International Solidarity in Apartheid South Africa
Keynote Address North American Levinas Society “Solidarity and Community” 29 July 2021
Need I remind anyone again / that armed struggle is an act of love? ~ Keorapetse Willie Kgositsile
In 1987, my husband Rob and I were recruited in Canada to move to Johannesburg to run a safehouse for underground leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle. We did so until 1990, when the operation was discovered by the regime and we fled back to Vancouver.
Those years raised profound and troubling questions for me. However, it was only in the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas that I eventually found a way to properly frame and understand my experience of violence and armed resistance, of one’s infinite responsibility before the suffering of others, of solidarity and justice.
I wrote “The Housekeeper’s Tale” for a 2016 conference on the Politics of Armed Struggle in Southern Africa. More literary than scholarly, it sets out several lessons from the School of Underground. What does it mean to go to war? What does it mean to love your enemies? What does violence mean? What peace will come?
Like consciousness is always consciousness of something (if you believe Husserl), making sense is always to someone, to some particular first-person singular. It’s interior, private, personal. That makes sense to me. But I have to ask you, Does this make sense to you?
If black lives mattered, then all lives would matter. If women’s lives mattered, then all lives would matter. If Jewish lives mattered, then all lives would matter. Black in the racialised sense of “not white”. Such that mattering would mean the abandonment of white supremacy.
So I find myself thinking, if there’s this group of people, who are being labelled “essential”, but are being treated as sacrificial, [and] then there’s this other group of people, who are at home – like us, right? – who have the luxury of isolation. So what are we, if we’re not essential? [laugh] Are we superfluous? Are we being kept like pets? For who? What is our role?’ ~ Naomi Klein
Last week, I had the pleasure of addressing a conference of family mediators in Cape Town on the topic of “Wisdom in mediation”.
First story. An ethics professor once said to an undergraduate philosophy class, “If you believe that a professor of ethics is an ethical person, you are making a category mistake.” The students recognised that this was true. At the same time, at least one of them thought, “Yes, but you ought to be.”
Beating the opponent at his own game. The pluck and courage of the underdog to outwit and overcome. Why does this strike everyone (I’m talking to you, Western culture) as a good trope? Underdog becomes top dog, it’s still a dog.
These “mixed feelings” of yours. If you have no reason to feel the way you do, and yet you do, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no reason (you are irrational), or that you’re wrong to feel that way (you are mistaken), or that you should feel otherwise (you are dissolute).
What did it mean: to join the Party? Brecht says it best. I was not an exploiter, so I could grasp it.
To dedicate oneself to a more human society. For justice and peace, bread and roses. Against exploitation and oppression. Against all odds. To understand the indivisibility of freedom. To adopt José Martí’s willingness to share one’s fate con los pobres de la tierra. To know the world again, differently, in many dimensions, ranged along new coordinates. Eyes open, edgy. To become serious, disciplined, responsible. To get over oneself, forsaking singular, private prides and fears. A kind of loving, of deference.