By interviewing the people who were most affected when South Africa dismantled its white supremacist institutions, Fairbanks marries the overarching story the country's turbulent apartheid history with Black and white individuals' intimate experiences before and after 1994, when so much—and so little—changed ... As Fairbanks vividly demonstrates, South Africa's complicated past continues to define the lives of Black Africans, white Afrikaners and immigrants from formerly colonized African countries such as Mozambique and Angola. The Inheritors covers a lot of ground, capturing Black heroes like Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko, as well as castigated white politicians like Frederik Willem de Klerk. She also examines how the rest of the world has handled racism and colonialism before and after 1994, including Angola's own liberation in 1975 and the ongoing turmoil in 21st-century America. Glimmering throughout is the humanity she manages to find in all of it ... There are lessons here for readers the world over, especially as South Africa joins the global marketplace and as the U.S. continues to grapple with the human cost of racism. Fairbanks compels us to pay attention, learn and, above all, care.
As she reports, Fairbanks falls in love with South Africa in all its beauty and complexity. Her curiosity seems boundless — a boundlessness that, translated into writing, can at times be distracting. As Fairbanks follows her main characters, she gets swept up in the rich tapestry of the country and includes an abundance of personal memories, fables, speculation and musings. She seems to have spoken to or listened in on the conversations of nearly every one of the hundreds of people whose paths she crossed during the years she spent working on this book ... Fairbanks’s empathetic, comprehensive reporting shines when she dispenses with tangents and tells it straight, providing insight into how ordinary people build lives in the aftermath of political upheaval.
Fairbanks is too good a writer to resort to crude psychologizing, but she repeatedly suggests that there is a terrible price to pay for trying to ignore how people see their own situations; the undeniable material facts of everything that happens to them is often inseparable from an emotional reality ... In addition to being an elegant writer, Fairbanks is unfailingly empathetic; she draws out tangled emotions with such skill and sensitivity that I was mystified by a few awkward analogies ... More resonant are the echoes she finds in the current American situation, where multiple reckonings are happening at once, but in comparative slow-motion.