On a scorching summer morning ten years ago, I attended a rally in a mining settlement north of Johannesburg headlined by Julius Malema, the pudgy, firebrand former leader of the African National Congress’s Youth League. At the time, Malema was engaged in a battle for control of the ANC with South African president Jacob Zuma, and his incendiary rhetoric—calling for the violent expropriation of white-owned farms, leading chants of “Kill the Boer,” the Afrikaans word for farmer—was at odds with Zuma’s cautious, business-friendly style. That day, surrounded by bodyguards, Malema fired up the crowd in Zulu, the language of the country’s largest ethnic group, and worshipful spectators mobbed him after he left the stage. A day later he was expelled from the ANC for his defiance of Zuma, and many analysts and journalists assured me that his political career was finished.
In fact, it was Zuma whose career ended in disgrace—he left office in 2018 and was sent to prison in July 2021 for defying a court order to answer multiple charges of fraud and corruption—while Malema has had a remarkable ascent. In 2013 the ANC castoff founded the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), now South Africa’s third-largest party and a threat on the ANC’s left flank. Malema has made the redistribution of white-owned land the central tenet of his party’s platform and urged South Africans to emulate the violent confiscations carried out two decades ago in neighboring Zimbabwe by loyalists to Robert Mugabe. “The land issue has been with us too long,” Malema declared in 2014, calling on his supporters to “be part of the occupation of land everywhere…in South Africa.”
The inequality of landownership remains one of the thorniest legacies of South Africa’s apartheid system. The Natives Land Act of 1913 set aside about 10 percent of the country as Black “reserves” and prohibited Blacks from leasing or purchasing any land outside those often barren territories. A quarter-century after Black-majority rule began, according to a 2019 report in Harper’s, whites are 8 percent of South Africa’s population of 56 million but own 72 percent of privately held farmland. Blacks, who make up 81 percent of the population, own 4 percent. In much of rural South Africa, the Black population remains trapped in a near-feudal system, relegated to shacks with limited access to electricity and running water, and working for a pittance on the estates of white commercial farmers. Under pressure from the EFF, President Cyril Ramaphosa pledged in January 2022 to redistribute land without compensation, although such measures are given no chance of passage because of resistance from opposition parties in Parliament. “Without the land,” the EFF’s deputy head, Floyd Shivambu, has said, “you won’t be able to economically empower the black majority.”
In postapartheid South Africa, the escalating rhetoric about forced land redistribution has helped feed a counternarrative in which the white minority are the victims. White activists, many of them from rural areas, have accused the ANC government of stoking resentments among its constituents and failing to protect white farmers from racially motivated attacks on their homesteads. In October 2020, after a young farmer, Brendin Horner, was found murdered and tied to a pole at his home in Free State province—a bastion of Afrikaner conservatives that was known during the apartheid era as the Orange Free State—250 fellow farmers gathered in front of the local courthouse in protest. (Two Black men were arrested for the killings; they were acquitted in November 2021.) Government officials deny that white farmers are being targeted and point out that in a country with one of the world’s highest overall murder rates, they make up only a tiny percentage of the victims. In 2019, for instance, of the 21,325 murders in South Africa, forty-nine were of white farmers. Nevertheless, the Horner killing fueled claims that rural landholders were becoming targets of a “white genocide.”
Those exaggerated allegations have found a receptive audience as far away as the United States, where right-wing television hosts, news editors, and politicians have used them to whip up white insecurities in the Black Lives Matter era. In 2017 Simon Roche, a leader of a Christian survivalist group called the Suidlanders (an Afrikaans word meaning Southlanders), toured the US and shared lies about mass killings of white farmers with the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. In May 2018 another Afrikaner white supremacist, Ernst Roets, appeared on Fox News as a guest of Tucker Carlson, who began the segment by claiming that white farmers were being “targeted in a wave of barbaric and horrifying murders.” Carlson continued making such claims, and in August 2018 President Donald Trump tweeted that he had asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers.” The tweet provoked an uproar in South Africa and a retort from Ramaphosa that Trump had been “misinformed.”
Racial tensions in rural South Africa form the background of Andrew Harding’s These Are Not Gentle People, a riveting and deeply disturbing account of the killings of two Black men by a posse of Afrikaner farmers in the Free State in 2016. A longtime Africa correspondent for the BBC and the author of The Mayor of Mogadishu (2016), about a Somali expatriate who returns home with the hope of healing his war-shattered country, Harding has years of experience reporting from broken societies plagued by poverty and injustice. In South Africa’s agricultural heartland, he encountered two worlds in combustible proximity: Parys, a prosperous white enclave of gabled homes and whitewashed churches, surrounded by farms owned by a tight-knit Afrikaner clan whose ties to the land went back generations; and Tumahole, the nearby Black township, separated from Parys by a desolate no-man’s-land. There, destitute residents survived by picking bottles out of a garbage dump on the edge of the settlement or working as house servants and field hands for the white oligarchs.
