An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning
By Eve Fairbanks
399 pages. Simon & Schuster. $27.99.
It was nothing short of a miracle — that was what South African schoolchildren were taught when Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, in the country’s first fully democratic elections. Apartheid, the brutal system of white minority rule that made South Africa a global pariah, was over. As Eve Fairbanks writes in “The Inheritors,” her new book about the decades before and after that transition, its miraculousness “was like mathematics, amazing but incontrovertible.”
But Malaika, one of the central figures in this account, remembers that her teachers’ soaring language seemed completely out of step with what she endured in her daily life. Born a few years before the end of apartheid, she continued to live in a shack in Soweto, a Black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. She and her mother, Dipuo, were still poor. They still had days when they were hungry. When Malaika was 11, her mother sent her to a school in a formerly white neighborhood; Malaika had only old shoes to wear, with holes on the bottoms. “Shine the top,” her grandmother would tell her. “People can’t see underneath your shoe.”
Others may not have seen it, but Malaika could certainly feel it. And how people feel turns out to be an essential part of Fairbanks’s book, one that took her a dozen years to report and write. “The Inheritors” tells South Africa’s story mainly through the experiences of Malaika and Dipuo, along with Christo, a white lawyer who as a young recruit worked as a soldier for the apartheid regime before it collapsed.