Book Review: “The Heirs” by Eve Fairbanks

Fairbanks’ empathetic, comprehensive reporting shines when it eschews tangents and tells it directly, offering a glimpse of how ordinary people build lives after political upheaval. Most compelling is the story of Dipuo, a single mother who loves Danielle Steel novels and politics, who craves love and works to uplift her people and community. Dipuo has seen the harshest realities of apartheid and the high points of the successful struggle for liberation. Modern Dipuo embraces so much of the suffering of post-apartheid South Africa: she gave her youth to struggle, yet she never gets the stable housing or job she fought for. Fired from a job at an NGO, she stands humiliated in a bread queue. When Dipuo is finally hired by a glamorous advertising agency, her white colleagues fire her: As a leader in the township, she is treated like a maid in the office. After a nervous breakdown, she decides to focus on healing her personal apartheid trauma by experimenting with spirituality and self-care.

Dipuo’s trauma isn’t just about being wronged. She is haunted by actions she took as an anti-apartheid activist – actions that seemed righteous at the time. Christ the Lawyer, is also torn by the past and unsettled by the present. Like many white South Africans the author meets, he seems amazed at the fact that Black South Africans have never taken revenge; In Fairbanks’ writing, whites like Christo justified their actions during apartheid by saying that blacks would violently destroy them if given the chance. But nothing of the sort happened. A famous African writer describes his luxurious life by the sea as “unbearable”. As Fairbanks writes, “He just couldn’t forgive the black people for forgiving him.”

Through Christo, Fairbanks examines the fears of white South Africans. Though we know Fairbanks’ sympathies, she offers Christo the full breadth of human experience, examining the political and personal context of growing up in a deeply racist society and his time as a drafted soldier. Both Christo and Dipuo, devoted to their opposing causes, missed many of the light-hearted joys of Youth. And when they get older, they mourn the loss of idealism, but from very different places: Dipuo in their hut and Christo in his law office.

Dipuo’s daughter Malaika still has a chance. As an outspoken intellectual, Malaika becomes known throughout the book. Foreign universities and development organizations invite her to speak at conferences (she saves her daily allowance to help Dipuo buy furniture). As she becomes more successful, she becomes estranged from the place where she grew up. In one scene, Malaika, who is attending university, visits a childhood friend in Soweto. In a soap opera playing in the background, a black lawyer argues that in order to make it in this world, one must abandon old traditions and stop dividing one’s wealth between one’s family. Malaika laughs contemptuously at such “white tendencies”, but her friend doesn’t understand what’s funny: the mother of a baby who lives in the township longs for the glittery world on television. But like so many young black South Africans, she will not have the opportunity to pursue it further. It’s easier to stick to your principles, Malaika notes, when you have options. She reflects on her burgeoning identity: even in a country shaped by apartheid, she can count herself lucky. Then what are their duties? What does she owe – and what does she owe?

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