José Mujica Was Every Liberal's Dream President. He Was Too Good to Be True.

By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, February 5, 2015

The man was old and rumpled, no tie over his blue-and-white striped shirt. His eyes squinted; his hair looked like it was slicked back with kitchen grease. He ascended the podium in the United Nations General Assembly hall clutching a sheaf of papers. Before him sat the diplomatic orthodoxy, sleek in Amal Alamuddin hairdos and Savile Row suits.

Ostensibly, José Mujica, as president of Uruguay, was a fellow member of the global elite. But if his attire didn’t make it clear that his allegiances lay elsewhere, what he was about to say would. Most U.N. speeches are pure boilerplate. The address Mujica was about to give on September 24, 2013 was something else entirely. 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 ...

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 ...

An Open Letter to Mamphela Ramphele

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Mail & Guardian, February 23, 2013

(reposted after Ramphele's political merger with South Africa's Democratic Alliance)

Dear Dr. Ramphele,

The vow to look. Look. Look. Look. Then listen. And then look some more. That was the framing that was missing from your much-anticipated Monday speech launching your new party, Agang.

You promised to end "the humiliation and disrespect of our apartheid past". But there are greater humiliations than an overflowing township toilet. Invisibility is a deep humiliation: remember the bully who barrelled right into you in the school corridors, knocking your books out of your hands, and then claimed with a smirk that he just "didn't see you"?

For research for a book, I recently spent some months with two groups of South Africans who became a locus of last year's unrest: miners and farmers. Yes, they wanted to make more money. Yes, they wanted houses and college entrance for their kids. But to start, or even most of all, they said they just wanted to be seen, to be visible. Read more ...

Malema Embraces His Inner Boer

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Mail & Guardian, January 25, 2013

We were in the lap of luxury. Hushed waiters in silk vests padded around us, offering passion-fruit lemonade and rack of lamb; the noise of a rock fountain tinkled sweetly in through the open window; white table linens caressed our fingers; orchids wafted their warm vanilla-y scent from blown-glass decanters on every table. But Julius Malema was unhappy.

He has developed the disease familiar to every Karoo boertjie (farmer): the longing for die ou plaas (the old farm), unquenchable even in the loveliest of other places.

"Jo'burg is not my favourite place," he told me, toying forlornly with his white BlackBerry, which did not ring. "I like it on the farm. It's very nice. It's cool and quiet." He brightened. "On the farm, we sit under the tree there, and there is nobody to judge you. Fighting with workers the whole day: 'Hey! Do this!'" 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 ...

South Africa's Awkward Teenage Years

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By Eve Fairbanks, Foreign Policy, January 3, 2012

Not long after I moved to South Africa, in mid-2009, I was invited to the government's relaunch of its national "brand." Over hors d'oeuvres and cocktails in a pavilion overlooking the Cape Town waterfront, Paul Bannister, the tanned, pink-shirted CEO of a governmental marketing arm called Brand South Africa, told a group of  journalists that it was time to move past Nelson Mandela and the Rainbow Nation thing and toward a new, more muscular national identity.

How to characterize this new identity, though, posed a trickier problem. Bannister offered us a series of ad agency-generated concepts, each one vaguer and more Madison Avenue than the last:"South Africa: alive with possibility." "A country that inspires others in different ways." "The Apple of nations: Think different!" Read more ...

Memorials Maketh the Man

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Mail & Guardian, April 18, 2011

(reposted after Mandela's death)

In February, a few days after the furore over Nelson Mandela's recent health scare subsided, I flew home to the United States to help my mother, who had herself fallen sick.

Mandela was still on my mind, and as I walked the streets of my home country, I noticed anew how confidently organised the US is around the memory and image of our own national father, George Washington. The Washington Monument javelins out of downtown Washington DC, as jauntily as the Hillbrow Tower.

No building in our capital is, or legally can be, taller. Bronze and marble statues of Washington fan out like moral fence posts over the country, from balmy South Carolina to rural Idaho and New York, where there are no less than seven in the city. Washington's February birthday is a national holiday and this year I drove to his old estate in Virginia, where I paid to join his birthday celebration using bills and coins decorated with engravings of him.

An impersonator dressed in a powdered wig and an old-fashioned three-cornered hat helped hand out steaming oat pancakes to throngs of children. (Evidently Washington strictly ate pancakes for breakfast to keep himself strong.) Outside the whitewashed house, a long queue of twentysomethings locals, not tourists was forming to glimpse the intimate details of how our founder had lived.

What will Mandela's 279th birthday in 2197 be like in South Africa?  Read more ...

The Healer

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, June 15, 2010

BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA — It was as clear as the film’s most famous scene: The work of reconciliation in South Africa is not done yet. In February 2008, a video appeared online showing four white students from South Africa’s University of the Free State (UFS) hazing their black janitors as if they were new freshmen. There’s a beer-drinking contest, a footrace to “Chariots of Fire.” Near the end, the boys appear to pee into bowls of stew and urge the janitors to eat up. It was supposed to be an in-house joke, a protest against a plan to integrate their dorm, a student residence called Reitz. But one of the Reitz boys gave it to his girlfriend, then dumped her--that classic error of the Internet age--and she vengefully posted it on YouTube, where it drew one million viewers. For months, South Africa couldn’t look away. It was the same urge we have to touch a bruise even though it hurts. The video seemed like a flare-up indicating a deeper national disease.

It may be hard to hear over the World Cup plastic trumpets, but there are whispers here that the aftermath of apartheid isn’t working out as planned. Read more ... 

Virginia Cavalier

By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, February 4, 2009

'I love chicken waste!" Terry McAuliffe shouts to a crowd of several hundred elegant northern Virginians at Alexandria's Torpedo Factory art gallery. McAuliffe--the former Democratic moneyman dubbed by Al Gore "the greatest fund-raiser in the history of the universe"--is running for governor of Virginia, and tonight is the official rollout of his primary campaign. As he rhapsodizes about Virginia's 1,000 poultry farms, his pale eyebrows hop around furiously on his sharp, ostrich-like brow ridge. McAuliffe's listeners--many of whom are decked out in the kind of pricey wearable art that's offered for sale in the gallery--seem nonplussed. But McAuliffe presses on. As governor, he explains, he would transform the nearly half-a-million tons of chicken poop the state produces every year into an alternative energy source. "Ew," murmurs one elderly man. But, if McAuliffe recognizes any shade of absurdity in all this, he never lets it show. "Fifty thousand tons of chicken waste equals forty megawatts of power, which could power forty thousand homes!"

This kind of irrepressibility is Terry McAuliffe's signature quality. It's what allowed him, in the 1990s, to seduce prudish Democrats into a love affair with big money. Read more ...

Tough Reid

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, April 15, 2009

Some people keep talismans in their wallets to remind them of those they love: a romantic letter, a set of dog tags, a family picture. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has such a token--but it's to remind him of the people he hates.

When I interviewed the Nevadan in March in his mahogany-toned office off the Senate floor, we cycled through the standard exchanges. Then I asked whether he has a lucky charm. The usually grave Nevada senator smiled, raised his eyebrows, and, fumbling for his wallet in the pocket of a smoothly pressed blue suit, plucked out a ragged-edged, smudged scrap of paper, home-laminated with strips of Scotch tape. "Medicare has no place in a free world," he began to read off the scrap. "Social Security is a rotten trick!" Read more ...