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 ... 

How Losing Can Bring an Emotional Windfall

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, August 24, 2016

When I was young, I especially loved the “consolation prize”: the small toy or piece of candy given to the loser in a game. At my sixth birthday party, my mother ran a freeze-dancing competition to old-school French pop spun on vinyl. The smooth movers got little dolls, but the bad dancers got whimsical lollipops we bought at the special confectioner’s all the way out in the next county, huge fruit-flavored saucers decorated with lions’ and tigers’ heads done in icing.

The consolation prize always felt more wondrous than the trophy from a real win. You had failed, and yet the world treated you with pleasure anyway. They say it is sweet to receive what we deserve, but it seemed sweeter to me to get what I hadn’t, apparently, deserved; I kept these lollipops in my nightstand for years, a sugary reminder of grace.

Are the greatest joys of our lives the prizes we seek or the consolations? 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 ...


To Make Love Last, What If We Should Stop Working So Hard?

The Washington Post, October 5, 2015

I used to treat every wound. Pimples got one cream, eczema another. On trips, I carried a freezer bag full of medications: for flu, for cramps, for sleeplessness. Any bodily event somewhat out of the ordinary warranted a doctor’s appointment. Infections made me anxious. What if the antibiotic didn’t work? I sensed my body a fragile thing entrusted to the pharmacy aisle.

And then, one long journey deep into the wilderness, I forgot the freezer bag — and promptly got a cut on my cheek that festered. I had absolutely nothing to treat it besides time. It’s a testament to how alienated we are from the body’s own healing capacities that I was astonished when the infection, in a few days, resolved itself. Read more ...

Think Traveling in Foreign Countries Is Getting Less Interesting? Try Nature Instead

The Washington Post, June 17

Traveling recently in the Istanbul airport, I saw a lone man in a fez. In a day’s walk in Tbilisi, the capital of the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia, I spotted one man in a fantastical Orthodox monk’s habit, a black cape cantilevered away from his shoulders like a vampire’s cloak. To see these solitary figures was like glimpsing ghosts haunting the uniform present from a queer, costumed past, a mysterious time when different people actually wore different styles of dress and didn’t all carry cell phones.

How the same the world has become, and how fast. Every time I travel, more downtowns I visit look like airport departure lounges, the same Burberry shops and Cadbury bars; more taxis play Katy Perry; more restaurants serve pizza and fajitas; more people wear hipster glasses and distressed jeans. Read more ...

How a Generation of Overachievers Finally Learned Some Humility

The Washington Post, June 10, 2015

College reunions are wonderful things, organic studies of how a generation ages in five-year increments. My generation has long been known for being “programmed,” Achievement Kids obsessed with racking up accomplishments within an at once kaleidoscopic and unimaginative framework of success: the law clerkship, the magazine internship, the McKinsey gig, the summer trip clothing orphans in Malawi.

Ten years later, our jobs — at least for those of us pulled back to campus to reminisce about a high point of the Achievement Kid fantasy — are still pretty bourgeois, anticipated: “I’m a litigator,” was the sentence I heard the most at my college reunion.

And yet it was usually offered in a quiet, even sheepish voice, not one strengthened by pride. Read more ...

The Real Reason Airports Depress Us

The Washington Post, June 3, 2015

It’s the start of summer in the northern hemisphere, and thus the season for a million stories about air travel: the record numbers of people moving by air, the delays, the guy who stripped nude to protest the TSA, the tips on how to travel with a terrier or which on-board wine to pair with your foil-wrapped chicken marsala.

But precious little is written about airports themselves. They’re such fascinating spaces. It’s easy not to notice that, not even to think about them, because they’re fundamentally so similar to each other. We tend to notice difference. The air when we step off the plane in Los Angeles or Beijing, the architecture in Stockholm or Morocco. But it’s the sameness of airports that’s precisely their intrigue. 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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

 

 

The Angry Man

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By Eve Fairbanks, Foreign Policy

The first time I drove in downtown Johannesburg, four and a half years ago, I heard an eerie, captivating song on the radio. I pulled over to the side of the street in a congested part of downtown, despite being alone and in a rental car -- both things I'd been darkly warned made me a sitting target for a carjacking. I rifled through my bag to look for something with which to write the lyrics down; the song would end soon, and I knew I had to find it again. The words were in an unfamiliar language, but I recognized again and again the word "Mandela": "Uh-SEEM-bonanza Mandela," it sounded like.

