Street Smart

By Eve Fairbanks, Foreign Policy, January 2, 2019

“You need to see my friend’s gun,” Mophethe Thebe said in a gas station parking lot in Soweto, the famous swath of townships southwest of Johannesburg. He promised this was a good way to understand the meaning of a South African word coined more than a half-century ago: ekasi. Today, the word—sometimes rendered as kasi—serves as the name for bars and restaurants, finds its way into hip-hop lyrics, and makes up the moniker for one of Johannesburg’s top radio stations. But ekasi’s ubiquity isn’t simply cultural; its fluid definition mirrors political debates about South Africa’s future.

Technically, ekasi is just the Zulu term for “township,” a segregated neighborhood where black people were forced to live under apartheid. But it also functions the way the word “soul” or “home-cooked” does in front of “food” in American vernacular. The word suggests authentic, real, and the heart of black South Africa.

At its heart are paradoxes. Read more …

Trust Me, Mr. President, White South Africans Are Doing Fine

By Eve Fairbanks, Politico, August 29, 2018

I live in South Africa, and days after President Donald Trump’s tweet last week about the dangers, including “large-scale killing,” faced by white South Africans, I got an email from a friend back home in America. It was a forward written by someone else, and it began: “Here's a bit of unfortunate news that has serious implications for world order.” The writer alleged that all South Africans knew that when Mandela died—he passed away in 2013—“the nation will fall apart,” and “now that appears to be happening.” The writer spoke of 400,000 whites “living in tent camps” because “jobs are largely given to blacks”; of secret black “hit squads” invading white farms; and of “whites preparing for war with huge vans which contain trays of vegetable gardens illuminated by ‘growlights.’” “International news organizations,” he said—liberal ones—“didn't want to report” these truths because they would “ruin the ‘miracle’ of independence.”

My friend was concerned. He urgently wanted to speak to me. Not only, I got the sense, out of concern for me—a white person living in this purported media black hole—but because the secrets the writer laid out in the message seemed somehow, for him, critical to know, some kind of essential learning for a critical thinker, for an adult, like the truth that Santa Claus isn’t real.

I didn’t know what to say because it was all so far from the truth that it beggared belief. Some lies are so fantastical they cannot be countered without vaguely soiling the arguer. They make her say or do ridiculous things, like snapping cellphone photos of her breakfast (a faintly embarrassing spread of espresso, a brownie, Nutella and a pecan tartlet) to demonstrate that white people in South Africa are not, in fact, being subjected to forcible “genocidal famine,” or to post a question on the Facebook page for her new Johannesburg neighborhood inquiring straightforwardly whether the white folk there were now “preparing for war” with mobile vegetable gardens. I did that, and it made my neighbors laugh at me. Read more …

Dry, the Beloved Country

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Huffington Post Highline, April 18, 2018

When I moved to South Africa nine years ago, one of the first things some locals told me was to be careful using GPS. The country had rules of navigation, they told me, but ones more complicated and intuitive than a computer could manage. You could drive through this neighborhood, but not at night. You could drive through that one, but roll up your windows, especially if you are white. It was often white South Africans who talked about the GPS, but many black South Africans agreed. It was sad, everybody would say; sad that the once-segregated country seemed not to have fully gotten over its past. But that was the way it was. Those were the rules. Some had come to think of them, painfully, as a fact of nature, of the human race.

I thought of these rules when I flew into Cape Town, South Africa’s second-largest city, in March. Over the last three years, Cape Town has been suffering an extraordinary, once-in-300-years drought—helped along, most analysts surmise, by climate change. The shift in the city’s physical appearance is astonishing. Read more ...

Individual Racists Aren't the Reason Racism Persists

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, May 15, 2017

The other day, I had an experience that shook me. Out of my own stupidity, I broke a panel of my partner’s garage door. I called the company that had installed the door: The whole door had to be replaced, they declared, to the tune of $1,000.

But South Africa, where I live, has an extensive network of informal handymen. These handymen differ from America’s; they’re often not even legal businessmen but get jobs by word of mouth; lone operators who know things and travel around with a backpack of tools, building bedframes, installing plumbing, repairing drywall.

My landlord suggested a garage-door handyman named Barry. I called: He could come the next day. The garage-door company is run by Israelis, so when I heard Barry I somehow registered his accent as Israeli, concluding Israelis have a lock on the garage-door business in South Africa.

I was late to meet Barry the morning he arrived, and he was waiting outside the door when I pulled the car up. I’d been anxious that this repair go well, and before I could think, my heart registered a dip, a feeling of slight worry and disappointment: Barry was not white but black. Read more ...

The Last White Africans

Image: Jodi Bieber

Image: Jodi Bieber

By Eve Fairbanks, Foreign Policy, January 16, 2017

It was an image out of a bygone era: 150 young white people jammed onto a narrow pathway on the campus of the University of Pretoria (UP), one of South Africa’s premier universities, facing off angrily against hundreds of black students. Tensions had been broiling for months, since at least October 2015. A group of black student activists had organized a series of demonstrations — first against the university’s fee structure, then against its use of outsourced workers, and finally against curricula in Afrikaans, the language of Afrikaners, the white minority who ruled South Africa for four brutal decades in the second half of the 20th century.

That morning in February 2016, black students had entered classrooms to protest instruction in Afrikaans. As they moved across campus and sang anti-Afrikaans songs, white kids who opposed them formed a human chain in the bottleneck of the grassy walkway. According to Jaco Grobbelaar and Henrico Barnard, two white participants, they shouted at the demonstrators, vowing to run blacks off “their” campus.

As the South African summer sun beat down, tempers flared. At least two students exchanged punches. “There were fists flying,” Grobbelaar recalls. Eventually, security guards dispersed the crowd.

The white students had been rallied in part by a group called AfriForum, South Africa’s most established advocacy organization fighting on behalf of white people — specifically Afrikaners. Read more ... 

Why South African Students Have Turned On Their Parents' Generation

The Guardian Long Read, November 18, 2015

One of Chumani Maxwele’s stronger childhood memories is of an aeroplane. Not one he rode, but one he heard flying over his dusty village in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, not far from Nelson Mandela’s birthplace. Maxwele, the son of a poor miner, used to play football with his friends in a field behind his house. One morning in 1994, when he was not yet 10 years old, he was startled in the middle of a game by an unfamiliar noise from above – somewhere between a rumble and a drone. He let the ball dribble away and tilted his head to the sky. Maxwele had heard rumours that the African National Congress (ANC) was flying planes around the country: in a few months, South Africa would have its first elections in which black people could vote, and the planes were dropping campaign leaflets decorated in the ANC’s black, yellow and gold, urging people to vote for Mandela.

The sound of the plane transmitted an impression Maxwele never forgot – one of motion and power. 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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

 

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 ...

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 ...

Pardon'd

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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 ...