Are interracial relationships possible for South Africans?


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. 


  1. I have always wondered: where does the terminology “yellow fever” and “jungle fever” come from. And why do Indian women LOVE white guys in South Africa?

    • The term “yellow fever” is used against white men who have a preference for Asian women (referring to their skin tone) and “jungle fever” is used against white women who date black men.

      I haven’t noticed or asked why the Indian women in SA tend to date white men, but I would guess their parents have a large influence, as well as it is true that black men tend to have larger penises while Indian women are rumoured to have smaller vaginas so maybe it’s just not a comfortable fit. (I literally could not date someone with a small penis for the long-haul so I can see this being true to some extent).

  2. I went to the Ruth First memorial Lecture at Wits University last night where Sisonke Msimang reported on her research into the experience of those she described as ‘coconuts’. Panashe Chigumadzi followed and Lebo Mashile performed Msimang’s text based on her research into possibility of authentic interracial friendship. Previous speakers have included Judge Dikgang Moseneke, Zwelinzima Vavi, Irvin Jim, Trevor Manuel, Pallo Jordan, Naledi Pandor and Kgalema Motlanthe. The Ruth First Committee, responsible for the the event comprised Jacob Dlamini, Indra de Lanerolle, Anton Harber, Shireen Hassim, Eusebius McKaiser and Liza Key.
    I’m not sure about the criteria used for bestowing this honour on this year’s speakers or what the intent of the committee was. What was clear was that the address was a far cry from previous years.
    The speakers evinced an undergraduate’s delight with words and set about trashing the construct and ideal of the rainbow nation – ‘Now that the season of realpolitik is upon us and the rainbow myth is receding we must ask ourselves whether we still need a framework of reconciliation that presupposes friendship across the races as an important and useful barometer of the health of the nation…..we must be prepared to alienate whites (and for that matter blacks) who do not accept this as a fundamental reality and to be unconcerned if they leave and seek their fortunes elsewhere’.
    Chigumadzi’s and Lebo Mashile gave dramatic effect to Sisonke Msimang thesis. The young student audience cheered, the older whites were split between being aghast and those who welcomed some degree of self-flagellation. The performance would not have been out of place in a first year drama class at less than rigorous university.
    What was astounding was the arrogance, the inherent racism and the total absence of any analysis that went beyond facile and reactive constructs. The issue of class was not even referred to and the idea that in the crucible of common class struggle, friendships and bonds could be built that would (and did in the past) form the foundation for just society was ignored.
    No credence was given to the notion that the flawed complexities of the rainbow nation provided a working model to engage, test, confront and hone in the quest for a better polity and organized society. That a bloodbath was averted in the deliverance of of our democracy, that the likes of Ruth First and Chris Hani paid with their lives for it, was almost taken for granted by the speakers and performers.
    They came across as the acceptable face of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ brigade – mired in arrogance, delivering a shallow intellectual veneer to constructs that ignore and distort many aspects of our past in a cathartic display of intropective victimhood aimed at the deliverance of a dose of dignity – misplaced and as intellectually debilitating as it is uninformed.
    I was tempted to interject and refer the speakers to Ghana where its founding father, Kwame Nkrumah, exhorted his people to ‘seek first the political kingdom’. For the past sixty years Ghana (the first country to gain independence from colonial Britain) has proceeded to pursue the economic kingdom with mixed success and has no doubt also pursued the social and emotional kingdom in parallel. The demograpics of Ghana are almost exclusively black – the population comprises Akan 47.5%, Mole-Dagbon 16.6%, Ewe 13.9%, Ga-Dangme 7.4%, Gurma 5.7%, Guan 3.7%, Grusi 2.5%, Mande-Busanga 1.1%, other 1.6% (2010 census).
    The question is whether Ghanians are at peace with each other? Does class rather than race divide them? Has sixty years of pursuing the three kingdoms delivered the justice and aspirational vision of dignity and respect Chingumadzi talks about? Have the ravages of slavery and the colonial and post-colonial experience been dealt with? Will they ever?
    Perhaps Sisonke,Chingumadzi et al need to move beyond trashing what she calls Reconcilliation 1.0 and immerse themselves in a Class 101 and question whether the black elite and the poor black majority are equally victimised by racism, and that all whites (including poor and working class whites) equally benefit from racism. Then the imperative will be for all who are invested in our country to build and bond in common struggle against injustice in all its guises.
    Ghaleb Cachalia

  3. Thanks Ghaleb for your accurate and mature analysis. The new credo of racist nationalism is miiered as you say in arrognat self serving positions and a wholly dishonest aggregation of disgruntlements served up as “compelling and revolutionary ” theory. The conversation carried on onTuesday on Pwer FM with caller after caller happy to openly talk “about the whites” in disparaging terms.

    If whites have to “sacrifice themselves on the altar of privilege” (says the young middle class black activist with EVERY material advantage in job selection over whites), then to take advatage of this sacrifice do blacks not need to position thmeselves accordingly at the trough of entitlement, blame and self regard?

    We are not fooled, and we will resist their naked, very juvenile and inchoate racism.


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