Q & A: Post-Apartheid South Africa With Author Eve Fairbanks

Written by Veronica Pamoukaghlian

At a glance, writer, historian, and philosopher Eve Fairbanks is an unassuming young woman with a laid-back attitude who doesn’t seem to fit the stereotype of “serious writer.”

Read a few lines of her unforgettable stories in The New York Times or The New Republic  and you’ll start to get the picture.

Fairbanks’ upcoming book, “The Inheritors,” aims to be the foremost treatment of
post-apartheid society to date in the American press, and is on track for 2015 publication by Simon & Schuster.

Originally from Virginia, Fairbanks lives in Kenya. A petite, magnetic, woman with a winning smile, she has an impressive writing career. She was one of seven writers who participated in a flagship 2013 project by South Africa’s Mail & Guardian and the University of the Witwatersrand to write about South Africa’s unseen communities. The book that resulted from this project, “Writing Invisibility,” can be downloaded here.

Fairbanks is the recipient of two of the most prestigious long-term American writing grants to cover post-apartheid South Africa — a Fulbright in creative writing and a two-year, in-depth reporting grant from the Institute of Current World Affairs.

A House Divided,” her story published on Slate, also deals with South African society and was nominated for a 2014 Livingston Award, a top American award for young journalists. It deals with why the students at a prominent South African university, once a model of racial harmony, chose to resegregate post apartheid.

AFKinsider interviewed Fairbanks about her book, her relationship with Africa, and her views on South Africa’s economic growth.

Much like the ideas presented in her articles and essays, Fairbank’s answers are both personal and transcendent, offering perspective on complex issues such as interracial relationships in post-apartheid South Africa and the rise of the middle classes in Kenya.

AFKInsider:  How long have you been going to/living in Africa?

Eve Fairbanks: There’s a family story that at my first birthday party, when my mother put on a song by the French singer Jean Ferrat called “À moi l’Afrique,” I pulled myself upright on a couch end and started to dance. My family has no connections to Africa, but my mother now says she thinks that was an omen.

I first traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, five-and-a-half years ago on a one-way plane ticket; since then, I’ve also traveled to Lesotho, Namibia, Mozambique, Kenya, and the Republic of Congo. Of course, the Africa I found is very different than the one Ferrat fantasized about in 1972.

AFKInsider: Can you recall the moment when you realized your exploration of South Africa’s past was going to materialize in a book?

Eve Fairbanks: I came with the abstract idea of doing a book. It took me an exceptionally long time to figure out exactly what kind of book, and, more difficult yet, how to portray both white and black experiences side-by-side in the same book when it still seems whites and blacks in South Africa live in fundamentally different worlds. Most recent nonfiction set in South Africa focuses primarily on either a white or a black character, and I wanted to avoid that and argue that whites and blacks do live in the same country.

AFKInsider: People deal with traumatic pasts in different ways. In Germany, for example, each generation had a completely different reading of the nazi past. How are the different generations dealing with apartheid’s legacy?

Eve Fairbanks:  I think, counter intuitively, it can be (harder) for young people raised after apartheid’s end to process the history than it is for older people. Young whites see affirmative action constricting their opportunities in public service and their chance at promotions, for instance, but they don’t feel the personal guilt that allows them to understand why their lives should be harder. And young blacks feel — and are often told by the media or older mentors — as though they ought to be unfettered by apartheid and should succeed where their parents failed. But in truth, South Africa still lacks economic opportunities for young, poor blacks. The gap between young blacks’ expectations for themselves and their real opportunities results in immense frustration.

AFKInsider: A Brazilian friend of mine in South Africa is not considered white, because she has dark hair, a thick nose and big lips. The result is she was considered “colored,” and felt that she was not attractive to either whites or blacks. How much this has changed?

Eve Fairbanks: I think things are changing, but very slowly, and the fact that South Africa’s economy — built under colonialism and apartheid to protect a small, rich upper class at the expense of a vastly poorer class of laborers — hasn’t changed entrenches many boundaries of privilege and privation. We rarely befriend or date people we can’t empathize with on
certain key experiences of our youths, and if whites, so-called “coloreds,” and blacks are growing up in drastically different contexts, that will put a crimp on multiracial relationships in adulthood.

The situation of “coloreds” is interesting. Racially mixed and given more privileges than blacks under apartheid, but not nearly as many privileges as whites, some feared they would lose out under black majority rule. And it may be true that rural farm-workers near Cape Town, who are mostly colored, are some of the most forgotten people in post-apartheid South Africa: neither fretted over by the black-dominated central government nor championed by whites. A rap group with colored artists called Dookoom recently released a song channeling the anger felt by these oppressed workers that’s made a big
stir in South Africa.

