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?
Between 1987 and 1990, my husband Rob and I ran a safe house for the liberation movement in apartheid South Africa. We were part of what we would later learn was named Operation Vula, short for Vul’indlela (“Open the road” in Zulu). Its aim was to infiltrate exiled leaders of the African National Congress/Umkhonto we Sizwe back into the country to help co-ordinate the different streams of popular resistance within the country – trade unions, civics, students, armed units and others – and to open a secure channel of communication between the leadership inside the country, in prison and in exile.
The self-confidence of the human being, freedom, has first of all to be aroused again in the hearts of these people. Karl Marx
ABSTRACT: If a time of crisis calls for a new mode of thinking, philosophical practice offers the means to answer that call. Contemporary philosophical practice revitalises the ancient Greek understanding of philosophy as a way of life that cultivates personal transformation and new ways of seeing the world. This article describes the development of the author’s philosophical counselling practice as a practice of emancipation, in concert with the writings of Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Rancière. It considers the significance of personal engagement and companionship for the cultivation of practical wisdom, and suggests that the intransigence of our global social and economic crises ultimately indicates an incorrect view of human nature and an ossified or unbalanced relationship between practical and theoretical ways of knowing and wisdom.
Last week’s philosophy café offered another conversation about confidence. As noted before, confidence has two levels. One is conditional: the conscious trust in one’s abilities or worth, developed through experience and familiarity (“or entitlement”, as someone pointed out, referring to the social confidence of private-school girls). The other is what John Dewey described as “unconscious faith in the possibilities of the situation”, or “the straightforwardness with which one goes at what he has to do”.
One man, I’ll call him Anthony, spoke about a friend he’d had in his twenties who led the two of them on rigorous mountain hikes. One day they were in a cave, swimming across an underground lake, when the friend became hypothermic. Suddenly, the one who had been happy to follow had to get both of them out alive. Anthony told us he did what he had to, towed his friend back across the lake and then found the way out. He said he didn’t know how he did it, but he has never since doubted his ability to meet whatever comes along.
Education systems that render people stupid, mental health treatment that renders people mad, religions that render people wicked, economies that render people poor, political systems that render people powerless. How is it that our social systems break down (render) precisely what they are meant to serve (render to)?
In an interesting recent article, “The Brain on Love”, Diane Ackerman discusses some findings of “interpersonal neurobiology”, an offshoot of neuropsychology, which uses brain-imaging technologies to explore the relationship between behaviour, emotion and brain function. According to Ackerman, it is driven by “one of the great discoveries of our era: that the brain is constantly rewiring itself based on daily life. In the end, what we pay the most attention to defines us.”
I have been explaining, exploring and writing about my philosophical counselling practice since I began in 2002. I’ve presented papers at conferences here in South Africa and in Canada and the US, which are available on my website along with other published articles. But recently a couple of friends challenged me to cut to the chase, and get down to the bare bones: what is this thing you do with people? And so here it is, in less than 300 words! – the essence of philosophical practice.
Who should come to a philosophical counsellor? Basically, anyone who finds the idea appealing – but likely candidates include those who are regularly told that they “think too much” (and get really, really annoyed by that), or those who feel blocked by worries or confusion. It’s not about being intellectual or having high language skills or being able already to clearly express yourself and your troubles. It also isn’t about studying philosophical traditions, although these provide useful resources. Philosophical practice goes back to philosophy’s roots of love (philo) and wisdom (sophia).
Marriage is an event, both simple and extraordinary. Something will be accomplished, here, today. Something will end and something begin. To marry is “to unite intimately”. It is rite of passage in which two lives are transformed. Two singular people say I – I will, yes – and find themselves we, us. First person plural.
This event takes place through words that are spoken: a solemn vow, a promise made, carried on the breath “from your lips to God’s ear”. One pledges one’s troth, one’s truth. Whatever words are used are words of honour. I take you as my husband, my wife, and I give my life into your care. In this exchange, the two become as one.