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?

CityPress - - Voices - Sisonke Msi­mang voices@ city­press. co. za Do you have friends of dif­fer­ent races?

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

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