AFKInsider: How do you see South Africa´s development prospects, not only in terms of economic growth, but also of equality and a wealth that can spread through the different social classes?

Eve Fairbanks: I’ve also begun spending a lot of time in Kenya, and it’s clear there’s a much bigger middle class here and that those middle-class Kenyans feel much more optimistic that they have the tools to realize their professional ambitions. It’s my
experience that in Nairobi, if I just mention a business idea at a party, multiple people will offer their expertise, encourage me to get started and propose a partnership, or call me the next day to suggest a meeting.

eve fairbanks 1 by Joni Sternbach

It shows that people believe dreams can become a reality. In South Africa, on the other hand, the people I know are constantly generating ideas for things Johannesburg needs — voids in the restaurant scene, services for at-risk youth — and it often ends
there. There’s not a sense of social mobility or freedom to take professional risks.

Most South African economists I talk to agree the South African economy and poor people’s capacity to participate in it will still get worse before it gets better. But then it will get better, especially with more responsive government leadership.

AFKInsider: Do you believe South Africa is educating its children for integration? What is the situation with black children?

Eve Fairbanks: South African public primary schools are in crisis. The problem is less that they’re not educating black children for integration than that they’re not educating them at all. And, unfortunately, the national leadership at the moment doesn’t always appear to recognize the extent of the problem, since they can send their own children to fancier schools.

That said, now is also a moment of lively experimentation by new private schools like the great African School for Excellence, which aims to challenge at-risk black youth by holding them to the highest educational standards possible while charging poor parents very little money in fees.

AFKInsider: Apartheid has an interesting history. It was actually developed at the heart of academia, much like the shock doctrine that fueled Latin America’s 1970s dictatorships. What is your vision of the creation and the creators of apartheid?

Eve Fairbanks: That’s an interesting parallel. I’ve met some of the relatives of the people who came up with the theory of apartheid, and they believe the problem was with the implementation of the theory, not the theory itself. But policies of strict social
control dreamed up in classrooms never work out the neat way their progenitors imagine.

AFKInsider: How do you think apartheid succeeded in perpetuating itself for so long?

Eve Fairbanks: I can immediately think of two reasons: One, South Africa is very isolated geographically, and two, the West and particularly the United States viewed the apartheid state for a long time as a crucial ally to prevent the spread of Communism on the African continent. Governments were hesitant to cut ties with white-ruled South Africa for this reason.

AFKInsider: What do you feel is the perception of underprivileged, especially non-white, South Africans when it comes to South Africa’s status as a leading economy in the continent?

Eve Fairbanks: I think it can actually engender pride even if the person in question isn’t partaking in the country’s wealth. For instance, coming back on a bus from a South Africa-Nigeria soccer game, I saw a pair of young South Africans taunt some Nigerians about the power of South Africa’s economy, even though I doubt those young people held great management jobs at South Africa’s gold mines!

I’m reminded of some less-well-off Americans’ very different attitudes towards their country depending on the context of the discussion: if they’re asked to defend America to foreigners, they’ll show great patriotism, but they can also attack the state of the American economy when in discussion with other Americans.

AFKInsider: You wrote in a recent article about racial integration in South African universities. How much has been done, and how much is there still to do? How hard do you feel it is today for an underprivileged black youth to
access higher education and succeed in academic life?

Eve Fairbanks: Very hard. There are just so many obstacles: the bad state of public primary schools, lack of money to go to college, and the difficulties of social integration once you get there.

However, I recently met an amazing young black woman from a very poor area just east of Johannesburg who somehow hurdled all those barriers and is currently enrolled as a master’s student in animal physiology at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg’s top college.

I also spoke to some young teenagers from her neighborhood, and it was amazing to see how big a difference it had made for them to be able to see a role model from their neighborhood make it. Whereas before they might not have aimed to go to college, now they all wanted to be animal scientists, too! So I think the more black students can make it, the more that’ll inspire younger kids.

AFKInsider: Name some of your favorite places in South Africa.

Eve Fairbanks: One of my very favorites is “in” South Africa, depending on how you interpret the word “in”: the tiny, mountainous nation of Lesotho, which is surrounded by South Africa on all sides! It has a fascinating history. Its famous king, Moshoeshoe,
resisted white rule for a long time — and it’s just so beautiful — full of mist-draped peaks, thatched huts, and people in traditional cone-shaped hats riding donkeys.

AFKInsider: What does your future look like? Will you stay in Africa?

Eve Fairbanks: Whether I’ll live here in five years is an open question, but I hope I’ll be working and writing here for the rest of my life!

Eve Fairbanks Cape Town