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With friends like these:

The politics of friendship in post-apartheid South Africa


by Sisonke Msimang

Tonight I present to you, my research. It took the form of many late


nights grappling with texts everything from social network theory to
studies on urban space and planning to philosophy. What it produced is
fairly unique, part of a growing genre known as documentary theatre. I
have taken - verbatim the words of people like Sindiwe Magona,
Njabulo Ndebele, Dennis Brutus, Zama Ndlovu, Sekoatlane Phamodi and
many others, and asked Lebo to perform them, to make them visual.
I chose this methodology because I wanted us to remember that we
have already written many, many important things about race and
justice and humanity in this country. I also chose the documentary
theatre genre because here in South Africa fact is often stranger and
more poignant that fiction. In this context, performing real words on a
stage forces us to confront their importance and it moves us beyond
business as usual.
Lastly, I chose this genre because I wanted to signal that there is a new
generation of contemporary thinkers

- people like Milisuthando

Bongela, Danielle Bowler, TO Molefe, and others who are cited in this
work, whose words are as much a window into this countrys collective
soul as those of Gordimer or Coetzee or Paton.

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 we must be more concerned with matters of politics and economics
than of emotion and that we dont need to be friends; we simply need
not interfere with one anothers destinies. Others will insist that we
must indeed 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 counter-intuitively we must hold onto both instincts. On
the one hand, our progress in improving the conditions of black people
must be central and must be 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 to be unconcerned if they leave and seek their fortunes
elsewhere.
On the other hand, we must accept that 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 build a genuine and robust culture of respect in
contemporary South Africa.

This is difficult because so much

unintentional damage was done by our countrys first iteration of


reconciliation what I refer to as Reconciliation 1.0. There were many
flaws in that first version, but in light of palpable anger and discord on
race in recent years, we have a new opportunity to develop a new more
honest code call it the open source version. For all you activists here,
who insist on speaking out and not making it easy: you are indeed at the
forefront of designing the upgrade and I salute you.
Perhaps though in thinking about that code we must stretch our minds
back to ancient times, to the Greeks, to Aristotle in particular. For
Aristotle, philia was the most perfect form of friendship. The great
philosopher suggested that there are three kinds of friendship:
friendships of convenience where the parties interact for example in
order to do business or BEE deals; friendships of pleasure, where if the
pleasurable thing say drinking or smoking crack disappeared then
the friendship would too; and friendships of character, in which one
spends a great deal of time with the other person, participating in joint
activities and engaging in mutually beneficial behavior.
In his view, 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 Aristotle argued that between real friends, there is
seldom need for the interventions of outsiders justice is made possible
by the nature and depth of the relationship. In short, where there is
trust, there is no need for strongly enforced rules. By extension then,
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 Aristotles 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 of great ethical
and philosophical concern for whites. White people in this country
should worry and be pained by this matter although blacks need not be
for obvious reasons of demography and history.
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 they 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
their tears whenever the subject of race comes up.

One of the tenets of the rainbow era was that those of us who extended
our hands across the racial divides were thwarting racism. If the racist
hates it when children play together, then surely those of us who
encourage our children to interact are not racist.
Unfortunately it is not so simple. Friendships involving people who are
more powerful than us have seldom served black people well. The
power imbalances are too great, the possibilities for manipulation and
domination even by those with good intentions are simply too high
to assume that light friendship is the answer.
Today, a generation into democracy, young black people raised to
believe that friendship across the races is an indicator of progress are
questioning this. They are asserting that friendship - if you want it - is
not free of responsibility. Some of them are going further so say that
friendship is simply not on the cards for them.
In a South Africa trying desperately to figure out a way forward these
assertions are not easy to speak aloud.

Yet they represent a

recalibration of our aspirations. Some people are worried by this: They


are scared of what they call separatism.
I am not, mainly because this sort of robust honesty does not mean that
we have abandoned the idea that race is empty -- a construct that
should neither bind nor divide anyone.

We can both believe in the

need for a just world in which race is meaningless, and accept that in
this time and place, race is a term that is bursting with meaning.
Can we be friends across these racial boundaries? Yes we can. And no
we cannot. Its that simple and that complex.
I am so grateful to Ruth First whose life and death speak to us across the
ages. And I am thankful to the committee for keeping her memory alive.
In particular I want to thank Indra De Lanerolle & Eusebius McKaiser
for pushing me to be more rigorous.
Lastly, thank you to the talented Lebo Mashile, who took a leap of faith
and is here to perform these words.