Some of my best friends are

Ties that Bind (Wits University Press)

Ties that Bind (Wits University Press)

I’ve had a best friend since I was four years old. I count this as one of my life’s greatest achievements.

She told her mom the day we’d first met that she’d made friends with a girl with the same hair as her. This idea is today astounding to me, because our hair is probably the thing that most sets us apart. Hers is so silky smooth that you can almost not help but bury your hands in it. Mine is touched without consent for an entirely different reason — “exotic”, kroes.

Back then I was desperate for a twin. Most girls my age were. The Olsen twins, Tia and Tamera Mowry from Sister, Sister and, of course, The Parent Trap crystallised this fantasy for a whole generation of us. The long lost twin sister, with a life far-removed from your own, was particularly appealing.

With nine days between us, my best friend and I forced our birthdays into the same day. I even liked to pretend that our mothers met in Jo’burg Gen after what would have been a hideously long labour for my mother and a slightly premature one for hers.

Over the years of our friendship, we’ve managed to make each other our own. As Tsitsi Jaji puts it, I sound her out and she sounds me out.

Towards the end of her chapter, in the Shannon Walsh and Jon Soske edited Ties that Bind: Race and the Politics of Friendship in South Africa, Jaji writes of her parent’s interracial marriage: “As their daughter, I am, I suppose, always already in an interracial friendship … ”

This image, a sideways nod to Frantz Fanon’s construction of — the splitting of the consciousness into black and white — evokes the innermost desire to meet that playmate who affirms that actually there is no difference there. We are of the same body. Twins.

Ties That Bind takes the intimacy of friendship and uses it to figure the very complicated conditions of solidarity in South Africa. For the book’s contributors — who speak fluent academic, but are also artists in their own right — it’s a dizzying task. It is also one that now probably seems more urgent than ever.

We have seen, especially in recent years, very public attempts to come to terms with the question of solidarity in this country — mostly with vague summonings of Steve Biko and Fanon. These key figures in the theory of solidarity across racial lines have been such cherished sounding boards that they have often been distorted into whatever wavelength serves the conversation now.

Last year, Sisonke Msimang, another one of the volume’s contributors, tweeted: “Asking for a friend: is there a name for people who tweet abt #Biko & #Fanon to boost their followers but have never bothered to read them?”

Someone replied, “Allies?” and another sardonically simply at-ed Black First Land First (BLF) leader Andile Mngxitama.

What seems to be a compulsive desire to manifest these theorists into the present moment, comes from — as most of the contributors seem to agree — a collective disillusionment with the framework of nonracialism which, as Franco Barchiesi puts it, most captures “the hopes, expectations and ethical claims of 20th century South African progressivism”.

The contributors to Ties That Bind appear less concerned with using theory as an emissary to explain the state of things and more interested in tracing the contours of their own experiences with intimacy and political solidarity across the split-screen of race.

They are necessarily forthcoming with the deeply personal sources of theory and how they “get it”.

The collection is open to the forms that this way of entering theory provokes — using poetry, performance, personal histories and interviews to show that conventional academic writing is often just not enough when it comes to talking about our most private connections.

That said, it can at points still make you feel at a full intellectual loss, exposing the personal shame of your own very haphazard reference list.

So the success of Ties That Bind is that the space it makes for good non-fiction writing, alongside the chafing aspects of academic prose, can at times make you forget that you’re wielding a pretty hefty book that is also overflowing with theory.

Gabeba Baderoon’s piece “Fanon’s Secret”, for instance, made me audibly sigh with relief upon finding a three-stanza-long poem under a title that could have marked a lengthy analysis of Fanon’s marriage to a white French woman.

Many of the contributors are organised, or at least moved, by the principles of Afro-pessimism, which connects contemporary scholarship — by the likes of Saidiya Hartman, Jared Sexton and Hortense Spillers — and, as Walsh puts it, builds “on certain readings of Fanon”.

The protracted interview with Frank B Wilderson III seemingly sets up these conditions. The American critic’s oft-quoted sermon on interracial antagonism — “an irreconcilable struggle between entities, or positions, the resolution of which is not dialectical but entails the obliteration of one of the other positions” — becomes the site of struggle for many of the volume’s contributors.

The most compelling section of Walsh’s interview with Wilderson is when he talks about teaching The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah at Khanya College in the early 1990s and how he felt that his student’s belief in South Africa’s successful liberation stopped them from seeing how intimately connected the country’s fate would be to Armah’s post-Nkrumah Ghana.

Jaji reflects on the significance of these intra-continental solidarities, reflecting on the destiny of the foreigns — the muffled makwerekwere — as South Africa struggles towards and against nationalist kinship.

Where the Wilderson interview loses it a bit, and where, perhaps, the academy shows itself as sometimes out of touch, is the time dedicated to the aforementioned leader of the BLF and his critical contribution to a new way of thinking about solidarity in South Africa.

A note at the end of it simply reads: “Mngxitama is no longer a part of the EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters] party” — leaving the reader with the sinking feeling that already so much has changed since Ties That Bind was initially conceived.

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit both subs and writes for the Mail & Guardian. She joined the M&G after completing her master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Cape Town. She is interested in the literature of the contemporary black diaspora and its intersection with queer aesthetics of solidarity. Her recent work considers the connections between South African literary history and literature from the rest of the Continent. Read more from Sarah Smit

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