We Believed We Could Remake Ourselves Any Way We Liked

By Eve Fairbanks, The Guardian Long Reads, July 5, 2018

I have been at that door so many times. The one you walk through into his apartment, or let him through into yours, and something shifts. It’s as quick as the click when the optometrist slides a new lens into the eye-test machine: a clear, almost weightless little sliver of a thing, but with the power to make the world resolve into clarity – or blur out, leaving you nauseous and unbalanced.

Once, it was the door to the celebrated journalist’s apartment that I stumbled through, aged 21. I’d taken a train to New York to meet him for career advice and, unexpectedly, he had suggested we meet at a bar, then bought me several martinis. But then again, I drank them. Whose fault was the sex that ensued? And then there was the door to an AirBnB I rented in Uruguay in 2014, with a pushy local journalist I had just met trailing behind me. As I fumbled with my keys, I remember thinking: how did I get here? 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 ...

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 ...


Love in the Age of Big Data

The Huffington Post Highline, August 17, 2015

Once upon a time, in the Pony Expresso cafe in Seattle, a man and a woman began to experience the long-mysterious but increasingly scientifically investigated thing we call love. The first stage is called "limerence." This is the spine-tingling, heart-twisting, can't-stop-staring feeling, when it seems as though the world stops whirling and time itself bows down and pauses before the force of your longing. The man, a then-44-year-old University of Washington research psychologist named John Gottman, was drawn to the woman's wild mane of black curly hair and her creativity: She was an amateur musician and painter as well as a psychologist like himself. The woman, a then-35-year-old named Julie Schwartz, who'd placed a personal ad in the Seattle Weekly that John had answered, was turned on by John's humble little car—voted the ugliest vehicle in the University of Washington faculty parking lot—and his expansive curiosity. He read physics and math and history and kept a little spiral-bound notebook in his pocket that he used to jot down things his companions said that captivated him.

They talked avidly; it felt as if they'd known each other forever. Read more ...

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 ...

"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 ...

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 ... 

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 ...

"You Have All the Reasons To Be Angry"

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic

On the morning of Thursday, August 16, 2012, as thousands of striking South African miners marched in circles atop a pile of red rocks, the police lined up their tanks in front of it. Roughly 30 feet high and 50 feet across, the rock pile was the closest thing to a mountain for miles, jutting out of the flat expanse of the mining area called Marikana, 60 miles northwest of Johannesburg. The miners, who had been on the hill for six days demanding a raise from their employer, the platinum giant Lonmin, were unbowed. Cloaked in tribal blankets, they sang protest songs and waved knives and knobkerries, wooden batons given to boys at their tribal initiations as a symbol of power.

The miners’ strike has an integral place in the history of South Africa. Ever since mining began here at the end of the nineteenth century, poor shaft workers have chafed against the mining-enriched white establishment. Mine strikes in the 1980s kicked South Africa’s black-liberation struggle into high gear, setting the stage for the fall of the white-run apartheid government. On the face of it, the strike at Marikana seemed like a continuation of this classic conflict between rich white and poor black: Lonmin is headquartered in London and has mostly white managers.

But something was different this time. 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 ...

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 ... 

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 ...