White-boy Chris, coloured-dude Adam: their pub-toilet episode is a parable about post-apartheid male bonding. As the lads get acquainted outside the office, they violate Verwoerdian ideas of racial purity – and liberal ones about polite colour-blindness.
Original publication: Cosmo Man, 1999.
Drunkenness seldom gets good publicity or official encouragement, and one rarely wins favour from recruitment executives by boasting that one’s best quality is a penchant for alcoholic self-destruction. Unofficially, though, it’s a different story. Everyone knows that male friendships usually sail on tides of alcohol, just as everyone knows that a fondness for intoxication spans across most of South African society.
So perhaps the day is near when drink will be enshrined as a ‘relationship tool’ furthering national reconciliation. As much as the pleasures and problems of social integration are confronted at a national level, the same dynamics are played out in one-on-one encounters between friends socialising across former racial divides. After office hours, differently-hued buddies meet over rainbow cocktails to toast – and deride – the rainbow nation.
After-hours’ drinks loosen pent-up resentments and induce a sense of camaraderie, but often they mark the limit to which inter-racial office-mates let their friendships develop. As Salie B*, a corporate project-coordinator, observes, today’s generation of young, post-apartheid professionals find themselves ‘in strange times’ – youthful enough to thrive on social change, old enough to have been shaped by the suspicious attitudes and ‘separate development’ policies of apartheid.
Like many of this generation, Salie marvels at the racial mixing he sees among school children. They’re the wave of the future and he regrets missing the boat. ‘The country’s got an unlimited time to resolve its problems; your own time is short. My parents were evicted from their homes, but I’m not selling them out by having white friends. The older folks in the community were one’s who were really hurt by apartheid. They’ll see your white friends and think, “Now you want to be buddy-buddy with us; yesterday you put us out of our homes.” It’s worse moving from a coloured to a white community. They’ll think, “There goes the neighbourhood” and see you as a gatkruiper [arse-creeper]. I myself can’t live in the past, because one day I’ll be 80 and saying, “But I wanted to venture into other cultures – in my own country!”’
One’s earliest friendships start at school, and when one’s formative years have been spent in racially-separated communities, future friendships tend to stick inside these boundaries. ‘You’ll steer clear of other communities,’ Salie believes, ‘unless economic reasons force you to start mixing with them.’
For the guys of Salie’s generation, inter-racial friendships are most likely to form in the equal-opportunities workplace. Even then, simply being office-mates is a poor substitute for real intimacy. Friendship involves the freedom to say whatever the hell you please without fear of judgment, but in the office one must censor the cheerful, balls-talking lunacy that is the hallmark of serious friendship. If one doesn’t do this, one might come across as a 90s Man – an 1890s Man. Salie agonises about following politically-correct protocols to the letter. Like others, he must uphold a dominant illusion that new-age offices are non-racial space capsules floating above a country where racial politics are strong themes in private discussions.
Salie wants to speak openly about such matters with his white colleagues, but he says, ‘I keep thinking, “God, can I say that?” Outside the work-environment you’re with people you’ve grown up with and you can joke freely about things on your heart and mind.’
Ebrahim*, a travel consultant, illustrates the point: ‘After-hours I’ll greet this white buddy of mine with swear words, but if I say, “Yo, nigga!” in the office, other white people might think, “Because of affirmative action this guy thinks he can speak to whites any way he wants.” You have to contain and control yourself.’
‘I’ve got excellent white pals,’ Salie adds, ‘but they’re work friends. If we go for drinks, it’s still an extension of the work-environment. It doesn’t extend as far as visiting homes and becoming part of one another’s lives – and I think one wants to go that way. But it’s one thing breaking barriers; if no one on the other side wants those walls broken, you’ll stay a wannabe.’
Adam*, university lecturer, agrees that intoxication in bars goes only so far in facilitating inter-racial friendships. ‘The people I’ve had those bonding-sessions with don’t remember me,’ he says. Besides, he’s a Muslim and doesn’t drink, preferring to ‘get drunk vicariously’ from his inebriated company – company which invariably includes white boy Chris R.*, with whom his professional and social life has intermingled since student days. ‘I remember the first braai I attended at Adam’s house – there was no booze!’ says Chris, lurching from his chair in exasperation. ‘I chomped a thousand samoosas instead of a thousand beers. Social samoosing, I called it.’
Not only have their lives intermixed. So have their bloodlines, at least in fantasy. They once described themselves as twin brothers spawned from genetic waste-material from Verwoerdian biology experiments. The fantasy almost took physical form during a night out when they both contemplated a different kind of melting-pot at the end of the rainbow: a public latrine. ‘We were in the mens-room and the urinals were fully booked,’ says Chris, ‘so like the white boy too drunk to care, I said let’s urinate in the same can – and Adam couldn’t do it.’
‘The guy was pissing buckets!’ Adam protests. ‘I was like, ‘This isn’t working. Maybe you better leave.’ And Chris was assuming it was a racial, not a personal thing.’ Ever the self-examining academic, Adam reconsiders. ‘Then again, maybe it is. You don’t see that kinda behaviour “where I come from”. Or maybe,’ he adds, dead-pan, ‘I was dwarfed by its size. What they say about white homies isn’t necessarily true.’
