When Racial Progress Comes for White Liberals

Many Afrikaners welcomed the end of apartheid, but 30 years on, they’ve found Black-majority rule in South Africa hard to live with.

A close-up of a white apartheid leader's face on which scenes of apartheid-era violence are projected
Bettmann / Getty; Hulton Archive / Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Eve Fairbanks is a writer based in Virginia. Her first book is The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa's Racial Reckoning, from which this essay was adapted.

When I first arrived in South Africa, in 2009, it still felt as if a storm had just swept through. For most of the 20th century, the country was the world’s most fastidiously organized white-supremacist state. And then, in one election, in 1994, it became the first modern nation where people of color who’d been dispossessed for centuries would make the laws, run the economy, write the news, decide what history to teach—and wield political dominance over a substantial white minority. Unlike in other postcolonial African countries, white South Africans—about 15 percent of the population—were suddenly governed by the people whom they and their forebears had oppressed.

Over the decade I lived in South Africa, I became fascinated by this white minority, particularly its members who considered themselves progressive. They reminded me of my liberal peers in America, who had an apparently self-assured enthusiasm about the coming of a so-called majority-minority nation. As with white South Africans who had celebrated the end of apartheid, their enthusiasm often belied, just beneath the surface, a striking degree of fear, bewilderment, disillusionment, and dread.

The story of white settlement in South Africa has uncanny parallels with U.S. history. In the late 1600s, a group of predominantly Dutch-descended settlers started arriving by boat from Europe. After a century and a half working on semifeudal wine estates under the command of the Dutch and then the British, a band of them, now known as Afrikaners, decided to assert a new pioneer identity. Thousands set out for the interior in ox wagons. Their guiding dream, they declared in a newspaper-printed manifesto, was to uphold “the just principles of liberty.” On the frontier, they set up a host of small, independent republics with constitutions modeled on America’s. Many believed that they had been sent by God to tame a new world—Africa’s own version of Manifest Destiny.

After taking the reins of the government of South Africa—which amalgamated the Afrikaner republics and several British colonies—in the mid-20th century, white leaders began to legalize segregation under the term apartheid. They sent emissaries to the U.S. to study the Jim Crow South, which they used as a model for their own regime. Hermann Giliomee, a historian of the Afrikaners, told me that when the South Africans saw Alabama’s segregated buses and colleges, “they thought to themselves, Eureka!

Apartheid completely partitioned South Africa by race and reserved the best jobs and land for white people. The system endured until the 1990s, when, thanks to a sustained effort by the African National Congress (ANC), it crumbled. Sometimes I like to tell people that South Africa, very loosely, collapses hundreds of years of American history—from the antebellum period, through the end of Jim Crow, and well into our future—into about 50. For being such a tragedy, apartheid seemed to have a miraculous conclusion—a rapid and peaceful end that spared even the defeated oppressors.

Unexpectedly, white people benefited materially from the end of apartheid. Thanks in part to the lifting of foreign sanctions, the average income of white households increased 15 percent during Nelson Mandela’s presidency, far more than Black incomes did. White businesspeople started to export wine and $10,000 ostrich-leather sofas to Europe, and white-run safari lodges welcomed a flood of new tourists.

White South Africans were rewarded in other ways, too. They no longer had to serve in a military that hunted Black-liberation groups. In the run-up to apartheid’s end, strict censorship laws were dropped, and they could finally listen to the likes of Bob Dylan on the radio. And for the many white progressives who had opposed apartheid, South African society moved far closer to their ideal of racial equality.

Yet these progressives’ response to the end of apartheid was ambivalent. Contemplating South Africa after apartheid, an Economist correspondent observed that “the lives of many whites exude sadness.” The phenomenon perplexed him. In so many ways, white life remained more or less untouched, or had even improved. Despite apartheid’s horrors—and the regime’s violence against those who worked to dismantle it—the ANC encouraged an attitude of forgiveness. It left statues of Afrikaner heroes standing and helped institute the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which granted amnesty to some perpetrators of apartheid-era political crimes.

