When Time Gives: Reflections on Two Rivonia Renegades

Chapter 3
When Time Gives: Reflections on Two Rivonia Renegades

Johan van der Walt


This chapter engages with aspects of the lives of two key figures in the Rivonia trial. The first is Nelson Mandela, one of the accused. The second is Bram Fischer, leader of the defence team. The engagement with Mandela and Fischer will unfold in five sections under the following headings: Mandela and the Laws of Reflection; The Performative, the Constative and the Impossible Foundation; The Gift and the Secret; The Renegade Moment; Bram Fischer’s Madness.

The first section consists of a re-reading of the essay Jacques Derrida published on Nelson Mandela when Mandela was still in jail. It engages with the way Derrida situates Mandela within the play of the laws of reflection and how he then moves to contemplate a Mandela who cannot be reduced to or captured and imprisoned by these laws of reflection. The second section moves on to two further themes that Derrida raises in the essay on Mandela, the relation between the performative and the constative in speech acts and the impossibility of foundations or origins. These are key themes in Derrida’s thought to which he returns many times in his work. The engagement with these themes in the Mandela essay is significant because of the way it highlights the relation between these themes in Derrida’s work, but also because of the way it allows one to trace the boundaries of speculative reflection and to follow a trace to the Mandela who can ultimately not be contained by these boundaries of reflection.

The third section marks these boundaries of reflection with reference to the secret and the gift or the secret of the gift. The concepts of the secret and the gift play a pivotal role in the strand or tradition of philosophical thought that first became known as phenomenology and later as deconstruction. They stand in as reflection-resistant or reflection-resisting articulations of the boundaries of epistemological and normative reflection on and through which existing worlds and their pro- and inhibiting confines are constructed. As such they also point us to a freedom beyond these pro- and inhibiting confines of existing worlds. This freedom cannot be named, but a certain allusion to it is possible through invocation of moments of sheer madness that resist, challenge and rebel against all normative conceptions and ideals of freedom. The fourth section describes these moments as renegade moments, moments that differ from revolutionary moments because they cannot be reduced to the endorsement, postulation and revolving of ancient normative conceptions – the hallmark of revolutions according to Arendt. Ultimately, they simply erupt as instances of an absolute freedom to act. ‘Madness beyond insanity’, Foucault calls this freedom.

The section on the Secret and of the Gift (third section) already invokes a remarkable renegade moment in the life of Mandela. The last section, ‘Bram Fischer’s Madness,’ turns to a life that was ultimately consumed by a renegade moment. In view of Arendt’s assessment of revolutions in terms of the revolving or recycling of ancient normative ideals, renegade moments should be considered as the real or essential inauguration of the newness and new worlds that Arendt’s reflections on revolutions and politics also contemplate profoundly. The renegade moment – in the instant of its withdrawal into the madness of absolute freedom – is not concerned with ancient norms and values. It is not concerned. It is simply and exclusively an eruption of unprecedented action. It is the eruption of the unprecedented. If at all related to revolutions, they might be considered as the very seeds from which revolutions ultimately spring. But they ultimately also withdraw from revolutions – and the stale language of revolutions – to return to that which always occurs much earlier. They withdraw to the absolutely unprecedented opening or giving of time from which new times and new worlds derive in the very final or first analysis. They take part in the pure performative, the pure act of withdrawal that ‘is’ or ‘gives’ time and through which time gives itself to new times and new worlds by withdrawing from them.

Mandela and the Laws of Reflection

Jacques Derrida published his essay on Mandela in 1987. Mandela was still in jail at the time. The essay reflected then and still reflects today on Mandela’s resistance to the apartheid regime, focusing mostly on Mandela’s address to the court during the Rivonia trial. The essay turns on three key themes to which Derrida always came back in his work – the laws of reflections and speculation; the relation between the constative and the performative elements in speech acts; and the impossibility of acts of foundation and the need to substitute or at least supplement such ‘acts’ with retroactive ratifications or consolidations without which they basically remain spectral stirrings with no significant purchase on reality. In this section of this chapter, we shall briefly look at the first of these three themes again and at the way that Derrida articulated it in his essay on Mandela.