As soon as I got home to Google, I found it: "Asimbonanga," an ode to the imprisoned Nelson Mandela written by a singer named Jonny Clegg in 1987. Clegg formed the first big-name integrated pop band in South Africa in the 1980s, in contravention of the apartheid government's rules. In moody, wistful harmony, "Asimbonanga" mourned an invisible leader: "We have not seen him, Mandela, in the place where he was kept," the Zulu chorus goes, referring to Robben Island, the prison in which Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years. (He spent the remaining nine years of his imprisonment in other jails on land.) The song's bereft singer tries to visualize the place where his shepherd is, somewhere across the cold sea, but fails. "We have not seen him, Mandela."

The song had a hymn-like quality, and it occurred to me that for such a large part of his time at the center of the life of South Africa, Mandela was vanished, almost like a Jesus figure, crucified by the law and spirited into darkness, leaving those who looked to him only the vague hope he would come again. 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 ... 

South Africa After Mandela

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By Eve Fairbanks, Salon, July 3, 2013

For years now, a theory has existed among white South Africans that the death of Nelson Mandela will mean the end of racial reconciliation in South Africa. According to this theory, Mandela, South Africa’s beloved first black president, was actually the only black South African who really forgave the white population who had supported apartheid, the strictest system of racial oppression ever instituted. By the ferocious force of his will, by the power of his persona, Mandela imposed a narrative of forgiveness on the rest of the country. But in truth, resentment and bitterness continued to seethe under the surface. After he dies, according to the theory,blacks will stream into Johannesburg in minibus taxis and murder whites wholesale with pangas, the kind of African machete used in the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya and the Rwandan genocide, in a kind of national auto da fé to finally cleanse the land of the sin of apartheid.

When I traveled through the South African countryside for six months in 2010, I reckon a good quarter of whites I talked to about the inevitable death of Mandela thought something like this would happen — especially the younger ones. Several volunteered to give me an underground DVD that outlined the evidence for the proposed uprising, which had been given a host of frightening and derivative names: “Night of the Long Knives,” “Operation Red October.” Read more ...

Give Sokkie a Lekker Whirl

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Mail & Guardian, June 28, 2013

I remember the night I, an American, fell in love with sokkie. It was at a matric dance at Hoër Landbouskool Marlow in Cradock, one of South Africa's remaining live-in all-male agricultural secondary schools. 

I had come to write about what it was like to go to school at a place that was still so unabashedly Afrikaans. I was struck by how boyish the experience was: the residents haze their newbies, pull pranks and compete against each other in a series of contests. Each residence even has its own "cave", an outdoor version of the couch-pillow fort, which they spend countless hours decorating.

I had the impression the Marlow culture was sweet but immature – until night fell and everybody gathered for a sokkie in a main hall. Suddenly, as the treffers began to belt from the sound system, the Marlow boys turned into men.  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 ...

Pardon'd

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By Eve Fairbanks, Witness, Spring 2013

In South Africa, the road to redemption is a desert one. It leaves Johannesburg to the southeast, passing through the remains of white ambition here: the slag heaps of the mines that gave birth to the city; the sprawling township where black laborers were forced to live under apartheid; the oil refinery built to circumvent the apartheid-era trade embargoes, whose towers still flare like torches over the towns spread out beneath. After a couple of hours, the road narrows and enters farmland, but you cannot stop there and hope to find deliverance. No, you have to keep going as the villages grow scarcer and scarcer until they peter out and you are driving through nothing but an endless expanse of white grass, its long tufts lit into its own little flares by the sun. This desert is called the Great Karoo. Once it was an inland swamp, teeming with plants and frogs and reptiles, but now only their fossils remain, tucked in amongst the white grass and the dust.

Finally, after miles and miles of that white grass, another town suddenly appears, a grid of reddish roads, a church, low beige houses, little Toyotas plying the perfectly-squared corners. It is as tidy as a town imagined in a dream, because it is one.  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 ...