The intimacies we often forget to politicise

Whenever we would sit on her wide veranda — which looked out on to William Road, drinking tea or wine, an incense stick burning in her living room — she would often relay the story of how she knew I was “the one”. She had been meeting potential tenants who she said were nice and agreeable, and who would take care of her cottage, but who just didn’t feel “right’’ to be living with.

I walked into her property on a Thursday afternoon in January and found her sitting with a friend. Their heads turned simultaneously when I clinked my keys against the grass-green metal bars to get their attention. Between the gate and her veranda was a fecund and expansive garden, a peaceful place where I would pick herbs like mint, rosemary, oregano and thyme in the future we began writing that day.

As I walked towards the veranda from the gate she smiled knowingly, exposing the subtle overbite and wise eyes that I would grow to befriend.

She was at least 18 years older than me and Afrikaans. She worked in the tech industry and did reiki and tarot readings for friends in her spare time. Like me, she was single and lived with her daughter, who was a dancer. This was before identity politics were applied to intimate interracial relationships.

As citizens, we were still in that foggy comfortable place of being curious about one another as people. She spoke softly with an accent that sounded European and she had a calm disposition that I felt comforted by.

I was 22 and it was the end of my first and most difficult year in Johannesburg. The person for whom I had moved from Cape Town to Johannesburg had dumped me, kind of unexpectedly, two months previously on a rainy afternoon after we had been to the movies.

In the same week that I was dumped, the only familiar friend I had in Jo’burg died mysteriously on a Monday afternoon, three hours after I had spoken to her over the phone. I lost my job because I worked for my ex and when I returned from my friend’s funeral, which was in Mdantsane, I found an eviction notice on the glass sliding door of the tiny cottage I rented from an awful landlord. Because I was preoccupied with the funeral, I had paid the rent on a Monday instead of on the previous Friday. That asshole didn’t care that I had texted him to warn him.

I literally became homeless a week later, with no money and no job. After squatting with my ex’s friends (who have now become my really good friends) for two months, I finally found a job through a friend and started looking for a new place to stay.

Anya found me in a terrible state of grief on many levels. The summer rose and our friendship blossomed in the months that followed. I never went into her house and she never came into the small cottage that healed me as the seasons changed. We always met on her veranda where we would talk until the sky changed colour. We would talk about our lives, our failed relationships, our ambitions for ourselves as single women, our longing for love and our odd friendship.

One day, the neighbour was having a party. She was Anya’s age and had a tenant living in the house, a gay man who was an actor. Anet invited me to come along and I agreed. We went to the party together and it was the first time we lived out our friendship in front of others.

That night, I met the neighbour’s tenant and we hit it off. Michael was a flamboyant crooner who made me laugh and spoke isiXhosa and moved his neck when he spoke in a way that was familiar to me as a Xhosa girl.

Anet was a Buddhist and one day suggested that I come with her to visit a Buddhist temple in Bronkhorstspruit. I agreed and I invited Michael. The three of us drove out of Jo’burg and my world expanded thereafter, away from them but not initially. Michael and I started attending a Buddhist meditation centre in Craighall every Tuesday. Eventually, Michael stopped coming and I started going on my own.

I was 23 and learning how to meditate, how to reason with life’s seeming unfairness at times and how to self-reflect. I changed and Anet did not mind. In fact, she felt like a midwife to my becoming. By the time I moved out of her cottage into a bigger flat with a friend who would become like a sister to me, I was settling into the person I would become over the next decade.

Over the next five years I would return to the Buddhist centre in Craighall as an unofficial Buddhist with a rather pleasant, apolitical life. But when the need to identify the meaning of my physical identity arose, Buddhism did not have the answers I needed.

I lost touch with both Michael and Anya, until I ran into her again in 2015 at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. I was in the throes of my identity politicking, working through my distrust of white people, having to see her as a white person and square that with the love I had for her.

She could tell that I had changed, and so had she. But I had no reason to have my claws out with her. We had connected on another level, when I had not yet picked up the political lexicon that has ruined some of my other friendships.

Almost 10 years later as I reflect on this friendship, I’m thinking about the role of politics in friendships and friendship in politics. Some of the relationships I’ve made and lost in recent years balanced on political ideologies, and have often been propelled by the righteous indignation that can cement liberal connections and “solidarity’’, as opposed to the friendships that make little political sense and are founded on universal principles and values and even mysterious things like liking each other.

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