A comment by Sunday Times columnist and author Ndumiso Ngcobo on Twitter got me thinking recently. Ndumiso tweeted that “in a country with an 80% black population it must take some effort to not have any close black friends” – or something along those lines.

Ndumiso is of course spot on. While I lived in Ireland I had friends from numerous nationalities and we all worked and socialised and debated together. However back in Mzansi I do not have a single close African friend. Most of my weekend was consumed trying to answer the simple question: “why the hell not?” Allow me to sell you my “excuses” here:

Firstly, I would like to have close African friends for the simple reason that a homogenous friendship circle is boring. Us whiteys for most part watch the same TV programmes, laugh at the same dumb YouTube videos, consume by and large the same music and share roughly the same political ideology. This makes for rather dull dinner-time conversation. I therefore have good enough reason to want black mates. Now at this juncture I wish I could add the cliché “it’s not for a lack of trying” — but this would be telling a big fat lie. I have given up trying to make black friends and after some soul-searching this weekend come to realise why.

I am prejudiced and stuck in a comfort zone.

My wife and I, upon moving back from Ireland in 2003 chose to live in the suburb of Yeoville in Johannesburg. We had lived there prior to moving to Ireland and for most part enjoyed the experience. It was also one of the few places we could afford to buy property. In our complex we were the only white family among other African, Indian and coloured families. I got on well with most of my neighbours and the suburb in general taught me much about my country and my continent. I shopped for my vegetables in the street, had my hair cut on the street and drank in the local bars.

But as time went by I realised some distinct differences between “us and them”. Our body corporate did not earn enough money to maintain the luxuries such as the swimming pool and the garden and this was the cold reality of living in an area built for the wealthy and now occupied by the lower middle class. However whereas I would spend any free time trying to clean the garden and cut the grass and remove glass from the driveways, my neighbours seemed content with throwing parties in the dirty garden and adding to the waste by not picking up their own beer bottles, food packets etc. Inside their own homes it was always spotless but the communal areas were shown no respect. I would literally be out in the garden plucking weeds and collecting rubbish while the rest of the community would be on their balconies living it up. They must have enjoyed seeing whitey in the garden sweating while they got to live a little! Made for a nice change!

Now I know I tend to be anal about these things. At Wits as a student for example I loved watching the live soccer games at Bidvest Stadium yet I could never understand why the toilets could not just be cleaned prior to a game! Today I generalise as if all black people in all living complexes would act the same way – which of course is not true – yet the experience left a bad taste in my mouth.

Now prejudiced, I started noticing more “differences”. Some couples for example would send their kids to substandard schools in the area yet had enough money to purchase some extravagant motor cars and clothing. Also how my neighbours had very little respect for each other by playing loud music late into the night — at times outside in the hallway right next to where small kids were asleep. It downright pissed me off and slowly I found myself becoming more and more reclusive. I got on well with everyone but was no longer interested in forming deeper relationships with anyone. I wanted to be left alone to carry on my life in my own way. Instead of confronting everyone about it I chose to keep it to myself in the fear that I will be labelled a racist.

Comfort zone
My time as a student at Wits and the two stints in Yeoville offered me a great opportunity to make life-long black friends and enrich my life in South Africa — yet a few bad experiences made me close up to “others”. Today I regret this yet find myself in a comfort zone where I no longer really care. I don’t want to listen to hip-hop as I find it shallow. I do not understand kwaito yet the repetitive nature of its melody makes me not want to understand it either. I no longer want to engage the historical black political narrative as todays politicians make me think the whole struggle was nothing but the transfer of power from one group of psychos to the next. I don’t want to go to a Bafana game anymore because they suck at football and because at the last game I attended my cellphone was stolen. In short, I don’t want meet black South Africans half way anymore.

I may culturally have more in common with a Pakistani brought up in Canada than I have a with Sesotho guy who grew up in my own town. And whereas in the past this bothered me, it no longer does. The sad truth is that if I were to have a real meaningful friendship with a black South African today, he or she will have to almost be like me. In the meantime we will hug and pretend to be great friends every time we win or host a World Cup and afterwards retreat to our homes and places of work where in the name of political correctness we will avoid confrontation.



Brendon Shields

Brendon is a songwriter from Bethlehem now living in Dublin. You can abuse him on twitter even @brendonshields

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