Opening up a young South Africa

Race is its greatest obstacle to its being a ‘rainbow nation’ in reality, not just in name

In Summary

She writes about change: in cities, countries, landscapes, morals, values and self-view

Book cover
Book cover

The Inheritors

Author: Eve Fairbanks

Publisher: Simon & Schuster.Pps.397.

ISBN 978-1-4767-2524-6

ISBN 978-1-4767-2529-1 (ebook)

Reviewer: John Sibi-Okumu

Eve Fairbanks, an American journalist-turned-author, has written a book called The Inheritors. Its four, representative protagonists have assumed the historical legacy of what is now the Republic of South Africa, the location of Fairbanks’ first assignment away from the United States.

The country has remained her base of operations since 2009 and, professionally, she has determined, by her publisher’s description, to write about change: in cities, countries, landscapes, morals, values and our ideas of ourselves. Having, in the opening pages, pointed to the fickleness of perception by evoking her childhood fascination with an American civil war general, whose role has become questionable with the passage of time, she sets out to understand and rationalise the socio-political workings of what, in essence, has become her adoptive home, as she still lives there.

Anybody who has ever asked a taxi driver to explain what’s going on, socially and politically, in a novel destination, on the ride from the airport into town, will appreciate the enormity of the undertaking. Only, it has taken Fairbanks years, not hours, to come up with views worth sharing. An immediate indication of her focus lies in the book’s subtitle: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning.

Of the buzzwords that attach to South Africa, perhaps three can be said to be universal: apartheid and Nelson Mandela. One, referring to a heinous system of separate racial development, and the others, to the national hero who first led the country after apartheid had been brought to an end, with a racially integrated society dating back to 1994.

To Fairbanks, race is South Africa’s uber-challenge, the greatest obstacle to its being a “rainbow nation” in reality, not just in name alone. Her ‘intimate portrait’ is arrived at by her ‘embedding’ herself, over a significant period of time, in the lives of four, real people, living real lives within a timeline that takes in the subsequent years of political freedom.

Successive chapters are signposted by their names. Dipuo, a black woman, played an intransigent part in The Struggle. Malaika, also black, is her daughter, for whom she has great aspirations from the fruits of a good, western formation. Elliot, another black man, is older than Malaika and wants to do better than his father, a failed businessman, by succeeding as a farmer, on a par with white people. Christo, a white Afrikaaner man progresses from being a pro-apartheid army recruit to becoming a lawyer in the new South Africa.

Fairbanks, having gained their trust, gets her totemic principals, as well as many minor characters, to speak for themselves, and she is at pains not to pass value judgements on what she hears. But in giving a peripheral context to their experiences and assertions, she reveals the findings of considerable research, displayed, as indicated in the end pages, by supplementary reading worthy of a PhD thesis, dedicated fact-checking and over one hundred personal conversations. In essence, Fairbanks strives to make recent South African history not only factual but also human.

The Inheritors was, to me, a satisfying read. Eve Fairbanks’ giving-voice-to-the voiceless approach reminded me of a book which I had read, with profit and pleasure, as a young boy, from my father’s home library. That was Talking to Myself. A Memoir of my Times by the legendary American writer, Studs Terkel.

I delighted in her prose, which yielded sentences like this one: From the summit, the city’s ringed neighbourhoods look like nothing more than grit flung up on a beach after high tide: the shimmering skyscrapers are the oyster shells, the houses the pebbles, and the lawns and blue pools the bits of battered glass. I delighted in going down memory lane through triggers like the names of singers James Brown and Percy Sledge and the culinary brand, Tupperware.

As a Kenyan reader, I was reminded of the intersections in our continental history. For example, where once there was a Dutch East India Company in what is now South Africa, there was once an Imperial British East Africa Company in what is now Kenya. Our version of a compulsory pass was the kipande. And Mau Mau was our Umkhonto we Sizwe. As for education systems, I was reminded of the fact that our young are also woefully ignorant of their own history, let alone that of other countries in Africa. Yet in our élite primary schools, they are exposed, year after year, to the Tudor kings of England.

Like Oliver Twist (to whom I have been exposed through my own questionable education as an African), I would have asked for more, in two respects, if only with the result of a much longer book. Fairbanks acknowledges that “recent South African history, very loosely, collapses 250 years of American history into about 30.” In hindsight, her strongest passages were those which were self-referential and spoke to lessons to be learned from the history of the country of her birth.

Further, she explains that segregation, under apartheid, involved four groupings: black, white, Indians and coloureds. However, she has limited her narrative to only two of them, as if to suggest that the others have been, and are still, insignificant players in South Africa’s social crucible. As someone who came to the book with considerable prior knowledge, I believe that the didactic cause would have been better served by the evocation, alongside such names as Steve Biko and Chris Hani, of the likes of Ahmed Kathrada, Ismael Meer, Ebrahim Rasool and Beatrice Marshoff, all heroes from the other groupings.

Admittedly, these are mere quibbles. Like the taxi driver mentioned earlier, it is well nigh impossible to treat such a complex subject comprehensively in one, fell swoop. To her credit, Eve Fairbanks, the outsider, now insider, has, with The Inheritors, led us to issues linked to overcoming division and prejudice, which we must all confront, as individuals and as societies, towards making a better world.

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