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?
A funny thing happened at the Philosophy Café last month. I got lost. We all set sail on a conversation about “sadness”, but I didn’t know what they were talking about. My mind was clear and present. I just couldn’t relate, couldn’t get a grip, couldn’t participate. And the good ship “we” sailed on without me. Huh.
It’s been a chance to rediscover that – so long as you’re not in real danger, so long as you don’t panic – being all at sea is philosophy’s home ground. Not knowing what’s happening is a condition of wonder, in every sense of the word. It’s also kind of sad.
A motley crew is a cliché for a roughly organized assembly of characters. Typical examples of motley crews are pirates, Western posses, rag-tag mercenary bands, and freedom fighters… characters of conflicting personality, varied backgrounds and, usually to the benefit of the group, a wide array of methods for overcoming adversity. Traditionally, a motley crew [that]… comes into conflict with an organized, uniform group of characters, will prevail. (Wikipedia)
This weekend I’m hooking up with the good folks of the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism (JWTC). They who definitely dare to go: a two-week mobile workshop on the theme Archives of the Non-Racial, using South African histories to “assess the possibilities and limits of the ‘nonracial’ in terms of the politics of the modern world and its core values: democracy, freedom, dignity, equality, the human, universality, justice”.
(This is the original of an opinion piece published as “Identity does not depend on race” in the Cape Times on 11 October 2011)
Who are we? is the question posed in a timely series presented by the Cape Times and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. Really, it’s incredible. If “I am because we are”, and we are not the “we” we thought we were – then who am I? If “a person is a person through other people”, and we’re not getting through to each other – then what am I?
Rather than reach immediately for an answer to this terribly urgent question, perhaps we should slow down enough to reconsider it. Or, as Njabulo Ndebele beautifully suggested recently, to “wake up and re-dream” ourselves. It does stir us up. Whoever and whatever else we may be, we are the ones in question. We are called to account for ourselves, as if everything depends on this, our moment in history. It’s the new Senzenina. It’s terrifying and exhilarating.