Open letter to a friend and colleague:

Dear Akhona,

It has become fashionable to write open letters to public figures. These letters are usually vitriolic and self-serving. Come to think of it I have seldom read an open letter that is kind, affirming and hopeful. One of my objectives in writing an open letter to you, is to change that.

You may not be a public figure (yet) however you are very famous to your beautiful son, your brothers and Mama who are the very breath you breathe and your large network of friends and associates – me included.

Regrettably such fame doesn’t generally garner much interest. So why am I writing this? I am writing this to make public a simple truth that we exchanged via Whatsapp during the time of the Penny Sparrow scandal; black and white works.

This may seem like a somewhat fatuous statement at a time of such racial upheaval. But my association with you has demonstrated time-and-time again that this fact is true. Not only that, but black and white is necessary as we seek to find balance in this country of ours. Let me explain.

In the time that I have worked with you, we – that is Cathy and I and our respective kids – have become close friends. By virtue of spending long hours in planes and cars together, we have learnt a great deal about one another. We have challenged one another’s stereotypes – including our racial stereotypes, we have grown in our understanding of our respective cultures and we have made those new understandings work powerfully in some extremely challenging and even hostile work situations. I can confidently say that neither of us working independently in our field of conflict resolution and peace creation would have the success that you and I have had, working together. The one without the other would simply be less effective. Black and white works.

Through this process of time spent and conversations held (the only way that different people ever found one another), I have learnt a tremendous amount about your incredible culture. This has allowed me to bring a more rounded, balanced, integrated me to the uniquely African work we have been doing. My whiteness with all its strengths and weaknesses has been balanced by your blackness with such different strengths and weaknesses. And I have learnt that black and white is not the same – thankfully! Of course, we are human and equal – but we are also extraordinarily, beautifully different. This combination of our differences; different skills, customs, ways of doing things; different ways of speaking, relating, forgiving, inviting, negotiating and yes, even fighting – is powerful to heal and restore dignity when used in combination. It is an elixir not a poison. And then of course, we have many similarities. What fun that has been!

And you have deepened my understanding of what it means to be African. Through your kindness and jokeful acceptance of my often awkward attempts at being culturally sensitive, I think I have been allowed to call myself that; an African. Not that sterile classification that so polarises; white South African. No, through you and our dear friend Mr Walter Malepe, I have been affirmed and accepted as an African. I thank you for this.

And as I have listened to hours and hours of languages being spoken that I don’t understand, feeling every inch of my inadequacy, you have demonstrated the power of patient engagement. Before, this impatient white boy might have disengaged from such meetings or conversations with an air of arrogant irritation: “Why don’t they just speak English?” But because we have worked in non-Zulu speaking areas you too have been lost. We have been lost together! But you have shown me that it doesn’t matter whether we understand or not. What matters is that we respect the speaker by being present and engaged with every word he or she speaks. It matters not whether we understand the words. We work to hear the heart. It is all about dignity. Respect. Honour. This is the African way. I have developed – slowly but surely – these subtle but necessary skills, and as a result I have the ear – and perhaps even the heart – of many people who by rights should have little or no time for this mlungu. I could not have developed in these areas on my own. The thin strands of trust; the hands shaken and held for long enough to say; “you are my brother”, the ever-so-subtle but terribly warm smile from a tribal elder as I speak. That would not have happened if black and white did not work.

We have done battle together in corporate boardrooms and under trees. Many are the fights we have fought and many are the battles we have lost and won. They have been hard fought and taxing but I believe we can say that in some small way our country – room by room – person-by-person – is a better place because we have worked side-by-side. That is for no other reason than the fact that black and white works.

So thank you Akhona. Thank you for being willing to challenge me and for allowing me to challenge you; thank you for allowing your mind to be changed and for seeing the brother in me. As fires burn and as battles rage let you and I and our families affirm in word and deed what I have known to be true for all my life.

That black and white works.

Take care sisi.

Justin

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.

This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.