In February 2008, a video of four white male students on the campus of the University of the Free State (UFS)—one of the oldest, most prestigious, and most racially divided campuses in South Africa at the time—went viral. In the clip, the four men encouraged a group of older Black workers (janitors at the men’s campus residence) to drink a concoction that viewers were led to believe contained the men’s urine. They engaged in humiliating banter with the workers, including asking one woman to call herself a “whore.”
Though the video was not intended to be shared publicly, it was clearly made in response to a push by university leaders to integrate student housing. At the end of the footage, one of the young men appeared to urinate into a bowl before serving its contents to the Black workers. As the janitors then ate out of dog bowls, a young man could be heard saying, “That, at the end of the day, is what we think of integration.”
The men came to be known collectively as the Reitz Four (so called because Reitz was the name of the residence hall in which they lived), and their case had broad effects beyond their university. The Reitz Four served as a reminder that all was not well in former President Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation. Although apartheid was over in a formal sense, the ideas that had animated the project of white supremacy lived on in a new generation of whites and were thriving in institutional settings that were supposed to provide opportunities for all South Africans, regardless of race.
Following the video’s release, it became clear that this event pointed to a deeper crisis at UFS, which had struggled with the question of integration dating back to 1994. At the heart of the struggle was the question of who owned UFS. Was it the Afrikaner students whose parents had attended the university and who felt entitled not only to admission but to the rites of passage in which their fathers had participated? Or did the campus belong to the new cohort of Black students whose parents had fought for the liberation of South Africa and voted to end apartheid on the promise of better lives for their children?
In the South Africa that had been imagined in 1994, the university had an important role in serving both constituencies, but administrators seemed to be having a hard time convincing students that this was possible. The very premise of the new dispensation seemed to be on trial at UFS. Could South Africans leave the past behind and build a joint future, or would they retreat into separate societies, living uneasily side by side?
This question forms the basis of Eve Fairbanks’s new book, The Inheritors, which follows the lives of Dipuo and Malaika, a mother and daughter duo from Soweto, and Christo, an Afrikaner ex-soldier who—as the book slowly reveals—was a central but hidden figure in the UFS drama.
Fairbanks is an American journalist who has been based in South Africa for almost 15 years and has reported on the country for a range of U.S. publications, including this one. Her knowledge of the country is formidable, yet her Americanness often gets in the way of her analysis.
Fairbanks’s prose is masterful, and there are passages in the book that sing. It is an ambitious project. Anyone seeking to make sense of South Africa’s messy and complicated post-apartheid journey is a brave soul. And there is plenty of courageous writing in The Inheritors.
When Fairbanks describes two progressive white women who can’t quite bring themselves to disagree with a Black woman because their politics demand that they subordinate their opinions to hers, she speaks to how whiteness has reorganized itself in the new South Africa in ways that continue to keep Black and white people apart. The walls have come down, but there is something performative about how South Africans engage with one another across race. Fairbanks also points out how rarely white South Africans venture out onto the streets. Trapped by their own fears, they stay at home, resentful of violence and crime and, yes, change.
Some of Fairbanks’s insights into the fears that keep white South Africans apart from their Black compatriots are astute. In one passage she reports on research showing that Afrikaners’ “greatest grievance was a feeling of superfluousness.” She then tells the story of a white politician who took part in the early days of the negotiations that ended apartheid had been excited about “the thrill of negotiating South Africa’s democratic transition” after apartheid fell. But, of course, none of the Black politicians with whom he had spoken returned his calls after 1994. They were busy running the country, and he was no longer relevant.
In another section of the book, Fairbanks writes of a white friend who “felt embarrassed to recall what she and her friends had considered resistance—things like having a warm exchange with a black maid or taking a day off her university classes to join an anti-apartheid march.” After watching the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) proceedings, the woman’s “sense of embarrassment made her shy away from politics or public life, as did the slow-dawning recognition of just how much more black people knew about their shared universe.”
The whites Fairbanks describes are lost, disoriented, and angry. Life is not as frightening as they had imagined it would be, and yet somehow it is worse. They have not been punished for the crimes perpetrated by the apartheid system and are still financially well off, but the Black people busy living around them are a reminder of what might always have been had apartheid never existed. Having gone unpunished, white South Africans live in a state of perpetual shame. And out of that confusion and shame arises an incredible anger, the kind of anger that shook the UFS campus.
For all her insights about white South Africans, Fairbanks has her share of racial blind spots. Like so many books of its kind, Fairbanks’s tale suffers from the background of its author. Fairbanks is American through and through, and so is this book.
In fact, Fairbanks makes no apologies for this. In her introduction, she notes, “[W]hat follows is a story that illuminates what lies ahead of us. A fantasy book, but real. Sometimes I tell people recent South African history, very loosely, collapses two hundred and fifty years of American history into about thirty—from our antebellum era well into our future.”
