Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Interview with Premesh Lalu on Nelson Mandela

World Bulletin / Ibrahim Tigli and Jalal Rayi - Cape Town

Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president who steered his nation out of apartheid, passed away on December 6 at the age of 95.

Premesh Lalu, who studies social history and the apartheid regime, has replied to the questions of World Bulletin about Nelson Mandela and South Africa's past and future.

Lalu is the director of the Centre for Humanities Research (University of the Western Cape) and chair of the Handspring Trust.

What is your opinion about South Africa and Nelson Mandela?

This is a moment of great sadness for all South Africans and for many who have dedicated their lives to the struggle for justice. We have thought about its meaning over the past few weeks at the University of the Western Cape and in the Centre for Humanities Research. We’ve had to gather our thoughts about what the passing of Nelson Mandela means for the project of building a non-racial democratic South Africa.

I believe the first point to make is that Nelson Mandela’s legacy reminds us of what it means to combine ethical and political commitments, especially those commitments that define the anti-colonial struggle, the struggle against apartheid, and the struggle against underdevelopment. There’s something about his legacy, which offers us a way to deal with the history of colonialism, apartheid and underdevelopment. In the wake of his passing, it is not enough to say that Mandela was a political visionary. That seems to be the general way in which the media has portrayed his life. We would do better to ask how he came to his political views and principles.

The project of reconciliation that he championed in the later part of his life was itself a product of a long history of thought and political debate in the struggles against colonialism, apartheid and underdevelopment. He was an intellectual who thought about how one might rethink the relationship between politics and the law, when both were mired in the dehumanization of society. So that’s the first point I wish to stress about the relationship between the name Nelson Mandela and South Africa.

We have a long history of anti-colonialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in which the cause of justice has been abused and undermined. We have seen this in many anti-colonial struggles across the world in which the struggle for justice became entangled in sectarian ideological struggles. Mandela for his part deepened our understanding of justice. He not only demanded justice, but alerted us to why justice was demanding. So that’s what he brought to bear on the political ideals that defined the struggle against apartheid in South Africa; an radical critique and reworking of law’s relationship to politics and ethics. He achieved this by insisting on an intellectual sensibility, and an ethical belief, and commitment as the very grounds for political action. This, I think, was a striking note on which to end the 20th century and its many struggles. Combining these elements is both a struggle and an education in its own right. To read the political writing of Mandela is to discover the outlines of this struggle and education. He leaves behind a commitment to thinking the limits and possibilities of the law, he leaves behind a commitment to ethics, and he leaves behind the legacy of doing politics that is deeply committed to the concept of the ‘human’. And that’s how we might want to think about and remember someone like Nelson Mandela – as a major political and legal thinker of our times.

What is Mandela’s struggle through ANC against apartheid?

PL: We must place Mandela’s long life and the many problems he confronted as an individual in relation to the history of the African National Congress, Black Consciousness, Marxism and the critique of underdevelopment. As a member of the ANC Youth League in the 1940s, and later, as he became a more prominent figure in the movement against apartheid, he was part of a political formation that struggled to come to terms with the rise of apartheid, not only as a repressive state apparatus, but also as a form of modern biopolitics. One of the most crucial aspects about Mandela’s political thought is that he struggled to make sense of the problem of apartheid, especially through the passage of the Bantu Self Government Act of the 1950s that gave rise to the dreaded homeland system. As a system of biopolitics, race and ethnicity were mobilised to divide people into citizens and subjects. The problem of underdevelopment was at the heart of the critique of apartheid that Mandela helped to elaborate. In Mandela‘s thinking, one discerns an argument against underdevelopment. We may even say that the growing threat of Native Administration in the rural Eastern Cape may have prompted his departure to Johannesburg. We will need further research of how the threat of Native Administration in the rural areas presented many youth in the 1940s with the danger of being trapped in a narrative of ethnicity and culture. The narrative of ethnicity and culture touted by apartheid administrators translated into a mechanism of control, even when it resorted to the language of self-government and representation. But there was more. Mandela heard in the idea of Native Administration, the echoes of a liberal notion of trusteeship. Trusteeship, as I’ve said elsewhere, held that the black subject had to be educated into becoming a modern political subject. Mandela saw both as part of the same racial logic. Trusteeship and Native Administration were two sides of the same coin.