On the afternoon of January 6, 2016, two farmworkers allegedly assaulted and attempted to rob Loedie van der Westhuizen, the seventy-three-year-old patriarch of Parys’s wealthiest family, outside his farmhouse. After he pressed a panic button alerting a private security company that he was under attack, they fled into the bush. Within minutes, a crowd of other white farmers assembled and chased the men in cars and on foot, then captured and beat them severely. By the time police arrived at the scene, both workers had suffered severe injuries, including brain damage. They died soon afterward in the hospital, and a dozen of their assailants, mostly members of the Van der Westhuizen family, were charged with murder.
Harding heard about the case through local news reports and decided to drive down from his home in Johannesburg to investigate. He began attending the highly publicized trial and getting to know some of those involved on both sides of the racial divide. “I saw the way one brief moment of fury was now rippling through the whole town,” he writes, “destroying not just a few individuals and their families, but threatening a whole community’s fragile sense of harmony.”
Loedie van der Westhuizen, known as “Oom Loedie,” is tersely described by Harding as a “rough, stubborn man [who] lived alone and he liked it that way.” A taciturn widower hobbled by arthritis and a heart ailment, he “had two thousand head of cattle on his farm and, so the rumour went, a hundred million rand in the bank.” He and his relatives lived in Parys as comfortable overlords, beneficiaries of a system of privilege and entitlement that had been entrenched for nearly two centuries. Harding draws a clear-eyed portrait of this world:
The Van der Westhuizens were everywhere—Boeta, Vicky, Neils, Wicus, Wian, Oom Loedie, Klein Loedie, Hector, Jacob, Louie—a network of cousins and uncles and grandfathers who appeared to own almost every farm in the district and tended to act accordingly. Hector had no plans, no ambitions, beyond farming. Injuries permitting, he played scrumhalf for a local rugby team alongside Boeta van der Westhuizen, enjoyed a little golf, some hunting and clay pigeon shooting. He attended church in town every Sunday. Hector seemed to amble comfortably through life.
Not long before Harding arrived in Parys, an elderly white couple who owned a small “tuck-shop,” or grocery, for farmworkers near Hector’s property had been robbed and murdered, apparently by Black intruders. A policeman found seventy-six-year-old Ernst van Rooyen dead beside the counter with a stab wound to the heart. His seventy-four-year-old wife, Anna, “lay buried under the meat” in a freezer, Harding writes.
Someone had stabbed her half a dozen times, wrapped barbed-wire around her neck, and then poured soft drink over her, as she lay, still alive—as the autopsy would later reveal—in the bottom of the freezer.
The murders sent terror and suspicion rippling through the white community.
The assault that led to the murders of the two farmworkers is presented as a South African version of Rashomon: Oom Loedie claimed that two or three Black men, armed with a pistol, demanded 20,000 rand from his safe and clubbed him on the head with the gun when he tried to shut himself inside the house. The lower halves of their faces had been covered with handkerchiefs, he said, and their “eyes seemed full of hate.” But Harding tracked down the girlfriend of one of the dead men, Samuel Tjixa, and got a more nuanced account of what had happened, beginning with a story of abuse, threats, and withholding of pay by Oom Loedie’s menacing son, Boeta. Desperate for money and emboldened by alcohol, Samuel and his friend Simon Jubeba had decided to visit Boeta’s wealthy father to demand the salary that they claimed was owed to them. “They would go and confront them in the daytime—not like robbers” is how she described it.
As Harding tells it, the story of what happened next is less a whodunit than a who-didn’t-do-it. Almost every adult male Van der Westhuizen joined in the pursuit, and there was little effort made in the aftermath to cover up their participation; indeed, some family members proudly admitted their guilt. “We killed two kaffirs last night,” one boasted to a shop owner the next morning. But as they began to perceive personal danger, the family closed ranks. One ringleader was Loedie van der Westhuizen, grandson of Oom Loedie and son of Boeta, “scrumhalf-small, with a jumpy swagger, a mop of blond hair, his father’s long nose, and (having dropped out of school) no plans beyond working on the family’s beef and maize farm,” Harding writes. Another was his cousin Muller, who had “short curly hair, a round, doughy face, and the confident air of a prefect.” They aligned their stories and destroyed everything incriminating, rationalizing their actions as necessary because of the unfair political circumstances:
And that was it. They’d cleaned their mobile phones. They’d burned the evidence. They would stick together. And it wasn’t because they were trying to fool the police or get away with murder. It was just to protect themselves from a rotten system that was trying—was always trying—to scapegoat the white farmers.
