ONE of the ugliest racial incidents of 2016 occurred last month when two white Afrikaans farmers near Middelburg sadistically forced a young black man into a coffin, pushed the lid down and threatened him with setting the coffin alight, because he took a shortcut over their farm. They videoed their act and put it on YouTube, with the victim’s terrified cries clearly heard on the soundtrack.
Most South Africans were disgusted and wished the worst on the white men when they appeared in court. Indeed, the experience of most people in urban areas today – South Africa is a highly urbanised society – is the opposite: a remarkable degree of kindliness and warm-heartedness between blacks and whites.
Frans Cronje, CEO of the SA Institute of Race Relations says within most South Africans there exists a “vast well of common decency and mutual respect across the colour line”, despite the country’s brutal racial history and politicians attempting to turn people against each other. He quotes a 2016 poll asking people whether “the different races need each other for progress and there should be full opportunity for people of all races”. Nearly 84 per cent of people in mainly black urban areas said yes. In informal areas and shack settlements almost 90 per cent agreed. Among white people just over 80 per cent agreed.
But what about personal friendships between black and white? Last Monday marked three years since Nelson Mandela died, and anyone who witnessed the scores of black and white people hugging, crying and dancing together in the road outside his house in Houghton, Johannesburg that day would have thought he had made it possible for skin colour not to matter anymore. In the beautiful nation he envisaged, blacks and whites would not just tolerate each other, but become friends in the deeper sense.
Sadly, it has not happened on a mass scale, despite many people’s best intentions. The power relationship between blacks and whites is too skewed, not a good foundation for genuine friendship. In the main, whites are still too wealthy and powerful compared to their black compatriots.
How many people in the minority white communities – whether Greek, Jewish, Afrikaans, or others – have personal black friends? Not just colleagues at work, or familiar waiters in restaurants with whom they exchange greetings, but actual friends with whom they socialise, share intimacies and spend lots of time. Very few. Superficial, contrived friendships are not enough to show that racism has gone.
Indeed, those sorts of light friendships referred to above ring alarm-bells for Jews who have often heard Jew-haters loudly proclaiming how many Jews they know, as if this proves their non-racial credentials: “You can’t say I’m anti-Semitic, because some of my best friends are Jews!”
Sisonke Msimang, a Ruth First Fellow in Journalism at Wits University posed a tough question in the book Ties that Bind: Race and the Politics of Friendship in South Africa. She asked whether, as Mandela’s rainbow nation myth recedes, reconciliation in South Africa still requires interracial friendships as a barometer of the nation’s health. From a black perspective, she says, black dignity may be more important than having white friends.
“The power imbalances [between blacks and whites] are too great, the possibilities for manipulation and domination… are simply too high…” Many young black people today, she says, are saying that friendship with whites is not a goal for them – we must instead be guided by the need for black people to live dignified, equal lives commensurate with whites.
They are only half right. Friendship cannot wait for the politics and economics to sort itself out. It is as urgent as equality. The foul coffin farmers and their ilk mentioned above cannot be allowed to derail it.