africa; he wanted to move on. But now, suddenly, 20 years later, he was starting to feel that he wanted his Pro Patria back. Read more ...


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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic

OUTJO, NAMIBIA -- Growing up in Namibia in the 1980s, Willem Bezuidenhout was alone with his cowboy dream. He wallpapered his father’s house in the capital of Windhoek with posters of Hopalong Cassidy and shunned play dates to watch The War Wagon again and again in his darkened bedroom, pausing the tape to trace John Wayne’s image onto pieces of translucent paper that he pressed up to the screen. His playmates—the sons of Namibia’s white farmers, doctors, or lawyers, like his father—made fun of him.

But that was before the white communities of southern Africa went crazy for country. These days, Bezuidenhout is a star. At an annual cultural festival in the dusty northern Namibia town of Outjo this past May, he shared top billing with a South African pop idol. Bezuidenhout’s show was an American-style rodeo with all the trimmings, including a lassoing demo that drew on the skills he picked up at the San Francisco Cow Palace, where he went to learn roping in the early ’90s, before the potential for a cowboy revival in rural Africa was fully understood. “In Namibia, as a kid, I had my twenty country-and-western records, and everybody looked at me strange,” Bezuidenhout told me the morning of the festival, panting as he lugged his ropes over to a homemade wooden corral. “Now everybody here loves Garth Brooks and Randy Travis.” Read more ...


Dreaming of Tripoli

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic

Somewhere amid the burning oil pipelines and wrecked tanks, among the wounded filling the hospitals and the homeless winding out of their ruined cities, lies another potential casualty of the Libyan war: five and a half million olive trees the Italians planted in the desert in the 1930s. Few worldwide may be thinking of these trees as they watch the latest news. But, in South Africa, some people are praying for them. In late 2009, during happier days, Muammar Qaddafi’s regime invited a group of prominent South African farmers to the country to consider helping to revive Libya’s moribund agricultural sector. The Libyans had many abandoned farms to offer, but the old olive estate at Khadra was the most incredible. The trees were “in beautiful condition,” remembers Theo de Jager, one of the farmers who saw them. “There was massive potential.”

But Khadra is south of Beida, in the hotly contested east. What must the trees look like today, de Jager wonders? Have bombs broken their little, gnarled heads? Read more ...