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Two new books take different roads to understand South Africa

South Africa’s government changed after 1994. So did the social order.

- August 25, 2022

What happens when you live past a miracle? South Africa, in its transition from apartheid to multiracial democracy and societal integration, defied international expectations. But as with most end-of-history narratives, history didn’t end in South Africa, or anywhere, in 1994. What happens post-apartheid?

South Africa, in the words of Eve Fairbanks’s newly published volume, “The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Awakening,” is fixed “both liv[ing] after history and … still drowning in it.” But according to Evan Lieberman, we can’t just hang our hats on the ambiguity of this situation. As he notes in his new book, “Until We Have Won Our Liberty: South Africa after Apartheid,” whether South Africa is deemed “a case of success or failure has enormous implications for how we think about the promise of democracy more generally.”

These authors examine the trajectory of democratic South Africa through different approaches. While Lieberman primarily looks at issues pertaining to institutional changes, Fairbanks examines the social and moral orders of apartheid and democracy. This conception of what the transition was — a change of government, or a change in the social order — frames each of their books.

South Africa has achieved considerable successes

Lieberman begins with South Africa’s 2019 election. Vignettes of different polling stations, reflecting different demographic and economic profiles in a single municipality, come together to illustrate that across many very important divides, South Africans participated in a free, fair, legitimate and competitive election.

This general tone — that things are good, actually — comes as a bit of a surprise for political-science-reading audiences. Neither academic political science nor political news coverage are accustomed to telling good news about South Africa. In this sense, Lieberman’s book is almost countercultural.

But the sources of Lieberman’s convictions are data-driven. He presents his readers with evidence — from the increasingly competitive nature of South African elections and the expansion of basic infrastructure like water and electricity to the majority of the population, to the expansion of human rights and recognition of all citizens — to support his conclusions.

Lieberman’s optimism isn’t naive. He acknowledges the persistence and intensification of inequality, as well as the barriers to accessing health care and education. He also acknowledges that South Africans increasingly report dissatisfaction with their government — and notes that support for democracy is on the decline because of these and other issues.

But instead of focusing on these very real problems in terms of democracy, he turns the question around: Would a non-democracy have done better, given the same challenges? Lieberman argues, convincingly, that the answer is no. Rather, “South Africa is just muddling along, but that in itself is pretty remarkable in the wake of the legacies it inherited.” Lieberman’s analysis evaluates South Africa as a country, not as a miracle. Rather than being the bearer of the promise of democracy, the world can evaluate South Africa, Lieberman says, on its record of government performance, which has much to laud. In turn, then, South Africa becomes a new kind of model for democratic success in an era of democratic backsliding.

The transition from apartheid changed more than politics

But what of the people who live and work and love there? Fairbanks’s “The Inheritors” tells a very different story of the transition away from apartheid: not as a change in government, but as a change of the moral world of South Africans. Following the lives of four individuals — an Afrikaner army veteran, a farmworker turned farmer, and a mother and daughter from an urban township — Fairbanks weaves a story of the inheritances of apartheid and the ways the 1994 transition was both a break from and a continuation of their lives.

In each story, there are disappointments, big and small, personal and public. Elliot, a former farmworker, gets a government grant to buy his own poultry farm at the time when the removal of global apartheid-era sanctions and economically protectionist policies put South African farmers into an internationally competitive market, and a jump in costs made midsize agroindustry vastly less profitable. Dipuo, a former anti-apartheid organizer, gets a job in a glittering office building. What she had thought she fought for became an experience of feeling disregarded and demeaned by her White colleagues.

All these stories illustrate the same tension: between what people expected of social and political integration, and what actually happened. In some cases, the gap was vast. The civil war that Christo, the army recruit, was told to expect never came. In other cases, it was personal. The newly integrated university that Malaika, a young woman from Soweto, attends leaves her alienated from her childhood friends.

South Africa’s transition, then, was an invitation to live in a new, integrated social order. But ordinary South Africans also carried with them the experiences of the past: the hatreds and fears intentionally stoked by the apartheid regime, the seeming moral clarity of the cause for which they fought and the violence that was hidden behind the “miracle.”

It is not that Fairbanks’s account of the New South Africa is pessimistic while Lieberman’s is optimistic. Rather, Fairbanks understands the transition away from apartheid as a continuation of, rather than merely a break from, the past. It’s messier, because people — their senses of self, of personal history and heredity, of right and wrong — are messy. And this is perhaps where the subtitles of each of these books can illuminate their difference. While Lieberman uses the subtitle “South Africa after Apartheid,” Fairbanks opts for “An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning.”

Ultimately, both books tell important stories about contemporary South Africa in its many contradictions. Rather than evaluating South Africa as a miracle, with the transition from apartheid as a period at the end of an era, these books let South Africa, and South Africans, continue to be, after and during their ongoing history.

Carolyn E. Holmes is an assistant professor of political science and public administration at Mississippi State University. She is the author of “The Black and White Rainbow: Reconciliation, Opposition, and Nation-Building in Democratic South Africa” (University of Michigan Press, 2020).