What is Revealed by the Absence of a Reply? Courtesy, Pedagogy and the Spectre of Unanswered Letters in Mandela’s Trial

Chapter 11
What is Revealed by the Absence of a Reply? Courtesy, Pedagogy and the Spectre of Unanswered Letters in Mandela’s Trial

Alison Phipps

… that is a letter raising vital issues affecting the vast majority of this country … (Mandela: Incitement Trial)

I am not a legal scholar. My approach to the text and performative power of both the Incitement Trial and the Rivonia Trial are not trained by the conventions of law or administrative justice, but by dramaturgy, languages and anthropology. I also bring a strong sensitivity schooled in liberation theology and through advocacy work over many years in the context of the struggles of refugees. And I am a poet and liturgist. I say this at the outset to mark out a space for a different set of disciplinary and tonal conventions which for many with legal training will seem strange, perhaps ill-disciplined, perhaps imprecise, displacing. I would ask for your gentleness in academic hospitality and that you also accept my gratitude for the generosity of your reading. I say this, this way, because it echoes the formal conventions of speech in the trials we are considering, the necessity of eloquent respect of those we address with our words and the possibilities such spaces afford when such conventions are respected, the possibility of being largely and expansively heard.

In this chapter I will consider the import of letters both in Mandela’s trial but also in protest movements worldwide today. I will juxtapose the account given of the letters not favoured with a reply in Mandela’s trial and the unopened, unanswered letters of protesters and the kinds of language and evocation required for a letter to be received and heard. I will then consider the languages of justice, the forms of speech and languages admitted in the Rivonia Trial and those struggling for admittance today. To accomplish these moves I will: (1) attend theoretically to the questions posed by drawing on the work of feminist and postcolonial scholars, notably Judith Butler, Anne Carson, Luce Irigary and Elaine Scarry as well as scholars of languages; (2) Offer comparison with letters sent in protests pertaining today, with particular attention to two situations. First, letters sent by internationals in the struggles for justice in Israel and Palestine reflecting on the rhetorical comparisons to Apartheid South Africa. Second, in the more intimate contexts of anti-deportation campaigns in the UK, and in particular letters of my own which are not ‘favoured with a reply’; (3) I will suggest poetic and linguistic resources which fuse the rhetorical power of Mandela’s defence and the ethical preference for hope into fresh expressions in times when language and ‘vital issues’ are under duress today. I do so in order to highlight the effectiveness and necessity of social rituals of courtesy in personal and international relations, and within the context of the operations of law.

Looking for a Reply

The central drama in the text of Mandela’s defence at his incitement trial in his first court statement of 28 October 1962 revolves around a catalytic moment: the absence of a reply to the letter sent by Mandela to the prime minister and to the letter sent by Chief Lutuli to the prime minister. This opening moment repeats itself through the text and performs an important function as a pivot for the rhetorical imagination of law, land, language and letters.

Let me begin with what I perceive to be a central drama in the Incitement Trial and let me repeat the dramatic action:

Among the witnesses was Mr. Barnard, the private secretary to the then Prime Minister, Dr H F Verwoerd, whom Mandela cross-examined on the subject of a letter sent by Mandela to the Prime Minister demanding a National Convention in May 1961. In cross-examining the witness, Mandela first read the contents of the letter:

I am directed by the All-in African National Action Council to address your government in the following terms: The All-in African National Action Council was established in terms of a resolution adopted at a conference held at Pietermaritzburg on 25 and 26 March 1961. This conference was attended by 1,500 delegates from town and country, representing 145 religious, social, cultural, sporting, and political bodies. Conference noted that your government, after receiving a mandate from a section of the European population, decided to proclaim a republic on 31 May. It was the firm view of delegates that your government, which represents only a minority of the population in this country, is not entitled to take such a decision without first seeking the views and obtaining the express consent of the African people. Conference feared that under this proposed republic your government, which is already notorious the world over for its obnoxious policies, would continue to make even more savage attacks on the rights and living conditions of the African people.

