On Having No Black Friends

Many years ago when I was living in Sweden, an African American friend asked me if I had any black friends back home in South Africa and I had to answer, honestly, no. And while he let me off the hook by saying, ‘I suppose, during apartheid, you didn’t know any black people, really,’ it bothered me enough that I still think about that exchange to this day. And while, yes, I was born in the seventies and went to school and university during the height of apartheid when having black friends meant you could be arrested, apartheid ended a long, long time ago, and the people I count as my besties are still white as the driven snow. And I’m not alone in this. I have one friend who works in the arts and has a number of black friends but, for the vast majority of friends and acquaintances in my age group, we just don’t socialise with black people.

In fact, the first black South African friend I had was when I lived in Sweden. He was my age exactly which meant, compared to me, he had a really rough deal growing up, and we spent some very memorable hours drinking strong coffee together in a little café down the road from my apartment and talking about our respective histories and the country we loved and were so far away from. And even though our experiences growing up there were very different – him in a shack in Soweto where, if he ate breakfast it meant there wouldn’t be food enough for his siblings, me in a house with a swimming pool in Somerset West – he felt like home to me as I hope I did to him. We had so much more in common than we had dividing us – two Africans freezing to death in northern Europe and talking about Steers and sunshine and Bafana Bafana.

And if this is the case – that we have so much more in common than we do dividing us – why do we still live in our silos and keep to our ‘own kind’, whatever we perceive that to be? And I don’t think this is about racism per se as much as circumstance and the fact that, growing up, the only black people we knew were working for our parents. What I learnt living away from South Africa (and with no small measure of shock, having believed that South Africans were the only racists in the world) is that most people are a little bit racist. In fact, some of the most blatant racists I’ve ever met would be labelled ‘black’ – a woman I knew from the Caribbean whose family was light-skinned and therefore ‘superior’, frequently said shocking things about people of a darker hue. Somebody else of mixed race whom I used to work with told me once how upset her father was when she brought a black guy home. Her dad had been hoping she would marry ‘up’ – somebody light, like her, or even white. Black friends of mine have been denied access to clubs in so-called colour-blind Denmark. There was suddenly a ‘members-only’ rule. We fear and mistrust what is ‘other’ and we have all internalized that crap to some extent, and we need to recognize this for what it is rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.

When I hear people announce that they are ‘not racist’ (I have a South African friend in London who does this) immediately a red light goes on for me. You cannot have lived through apartheid without being tainted by some of its ideologies. Yes, we move on – yes, we learnt to think critically and understand the brainwashing for what it was – but, this doesn’t mean we don’t need to be extra mindful about the kinds of things we say and do. While our system of institutionalized racism did a horrific injustice to black South Africans (and which we might not even recover from, entirely) it was also an injustice to us whiteys – we were deprived of so much that is wonderful and colourful and interesting about South Africa. We were kept in these narrow, sterile boxes and prevented from learning important things about the different people who make up this country. And now a lot of us find ourselves wanting to reach out and make things different, but not really knowing how.

A few mornings ago I had coffee with a friend who recently met a young black parliamentarian online and they’ve become besties. And he was recounting stories that had me guffawing into my flat white. For example, his friend’s mother is hooked on the TV show ‘Generations,’ where there’s this black guy and white girl who have fallen in love. And when they kiss on screen his mother says, ‘Hayibo! What would Verwoerd say if he could see this?!’ What, indeed. The guy in question loves my blog, especially the Ubuntu piece, and it makes me realize that we’re speaking exactly the same language, and we should be talking more.

When I was working for a magazine not that long ago the office was filled with young, funky black chicks who, with their cleverness and way with words, are leading our country into the future and forging new ways of thinking and being, and I wish, when I was that age, that I had been exposed to women like this and we could have been friends without it feeling forced. I get so worried, when I meet black women whom I admire and relate to, that they’re going to think I only want to be friends with them because they’re black. And it is a factor – we can’t deny that we have issues around colour. But maybe if we could put that out there and be open about it we could finally move beyond it and just be human beings.

And it’s with joy and relief that I find the young black South Africans I meet through work are much less precious than we old school whites are. They take the piss out of race and stereotypes; they laugh at us and at themselves which gives us permission to do the same, and feels really healthy and progressive. My nine-year-old daughter’s best friend is black, and it hasn’t occurred to either of them that they are supposed to be ‘different.’ In fact, Sophie doesn’t even know the word ‘black’ in relation to people (and why should she? We are shades of pink and brown). When she tells me about a new person in her class she’ll say, ‘they look a bit more like me.’ Or, ‘they look a bit more like Kukhanya.’ There is no value attributed to either skin tone. Without a doubt our children are growing up in a different South Africa than we did, and the ease with which these kids of different races and from different socio-economic places mingle and make friends makes me so happy I can dance. I just wish I could share that experience.

On Going Stone-cold Sober for a Month

A few Saturdays ago I went to a friend’s dad’s memorial at a pub in Obs. It was lunchtime and my house was full of workmen and the morning had been chaotic, and as I drove there I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to drink today; I’m not in the mood – I’ll just have a diet coke.’ I’m not a good daytime drinker – alcohol at lunch makes me grumpy and hungry, and I knew I’d have to go home and deal with painters and kids. ‘Yes;’ I thought. ‘What a good plan.’ So, in the door I walked, said hello to friends, and then was asked if I’d like a draught. And immediately I said yes. I drank it down, and then, inexplicably, had another. And worse – I harangued a friend who did have a coke because he was going surfing later. The beer made me grumpy and hungry, as I knew it would. I went home and had to deal with painters and kids. I drank water and coffee but it didn’t help; I felt blech and my day was kind of ruined.