Derrida starts off with Mandela’s admiration for the law and specifically with Mandela’s dismissal of Marxist critiques of the parliamentary system as ‘undemocratic and reactionary’. ‘On the contrary’, stated Mandela clearly during the Rivionia trial, ‘I am an admirer of [this] system … [and] have great respect for the British political institutions … and system of justice’. ‘The independence of its judiciary never fails to arouse my admiration’, he continued. ‘Respect’, ‘admirer’ and ‘admiration’ are the key words here for Derrida and the emphases on these words are his.1

Mandela’s respect and admiration nevertheless do not make him a ‘simple inheritor’ of these British institutions. If he is an inheritor, writes Derrida, he is the ‘authentic inheritor’ who does not simply ‘conserve and reproduce’ but also ‘turn[s the inheritance] upon occasion against those who claim to be its guardians’ so as to ‘reveal in the inheritance … what had never seen the light of day’.2 This ‘what had never seen the light of day’ would be revealed, if at all, by an ‘unheard-of act of reflection’, says Derrida. It would be revealed, in other words, still by an act of reflection and thus by a certain mirroring, but an unheard-of act of such reflection or mirroring. The act of reflection or mirroring and thus of repetition appears to be inescapable also here in this authentic inheritance, but there is something extraordinary about it, so much so that it is ‘unheard-of’. We shall return to this invocation of an ‘unheard-of act of reflection’ below, for in it is discernible an act that might be called ‘purely revolutionary’ or even ‘pre-revolutionary’ because of the way it embodies the very ‘seeds’ of revolution. Let us first look at what is at stake for Derrida in these mirroring reflections that he also ascribes to Mandela’s ad-mir-ation of the law.

Derrida’s engagement with mirroring and the speculum (the Latin for mirror still discernible in the German Spiegel, Dutch Spiegel and Afrikaans spieël) can be traced back to his engagement with Hegel and Bataille in an early essay on ‘restricted and general economies’. Speculative economies are restricted economies, argues Derrida in this essay. They only spend for purposes of investment. The risk they take with others and otherness through the temporary forfeiture of possession has one aim only, and that is to increase possession. The speculation at stake in this investment of the self or the ‘own’ in the ‘other’ is aimed at a profitable re-possession of the self. This profitable investment and speculation goes to the heart of Hegel’s speculative philosophy, according to Derrida. In Hegel’s historical dialectic between spirit and matter or nature, spirit only spends itself (alienates itself/objectifies itself) in nature or matter in order to return to itself as dialectically enriched spirit. It is not an expenditure of spirit in an encounter with matter or nature for the sake of matter or nature. It is not an expenditure of spirit for the sake of losing itself selflessly in that what is strange and foreign to it. The latter expenditure of the self, the complete loss of selfhood, argues Derrida, is what Bataille has in mind with the notion of ‘general economy’. At issue in this general economy is an expenditure of the self on the other that envisages or contemplates no profitable return from which selfhood would emerge enriched or enlarged. At issue in the general economy is a pure eroticism, that is, a pure desire for the other or otherness and a pure desire to merge with this otherness without any consideration of possible consequences. Were Bataille’s general economy possible, it would not pay the slightest consideration to economic concerns with survival, let alone concerns of profitability.3

Attention to Mandela’s mirroring admiration for the law and Western political and legal institutions undoubtedly still confines him (at least for us) to this speculative dialectics of investment. The focus on Mandela’s admiration for Western democratic institutions renders him visible as one who risks his life for laudable ideals that we all understand. And this visibility is the beginning of a new confinement. The closing paragraph of Derrida’s essay makes this abundantly clear:

[W]hat remains to be seen … is also the figure of Mandela. Who is he? We have looked at him through words which are sometimes the devices for observation, which can in any case become that if we are not careful. What we have described, in trying precisely to escape speculation, was a sort of great historical watchtower or observation post. But nothing permits us to imagine this unity as assured, still less the legitimacy of this optic reflection, of its singular laws, of the law, of its place of institution, of presentation or of revelation, for example of what we assemble too quickly under the name of the West. But doesn’t this presumption of unity produce something like an effect … that so many forces, always, try to appropriate for themselves? An effect visible and invisible, like a mirror, also hard, like the walls of a prison. All that still hides Nelson Mandela from our sight.4

All the words through the optics of which Derrida endeavoured to observe Mandela in the essay that ends with this passage evidently bother Derrida. They have, he fears, produced an effect. They have constructed an image of Mandela, as if from the vantage point of a watchtower or observation post. And it is from this vantage point that many forces seek to appropriate Mandela. But the unity and legitimacy of this effect is in no way assured, suggests Derrida. In fact, not only is the unity and legitimacy of this effect not assured, the effect effectively hides Mandela from our eyes, insists Derrida. The unitary effect – the picture we get of Mandela through the optic play generated by words of the essay – effectively hides Mandela from our sight, like the walls of a prison. The walls created by the mirroring play of language are as hard as the walls of a prison, he concludes. His choice of words in this regard inescapably reminds one of the self-imprisonment in a hall of mirrors that Calvino describes in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.5