But as time wore on, even wealthy white South Africans began to radiate a degree of fear and frustration that did not match any simple economic analysis of their situation. A startling number of formerly anti-apartheid white people began to voice bitter criticisms of post-apartheid society. An Afrikaner poet who did prison time under apartheid for aiding the Black-liberation cause wrote an essay denouncing the new Black-led country as “a sewer of betrayed expectations and thievery, fear and unbridled greed.”

What accounted for this disillusionment? Many white South Africans told me that Black forgiveness felt like a slap on the face. By not acting toward you as you acted toward us, we’re showing you up, white South Africans seemed to hear. You’ll owe us a debt of gratitude forever.

White people rarely articulated these feelings publicly. But in private, with friends and acquaintances, I encountered them over and over. One white friend and former anti-apartheid activist (who didn’t want to be identified in order to talk freely) told me that after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission publicized much of what Black South Africans had faced under apartheid, she felt humiliated to recall what she and her friends had once considered resistance: gestures like having a warm exchange with a Black maid or skipping class to join an anti-apartheid march.

She said that sense of embarrassment made her shy away from politics, as did the slow-dawning recognition that Black people—many of whom had worked in white people’s houses under apartheid—knew much more about the lives of white people than white people knew about Black lives. My friend had never even seen the inside of a Black person’s home.

Not infrequently, white South Africans who identified as progressive confessed to me that they wanted to withdraw from public life because they felt they couldn’t speak the truth about what they did see. Many felt that only Black people could point out certain realities—for example, that Black-majority rule hasn’t reduced economic inequality since apartheid or that half of Black people under 35 are unemployed. If a white person expressed too much pessimism, they could be considered demeaning. Too much optimism, and they could be accused of neglecting enduring racial inequalities. The window they had to exist in, intellectually, could appear so narrow as not to exist.

At a Johannesburg party I went to, two voluble white women who called themselves “socialists” started to debate with me about the U.S. As Africans, they wanted me to know that American greatness was a sham and American-style consumerism was a pox on Africa. The party’s lone Black guest—a young woman—crouched silently in front of the fireplace, pushing embers around with a poker.

Suddenly, she spoke. The two white women misunderstood America, she said, without rancor. She had gone to high school in California. And, yes, there was racism. But she found the country much less racist than South Africa, and exciting—a land of opportunity.

The party went silent. The white women’s lips were pressed into half-gracious, half-bitter twists. They had been shamed, and they wanted to argue. But their stated values—always to foreground historically marginalized voices—meant they had to take the Black guest’s word for it. Shortly afterward, they left.

A pair of German tourists once told me about stopping at a remote South African bed-and-breakfast and telling the owner they were going to take a walk. She informed them that it was too dangerous. Politely, the tourists said they had checked the crime stats ahead of their trip and felt it was safe. Outsiders can’t understand, the owner whispered back. She never walked anywhere, not even to her car, without a pair of metal knitting needles stuffed into her pocket in case she had to poke out an assailant’s eye. The Germans got the impression that she relished reporting this detail.

Concerns about crime dominated the news in the years following apartheid. But the rates of violent crime were only half as high by the end of the 1990s as they had been before apartheid ended. In 2016, Mark Shaw and Anine Kriegler, two leading South African criminologists, wondered, “How is it that [the] huge reduction in fatal violence over the last two decades isn’t something we rejoice over, talk about, or even seem aware of?” They noticed stark discrepancies between crime’s actual and perceived prevalence. For instance, when white South Africans answered a survey about the crimes they’d experienced, their responses contradicted what they’d reported to police stations. To the police, they reported carjackings at double the rate they reported home invasions. But they told the pollsters they’d experienced home invasions twice as often as they’d had their cars jacked.

Carjacking is an easier crime to fake for insurance fraud, and therefore might be overreported. But the disparity was so stark that it suggested another explanation: A number of white South Africans had a memory of someone breaking into their homes when it never happened.

