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 …

Well-Off Millennials Are All Julia Salazar. I Wish We Weren't.

By Eve Fairbanks, BuzzFeed, September 14, 2018

When I applied to college in 2001, my mother suggested we look into my father’s Native American heritage — a vague family tale — to see if I could register for a tribe to gain an advantage. I didn’t. The family legend was so distant the very idea felt embarrassing. But, in my early twenties, I did let the people around me know that I went to a public high school, that I came from a middle-class family, that my mother dropped out of school, and that I helped pay for my college education. My “public school,” though, was a Magnet consistently ranked among the top 10 public schools in the country. My father was a college professor who made double the US median income. My mother finished her BA in night school. And by “helped,” I meant I made $200 a week to defray my parents’ expenses for my meals.

Maybe this is part of why Julia Salazar’s much-reported embellishments of her own background didn’t torpedo her campaign for State Senate in Brooklyn. Read more …

The Royals' Problematic Obsession with Africa

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By Eve Fairbanks, InStyle, May 18, 2018

Soon after they marry on May 19, Prince Harry and his Hollywood bride, Meghan Markle, will jet off to the African country of Namibia—a desert nation of scarlet sand dunes and ice-white beaches—for their honeymoon.

They follow Harry’s older brother, William, who in 2011 whisked his new bride, Kate, to the coconut-strewn African island republic of the Seychelles for their honeymoon, after he surprised her six months earlier with a sapphire engagement ring in a log hut beneath Mount Kenya. And both men embrace the tradition of their grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, who in 1952 found out that she would become Great Britain’s ruler while vacationing in another hut built into the forest around Mount Kenya. Her private safari warden scribbled the amazing tale in the lodge’s guestbook, memorializing it as the day the globe finally learned that fairytales really do come true: “For the first time in the history of the world,” he wrote, “a young girl climbed into a tree one day a princess [and] climbed down from the tree next day a Queen.”

The royals—normally known for curtsies, palace guards in stiff bearskin hats, and banquets whose china takes eight men three weeks to polish—have another, somewhat less-discussed tradition: a long, unusual relationship with what the explorer Henry Stanley called the “Dark Continent.” Read more ...

The Hollow Rage of Tom Brokaw

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, May 3, 2018

I wonder if we’re tiring of #MeToo. I wonder if we’ll just reach a limit to how many of our idols we can bear to see lose their crowns. And I wonder if we’re still clinging to the hope that those who perpetrated abuse are somehow fundamentally bad people, instead of facing the more deeply disorienting possibility that our very ideals about what constitutes accomplishment—our reverence for power and confidence and, yes, aggression and entitlement—might promote or inculcate abusive behavior in nearly anybody. We still want to believe in the possibility of a “golden boy,” a man who still has it all: infinite power and infinite goodness.

I wonder all this because of the sexual harassment controversy surrounding Tom Brokaw, the former anchor at NBC who has since become the network’s eminence grise. 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 Scapegoating of Winnie Mandela

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, April 5, 2018

A few months after I moved to South Africa in 2009, I expressed the wish to meet Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife, to a friend of mine. This friend was a political activist who’d been present at many epochal moments of the struggle against apartheid in the 1980s and the remaking of the nation in the 1990s. Eager to get me acquainted with the country’s history, he normally answered nearly every message I wrote to him within the hour. Except for my request about Winnie. Several notes and text messages about Winnie got no reply, until finally he called me back. In a pained voice, he asked, “Aren’t you sure you wouldn’t rather meet Graca”—Nelson Mandela’s third, less controversial wife? 

When Winnie died this week, one South African friend of mine wrote of her “tremendous love and admiration” for Madikizela-Mandela on Facebook. “Thank you Winnie Mandela for what you sacrificed for all of us,” the country’s leading educator, a university professor, wrote. South Africa’s most famous radio host declared her “the gold standard of rage as moral uprightness.” “Rest as you lived, fiercely in power,” a fourth friend, an academic, said. The plaudits were as loving overseas. The Women’s March released a statement, and Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker tweeted praise.

The outpouring of emotion at Madikizela-Mandela’s death startled me, because it ran in contrast to the mix of emotions expressed towards her while she was alive. Read more ...

The Flirting Trap

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, February 8, 2018

In 2007, when I was 24, two years after I moved to Washington, D.C., to cover politics for The New Republic, I joined an email listserv for journalists and policy wonks. One day, a stranger replied to a note I had posted on private equity tax reform. In my response to him, I quoted a line from the Beach Boys’ song “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”

“To understand ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice,’ you have to read Jameson’s Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” he emailed, with a tongue-in-cheek nerdiness that was common on the listserv. “It will change your life.”

Rebecca Solnit has written that the men she met in the 1980s “seemed to feel that they had to be more successful than whoever they were attracted to,” and that “a lot of girls learn to hide their intelligence.” By the time I grew up in the 1990s, though, my ambitions and intelligence went unhidden. At school, I was encouraged to study physics, math, and politics; I was cast as Abraham Lincoln and King Lear in school plays, and nobody blinked an eye.

Over the course of the next day, I exchanged nearly a dozen messages with the—married, I would learn—man on the listserv. Let’s call him “T.” Read more ...

We'll Be Paying for Mark Halperin's Sins for Years to Come

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By Eve Fairbanks, BuzzFeed, November 22, 2017

In mid-2005 I packed two duffel bags and took a train to Washington, where I hoped, as a young reporter, to better understand the city, and our politics and our country. As much as it was anyone’s, Washington was my city. I grew up there.

But when I arrived, I became aware there was a new don of Washington, one whose rules I would have to master. His name was Mark Halperin. He ran a chummy daily political newsletter, The Note, from his perch as political director of ABC News.

Three weeks ago, numerous women stepped forward to accuse him of extraordinary acts of assault: One said he masturbated in front of them at work; another said he slammed her against a restaurant window before attempting to kiss her (“I bear responsibility for my outrageous conduct,” Halperin said in an apology posted soon after). He lost his job, a book deal, and a movie contract. Case closed, it would seem: another predator, thankfully, out of a workplace.

But I’m not here to talk about that. I want to talk about the deeper, subtler, more insidious effect Mark Halperin had on our politics — one which we’ll be paying for for years to come.

The Note purported to reveal Washington’s secrets. In fact, its purpose was the exact opposite: to make the city, and US politics, appear impossible to understand. Read more ...