The closing paragraph of Derrida’s essay on Mandela is truly remarkable, for among the words that went into Derrida’s engagement with Mandela in this essay were also words that one might have assessed as an appreciation of the authentic inheritance or unheard-of reflection that at least in some respect transcends the regular reflection or mere mirroring that kept Mandela doubly imprisoned at the time (beyond the brick walls of the prison there were also the hard walls of optic mirroring that kept him incarcerated) and perhaps still keep him imprisoned today. For instance, Derrida also engaged with the Mandela who, in addition to his declaration of respect for Western political institutions, holds up to these institutions a challenging perfection of their ideals of democracy and equality and respect for the individual that he gleaned from ‘Marxist reading’ and the ‘structure and organization of early African societies’. ‘The land’, Mandela averred in his address to the court, ‘then the main means of production, belonged to the tribe’. ‘There were no rich or poor, and there was no exploitation of man by man.’ In this society Mandela discerned the ‘seeds of a revolutionary democracy in which none will be held in slavery or servitude, and in which poverty, want and insecurity shall be no more’.6

Is there not here, in this invocation of the seeds of a revolutionary democracy that Mandela discerned in early African societies, an intimation of the unheard-of reflection that ultimately makes Mandela not just an inheritor but an authentic inheritor of Western democracy that ‘reveals … what has never yet been seen in the inheritance’? One might want to think so, but Derrida does not even exclude these observations of Mandela from the ‘devices of observation’ through which the essay has effectively constructed a unitary image of him. Going by the regular rules and principles of prose and dissertation, Mandela’s invocation of the revolutionary democracy that can be gleaned from early African social arrangements is part and parcel of the hard prison and speculative walls that still hide him from our eyes.

In other words, the unitary effect created by the language of the essay on Mandela is not broken by the invocation of Mandela’s fascination with early African societies. It is simply completed by it. It only contributes to a more complete unitary effect that also accounts for an element of Mandela’s person that is well known and can hardly be ignored without becoming grossly negligent as far as constructing Mandela’s portrait is concerned. But the deconstruction of this portrait has surely not yet begun with this completion of it. Paying due attention to Mandela’s fascination with the social organization of the societies from which he came is essential for anyone who would like to begin to understand him. But the critical or deconstructive move that would begin to understand Mandela also on this count as an authentic heir of the traditions of these societies would have to begin to ask how Mandela does or did not simply ‘conserve and reproduce’ this inheritance but also ‘turn[s or turned it] upon occasion against those who claim to be its guardians’ so as to ‘reveal in [it] … what had never seen the light of day’. Derrida’s essay does not claim to have begun to do this with regard to either of these two elements of Mandela’s double inheritance. The ‘unheard-of reflection’ that Mandela may have accomplished with regard to the traditions that he admires to ‘reveal in [them] what has never seen the light of day’ must itself still be revealed. The suggestion at the end of the essay is clear. There is a Mandela that we have not seen yet and may never come to see. For all practical purposes one can call this Mandela the secret Mandela, the one whose secret has not yet been revealed to anyone and will never be revealed.

What are the conditions for talking earnestly about ‘the secret Mandela’ or ‘Mandela’s secret’? There are probably more conditions for talking about a secret and for talking in this case about ‘Mandela’s secret’ than can be listed here. But one crucial condition is this one: To remain a secret, the secret may never be revealed and must in fact not at all be subject or susceptible to any possibility of revelation. Only when this condition is fulfilled can one talk seriously about a secret. This is what Umberto Eco tells us in striking fashion in one of his novels, but it is also a crucial element of Derrida’s understanding of the secret, contends Jean-Luc Nancy.7 Can we nevertheless begin to understand better what is at stake in this secret that cannot be revealed? Can one come to understand something of or about a secret without revealing it and thus ruining it? The suggestion in what follows is that this is indeed feasible. The suggestion is in fact that this is what Derrida’s work aimed at all along. Deconstruction is an endeavour to alert us to secrets that cannot be revealed and to facilitate an understanding of or at least an experience of these secrets, an experience of their irreducible secrecy that will not allow for any revelation. It is thus only through deconstruction that we might come closer to the secret Mandela that we will never come to see. And that is how we will approach Mandela’s un-disclosable secret in what follows – through deconstruction and specifically through two further strategies or themes of deconstruction that Derrida brings into play in the essay on Mandela. The first concerns the relation between the performative and constative in speech act theory. The second concerns the figure of impossible foundational acts.

