Ruth First fellows Panashe Chigumadzi and writer/activist Sisonke Msimang tell PONTSHO PILANE how “coconuts” help maintain institutional injustices and why interracial relationships are still problematic in South Africa.
For many of us, race may be a difficult topic to address but Ruth First fellows Panashe Chigumadzi and Sisonke Msimang are together in the belief that we can’t move forward as a society unless we discuss race and address the inequalities that still exist in our society.
The pair will be speaking at this year’s Ruth First Memorial Lecture, which commemorates the life and work of journalist and activist Ruth First.
Chigumadzi’s research focuses on “coconuts” as a product of the Rainbow Nation and how they exist in a time where decolonising has been prioritised and has dominated the media landscape.
“I deliberately chose the word ‘coconut’ because it is provocative and will often incite a certain response from people. However, the centre of my talk is not the connotations of the word, but rather what coconuts reveal about the disillusionment of the Rainbow Nation,” she says.
Coconuts refers to the young, black middle class that went to previously white-only schools, in order to access the same opportunities their white counterparts have but who are still systematically disadvantaged because they are not white.
Chigumadzi says that just because black people have access to some spaces they previously did not have access to, it does not mean that inequality in South Africa has been adequately addressed.
“Access alone is not enough. Coconuts are used as a buffer to maintain the institutional injustices that are so evident and prevalent across South Africa. Coconuts may have more proximity to whiteness, but they are still black and they suffer because of this,” she adds.
This assumption, she says, is the reason many South Africans were surprised at the rapid rise of the Rhodes Must Fall movement and the number of middle class students at the University of Cape Town who accused the university of being untransformed.
Msimang meanwhile has focused her research on interracial relationships in South Africa.
“I chose to look at friendship because I wanted to examine the values that are at play when we say we believe in cross-racial friendship,” she says.
Msimang believes that it is possible for genuine interracial friendships to exist between South Africans of different race but, she believes for that to happen there is still work to be done.
“What good are these friendships if they aren’t also addressing the larger structural challenges in our society? What good are they if the ‘friends’ can’t talk about race in ways that are honest? What good are they if they just make people feel good but don’t force change?” she asks.
This predicament is not unique to South Africa, says Msimang, who has lived in various countries and draws some similarities between South Africa, the US and Australia, where she permanently resides.
“The similarities are significant, but in Australia I find that the levels of denial about racism are even worse. At least we [in South Africa] are engaged and prepared to talk,” she says.
On Monday night, poet and activist Lebogang Mashile will collaborate with Msimang to bring an interactive element to Msimang’s talk.
Mashile, for her part says that black and white South Africans can be friends but that these friendships continue to exist in isolation.
“In the current state of South Africa, it is extremely difficult to have genuine relationships beyond race – there are too many inequalities that still exist and until whiteness is willing to confront itself, it will not be possible. Whiteness has to sacrifice itself at the altar of its privilege first,” she says.
This year’s Ruth First Lecture will take place at the Great Hall, on the University of the Witwatersrand’s East Campus on Monday, August 17 at 6:00 for 6:30PM. RSVPs are essential. The lecture can be live-streamed here.
– Featured image via Wikimedia Commons
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article claimed the Ruth First lecture would take place on August 15. We’re blaming it on weekend excitement, the lecture takes place on Monday August 17.