“As a writer, I love change,” the award-winning journalist Eve Fairbanks notes on her website. It’s a good thing, because as the author of The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning, which outlines the depth and breadth of upheaval in South Africa in recent decades, there’s plenty of change to explore. By interviewing the people who were most affected when South Africa dismantled its white supremacist institutions, Fairbanks marries the overarching story the country’s turbulent apartheid history with Black and white individuals’ intimate experiences before and after 1994, when so much—and so little—changed.
Dipuo grew up in Soweto, a treeless, impoverished township of Johannesburg. It was strictly segregated during the years of white-minority rule but became increasingly politically active during the 1970s, as did Dipuo. “We were always told: Freedom first,” she remembers. Her daughter, Malaika, was 2 years old when their world became racially integrated. Malaika started going to a formerly white school, which Dipuo told her was so she could be “empowered, loose, and free” when she grew up.
Christo is the son of a successful white farmer. He joined the South African military at a young age, becoming one of the last fighters for apartheid even as it crumbled. When the laws around security force engagements changed, he simply wasn’t told. So when he shot and killed a Black man during a reconnaissance mission, he suddenly found himself charged with murder.
Unable to find work in Johannesburg, Elliott became a chicken farmer. The farm’s former white owner had left it in ruins, overrun by antelopes, but Elliott strove to succeed against impossible odds, inspired to prove that Black Africans could be farmers, too, in a country where most land was owned and farmed by white people.
As Fairbanks vividly demonstrates, South Africa’s complicated past continues to define the lives of Black Africans, white Afrikaners and immigrants from formerly colonized African countries such as Mozambique and Angola. The Inheritors covers a lot of ground, capturing Black heroes like Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko, as well as castigated white politicians like Frederik Willem de Klerk. She also examines how the rest of the world has handled racism and colonialism before and after 1994, including Angola’s own liberation in 1975 and the ongoing turmoil in 21st-century America. Glimmering throughout is the humanity she manages to find in all of it.
For the inheritors of these seismic changes, distrust and guilt can go unburied, and hope, progress and mutual respect can prove elusive. There are lessons here for readers the world over, especially as South Africa joins the global marketplace and as the U.S. continues to grapple with the human cost of racism. Fairbanks compels us to pay attention, learn and, above all, care.