The Performative, the Constative and the Impossible Foundation

The other two themes of deconstruction announced here, the relation between the performative and constative elements of speech acts and the impossibility of founding that haunts all constitutional acts, indeed lead us deeper into the realm of Mandela’s secret. Considering that constitutional acts of founding that inaugurate new institutional settings are also speech acts that convey or communicate meaningful content, the two themes are necessarily closely related. Derrida brings the theme of the performative and constative sides of the speech act into play in two regards in the essay on Mandela. The first concerns the failed speech act that marked and marred the constitutionalization and institutionalization of apartheid. The second concerns the revolutionary dream of a purely performative speech act that would never become contained or constrained by the constative acts that result from the performative.

The essay describes apartheid as a failed speech act, an act that was simply too weak to establish the order that it aimed to establish. Speech acts that aim to found new orders perpetrate a minimum or threshold level of violence without which they fail to achieve what they set out to achieve. They have to break down old orders effectively and they have to eradicate all significant resistance to the new order effectively. Only then does the violence that they continue to perpetrate or once perpetrated become inconspicuous or surreptitious enough to be forgotten and only then does the new order begin to appear as an instance of effective order and not as a continuation of disorderly violence. This is what apartheid could never do. It could never perpetrate enough violence, the minimum level of violence required to establish itself. Derrida writes:

Not all performatives, a theoretician of speech acts would say, are “happy”. That depends on a great number of conditions and conventions that form the context of such events. In the case of South Aica, certain “conventions” were not respected, the violence was too great, visibly too great, at a moment when this invisibility extended to a new international scene, and so on. The white community was too much in the minority, the disproportion of wealth too flagrant. From then on this violence remains at once excessive and powerless, insufficient in its result, lost in its own contradiction. It cannot manage to have itself forgotten, as in the case of states founded on genocide or quasi-extermination. Here [in the case of apartheid] the violence of the origin must repeat itself indefinitely and act out its rightfulness in a legislative apparatus whose monstrosity fails to pay back. A pathological proliferation of juridical prostheses (laws, acts, amendments) destined to legalize to the slightest detail the effects of fundamental racism, of a state racism, the unique and the last in the world.8

The description or analysis of apartheid that Derrida articulates here evidently turns on a radical real-political understanding of political institutionalization. He clearly exempts no institutional foundation from what seems to be an indispensable founding violence. But there are conventions regarding this founding violence that the apartheid regime did not respect. Apartheid’s violence was too visible at a time when a certain insistence that violence be kept invisible became an international standard. Derrida’s invocation of speech act theory merges here with Walter Benjamin’s critique of violence that would become the main focus in his seminal essay ‘Force of law’.9 Benjamin’s critique of violence entertains no illusionary ideals about institutionalizations that would not be violent. Derrida would take Benjamin to task in ‘Force of law’ for entertaining the notion of a final apocalyptic violence – a divine violence – that would finally break out of the cycle of law-creating and law-maintaining violence. But Benjamin’s critique remained a functional heuristic for Derrida in ‘Force of law’ and so it is also here in the essay on Mandela. In terms of Benjamin’s critique, apartheid’s violence can be analysed as an infinitely insufficient law-founding violence that necessitated an infinitely excessive law-enforcing violence.

