Do we still need to have genuine friendships between blacks and whites to gauge the health of the nation, or must where they can to build a new culture of respect in contemporary SA?
n a 1959 essay titled Where Do Whites Fit In? Nadine Gordimer argued: “If we’re going to fit in at all in the new Africa, it’s going to be sideways, where-we-can, wherever-they’ll-shift-up-for-us.”
Twenty years after the end of apartheid, there are real questions about whether Gordimer’s words were heeded by her white compatriots. Have whites learnt to fit in? Have they collectively been willing to find the gaps and squeeze in where there’s space, as one does in a crowded taxi? Have they, as Gordimer went on to discuss later in her life, truly accepted “black majority rule without wanting guarantees of group rights”, which, she was convinced, would “set them aside, set them apart, mark them out forever”?
The answer is not clear, largely because so much of our national debate about race and racism has been obscured by a national obsession with pandering to the feelings of whites.
Now that the season of realpolitik is upon us and the rainbow myth is receding, we must ask ourselves whether we still need a framework of reconciliation that presupposes friendship across the races as an important and useful barometer of the health of the nation.
Some will argue that the question of friendship is frivolous. They will say that we must be more concerned with matters of politics and economics than of emotion, and that we don’t need to be friends; we simply need not interfere with one another’s destinies.
Others will insist that we must be friends. They will wring their hands and argue that to abandon the very idea of friendship is to abandon an important national ideal and perhaps to abandon a peaceful future.
Perhaps – counterintuitively – we must hold on to both instincts. On the one hand, our progress in improving the conditions of black people must be central and guided not by a desire for blacks and whites to be friends, but by the need for black people to live dignified and equal lives that are commensurate with those of their white compatriots. In defence of this, we must be prepared to alienate whites – and, for that matter, blacks – who do not accept this as a fundamental reality, and be unconcerned if they leave and seek their fortunes elsewhere.
On the other hand, we must recognise that this subject cannot simply be boiled down to political and economic propositions. The guiding light of friendship is an important principle for building the peace between the races that remains elusive at a collective level. Although the notion of interracial friendship has sometimes threatened to overshadow the importance of black dignity, it is crucial that we keep its possibility alive, even as we tend to the more urgent matters of preserving and elevating the meaning of black personhood.
We must begin to concern ourselves with what it looks like to promote and build a new culture of respect in SMS us on 35697 using the keyword RACE and tell us what you think. Please include your name. SMSes cost R1.50 contemporary South Africa. This is difficult because so much unintentional damage was done by our country’s first iteration of reconciliation – what I refer to as Reconciliation 1.0.
There were many flaws in that first version, but in light of the palpable anger and discord regarding race in recent years, we have an opportunity to develop a new code.
There is a common belief – espoused during the rainbow era – that if the racist wants the “races” to live apart, those of us who extend our hands across the divide are thwarting the racist’s ambitions.
Unfortunately, it is not so simple. A genuine examination of friendship – of its social and political purposes, and of the role it can and should play in our national life – reveals that there are many interracial friendships in the South African landscape where the parties to a relationship are unequal.
In schools and workplaces across the country, many friendships are based on a black person’s capacity to tolerate casual racism.
Yet if we turn to Aristotle, who thought deeply about friendship as it related to politics, we begin to see that many relationships masquerading as friendship today are anything but that. He believed that “philia” was the most perfect form of friendship. It was based on mutuality and character, and could only be developed through the practice of participating in shared activities over time.
Most importantly, the great philosopher suggested, “between friends there is no need for justice, but people who are just still need the quality of friendship; and indeed friendliness is considered to be justice in the fullest sense”.
In other words, between real friends, there is seldom a need for the interventions of outsiders, with justice made possible by the nature and depth of the relationship.
But those who consider themselves to be good and moral cannot be truly good or moral if they do not have the friends to prove it.
For the white South African, who is surrounded by millions of black potential “friends”, the implied question in Aristotle’s framing of the relationship between friendship and justice is: “Are you just?”
Because of our history, this moral and practical question is especially directed at white people. Friendship should and must be a great ethical and philosophical concern for whites. White people in this country should worry and be pained by this matter. Black people, on the other hand, bear no commensurate historical or social responsibility to be vexed.
If we are to replace the distorted idea of the rainbow with a more honest, but no less aspirational vision of dignity and respect, whites will need to give up their ideological and practical specialness and will also have to reject the increasingly irrelevant, weepy and unhelpful mythology of rainbowism.
Those who are truly invested in the future of this country will also have to stop hiding behind their emotions and tears whenever the subject of race comes up.
Defensiveness may be a default in the current version of reconciliation, but it does not have to be the only setting on which South African whites are capable of operating. White people do not have to be myopic on these matters. Once they learn – as Gordimer argued – to fit in wherever there is a bit of space, then the friendship so many of them seek will become a genuine possibility. Msimang is a writer and activist who works
on race, gender, democracy and politics