While there are obvious parallels between U.S. and South African histories, the differences are significant. South Africa isn’t a mini-United States. Our history stands on its own terms and can’t be condensed for illustrative purposes. While there is merit in comparative politics, what frequently gets lost in the perpetual comparison of U.S. and South African racism is the extent to which South African history is different from U.S. history. These differences matter to how Black people in South Africa experience racism and cope with it.
The vast majority of Black South Africans did not lose their mother tongues, and forced removals notwithstanding, Black South Africans are generally able to identify where their ancestors lived, and most maintain strong cultural and spiritual ties with those places. Most significantly, Black South Africans represent the overwhelming demographic majority. This fact has all sorts of social implications, one of which is that the United States is not always the most analogous comparison for South Africa.
Our history of racism, and our contemporary responses to it, can more meaningfully be compared with Zimbabwe, Namibia, Kenya, Angola, and Mozambique—African societies where white settler colonies flourished and were met with liberation armies—than the United States.
The parts of Fairbanks’s book that chronicle the lives of her Black subjects—Dipuo, Malaika, and, to a lesser extent, Elliot, a friend of Fairbanks’s whose farming attempts she depicts in painfully gripping detail—are well intentioned but strained.
Fairbanks often seems to be wearing the wrong glasses and, therefore, using the wrong frame of analysis to understand what she is observing. As a result, the book is filled with lost-in-translation moments. In trying to understand Black South Africans and their experiences based on ideas about Blackness that don’t quite fit the local context, Fairbanks repeatedly plays it straight or provides earnest explanations that don’t quite work.
In one section of the book, recalling Dipuo’s life in the 1980s, Fairbanks writes:
“People sometimes acted, in Soweto, like romantic love couldn’t—or shouldn’t—exist. First, there were the conditions imposed by the white regime, which forced fathers to travel to distant mines and mothers to toil day-in, day-out in other people’s houses, neglecting their own domestic spaces and relationships. But also, sometimes older black people said flirting and romance was a kind of betrayal of black people’s duty.”
It is worth reminding readers that South Africa’s freedom struggle was the backdrop to a range of extraordinary love stories, from the great romance of Winnie and Nelson Mandela to the long and celebrated marriages of Govan and Epainette Mbeki, Oliver and Adelaide Tambo, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, and Fatima and Ismail Meer. The list is endless.
Later, Fairbanks insists: “Love and happiness seemed to be such limited resources in Meadowlands. Most of her elders were reluctant to waste the little they had on children who, they hoped, could generate them on their own.”
Again, we see love and affection depicted as rarities rather than as the norm. Cumulatively, these sorts of anecdotes create a picture of Black people as emotionally stilted, as so damaged by racism that even the most basic joys feel out of reach. In a particularly disturbing passage, Fairbanks writes:
“Dipuo usually defended black communities at every opportunity. But that morning in the café she challenged me. … Wasn’t it time to acknowledge there were things wrong with black South Africans, in a vacuum? The thought gave her a kind of inner stillness—to finally hand over to white people, in some realms, the sense of moral superiority they’d been fighting over for so long.”
It is unclear here—as in many other parts of the book—who is talking. Is this Fairbanks editorializing about the roots of patriarchy when it has long been acknowledged that sexism existed before colonization and intersected powerfully with European misogyny when settlers arrived? Did Fairbanks’s subject genuinely believe sexism in the Black community was an equalizing force that proved that whites were right about Black people all along?
If the story The Inheritors seeks to tell about white people is one of anger and resentment, the story it attempts to tell about Black people is one of ongoing psychological damage and latent grief. The Black protagonists in this book are attempting the Sisyphean task of recovering from the emotional trauma of racism so that they can finally see themselves as fully human.
The mistake Fairbanks makes in drawing these conclusions about her Black subjects is common. Many white people imagine that Black people’s experiences of racism are so complete and so total that they color every aspect of our lives. And yet Black South Africans can both attest to the injustice of racism and thoroughly enjoy fulfilling relationships that aren’t preoccupied with race.
What Fairbanks often misses as she interprets the stories of Dipuo and Malaika is that Black people do not see themselves as being defined by race, whereas many white people find it hard to think about Black people outside the context of race and racism.
In October 2009, more than 18 months after the UFS incident, in his inaugural address, Jonathan Jansen, vice chancellor of the university and the first Black person to lead the institution, dropped all charges against the men in the demeaning video. In his widely publicized first major lecture on campus, Jansen insisted that to do anything less would be to blame the young men for the hatred they had inherited. To argue that their actions were the consequence of individual pathology was to neglect to ask, “What was it within the institution that made it possible for such an atrocity to be committed in the first place?”