Conference carefully considered the grave political situation facing the African people today. Delegate after delegate drew attention to the vicious manner in which your government forced the people of Zeerust, Sekhukhuniland, Pondoland, Nongoma, Tembuland and other areas to accept the unpopular system of Bantu Authorities, and pointed to numerous facts and incidents which indicate the rapid manner in which race relations are deteriorating in this country. It was the earnest opinion of Conference that this dangerous situation could be averted only by the calling of a sovereign national convention representative of all South Africans, to draw up a new non-racial and democratic Constitution. Such a convention would discuss our national problems in a sane and sober manner, and would work out solutions which sought to preserve and safeguard the interests of all sections of the population. Conference unanimously decided to call upon your government to summon such a convention before 31 May. Conference further decided that unless your government calls the convention before the above-mentioned date, countrywide demonstrations would be held on the eve of the republic in protest. Conference also resolved that in addition to the demonstrations, the African people would be called upon to refuse to cooperate with the proposed republic. We attach the Resolutions of the Conference for your attention and necessary action. We now demand that your government call the convention before 31 May, failing which we propose to adopt the steps indicated in paragraphs 8 and 9 of this letter. These demonstrations will be conducted in a disciplined and peaceful manner. We are fully aware of the implications of this decision, and the action we propose taking. We have no illusions about the counter-measures your government might take in this matter. After all, South Africa and the world know that during the last thirteen years your government has subjected us to merciless and arbitrary rule. Hundreds of our people have been banned and confined to certain areas. Scores have been banished to remote parts of the country, and many arrested and jailed for a multitude of offences. It has become extremely difficult to hold meetings, and freedom of speech has been drastically curtailed. During the last twelve months we have gone through a period of grim dictatorship, during which seventy-five people were killed and hundreds injured while peacefully demonstrating against passes. Political organisations were declared unlawful, and thousands flung into jail without trial. Your government can only take these measures to suppress the forthcoming demonstrations, and these measures have failed to stop opposition to the policies of your government. We are not deterred by threats of force and violence made by you and your government, and will carry out our duty without flinching.

MANDELA: You remember the contents of this letter?


MANDELA: Did you place this letter before your Prime Minister?


MANDELA: On what date? Can you remember?

WITNESS: It is difficult to remember, but I gather from the date specified on the date stamp, the Prime Minister’s Office date stamp.

MANDELA: That is 24 April. Now was any reply given to this letter by the Prime Minister? Did he reply to this letter?

WITNESS: He did not reply to the writer.

MANDELA: He did not reply to the letter. Now, will you agree that this letter raises matters of vital concern to the vast majority of the citizens of this country?

WITNESS: I do not agree.

MANDELA: You don’t agree? You don’t agree that the question of human rights, of civil liberties, is a matter of vital importance to the African people?

WITNESS: Yes, that is so, indeed.

Theoretically, the ground here is ground worked over by Lacan, Derrida and Zizek in their consideration of the deconstructive amateur detective story of Edgar Allan Poe, The Purloined Letter. These theorists address the possibilities of what might happen when letters do not arrive at their destination or when they are not acknowledged as having done so. As such these theorists are concerned to illuminate the question that concerns me here: of a failure in social conventions and communications concerning an important letter. In Poe’s story a letter has gone missing and is then found again by cleverness and by the possibility, celebrated in Foucauldian readings of this text, of surveillance systems being fallible to an amateur’s wit. To summarise quite simply what are complex and important arguments, Lacan (1988) asks why it is that a letter always arrives at its destination, and Derrida typically then asks the converse; ‘Why, indeed? Why could it not – sometimes, at least – also fail to reach it?’ (Derrida, 1987). Zizek (2013) then considers the nature of both the turn of events and the presenting absence, ‘the fact that events took precisely this turn could not but appear as uncanny, concealing some fateful meaning – as if some mysterious hand took care that the letter arrived at its destination’. Much of the analysis of these three writers lingers over the terrain and discourse of psychoanalysis and rightly so. The absence of a text, and a letter all the more so, has a tantalising hold on the human imagination. By raising the spectre of the letter which was not acknowledged but which raised ‘matters of vital concern to the majority of the citizens’ of South Africa, Mandela is working in the trial with the same material as detains Lacan, Derrida and Zizek. Analysis of this element also adds to the debates concerning the exposure of wider structures of power, even of fate, which these theorists also excavate, namely, the absence of an important and much anticipated text, in the form of a reply.

