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'The Inheritors' delves into the lasting effects of the Apartheid in South Africa


It's been 28 years since apartheid ended in South Africa and the celebrated election of Nelson Mandela. But the country's people are still wrestling with the after-effects of white minority rule. A new book details how deeply decades of institutionalized racism etched itself into the psyches of South Africans. It's called "The Inheritors." It's by journalist Eve Fairbanks, a white woman who grew up in Virginia but spent years in South Africa getting to know the people whose stories are told in the book. I did ask her if she had any apprehension about writing about the lives of Black South Africans and white Afrikaners.

EVE FAIRBANKS: I absolutely thought about that, I mean, which is part of why at times I thought, oh, I should I should really mainly write about white South Africans. I still don't know if I have the right to have written this book. I will say that people told me that it was a big frustration that people from other countries seemed to want their story to have ended, one way or another. But there were a lot of people who really wanted to express the complexity and the ambiguity and the kind of multiple stories that were happening there and to have their - to have the country seen in a way that was more complex.

RASCOE: I mean, you make this observation in the book. You say South Africans all seem to have this kind of survivor's guilt over apartheid. Can you talk a bit about that?

FAIRBANKS: Yeah. You know, apartheid persisted long after the vast majority of other African countries freed themselves from colonialism, and the justification that the white regime used was that, look; maybe this actually honestly isn't that just, but frankly, we can't give it up, or else we'll be rounded up and killed in revenge. And I realized, you know, it was one of the most surprising things, was how burdensome and painful psychologically it could be to white South Africans that that did not happen. You know, these people policed South African Black townships in this very - pretty brutal way, and they justified it as necessary to themselves. And if it turns out that it wasn't necessary, it just makes you look, like, not only immoral, but foolish. And it really deepens the kind of gravity of the sin that was committed.

RASCOE: Part of what happened and what I did find fascinating about the book is, like, when you go into after apartheid is over, there was this kind of magical thinking on the behalf of, you know, even Black people in South Africa that once white minority rule is over, everything is going to be great and that Black South Africans would be able to get land. They would be farming. They would be able to enjoy the riches. And that is not what happened.

FAIRBANKS: I talk in the book to a government - a South African government official. And he said to me that when he and his colleagues and friends were fighting white minority rule, that they were looking at the white parts of the country as what would be coming to everyone.

RASCOE: Mmm hmm.

FAIRBANKS: And that on some level, they didn't really allow themselves to contemplate the fact that, in his words, it was going to be the whole country, meaning the parts that had never been given any resources, the parts that were extremely poor, the parts that had been deprived intentionally. They were getting the whole problem, in a sense, and not only the part that the white government had made really nice for white people. And, you know, he said it's a little embarrassing.

RASCOE: Once the racial segregation changed, that, the economic part of it, did not change.


RASCOE: You know, this book is "The Inheritors." Like, what do you think that, ultimately, South Africa has inherited when it comes to this issue of race? And what do you want the audience to take from that?

FAIRBANKS: The psychology of a segregationist system, and a kind of sense of a psychological chess game. One thing that I describe in the book is Malaika, who is incredibly accomplished. She's now studying geography, but she really wrestles in herself with whether to vote for Mandela's party, for the historic anti-apartheid party, the African National Congress. On the one hand, she's completely disappointed in them and disillusioned by the fact that they haven't really undone more than they have, and that some of them have stepped into, almost, the roles of the old white oppressors, it can seem at times.

And then the other part of her reacts to what can be a pretty vicious white South African criticism of them and wants to defend them and wants to support them because of that. And then she asks herself, well, why am I still sculpting my political opinions based on what white people think? So it's a - kind of a hall of mirrors that you end up going down.

RASCOE: Eve Fairbanks, author of "The Inheritors," thank you so much for joining us.

FAIRBANKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.