It is also against this background of the inevitability of institutional violence of either the founding or securing kind that the bizarre ‘liberal’ rejection of the ANC’s turn to violence in the struggle against apartheid becomes glaringly evident – the rejection of those liberals who worked against apartheid from within the system and insisted that the resistance to apartheid remains ‘democratic’. This liberal rejection of the ANC’s turn to ‘anti-democratic’ measures turned on nothing less than a convenient blindness regarding the violence perpetrated by the system of apartheid on a daily basis. The violence perpetrated by the system of apartheid was abominable, these liberals surely acknowledged, but that somehow did not count when it came to taking any kind of concrete action. When the stakes were really up, only the violence that sought to end apartheid’s violence counted and warranted enough rejection to cut ties, refuse association and decline support. The violence of apartheid itself did not warrant this principled cutting of ties, refusal of association and denial of support. These liberals continued to work within the system, associated with it and thus supported it despite its quotidian violence. They thus lent apartheid some kind of legitimacy that the resistance to apartheid, on the other hand, did not merit according to them. They insisted that the ANC should join them in a democratic struggle against an undemocratic regime. They did not contemplate giving up their institutional and personal security in order to join the ANC. One should also not forget that this was the time that two of the major ‘liberal democracies’ of the world, the United States and the United Kingdom, the latter being the very democracy whose institutions Mandela singled out in his admiration, labelled the ANC and Mandela as ‘terrorists’.10 It is against this background that Mandela explained the ANC’s resort to armed resistance and rejection of this supposedly ‘democratic way’: ‘Only a people already enjoying democratic and constitutional rights has any grounds for speaking of [such] rights. This does not have meaning for those who do not benefit from them.’11

However, there is absolutely nothing mysterious or enigmatic about this rejection of democratic rights, principles and measures under circumstances that in any case make a mockery of these rights, principles and measures. It requires little more than common sense to reject the demand to play by rules by which no one is playing. This part of Mandela’s person and legacy is therefore neither extraordinary, nor mysterious or enigmatic. It is far from ‘secretive’. His stance in this regard was and is still fully visible, transparent and comprehensible. At issue here is surely not an ‘unheard-of reflection’ that ‘reveals what has never seen the light of day’. By taking this stance, the Mandela whom we cannot see has not yet moved one inch closer to the stage that will, in any case, never present or reveal him. What is Derrida getting at then, when he talks about a Mandela that is infinitely shielded from our vision by a wall of mirrors that is as hard as prison walls?

The second invocation of the performative/constative configuration of speech acts and of law founding and securing violence in the essay gives us a clue in this regard. It leads one closer to what might still become ‘manifest’ as the undisclosed secret of Mandela, the secret that nevertheless will remain undisclosed and unrevealed even while becoming manifest. Derrida returns to the performative/constative thematic in response to the new order that Mandela envisages for South Africa: An order that is founded on ‘the will of an entire nation’.12 According to Derrida, Mandela seems to be invoking Rousseau here without quoting him. He seems to be invoking a general will that is not just the sum of all the individual wills that constitute a people.13 And we know that Rousseau’s general will is a fiction, an idea that has to be presupposed for purposes of entertaining a certain idea of inclusive democracy, but one that has no material reality. Mandela, in other words, appears to envisage for South Africa something that is, going by all realistic expectations, simply impossible. He was not one for real or realistic expectations. He always chose the unexpected route, writes Achille Mbembe poignantly.14

Not only is that which Mandela envisages for South Africa realistically speaking impossible. It also runs head-on into the problem of an impossible institutionalization. At issue is a ‘performative [institutionalization that] will not appear to refer to any fundamental pre-existing law’. Being an idea of which the material realization is impossible, it would have to ‘erase itself from all empirical determination’ for it ‘seems no more accessible here than anywhere else’. What Mandela envisages for South Africa runs into the same problematic that the foundations of new constitutional orders generally run into, but it also does this so with the stakes raised infinitely higher. To begin with the problem of foundation:

This phenomenon marks the establishment of almost all states after a decolonization. Mandela knows that: no matter how democratic it is, and even if it seems to conform to the principle of the equality of all before the law, the absolute inauguration of a state cannot presuppose the previously legitimized existence of a national entity. The same is true for a first constitution. The total unity of a nation is not identified for the first time except by contract – formal or not, written or not – which institutes some fundamental law. Now this contract is never actually signed, except by supposed representatives of the nation which is supposed to be “entire”. This fundamental law cannot, either in law or in fact, simply precede that which at once institutes it and nevertheless supposes it: projecting and reflecting it! It can in no way precede this extraordinary performative by which a signature authorizes itself to sign, in a word, legalizes itself on its own without the guarantee of a preexisting law. This violence and this autographic fiction are found at work just as surely in what we call individual autobiography as in the “historical” origin of states.15

As already mentioned, this theme of the impossible foundation – requiring pre-existing authorization that it will only obtain later, retroactively, etc. – fascinated Derrida endlessly and his work returns to it often.16 He probably never realized – or if he did never indicated that he did – that he was grappling with a problematic that Hans Kelsen had already addressed squarely and without much ado in his Reine Rechtslehre as well as in other writings.17 Kelsen very lucidly concluded that the Grundnorm

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