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 …

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 ...

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 ...

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 ... 

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 ...

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 ...

 

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 ...

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 ...

The Brilliant Weirdness of Die Antwoord

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New York Times Magazine

“We r taking 1 day / nite off 2 get really drunk wif some homies in a dodgy hood in Johannesburg called FIETAS on New Years Eve,” the e-mail read. “Dere are always fights in Fietas on New Years Eve which should be fun.” And so Ninja, the leader of the South African rap-rave crew Die Antwoord, invited me to ring in 2012 in the lair of zef, the scene the band brought to the world two years ago with a viral music video called “Zef Side.” Zef is the nasty, freaky, gleefully trashy underbelly of post-apartheid white South African culture. It is bling and bruises and weed-whacker mullets like the one sported by Yo-Landi Vi$$er, the tiny blonde who orbits Ninja like a foulmouthed muse. 

On the appointed night, though, things almost got too zef for Die Antwoord. The photographer who was commissioned to shoot the band showed up to the party house with two boxes of white doves for Ninja and Yo-Landi to play with. A makeshift studio was assembled on the second floor. When I went to check out the shoot, the photographer gestured toward the room next door. “Look what happened to the birds,” he said.

Inside, a cat crouched next to a ripped-open box of doves, surrounded by feathers.

Yo-Landi once posed with a live rat between her breasts. But a dead dove? She winced. Ninja looked appalled. “I’m sorry,” he said, petting one of the remaining doves paternally.  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 ...