Jansen went on: “When the focus of analysis shifts from that of individual pathology to one of institutional culture, then it becomes clear that the problem of Reitz is not simply a problem of four racially troubled students. It is, without question, a problem of institutional complicity.”
After issuing an apology to Black people for UFS’s “long history of exclusion and marginalization of black people within this institution,” Jansen “begged” the forgiveness of Black people. He then turned to the white community and apologized “to every decent white citizen of our university that you were shamed by the Reitz incident. I know too many of you have felt private guilt and racial remorse as well, that we as an institution failed you. And I know that you took what the four students did personally, and that the relentless criticism of whites in the wake of Reitz you absorbed as a commentary on the group.”
The Black university president’s words earned him respect among those in South Africa who believed in the idea of South Africa as a place of forgiveness. Even though there was a consensus across the political spectrum—from right-wing leaders to the ruling left-wing party—that the video was degrading and offensive, Jansen opted to forgive the students rather than punish them. It was a move that made sense in the context of the rainbow nation and the painstaking work Mandela had done to convince white South Africans to trust Black people.
But it was out of step with the mood in a country where race relations were beginning to normalize. On campus, Black students marched to his office and demanded to know what right he had to forgive on behalf of others. They pointedly asked the university leader whether the cleaners who had been abused had forgiven the students. It seemed that the workers had not forgiven the young men, as they were unsatisfied with the mediation process the university organized and later insisted on having their day in court. As the cleaners’ lawyer stated on their behalf, “We trusted these boys and treated them like our own children.” So, while Jansen dropped university charges against the young men, the workers sued the students in court—and in 2010, they won.
To those watching Jansen’s leadership of the troubled institution, he seemed like a genuine believer, a man committed to social cohesion based on the idea that the majority could afford to compromise with the white minority; after all, we had won. Jansen may not have recognized that a younger generation was beginning to experience forgiveness as orthodoxy—as a reflexive response to wrongdoing even when it was evident that punishment was a more appropriate response.
Though the vice chancellor’s views on reconciliation prevailed, as in so many post-apartheid stories, the racial harmony Jansen seemed so determined to find never came about. After this speech, Jansen doggedly implemented a number of changes on campus, but the attitudes that had created the drama remained largely in place. In the end, neither the institutional problems nor the individual bad apples were dealt with.
Though The Inheritors doesn’t tell the stories of the Reitz Four directly, the book circles the events that led to the crisis at the university as Fairbanks tells the story of Christo Dippenaar, an ex-soldier who was charged with murdering a homeless Black man in the dying days of apartheid before enrolling at UFS and becoming a lawyer.
Christo served as a mentor and role model to the young men who resided in the Reitz dorm before and after the incident, and his role in their identity formation is both powerful and deeply troubling. Her portrait of Christo walks a fine line between brutal and sympathetic.
Like many white men, Christo came out of the army in the early 1990s having perpetrated brutal acts against Black people. In 1991, Christo was charged with murdering a homeless man at a mine dump when he was on a reconnaissance mission in a South African township. The case against him was dismissed, but not long after a judge called him “a terrorist,” implying that he had gone rogue and was not following military instructions when he killed the nameless Black man.
Christo never had to face accountability for his crime. As Fairbanks writes, “A military superior got Christo’s murder charge dismissed.” Christo enrolled at UFS in the aftermath of the case and immediately started getting in fights. He displayed signs of PTSD and felt betrayed by the army. He had been fighting to uphold apartheid, and suddenly the leaders at the top changed their minds and his sacrifices had become an embarrassment. There seemed to be no place for him in the new South Africa.
Eventually, Christo put his dark past behind him and became a role model for younger students at UFS—especially Afrikaner boys from farming backgrounds like himself. Eventually, university administrators in charge of housing asked him to take charge of a residence hall that had been established to deal with the campus’s “most difficult white students,” the types of young men who “ejaculated on [black students’] blankets” and lined up in the moonlight “holding cricket bats, cocked over their shoulders like rifles,” singing the old apartheid national anthem in Afrikaans.
In any other country, this would beggar belief: A former army conscript who fought Black liberation fighters on the border, killed a homeless Black man, and displayed strong signs of PTSD would never be put in charge of a dorm full of enraged, entitled, and demonstrably violent young white men. However, in a country where white privilege continued to define institutional policy and where forgiveness—rather than the need for justice—continued to inform institutional responses to racism, Christo continued to be given positions of power that no Black man with a similar record could hope to enjoy.
In Christo’s attempts to make sense of his past and grapple with the changing world around him, he gravitated toward the more troubled of the young men in the dorm— those he could teach military discipline and expose to Afrikaner nationalist heroes.