In the era of white-minority rule, it is doubtful that these men would ever have faced trial. But Harding delineates with a keenly observant eye the changes that have crept into this onetime bastion of white dominance since the ANC came to power. Red beret–wearing members of the EFF, “indignant, ambitious, unemployed and desperate for a slice of the pie,” held a vigil in the home of Simon Jujeba to express solidarity with the victim’s family and gain political points in the Black community. The local branch of the ANC was even more assertive, buying groceries for Ruth Qokotha, Samuel Tjixa’s mother; paying for his funeral; and closely monitoring the trial. The ruling party’s approach was nothing if not heavy-handed: the magistrate, Leshni Pillay, a woman of Indian origin originally from Durban, bent over backward to show impartiality and refused the prosecutor’s demand to deny bail to several of the alleged killers. Provincial ANC and Youth League officials subjected her to a campaign of abuse. Then they utilized the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, an elite police unit known as the Hawks, to entrap her into making compromising remarks about the case, and she was forced to recuse herself.
Yet Harding also finds that the dynamics of rural South Africa haven’t changed much at all. Suspicion and hatred run high on both sides. He introduces Fanie Oosthuizen, a white farm supervisor who was instrumental in the killings and who was certain that every Black regarded whites as the enemy. “Fanie had seen that devil plenty of times,” Harding writes.
The anger, the hostility that could flare up without warning, especially in the township. Even from kids—tiny kids—who would throw stones at the pickup, trying to puncture the tyres, when he went to pick up the workers. You could feel the hatred coming off them like a flame.
And the killings played out like something from the darkest days of apartheid: several members of the Van der Westhuizen clan revealed to their lawyers and on the witness stand how the mob had chased the terrified victims through the bush, captured them, then mercilessly kicked, stomped, and beaten them into unconsciousness:
Muller and Wian arrived. All within seconds. It was as if they were trying to outdo each other. Wian—small, wispy bearded Wian—had a knife on his belt, a Leatherman, and he started throwing it hard at Simon’s face. Then Loedie rushed back to his car and returned with a long monkey-wrench.
What were you doing at the old man’s house?
Muller would recall that he told Loedie to be careful—that he could kill him with a wrench that big. Then Loedie stood up and swung the wrench straight into the side of Simon’s head. Wicus saw him do it several times. Almost like a golf swing.
What appeared to be an open-and-shut case dragged on for four years. The testimony of the state’s witnesses left no doubt about the defendants’ culpability in the murders. They had watched one another take turns assaulting the two men, egged one another on, and made no attempt to stop the violence. Yet the sheer number of assailants made it difficult to pin the murder on any individual. The defendants engaged in a game of legal musical chairs, hiring and firing lawyers, at one point bringing on Barry Roux, South Africa’s most famous criminal attorney, who had defended the Paralympic sprinting champion Oscar Pistorius in his murder trial. Each change resulted in a long adjournment that broke the prosecutors’ momentum.
The forensic pathologist fell apart on the witness stand, unable to connect the men’s traumatic head and body injuries directly to the beatings or even to tell them apart. Physicians revealed that they had misdiagnosed injuries and couldn’t rule out the possibility that the victims had died from being transported to the hospital, unsecured in a van, over rural back roads. The confusion, amateurism, and incompetence severely weakened the prosecution’s case. “I saw how the two dead men and their families were unapologetically discounted,” Harding writes, “too poor to matter, except in terms of some short-lived political capital.” By the time the verdict was read in 2021, most of the drama had been leached away, and few in Parys were surprised by the outcome: five of the farmers were found guilty of assault and assault to cause grievous bodily harm. Three were given suspended three-year jail sentences, the others fifteen-month jail sentences and 160 hours of community service. One is left with the depressing sense that many of South Africa’s old rules still apply, and that, at least in rural backwaters such as Parys, the gulf between Black and white remains as wide as ever.