The absence of important texts lingers over scholarly imagination and drives much interpretative and conjectural work. Socrates left no text, that we know of, but philosophy is haunted by the possibility. Aristotle’s Poetics possess the text on tragedy but the text on comedy is missing. New Testament hermeneutics is haunted by the absent ‘Q Text’ – the text upon which the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are purported to be based – but which is nowhere present. We do not believe we have all of the Epistles of Paul or know that they all did indeed arrive, and upon these is built one of the three religions of the book. By drawing attention to a letter which is absent from a record where convention would demand a reply, Mandela feeds the imagination and seeds the question – what if a reply had been sent? What might it have said? How might things have turned out differently? What would have constituted a just reply as opposed to a silencing discourtesy? The ragged record with its gaping absences in philosophy and hermeneutics, demonstrates how much work can come from absence of text as well as presence, and how the fates are summoned to act as witnesses within this work.

It isn’t just in the arena of philosophy and Biblical hermeneutics that the absence of text and lack of epistles captures the imagination. It is also a trope in popular culture. The examples below show that within the complex story of the missing text or letter is an element of the drama of the letter which either did not arrive or did not receive a reply:

Completing a journey started over half a century ago: Man who received lost postcard 55 YEARS after it was sent by his parents will now visit aquarium pictured on the back. By Snejana Farberov, 26 April 2012 (Daily Mail).

1967 Postcard Arrives 46 Years Late, Mystifying Family “Bert Jacobson was just 13 when he took a trip with his father and cousins to the East Coast and wrote his mother a postcard to describe the fun he was having. At that time, in 1967, Lyndon B. Johnson was president, the Beatles were groovy and postage home cost 4 cents. That postcard never reached Jacobson’s mother – not until this week, that is, when the letter, dirtied and tattered, arrived at his family’s concrete business P.O. Box.”1

The discovery of lost letters continues to tantalise scholars. In June 2013 a Professor of Scottish History at my own university found a lost letter from Robert the Bruce, 1310, to King Edward II sent less than four years before Robert Bruce won a famous victory at the Battle of Bannockburn against the English king which paved the way for Scottish independence. This discovery of such a lost letter is, in the context of a country that was at the time preparing for a referendum on independence, a significant symbolic find. The question, which brings us back to the drama of the Incitement Trial, is why such absences and missing or failed replies – the intervening dramas in the politics and possibilities of receiving a reply – have such a performative hold on the imagination?

Anne Carson, Classics scholar and poet, perhaps provides an answer to the tantalising hold an absent response has for human dramas. In her work Eros the Bittersweet (1998) she dissects the geometrically opposed elements in the erotic desire and the way the force of Eros behaves when thwarted, scorned, dishonoured or simply disappointed:

The Greek word eros denotes “want”, “lack”, “desire for that which is missing”. The lover wants what he does not have. It is impossible for him to have what he wants if, as soon as it is had, it is no longer wanting … All human desire is poised on an axis of paradox, absence and presence its poles, love and hate its motive energies. (Carson, 1998: 10–11)

Under this definition of Eros the reply to the letter would signify to Mandela that relations are following conventions and that there is hope of pursuing diplomatic and political means in the struggle for justice in South Africa. The absence of a reply signifies the absence of the very thing most desired – the affordance by the South African government of respect towards the opposition. Where this is absent, as symbolised in the absence of a reply to a letter, then the impossibility of normal, political conventions is, paradoxically, made evident. In the context of the letter brought centre stage in the trial the absent letter, the reply never written, constitutes an uncivilised and scandalous action for Mandela, it dishonours his love of his people and country. In the exchange between Mandela and the Witness a reversal occurs which exposes as ‘uncivilised’ the power the government has assumed of naming actions uncivilised or scandalous, on the basis of colour. What it means to be civilised and who is able to demonstrate civilised actions becomes the central drama:

MANDELA: Would you agree with me that in any civilised country in the world it would be at least most scandalous for a Prime Minister to fail to reply to a letter raising vital issues affecting the majority of the citizens of that country. Would you agree with that?