Chris and Adam’s toilet-bowl episode – and the candid way they tell it – is a parable about inter-racial male bonding. As members (so to speak) of segregated communities move beyond work-environments into once-private spaces and mix it up in hybrid intimacy, they violate not only Verwoerdian ideas about racial purity but liberal ones stressing polite colour-blindness. Up close, hidden dimensions of oneself and the other person spill into view in the melting-pot.
Adam explains: ‘You only realise people’s agendas when you do real things together. We throw funny remarks at each other, but it’s a case of being honest about our assumptions about one another’s backgrounds. That’s what makes a friendship.’ Quick with their ironic, racially-inflected penis-jokes, Adam and Chris believe that ‘colour-blindness’ amounts to a denial in which people imagine they’re too ethno-bongo to have been unconsciously programmed by apartheid.
Colour-blindness is a principle advising people to look beyond racial differences to a common humanity: friends are friends, it says, irrespective of race, so what’s the big deal? Critics maintain that in practice many white South Africans are prepared to be colour-blind provided their racially-different counterparts sacrifice their own cultural norms and fit in with those of ‘white’ society. Critics also argue that ‘colour-blindness’ lets guilt-stricken whites off the hook because they believe everyone’s equal; but in fact, critics say, racially-structured disparities are still intact, making a mockery of the idea that inter-racial friendships are relationships between social equals.
‘When I’m with Chris, I think white,’ says Adam. ‘And when I’m with Adam,’ says Chris, ‘I think white. That’s our compromise.’ More precisely, that’s their parody of the colour-blindness compromise.
Neil J.*, a Canadian-born Irish-South African, puts it like this: ‘My relationships with people of different colours hinge on the same things as any other relationship – common interests. I’m speaking from my own class position, but people are cool with racial mixing, provided they’re experiencing culturally similar things. There’s a shift from racial tribalism to a First World scene where money, culture and class are the common denominators.’
Neil is quick to point out that this broad shift involves a widespread Americanisation that steamrollers over indigenous cultures. It leads to the perception that the American Way is the only natural way to do things. The American Way is founded on big bucks. Those without the money to join in take a dim view of it, while those who do have the money often take their jet-setting First World lifestyles for granted. Put the haves and have-nots together, and these differences of perception can come disturbingly to light over the flames of an ordinary braai – as Neil discovered when he mentioned his overseas travel-plans at his coloured friends’ family social.
‘Suddenly there was a strange vibe,’ he said: ‘a subtle thing where somebody would glance at me and send the vibe, ‘That’s such typical white English-speaking behaviour – when the going’s too hot, you use your money to bail overseas.’
‘When I’m hanging with these dudes,’ he says, ‘I know I’m the honky boy with honky attitudes they find weird or hilarious. A lotta them carry guns. I’m scared shitless, but a guy’ll wave a gun at me and laff his ass off. They have a harder existence and give you the “you-live-in-an-isolated-world” vibe, like whitey’s naïve about how the world works. They’re saying, “You’re a wuss, but you’re alright.”’
The politics of race and class don’t just disappear because everyone’s wearing baseball caps and giving one another the basketball high-five. ‘Don’t ever say you don’t see colour,’ says Tonde L.*: ‘The issue is how you interpret it.’ Tonde is a Zambian-born Canadian-American living in South Africa. His exotic accent is as mixed as his background, and it’s put him in an unusual position – ostracised by black South Africans and feted by white friends.
‘Many of them are changing their accents to sound like me,’ he laughs. ‘But if I had a deep African accent, I’m sure it would be different. It’s fashionable to have a black friend: you’re connected! So much the better if he’s got an “American” accent. By now I’m able to tell who’s in it for real reasons and who’s a fake snake, even unknowingly.’ The fake snake professes colour-blindness and revels in a cosmopolitan world, but at some level he’s thinking, ‘See how trendy I look with my black buddy’, as if Tonde’s race defines the essence of his value.
Yet won’t these dynamics operate, however faintly, in the best friendships? Aren’t they a sign that the people involved are merely average South Africans? Tonde shrugs and sighs. ‘It’s multifaceted,’ he says.
‘Let me tell you a secret about the brothers. The ideal for a black guy is to have (A) some white friends – it’s considered a step up the social ladder, plus he gets to hang out in places he couldn’t before – and (B) a white woman. That’s the pinnacle … Oh yeah, and a Beemer.’
It’s an ideal Troye* sought with baffling results. ‘There was a time when I looked for the right friends – upper-class white dudes with cars.’ So when he met blonde-haired Lewis* at a campus beerfest, and they’d formalised the friendship by buying marijuana together, Troye congratulated himself on ‘scoring a white buddy. I was showing him off in the coloured discos and all the chicks knew him, and I’m thinking, ‘Yes – we have a winner here!’ But I’m also thinking, ‘How in God’s name does he know all these people?’ He knew more people there than I did.’
Troye’s incredulity grew until the dizzying revelation came: Lewis was a coloured Aryan partly of German descent! ‘The people in the night-club were his neighbours,’ Troye says, as if it were someone’s idea of a vicious practical joke. Worse came when Lewis introduced Troye to his white friends. They were Troye’s ‘first real exposure to whites’ – ‘but they all wanted to be coloured. I couldn’t even choose real white people! With my luck, I had to choose white bra’s who wanted to be coloured bra’s, and a white bra’ who actually was coloured. And all this while I was going for white myself.’
As Troye did, many will discover that the more one looks into the issue of race in their friendships, the more complex the picture becomes: so complex that it’s futile to think of people in terms of race.
* Names have been changed.
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