And you have to ask, what the hell? What is this about? And I think, simply, habit. It’s a habit to drink. Sometimes alcohol is lovely and tastes delicious and improves your mood and your day, but sometimes it doesn’t. And yet it remains really difficult to just say no. It took moving to Sweden to realize that we South Africans are a thirsty, hedonistic bunch. For dinner parties at home we’d cater roughly a bottle of wine per person, only to find our friends wanted water and milk and soft drinks. Which meant we drank it all up ourselves and had a rip-roaring time, but really. I’d go for lunches in groups and be the only one ordering Chardonnay. Eventually it got embarrassing and I stopped.

But we South Africans do drink a lot. We do a lot of things a lot. I suspect it has something to do with how we live down here, and how kind of nuts and Wild West-y it is. Life is lived in technicolour – we work hard and play hard, and while I wouldn’t change it for the world and I love the spontaneity and the aliveness, I do think my relationship with alcohol could bear a little scrutiny. Why do I drink when I don’t really feel like it? Why is it easier to accept a glass of wine than admit I’d rather have a lime and soda? And then, if we want to take the argument even further, why do we need the social lubricant in the first place? Don’t we like each other enough to sit around a table and chat and catch up on our lives without being half pissed?

Last Sunday was an interesting experiment. I had lunch with two close girlfriends, both of whom love their wine. Since we’re doing Sober October together nobody was drinking. I’m sure it was the first time I’ve had lunch with either of them where alcohol was not involved. We had grapefruit ‘cocktails’, and then they had a non-alcoholic beer each and I stuck to soda water and lemon. We ate a beautiful rib stew in the sunshine, talked non-stop, shrieked with laughter and two of us literally fell off our chairs. It was a wonderful afternoon. Then we drove home without feeling sleepy from wine or worrying about a roadblock somewhere along the way. Because even if you wait till you sober up before you drive you’re never completely sure you’re within the limit.

For the past two weeks I’ve been in a vague state of panic over a birthday party I’m attending at my favourite venue this coming Friday. Because it’s one thing socializing with people who are also refraining from drinking and you’re all smug and in cahoots, but being in a smoky bar where waiters keep offering you another glass of champagne (my favourite) will be another story. Still – even though I’ve never been a huge drinker (at varsity I was always the semi-sober one who went home first), and three glasses of anything are my absolute limit – I feel that this is a good exercise to undergo. Not just to give the old liver a break and to drop a few pre-summer kilos, but to see whether all this booze is really necessary. And to observe myself in a social setting without the help of a drug. I had a meeting with a teetotal sound engineer a few months back who was telling me how much people’s voices change when they drink. Once, as an experiment, he used sophisticated sound equipment to record people speaking before they had their first drink and then as they consumed more alcohol, and he said it’s incredible how our voices get lower and slower till eventually we’re almost unrecognizable. Kinda scary.

For me, there are few things more pleasurable than a glass of good wine at the end of a long day. Or, an icy cold beer when you’re hot and thirsty and harassed. It gladdens the soul and relaxes a mind that’s been in overdrive all week long. And it just takes the edge off like nothing else. I refuse to believe that when drunk moderately and mindfully alcohol is a bad thing. It’s the other way that’s not so great – when we do it because we do it or because other people or doing it and it’s the default option. And it’s particularly bad when it’s a daily crutch or we have so much we make ourselves sick or when we become aggressive and unpleasant. And so far I’ve missed it much less than I expected. In fact, I’ve not missed it at all. After this experiment I might opt not to drink in the daytime anymore. Or, only very seldom when it’s a special occasion or I’m on a certain friend’s deck where a glass of vino and happy times just go hand-in-hand. And while I’ll never give up wine, it’s been good to give up wine for a while. Just to see how life feels without the insulation. Pretty good, actually.

On that deplorable breed of person, the Facebook spy

Sometimes I’ll bump into someone I haven’t seen for a bajilllion years and they’ll say, oh, so how was that seminar/restaurant/school function you attended drunk and I’ll be completely puzzled as to how they can know these details of my life… Until the penny drops. They are spies.

They are that deplorable breed of person who friends you on Facebook and then says nothing ever again so that you completely forget they exist and you post away, assuming your updates are being read by the nice people who can be bothered to lift a finger and comment and share their own stuff, helping you not feel like the only person in the world whose life is an endless play by Beckett.

Oh no – why would they give you that satisfaction? While everyone and their mother is privy to the intimate details of your life, all they’ll give you by means of sharing is a photograph of their cat. It’s just not cool. Facebook is a two-way street, folks. You want to know about other people’s dirty laundry, you need to show some of your own. Shy? Tough titties. Don’t have time? Close your account. Because, for realzies, you’re not playing fair.

I’m not saying everyone has to overshare to the extent of some people (a-hem), but please, for god’s sake, post one picture of yourself taken within the last ten years. You have other people’s entire lives at your disposal – there is not a single holiday snap or dinner event you can’t look at any time you want. And all you’ll give us is a photo of Snowy? Well, we don’t want to see fucking Snowy.

So, go take a long-armed picture of yourself right this very minute and for every tenth update you read, post a freaking comment. It’s the right thing to do.