WITNESS: I don’t agree with that.

MANDELA: You don’t agree that it would be irregular for a Prime Minister to ignore a letter raising vital issues affecting the vast majority of the citizens of that country?

WITNESS: This letter has not been ignored by the Prime Minister.

It is not the savagery or barbaric enactment of Apartheid laws which is named as uncivilised and scandalous, but rather the failure of the prime minister to reply to a letter. Derrida notes this in ‘The Laws of Reflection’, his piece written in admiration of Mandela:

Mandela thus accuses white governments of never answering, while at the same time demanding that blacks be quiet and make written representations: resign yourself to correspondence and to corresponding all alone. The sinister irony of counterpoint: after his conviction, Mandela is kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day in Pretoria Central Prison. He is employed in sewing mailbags (Derrida, 2008: 78–9).

This raises questions relating to the Incitement Trial’s performative power as to the nature of the breach involved in the refusal to dignify a letter with a reply.

In writing on the nature of the social bond, without which societies slide quickly into violence and chaos, the theologian Rowan Williams (2000) speaks of ‘the civilities of fraternity’ as the core elements ensuring that energy is directed away from competition or confrontation and towards the ‘maintenance of friendly exchange’. The ability to keep an exchange going, to commit to a conversation, at the most basic level to participate in the known social rituals of meeting and greeting, allows for the space to be maintained for those exchanges which surround the conflicts of interest and desire. Williams maintains that because we are not transparent to each other the maintenance of a common language and common opportunities to learn of one another is fundamental to politics, and therefore to the possibilities of justice. In short, the maintenance of appropriate rituals of social exchange – from the chat over the garden wall about the weather, to the reply to a letter – is the continuing symbolic and practised acknowledgement that ‘my interest involves yours and yours mine’ (Williams, 2000: 101).

Eros – what is desired and absent, here, is justice, for a country, for the law and human dignity, and, in this trial, for the accused man’s life. It is invoked in the social ritual of civil forms of relationship between political leaders: the letter. Eros here is thwarted through the contempt, the denial of a reply, the refusal to respond with respect to another. It is staged on the drama of the missing reply, the failed reply, and all that this represents. What was a personal exchange between party leaders becomes a matter of wild forces unleashed as the drama of the snub, the discourtesy, slighted lover of citizens and country, is laid out. Meticulously, or as Carson may suggest, geometrically, Eros is activated here publicly and with stakes as high as treason and death. The structural components in the drama are the lover (Mandela), beloved (the question ‘of human rights, of civil liberties, as a matter of vital importance to the African people’) and that which comes between them (‘vital issues affecting the vast majority of the citizens of that country’, the neglect of which is manifest in the absence of a reply to the letter). They are three points of transformation on ‘a circuit of possible relationship, electrified by desire so that they touch not touching. Conjoined they are held apart’ (Carson, 1998: 16). Quoting the tradition that the entrance to Plato’s academy bore the words ‘Let no one enter here who is ignorant of geometry’, Carson suggests that:

When the circuit-points connect, perception leaps. And something becomes visible, on the triangular path where volts are moving, that would not be visible without the three-part structure … The man sits like a god, the poet almost dies: two poles of response within the same desiring mind. Triangulation makes both present at once by a shift of distance, replacing erotic action with a ruse of heart and language. For in this dance the people do not move. Desire moves. Eros is a verb. (Carson, 1998: 17)