That lack of change is the concern of Prisoners of the Past by Steven Friedman. A political scientist at the University of Johannesburg, Friedman has written a sobering analysis of the failure to shake up the country’s power structures and improve conditions for its impoverished majority. Friedman begins by pointing out how much has, in fact, gotten better since the end of apartheid, including the emergence of a Black professional and business class and the delivery of basic services to the townships: 83 percent of households had access to basic sanitation in 2014, compared with 50 percent in 1994; 86 percent had electricity, compared with 50 percent twenty years earlier. The ANC has given out 17.7 million social grants and, after a scandalous period of neglect and denial during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, distributed antiretroviral treatment to four million people with HIV or full-blown AIDS.
But the unemployment rate remains stuck at between 20 and 35 percent, about where it was in 1994. According to a recent World Bank study, 55 percent of South Africans—30.3 million people—live below the national poverty line. The 1993 negotiations between the ruling Nationalist Party of F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela’s ANC, Friedman writes, “settled only one question—the denial of citizenship and rights to the vast majority.”
Why has there been so little progress? Friedman cites, among a long list of academics, the economist Douglass North, who used the term “path dependence” to try to explain why some societies undergo immense political change yet remain stuck on the same dismal economic track. The new South Africa, Friedman argues, simply exchanged one set of economically privileged “insiders” for another—a Black business and political elite that benefited from inside deals while ignoring the demands of the impoverished “outsiders.”
The presidency of Jacob Zuma is regarded as a period of epic corruption. During his nine years in power, from 2009 to 2018, he permitted the businessman brothers Ajay, Atul, and Rajesh Gupta to plunder state resources and influence policy, in what is referred to in South Africa as “state capture.” Yet Zuma was hardly an anomaly: white-minority regimes enriched themselves at the expense of the Black majority for decades, particularly as businesses and the government conspired to elude economic sanctions imposed by Europe and the US in the 1980s. Ramaphosa succeeded Zuma as president in 2018; the billionaire businessman promised to clean up corruption and redistribute resources, but he’s made little progress on either.
As Friedman points out, 80 percent of assets listed on the South African stock exchange are controlled by twenty companies, most of them white-owned. In 2017, only 3 percent of shares on the stock exchange were Black-owned, and Blacks occupied 14 percent of senior management positions. The barriers to ownership and corporate advancement remain high. One recent study found that middle-class Black people “are angry at their exclusion from mainstream economic activity, where ‘boardroom racism’ and a racial ceiling are clearly at work.” Friedman notes, “The core promise of a market economy—that people who display initiative and ability will be included and rewarded—fails to describe South African realities.” For the Black underclass, mobility is close to nonexistent. Land reform has stalled, partly because of justifiable fears that forced expropriations could undermine investment and destroy agricultural production. Trapped in townships where the only political option is the ANC, many Blacks find themselves in the hands of a distrusted institution whose driving principles, according to one internal ANC critique, are “careerism, corruption and opportunism.”
Friedman’s book can be stultifyingly dry and stuffed with jargon: I lost track of the number of times he fell back on the term “path dependence” while discussing the lack of progress. He’s also better at analyzing why the elites have stuck to the status quo than at coming up with prescriptions for changing it. He offers vague proposals for “negotiations” between the public and private sectors and calls on the government to take the lead. In the end he concedes that what may be required is a return to the crisis atmosphere of late 1980s and early 1990s—a time of sanctions, protests, political assassinations, and the threat of societal collapse when “all the key interests recognized that change was necessary.” There’s no sign that South Africa is near that point, but the 2019 general election, in which the ANC received only 57.5 percent of the vote—its worst showing since the end of apartheid—suggests that discontent is growing to levels that threaten the party’s hold on power.
Eve Fairbanks’s The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning offers a multigenerational and highly personal account of how the shift in political power—if not economic power—has affected ordinary people in the postapartheid era. What does it mean when an oppressed Black majority suddenly receives the keys to the kingdom? Or as Fairbanks, an American contributor to The New Republic and The Guardian who has lived in South Africa for thirteen years, puts it:
In one election, a state fastidiously divided into racial castes—where white people made the laws, wrote the news at the top papers, and taught the history at the tony universities—became the first modern nation wherein long-disenfranchised people of color would make the laws, run the economy, write the news, decide what history to teach, and wield political dominance over a substantial white minority.
Fairbanks tells this story mainly through two characters whom she came to know well during her lengthy sojourn in South Africa. Dipuo, a child during the 1976 uprising in Soweto, the sprawling Black township outside Johannesburg, became a member of a “People’s Committee,” a radical youth organization that carried out vigilante justice against suspected collaborators with the white-minority regime. Adopting the nom de guerre Stalin, she helped burn down a local shop and once stood by while comrades executed a woman with a “necklace,” a gasoline-soaked tire forced around the victim’s chest and arms and set alight. Christo, an Afrikaner, grew up on a farm near the border with Botswana, “a quilt of yellow corn and green alfalfa hemmed in with twinkling metal windmills and tall cypress trees,” where the rigid racial hierarchy was treated as an immutable fact. He, too, was a participant in violence. Sent as a teenage draftee to fight alongside anti-Communist guerrillas in a long-running civil war in Angola, he later became an officer in the South African army’s 32 Battalion, leading missions against ANC “terrorists” at home.
The two never crossed paths, but a common landmark shaped their lives during the final days of apartheid. On a nighttime reconnaissance mission in 1991 at the Rand Mine, a slag heap outside Johannesburg, Christo mistook a homeless man for an ANC guerrilla and shot him dead; he was put on trial for murder. That same year, Dipuo had a series of sexual encounters with a People’s Committee comrade at the Rand Mine and, at the age of twenty, gave birth to a daughter, Malaika, whom she raised as a single mother.
Fairbanks caught up with all three of them a few years ago and pieced together the ways they navigated, with varying degrees of success, the disorienting landscape of postapartheid South Africa. Acquitted of the murder charge but forced to leave the army, Christo enrolled in and then got a job managing a dormitory at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, a notoriously racist institution in the throes of transformation. “Mandela—the man who topped the ‘KNOW YOUR ENEMY’ chart Christo’s commanders gave him just two years earlier—was invited to campus with fanfare,” Fairbanks writes, “as if only his visit, now, would make the hundred-year-old university worthy.” But rather than change along with the university, Christo remained locked in the past, picking fights with Black students and falling in with a group of white supremacists rebelling—as if in a South African version of Ole Miss—against campus integration.
Dipuo abandoned her radicalism and took advantage of the new opportunities offered to the once-disenfranchised by the ANC: she got a job with an NGO in Soweto, and the steady paycheck allowed her to move toward the middle class and to exchange her squatter shack for a four-room brick house. But she was laid off and forced to return, embittered, to the shantytown that she thought she’d left for good, and to line up each morning for free milk and bread distributed by an ANC food program. Malaika secured a place at a formerly whites-only school in an affluent Johannesburg suburb, attended university, aspired to a writing career, and escaped Soweto—though the bigotry she encountered served as a constant reminder that racial equality remains a distant dream.
The Inheritors sometimes reads like a history lesson, with too many dutiful recountings of important events from South Africa’s past. Fairbanks frequently meanders away from her main story line, with lengthy reminiscences from her childhood in Baltimore, and the sprawling narrative and run-on quotes could have used a good trim here and there.
But her main characters are richly drawn, and the book abounds with incisive observations about the shifting social order. An ANC official named Michael Buys picks up the land-reform portfolio in a northern province, only to discover that many recipients of formerly white-owned properties are utterly unqualified to run high-tech commercial farms. The corporate-friendly administration of Thabo Mbeki commits to uplifting the poor but mostly ends up empowering entrepreneurs known as “black diamonds,” Black businessmen “who drove Audis or wore TAG Heuer watches [and] made their money off shady arrangements with the government.” Liberal whites find themselves tested by an epidemic of home invasions as rigidly enforced physical boundaries between suburb and township dissolve. “The journalist Mark Gevisser has called this ‘Mau Mau anxiety,’ after the violent rebellion that helped drive white colonials out of Kenya in the 1950s,” Fairbanks observes. “It lurks even ‘in a bleeding-heart liberal like myself,’ he wrote.”
Fairbanks is too insightful a reporter to come to firm conclusions about where her adopted society is heading. She ends the book on a nuanced note, acknowledging that postapartheid South Africa is a work in progress, a messy mix of promise and disillusionment. “People always asked me…Does the South African story have a good or bad ending? Is the moral of the story happy or sad?” she writes. “Tourists asked where they could go to see ‘the truth’ of the country’s post-apartheid experiment. It seemed frustratingly difficult to locate.” One place she finds it is the suburbs of Johannesburg, where she catches up with Maliaka during a moment of clarity:
Driving through a formerly white neighborhood with me at dusk, Malaika lashed out at the drip-drip quality of white people’s concessions. Everything still felt like a pitched battle, an exhausting one. Every curriculum change was a fight, every move to make a black person the head of a leading bank or university. “They”—white people—“did help bring me here,” Malaika said, gesturing at the pretty houses we were passing. “But it’s not enough.”…
It was poignant to me that, while barely older than a child, Malaika already had to imagine having a child of her own in order to imagine a South Africa proceeding reliably toward justice. Twenty-five years living in the real South Africa suggested there was no clear road there for her.