The Courtroom as a Space of Resistance: Reflections on the Legacy of the Rivonia Trial

Chapter 1
The Courtroom as a Space of Resistance: Reflections on the Legacy of the Rivonia Trial

Awol Allo


I have lain in the soil and criticized the worm.1

Just as none of us are beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings.2

I was the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor, the representative of the great ideals of freedom, fairness and democracy in a society that dishonoured those virtues. I realized then and there that I could carry on the fight even within the fortress of the enemy … I would use my trial as a showcase for the ANC’s moral opposition to racism. I would not attempt to defend myself so much as put the state itself on trial.3

On 11 July 1963, South African police raided Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, Johannesburg, and arrested seven core members of the African National Congress (ANC), in what was to become ‘the most celebrated arrests in South African history’. The arrest attracted extensive media coverage and begat explosive and triumphant headlines. The jubilant spokesmen of the government described the arrest as ‘a major breakthrough in the elimination of subversive organizations’ and promised the end of all subversive activities. The state presented its zealous crusade against the liberation struggle as a battle against subversive forces and raised the spectre of communism over and over again to submerge and subjugate the audibility and visibility of the accused. After 90 days of detention without charges, the accused were charged with sabotage and conspiracy, enabling the judicial apparatus to sit in judgment over one of the most insoluble conflicts between mankind and its laws.

Over the next year, South Africa staged one of the most destabilizing and gripping trials of the twentieth century and one that will define the contours of South African history. On 12 June 1964, Justice Quartus de Wet handed down the most anticipated verdicts of his career, sentencing Nelson Mandela and seven other leading members of the ANC to life imprisonment. But the verdict of history was radically at odds with the verdict of the court. In the verdict of history, the accused were freedom fighters, and the trial, a trial of conscience. Instead of ushering in a society cleansed of subversive elements, Rivonia become a constitutive historical event that catapulted South Africa’s struggle for freedom and justice onto the international stage, redefining and reinvigorating subversive activities. The trial assumed a symbolic meaning and value far greater than that imagined by the ANC and acquired a life of its own; becoming a cultural artefact of global renown. It became the crucible and the fulcrum for the liberation struggle, an expression of conscience that provided its values, sense of identity and mission, and supplied the energy and passion that eventually led to the disintegration of Apartheid. Whatever the setback represented by the life sentence in the short term, it is here, in this trial, that the anti-Apartheid movement developed the myth of the struggle and planted the seed of the post-Apartheid society.

Mandela used the law as a sword and shield. In his encounters with Apartheid’s courts, we witness a strategic engagement with law and an unrelenting confrontation with the state. As a man before the law, he appropriates his speaking position as a defendant to filter stories of oppression and indignation into the court of public opinion; stories capable of reworking and destabilizing sovereignty’s myths of oppression. In re-telling these stories in which law often legitimizes and stabilizes itself, Mandela spatializes the moment of origin to reinterpret it; to move within, beyond and in-between existing geographies; to go beyond stories of law and right and to get behind the discourse of right; and slip into its interstices to re-signify its discourses and symbols from within.

Mandela re-territorializes the space of the trial to return to fundamental questions of foundation and inaugural dispossession. Using the very spaces and speaking positions made available by the system, he returns to the moment of origin to re-politicize the trial and expand the horizon of the legally permissible and imaginable. Mandela used his knowledge of the law to reveal the agonizing contradictions at the heart of Apartheid’s order of representation. By re-setting the margins of what could be thought, said and done, by causing fissure in the system’s order of representation, his appeal exposed the juridical conditions which made Apartheid possible – law’s self-reference, its normative closures and epistemic violence.

The Rivonia story was a tale of foundations and of aporetic dispossession. It was a trial that disclosed the insufferable indignation of black people to the world and the role of law and legal institutions in preserving, legitimizing and consolidating a racist and oppressive state. Fifty years on, the places on the map of the Rivonia Trial have become sites in history while the accused become prominent figures that changed the course of history. Liliesleaf Farm, where the accused were arrested, is now one of ‘South Africa’s foremost, award winning heritage sites, where the journey to democracy in South Africa is honored’. Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were held, is now a national monument and a UNESCO World Heritage site remembered as ‘a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity’. Rivonia’s Accused No. 1, the late Nelson Mandela, is widely regarded as ‘the single most vital symbol not only of liberation from the tyranny of Apartheid, but of a new way of life in South Africa’.4 The name ‘Mandela’ has ceased to function as a mere name and become a pure symbol that represent ideas of freedom, justice, hope, reconciliation and resistance. As Derek Hook’s contribution to this volume demonstrates, the Mandela brand represents ‘an emblem of integrity’ and ‘a touchstone of moral capital’. In Hook’s terms, Mandela is a ‘master signifier’ that ‘makes a type of subjectivity’ and ‘a version of society’ possible. In short, Rivonia entered the historical record and the global public consciousness as a map of resistance, spatializing South African identity and history.