The journalist Mark Gevisser has called this fear of home invasion by Black burglars “Mau Mau anxiety,” after the guerrilla movement that helped drive white colonists out of Kenya in the 1950s. He wrote that this fear lurks even “in a bleeding-heart liberal like myself.”

Giliomee, the historian, told me he thought that what dogged white progressives after apartheid ended was less a concern for physical safety than a feeling of irrelevance. Under apartheid, many of them felt they belonged to a vanguard. One of Giliomee’s friends, a liberal white politician, left a secret 1987 meeting about a transition to Black-majority rule believing that he and the prominent ANC leader Thabo Mbeki were “best friends.” He expected the aftermath of apartheid to be an exciting time, full of the same thrilling work he had done to help build a democratic, multiracial future for the country.

Once Black leaders secured political power, though, they didn’t have to rely as much on white allies. When Mbeki became Mandela’s deputy president, he wouldn’t return the white liberal’s calls. The politician sent policy proposals and got no reply. After apartheid, the friend “started drinking heavily,” Giliomee said. “He drank himself to death.”

This was an extreme case. But a wide range of white South Africans I met felt a sense of alienation after apartheid. On the radio, I often heard an Afrikaans pop song with the lyric “I’m in love with my country, but does my country still love me?” It expressed an anxiety I noticed frequently: Do we still belong here?

In 2006, a group of Afrikaners founded an NGO called AfriForum to respond to these insecurities. The NGO gives its members the subtle but pervasive sense that a white-friendly South African ministate already exists, in which its trendy headquarters—home to multiple radio broadcasts, a publishing house, and a private Afrikaans-language college—serves as the alt-capital. Dues-paying members get access to lawyers who pursue claims against a government program that increases Black ownership stakes in large corporations. They can submit complaints to a system of private prosecutors. For those anxious about home invasion, an app features a “panic button” that dispatches private ambulances.

When I visited AfriForum’s offices in 2016, I was met by Flip Buys, one of the NGO’s founders. In the early 1990s, he and his friends feared Black rule, he told me. Before Mandela’s election, he remembered thinking, “They [Black leaders] have made compromises in order to get power. But after they’ve consolidated power, they will use it to pursue their interests.”

But Buys also felt shamed because he was white. He and his college friends, who wanted to become academics, felt embarrassed to identify themselves as white South Africans when they attended international conferences. Europeans and Americans subtly kept their distance.

Buys found unexpected refuge in the ideas of the sociologist Manuel Castells, who argued that progressives had a duty of care for “Fourth World” groups that lack the protection of their own state. Castells used the term to refer to marginalized peoples such as the Australian Aborigines. “But what if Afrikaners are such a community?” Buys recalled thinking, in a moment of revelation. “I wanted to fight for Afrikaners, but I came to think of myself as a ‘liberal internationalist,’ not a white racist,” Buys told me. “I found such inspiration from the struggles of the Catalonians and the Basques. Even Tibet.”

One of his first projects after co-founding AfriForum was to send a mission to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights arguing that Afrikaners deserved protected status as an endangered ethnic minority. “As a discredited minority, I think we have to fight extra hard for our rights,” he said. “Some people think nothing ever changes, and that a group of people who once held power will always be empowered.” His idea found mass appeal. By 2016, nearly one-quarter of Afrikaners were paying AfriForum members.

On my tour of the organization’s headquarters, I met a young woman responsible for posting frightening security-camera videos of home invasions to social media. “I sought work with AfriForum because I consider myself a liberal and an environmentalist,” she told me cheerfully. She mentioned an AfriForum initiative to save threatened hippos. A Martin Luther King quote was printed on the office wall, and she pointed to it. “King also fought for a people without much political representation … That’s why I consider him one of my most important forebears and heroes.”