Under these circumstances, the ensuing scandal was virtually predestined.
Strangely, in her telling of this story, Fairbanks never mentions Jansen, the Black leader who pardoned the men in a rousing, important, and deeply divisive speech and let them off the hook by insisting that the institution—not the individuals—was to blame. It’s an odd omission. Jansen arrived after the fact, but he had a significant role in the public story that subsequently unfolded.
Without the countervailing force of Jansen’s Mandela-esque views on reconciliation, Christo’s confusion becomes the central focus of a story that is really about competing forms of hubris: the arrogance of a white man whose inability to let go of the past taints the futures of those who follow in his footsteps and the self-righteousness of Black leaders who were eager to claim the racial high ground, even when it ran counter to the wishes of individual victims of racist actions.
This is a story that is far more complicated to tell; it doesn’t follow the white resentment/Black rage dichotomy set up in the rest of the book. Yet those attempting to understand modern South Africa must grapple precisely with the question of what happens when demands for accountability are silenced by Black leaders in service of a hardening ideology of forgiveness.
If Fairbanks had allowed space for Jansen in her storytelling, the reader might have been able to look more closely at what happens when we define the terms of reconciliation too narrowly, when living together is contingent on a vaguely-defined sense of kindness and there is no social space created for condemnation.
Instead, Fairbanks doggedly reports on Christo and his torment, writing about the boys he continued to gather on a site across the road from the UFS campus after the residence was closed by university administrators in 2008, before Jansen’s term of office began, thereby “reconstitut[ing] Reitz as a private residence funded by alumni donations.” It makes for chilling reading. In the first year, Christo presided over 40 boys. By year three (after Jansen had begun as vice chancellor), there were 120. University administrators—the same ones who were tasked with integrating the campus—acted like Christo “could be fought but never defeated.”
And herein lies the problem of South Africa. Beyond the grand gestures and moralistic speechifying that marked the so-called new South Africa, and beyond the stark lines of Black hurt and white anger that Fairbanks maps in the pages of The Inheritors, what remains unexamined, unprocessed, and underexplored is how the “problem of institutional complicity” to which Jansen bravely and naively pointed when he dismissed the Reitz Four was weaponized by a generation of leaders who turned reconciliation into dogma.
There is no denying that the university had a role in creating the culture that led to the making of that video. Naming the institution’s role and insisting on addressing its centrality was certainly courageous. And yet Jansen, in exonerating the Reitz Four, also ignored the obvious fact that those young men had been raised in a post-apartheid society in which many other whites were making different kinds of choices. In denying the truth of their actions and shielding them from culpability for the steps they took in making and distributing that video, Jansen cut off the possibility of genuine reconciliation.
At its core, reconciliation relies on truth as the basis for building a joint future. If the perpetrator can agree that they caused harm through their actions, and if they are prepared to be held accountable, then the victim may one day forgive them and society may redeem them. In refusing any possibility of blaming them, Jansen made the same mistakes that had been made by the country’s TRC.
In the face of overwhelming evidence of Black people’s pain, Black leaders who were haunted by the specter of violence were anxious to avoid conflict and personal animus. So they blamed racism on apartheid’s processes and structures and avoided singling out individuals.
Jansen did the same and, in the process, set off a firestorm in a country that was ready to move beyond the TRC era. With peace well and truly established, South Africans now want justice.
Fairbanks’s beautiful storytelling demonstrates that the stories of people take us only so far. It is not easy to write about the slow accretion of personal and institutional decisions that have led South Africa to deviate so spectacularly from the vision it hoped to achieve almost 30 years ago. Still, anyone wanting to understand South Africa will need to look beyond the stories of white fear and resentment and Black anger and pathos that are so compelling yet so deeply distracting.
The impunity that is evident across the political landscape today—a ruling party that is corrupt and bloated with incompetent leaders and a white-dominated official opposition that refuses to accept the racial realities of the country—has its roots in the lack of accountability that accompanied the end of apartheid.
The inheritors of freedom in South Africa must break free from that inheritance by establishing a new political culture, one that avoids the sentimentality of forgiveness and resists the impulse to elevate stories about racial indignity over stories about economic indignity.
For that to happen, the nation’s political class will have to break with the past. The ruling party will have to accept responsibility for the broken promises that have deepened apartheid’s legacy rather than lessened it; and the white leaders who have tried to minimize the effects of apartheid on their continuing economic power will need to acknowledge their privilege.
More importantly, South Africans themselves will need to commit to building a society in which people’s actions matter more than the stories they tell to justify them. Whether it is the Reitz Four or the politicians who have looted state coffers and denied Black South Africans opportunities at economic freedom, the time for excuses is over.