The Spatiality of Resistance

Resistance, whatever its form, genre, strategy and end, is a counter-conduct against modalities of power that constitute and regulate the subject. Resistance may orient itself towards constitutive norms and discourses that colonize the inner psychic space of the subject or may be directed against regulative conditions that define, categorize, and govern the subject. In both instances, resistance is counter-conduct that takes place on or through specific geographies: in the mind, in public squares, on streets, before parliaments, palaces, army bases, embassies, inside courts, parks, prisons and on cyberspace. Whatever the specific nature of the action – a march, a sit-in, strike, graffiti, hunger strike or other visible or invisible expressions or gestures of struggle – resistance always involves spatialities of location and discourse. It always takes place and involves the spatialization of discourse and action.

Regardless of where it takes place, within the fortress of sovereignty or away from its centres of gravity, resistance is a profoundly spatial undertaking whose condition of possibility, significance and meaning cannot be adequately explained in isolation from the place in which it takes place. As Michel Foucault pointed out, ‘It is somewhat arbitrary to try to dissociate the effective practice of freedom by people, the practice of social relations, and the spatial distributions in which they find themselves. If they are separated, they become impossible to understand.’5 While space makes resistance possible, resistance in turn defines space as space of resistance. From Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to Tehran’s Azadi Square; from Santiago’s Alameda to Athens’s Syntagma; from Madrid’s Plaza del Sol to New York’s Zuccotti Park; from Kiev’s Independence Square to Cairo’s Tahrir or Istanbul’s Gezi, we observe the mutually-constitutive relations between space and acts and gestures of resistance. Space prefigures acts of resistance and informs their meaning and significance.

To speak of geographies of resistance suggests that resistance has its own distinct spatialities. However, resistance cannot be fully uncoupled from domination and does not have an independent and autonomous spatiality of its own. Resistance often occupies and deploys spatialities defined and made available by the very power and discourse it resists. This entanglement of geographies of domination and resistances raises several questions: how does resistance take up its space? If space is the ground that defines the nature, meaning and significance of acts and gestures of resistance, how do subjects of resistance distinguish between spaces of resistance and domination? And finally, what is the generative potential of the spatial paradigm for thinking, speaking and performing acts of resistance in the courtroom? To address these questions and provide an overall conceptual framework for the volume, let me offer a brief summary of contemporary conceptions of space and the spatial paradigm.

The emergence of space and the spatial paradigm as a mode of intellectual enquiry is largely due to the rise of structuralism in the French academy in the 1960s. As Edward Soja observed, structuralism is ‘one of the twentieth century’s most important avenues for the reassertion of space in critical social theory’.6 Dismissing the nineteenth-century obsession with time and history, Michel Foucault mockingly wrote, ‘Space was treated as the dead, the fixed, the undialectical, the immobile. Time, on the contrary, was richness, fecundity, life, dialectic’.7 In his influential lecture on heterotopias, Foucault claimed that the twentieth century is an epoch of space: ‘we are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein’.8 Confirming this reversal, Francois Dosse writes, ‘[a] planetary, topographic consciousness has repressed a historical consciousness. Temporality has toppled over into spatiality’.9 In his recent work, Space in Theory, Russel West-Pavlov describes this transition as ‘one of the fundamental paradigm shifts of modern thought’.10 By the 1970s, the erstwhile epistemological hegemony of temporality and the totalizing continuity of historical analysis have been largely reversed.

Foucault’s work is an excellent point of departure for thinking about geographies of resistance and domination not only because he alerts us to the constitutive entanglement between domination and resistance but also because he provides profound insights into the constitutive and regulative effects of struggle on sovereignty, the subject, and the political. From his enquiry into the spatiality of language to the spatialization of discourse; from his excavation of the historical transformations of modern techniques of power to his investigation of technologies of the self; Foucault offers a particularly instructive spatial paradigm for thinking, writing and performing acts of resistance. This is evident not only in the proliferation of spatial ontologies and metaphors throughout his work but also in his explicit intimations to the spatial dimensions of power and the spatial distribution of knowledge.

Drawing on Bachelard’s spatial paradigms, Foucault distinguishes between the exterior space and the interior space, suggesting that the exterior space, the ‘space that gnaws and claws at us’, is a heterogeneous space that partakes in the configuration and re-configuration of sovereignty, the subject and the political.11 As he writes, ‘[W]e do not live inside a void that could be colored with diverse shades of light, we live inside a set of relations that delineates sites which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another’.12 Perhaps the most important spatial insight that emerges from Foucault’s thought is his formulation of the domain of the episteme (later called ‘discursive space’) and its three dimensions – the ‘epistemological trihedron’.13 In The Order of Things, Foucault identifies the three dimensions as a domain constituted of: (1) the conditions of possibility of discourses; (2) discursive systematicity; and (3) epistemic rupture.14 These three notions provide useful conceptual instruments of analysis and reflection for political intervention and action. It is precisely for this reason that in his review of Discipline and Punish, Deleuze refers to Foucault as the ‘new cartographer’ and Foucault’s notion of power as ‘Foucault’s diagram’.15

Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction is another crucial conceptual device for understanding the significance of space and spatial analysis for resistance. Derrida uses the neologism ‘espacement’ [‘spacing’] to deconstruct the traditional literary assumption that the relationship between space and writing, like that between writing and thought, is secondary, neutral and invisible.16 Derrida argues that space is not merely the underside of writing just as writing is not the underside of thought and speech: ‘the economy of writing is not subservient to thought or speech, but actually is productive in its own right’.17 Derrida deploys the concept of ‘spacing’ to advance the claim that space is both a product and productive, a force with its own creative agency. He writes:

Spacing is a concept which also, but not exclusively, carries the meaning of a productive, positive, and generative force. Like dissemination, like différance, it carries along with it a generic motif: it is not only the interval, the space constituted between two things (which is the usual sense of spacing), but also spacing, the operation, or in any event, the movement of setting aside.18

Like Foucault, Derrida too conceptualizes space as something more than just a neutral Euclidean void on which things and events happen: space is a medium with its own productive agency.

There are also several other theorists whose work more explicitly engages with space and offer fascinating insights into the social character of space and its entanglement with power and authority. In a landmark scholarship on the significance of spatiality and spatial imaginations, Henri Lefebvre advances the intriguing proposition that the social space is a social product: ‘[E]very society – and hence every mode of production … produces a space, its own space.’19 Space is a social formation that ‘exerts its own variety of agency’. Despite its material and objective appearance, space is not an inert, neutral, and isotropic void that pre-exists human action.20 As he puts it, ‘the social relations of production have a social existence to the extent that they have a spatial existence; they project themselves into a space, becoming inscribed there, and in the process of producing that space’.21 Emphasizing this productive nature of space, Edward Said argued that ‘the line separating Occident from the Orient … is less a fact of nature than it is a fact of human production, which I have called imaginative geography’.22 Drawing on both Lefebvre and Foucault, Edward Soja calls for an analysis of space that recognizes spatiality simultaneously as ‘social product (or outcome) and a shaping force (or medium) in social life’.23 As a socially produced and culturally mediated space, Soja argues, spatiality is analytically distinguishable from the ‘physical space of material nature’ or ‘the mental space of cognition’.24 In Soja’s analytic schema, then, spatiality is ‘simultaneously the medium and outcome, presupposition and embodiment, of social action and relationship’.25 In a passage that echoes both Foucault and Lefebvre, he claims: ‘Spatiality exists ontologically as a product of a transformation process, but always remains open to further transformation in the context of material life. It is never primordially given or permanently fixed.’26 Building on Lefebvre’s paradigm, Fredric Jameson explores the spatial distribution of power and knowledge within a capitalist society. For Jameson, space in a capitalist society is ‘the result of a discontinuous expansion of quantum leaps in the enlargement of capital’. Capitalist modes of production generate ‘a type of space unique to it’.27

What emerges from these brief considerations is the relational, productive and generative character of space. Not the invisible, undialectical, fixed and ‘transparent receptacle’ for objects and events, space is an active generative medium. It is a set of relations that partakes in the constitution of meaning and the configuration and reconfiguration of sovereignty, the subject and politics. As West-Pavlov put it, ‘[s]pace is the agency of configurement, and the fabric of configuration is from the outset spatial’.28 What unites these diverse range of thinkers is what may be called the social-constructivist paradigm that views space both as product and productive. From Foucault’s ‘discursive space’ to Derrida’s ‘spacing’; from Lefebvre’s constructivist paradigm to Soja’s ‘thirdspace’; from Said’s ‘imaginative geography’ to Jameson’s ‘cognitive mapping’, there is a useful conceptual paradigm filled with implications and insights for thinking about the spatiality of resistance and the courtroom.

It is a paradigm that treats space as a social product and meaning as a function of the spatio-temporal matrix within which it emerges: meaning is no longer independent of the space in which it emerges but a function of it.29 Within this interpretive paradigm, meaning is conceived as socially generated, something specific to time and place, and immanent in the spatio-temporal matrix within which it emerges. According to this perspective, an artefact has no essential or intrinsic meaning of its own. The secret of an artefact lies in the place in which it was produced and the machinery that produced it. Rather than uncovering some hidden truths and juridical meanings, the point of spatial enquiry is to ask how that artefact came to have the kind of reality it now has and what made it possible. It is to strip bare the conditions of possibility of knowledge generation and meaning production as a contingent and heterogeneous process of production.30

But resistance is also an irreducibly temporal formation whose consequences could not be fully understood in the immediate aftermath of specific episodes of resistance. As Johan van der Walt’s chapter shows, Nelson Mandela’s and Bram Fischer’s renegade performances at the Rivonia Trial could not be adequately accounted for without a particular attention to time. Only after ‘reflection, mirroring, and speculative representation’ can we begin to think and make sense of these gestures – only ‘when time gives’ can we understand the meanings and effects of those moments of madness. Mandela and fellow defendants were renegades who were up to something but did not quite know what they were about, they did not know what those defiant acts and gestures would have meant or achieved within Apartheid’s economy of representation, or what Jaco Barnard-Naudé, drawing on Jacques Rancière, calls Apartheid’s ‘distribution of the sensible’.31

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