But she also said she hoped Afrikaners would seize back political administration from the Black-led government, because “everything is falling apart.” The Afrikaners, she said, were “naturally good” at management. “South Africa’s environment is very unique. God intended us to look after it.”

Buys told me that the Afrikaners “just want benign neglect” from Black people. Yet AfriForum is unable to resist provocations. The organization frequently sues the ANC government over such issues as white South Africans’ right to display the old apartheid-era flag.

I couldn’t tell if the AfriForum leaders believed their own messaging. Sometimes I felt as if I saw a wink forming in the skin around their eyes. They seemed to relish Black people’s bafflement and criticism. The more contempt the better: If the AfriForum’s provocations got its executives treated badly, they could claim equal status as victims.

This kind of goading could be cruel. “For those claiming [that the] legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative,” a top white South African politician tweeted a few years ago, “think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc. Would we have [any of that] without colonial influence?”

“You mean to say that, without white people, we would be nothing?” a Black commenter replied.

The politician would not stop. She doggedly pursued critics until a respondent lashed out, saying he didn’t want to kill white people just yet. Then the politician triumphantly declared that she’d been justified all along in thinking Black people someday intended to take revenge on her.

Nobody “likes to play the victim like white South Africans,” one of the young Black women I know best, the academic Malaika Mahlatsi, told me. She said she believed that “deep down, there is no way” that the vast majority of white people “don’t know what they did was savage. But for them to admit that is too heavy.”

Sometimes I wondered: Why was it so heavy? Why did admitting past sins seem to become harder even as they receded into history? The question began to feel urgent as I started to see a similar phenomenon back home in America.

In South Africa I often felt I was looking at America in a funhouse mirror, with certain emerging features magnified so I could see them more clearly. I saw how progressives could feel grief about being canceled, sneered at, or sidelined—just as their society comes to look more like what they had argued for.

I also saw historically dominant people—especially those who criticized their own authority—become fully aware of their dominance only as it started to ebb. Many white South Africans told me that during apartheid they’d sincerely believed that their country was, demographically speaking, majority white.

I saw how they might need to start telling themselves, and others, that people of color were letting the country down. This belief helped justify the panoply of privileges that many white people were unaware they even had under apartheid, when they had compared themselves to other white people instead of the Black majority whose experiences were partially hidden.

If white progressives recognized any good in post-apartheid South Africa, they would also have to acknowledge that they—who frequently live more comfortably than they could on the same salary anywhere else on Earth—were still making out like bandits. One white friend told me that he and his wife felt “deep down” that white people in South Africa had “got[ten] away with hundreds of years of injustice.”

Perhaps the strangest thing I saw was how deeply troubled white South Africans were by this feeling—that white people had never faced a full reckoning for apartheid. Apartheid-era white elites had justified white domination by saying that, without their rule, Black people would take revenge on them or ruin the country. When widespread revenge and ruin never came, many white people felt forced to fabricate it; otherwise, white dominance became all the more shameful—not only to apartheid’s proponents but even to anti-apartheid progressives, who had inevitably benefited from a regime that comprehensively promoted white interests.

The Afrikaner journalist Rian Malan, who opposed apartheid, has written that, by most measures, its aftermath went better than almost any white person could have imagined. But, as with most white progressives, his experience of post-1994 South Africa has been complicated.

A few years after the end of apartheid, he moved to an upscale Cape Town neighborhood. Most mornings, he drank macchiatos at an upscale seaside café—the kind of cosmopolitan place that, thanks to sanctions, had hardly existed under apartheid. “The sea is warm and the figs are ripe,” he wrote. He also described this existence as “unbearable.”

He just couldn’t forgive Black people for forgiving him. Paradoxically, being left undisturbed served as an ever-present reminder of his guilt, of how wrongly he had treated his maid and other Black people under apartheid. “The Bible was right about a thing or two,” he wrote. “It is infinitely worse to receive than to give, especially if … the gift is mercy.”


This article has been excerpted from Eve Fairbanks’s new book, The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning.