Eve Fairbanks’s study of South Africa, The Inheritors, opens with Malaika, an African girl who lives in Soweto, getting up before dawn for the two-hour bus ride to the formerly all-white school where her mother has enrolled her. Apartheid has been over for more than a decade by this point, but still the skyline shows a visible difference between black Soweto and white Johannesburg. In Malaika’s shack, the power doesn’t always work and the walls are corrugated iron. Looking out the window of the bus, she can see white neighborhoods running out to the horizon “until the lights got so dense and bright that they mimicked a sunrise.” That is the motif of Malaika’s life: the feeling that the perks of white society are close enough for her to see but still withheld from her.

When F.W. de Klerk handed power over to Nelson Mandela in 1994, everyone hoped South Africa would continue to function as smoothly as before, just with different people in charge, as if de Klerk had handed Mandela the keys to his car. Fairbanks uses the car metaphor to explain her theory for why things didn’t work out that way: “De Klerk managed to sell a used car on the verge of a breakdown to a family that only realized, when they got in to drive it, that it was a lemon.”

In fact, the car was not about to break down. South Africa was better situated than any other post-colonial

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