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 …

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 ...

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 ...


The Battle to Be Israel's Conscience

By Eve Fairbanks, The Guardian, March 12, 2015

On 15 August last year, five weeks into the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Hagai El-Ad, the director of B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation, appeared on a morning radio show to discuss the conflict. Throughout the fighting, B’Tselem did what it has done for 25 years since it was founded during the first Palestinian intifada: document human rights violations by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. It compiled film and testimony gathered by volunteer field researchers on the ground, tallied daily casualty figures that were used by the local and international press, and released names of individual Palestinians killed by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).

B’Tselem’s founders intended it to serve a purpose unlike any other organisation in Israel’s fractious political atmosphere: to provide pure information about the Israeli military’s treatment of Palestinians, without commentary or political agenda. But by last summer, this stance had become a source of controversy. 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 ...

We're Ruining Our Vacations

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, December 23, 2014

For as long as I can remember, I meticulously planned vacation time to maximize its bliss-out power. That didn’t mean pricey holidays, although my family did occasionally go to places like Santa Fe. But even if we stayed at home the hours were packed with fun: biking along the canal! Going to a museum! Playing a 40-hour historical board game! Baking complicated pies! Anything to scour the tired, musty smell of work from our spirits and wash them clean.

Then, a few years back, I started dating a non-American. His family did the opposite on vacation: nothing. They arrived at their destination — an un-decorated beach shack in the family for generations — and just cut the mental ignition.

There was a lot of sitting with coffee around the backyard table, sometimes speaking about nothing much, sometimes not even speaking. Read more ...

Whole Foods Is the Most Beautiful Place in America

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, November 26, 2014

Every time I return home to America from where I live in Kenya, I make a pilgrimage to a Whole Foods. I think this instinct is common among expatriates, particularly those of us who live not in France or Italy but in places where food markets are a chaotic experience. It’s not a conscious decision — “visit Whole Foods” never figures on my home to-do list — but an almost animal yearning, like the corporeal calling of an elephant to trek hundreds of miles over rocky terrain to a particular field to die. My yearning to go to Whole Foods is a longing to experience beauty.

To me, upscale food markets are now the most beautiful places in America. Hear me out. To experience them this way you have to go without a wallet. The possibility of making an actual purchase pollutes the experience (and injects you with a dose of self-hatred when you realize you can’t afford a single heirloom tomato anyway).

Without cash, though, a chi-chi food market like Whole Foods becomes a temple to pure loveliness. 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 ...

"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 ...

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 ...

 

 

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 ... 

The El Bulli of Yeoville

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Mail & Guardian, February 15, 2013

Yeoville at night resembles a superheroes’ convention. Congolese and Zimbabwean men by the name of Orpheus, De Gaulle, Commander, and Mister Banks (“No first name,” that one told me, “just ‘Mister’ ”) take to the streets in outrageously pointy, white patent leather loafers, red suede pants with tassels, and full suits of luscious green silk. They all agree, though, that Sanza Sandile is the king of the Yeoville superheroes.

Sandile, an elfin South African chef, who owns 80 pairs of flamboyantly coloured socks, has a unique power in this diverse neighbourhood: the power of fusion. He operates a wildly exuberant pan-African “cookshop” out of a sliver of a storefront no bigger than a single-car garage, tucked between the Happy Day and Night Supermarket and a reggae bar. Read more ...

The Real Soul of a Suburb

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Mail & Guardian, August 20, 2012

When night falls on Seventh Avenue in Melville, Johannesburg, the darkened storefronts separating the lit ones look like the gaps in a battered prizefighter's smile. There are a dozen "To Let" signs in the space of three blocks. An artisanal cupcake shop came to the neighbourhood and, within the year, was gone; the same with a pan-Asian restaurant, a fancy nightclub, a French bistro.

Entrepreneurs keep bringing their offerings to the Melville of the imagination – a more bohemian Parkhurst, or a 21st-century version of the old Yeoville where artists and intellectuals of all colours would come to sample tapas and dance – rather than the increasingly ­studenty Melville that it really is.

There is one exception. You can see its fluorescent glow all the way from Seventh Avenue, although it is set half a block off the main drag on Third Street, where the rent is cheaper. It is called Mzansi Takeaways. Read more ...

Giddy-Up!

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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 ...

 

Overtime in Soccer City

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New York Times Magazine

On the second Sunday in July, exactly one year after the final game of the 2010 World Cup was played here at Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium, the cappuccino machine inside the V.I.P. suite was firing up. A bottle of wine cooled in the fridge across the bar. In the stadium’s bathrooms, fresh liners were tucked into the wastebaskets and the soap dispensers were refilled to the brim, as if the 90,000 fans that flooded the venue in 2010 might reappear at any moment. Ephraim Nong, a stadium tour guide, showed me the pitch from the V.I.P. viewing deck. It is maintained religiously, he said: cut three times a week, the grass in shadow artificially sunned using giant lamps hung on wheeled racks.

“When was the last event here?” I asked.

“When was our last event?” Nong dropped his head. “Yeah, man, let me see. I think it was May.” 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 ...