Upon leaving the Eastern Cape, Mandela arrived in the city of Johanneburg, which was substantially transformed by the migrant labour system and secondary industrialization after the Second World War. The struggle took on new dimensions in an urban area like Johannesburg. So in the first part of his life, his thought was formed in relation to the problem of trusteeship and its racial presuppositions. He understood that that process was one of control that would undermine the life conditions of black subjects and their standing as political subjects. But in the 1950s the question of apartheid was something that had not necessarily been adequately understood, not only by opponents of apartheid, but also its proponents. In other words, the generation to which Mandela belonged was trying to figure out what this new formation of apartheid was about. So in the second part of his life he joined an expansive group of young intellectuals who sought to make sense of what apartheid was. They seemed to understand that apartheid was not simply about a pedagogy of culture but it was also about a pedagogy of violence and it was about a violence that was increasingly entrenched in urban areas around the mobility of black subjects. And so in the second phase of his political life he took on board an understanding of what apartheid meant and why apartheid was a different configuration of racial and ethnic control, one that exceeded the designs of Native Administration. I would say that the third aspect of his struggle, developed in the last years of his life when he became the head of state in a democratic South Africa, was to show us the passage to a concept of the human that might include all human beings. In other words, he wanted us to understand what was at stake in the very idea of the human. And I think that this was his lasting legacy in the last part of his life, and one that is most contested in the post-apartheid present. Such a concept of the human was developed not only on the basis of an older humanism, but as a juridical concept, one that extended the very meaning of what we understood as justice.

Such a concept has of course been very difficult to grasp, let alone actualise. It seemed to encounter its limit in the very institutional edifice that sustained apartheid since 1948 to 1994. And it seemed to brush up against the extreme difficulty of forging a concept of the post-apartheid. I believe that Mandela only partially answered the question he posed and often by relying on older scripts of resistance to supplement his legal thinking. I don’t think that he could fully answer such an enormously challenging question because, needless to say, it is a question bigger than anyone of us imagined. And I think that is the legacy we’re going to have to deal with and fulfil. We are left with the task of finishing the critique of apartheid at one level but also creating the conditions of the new, of posing questions adequate to elaborating a concept of the post-apartheid. What Mandela gifts South Africans is the possibility of a new question about the meaning of the post-apartheid to which opened the door. It is now up to us to extend that project and figure out how it is we build a non-racial society, one that is not based on ethnic and racial division that produces underdevelopment.

I would encourage us to consider the political and legal thought of Nelson Mandela as we remember his contribution to the struggle against apartheid. We may have to begin by revisiting the critique of trusteeship and underdevelopment. We may have to attend to the relationship between law and politics, and what lies in the interstices of the two. To work through such an assemblage, we must bear in mind that Mandela was not alone in making the arguments that defined the struggle against apartheid. There was an entire generation in the 1920s and 1930s who were preoccupied with making sense of the seeming senselessness of racial and ethnic differentiation. Consider for example S. M. Molema who studied medicine in Edinburgh in 1917. Many like Molema were opposed to the idea of trusteeship. They saw in it a danger of a form of control and an entrapment out of which it would be difficult to imagine an inclusive and democratic political subject. The second struggle was the struggle against apartheid, which appropriated the terms of trusteeship to its own apparatus of biopolitical control. When it became an effective project of social engineering it suddenly dawned on a generation of political thinkers that they were faced with the condition of violence that looked more and more irreversible. And finally, I would suggest we attend to the question of the human that underwrote the transition to democracy in South Africa, not as an end in itself, but as a problem that opens onto the very meaning of the post-apartheid. And I think that’s what Mandela’s thought leads us to.

How was Mandela’s political thought formed?

I think there’s one further point I wanted to raise about Mandela’s political thought. When he became head of state in 1994, he had access to some of the best legal thinkers in South Africa. These included George Bizos, Dullah Omar, Zola Skweyiya, Albie Sachs, Kader Asmal, Arthur Chaskalson, Zac Yacoob, Yvonne Magora amongst others. These were great legal minds; the minds that gave us the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the new Constitution. These were the minds that tried to develop ideas about rights and they were such serious critical legal thinkers that Mandela’s presidency became marked by the legal ways in which they thought about undoing apartheid. And so in all the ideals of the man…of Mandela…I think you have to account you have to account for the very deep legal ideas and understanding that defined the project of political transition from apartheid to the post-apartheid.

His statement from the dock when he was on trial is a footnote to the legal discourse that later framed the political negotiations and transition. It is a statement that has captured the imagination of many, including Jacques Derrida who wrote an essay based on it. It was also critical in the days of mobilization against apartheid. In  1994 we witnessed its force again, at the moment when we were confronted as a society by the question of how we would unravel apartheid and its legacies. And so apartheid as legal formation was dismantled and it was dismantled in such a way that it left behind the possibility of building another society…of building a post-apartheid future. I think that is one of the strengths of Mandela’s administration. Mandela gave us a way to think about the law that tested the very foundations of law in histories of colonialism, apartheid and underdevelopment. How could one entrust the idea of the human, or justice, to a discourse of law that had proven itself so complicit in the misery of so many. But rather than give up on the law, he asked us to radicalize its implications, in the interests of a world that would free itself from the very racial presuppositions that underwrote the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Recently, Adam Sitze has shown how this effort was made possible through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, especially in the way it attempted to approach amnesty jurisprudence. For Sitze, the TRC reinvigorated a concept of amnesty by attempting to exceed its original scripts in the history of colonialism for example. So they attempted to build something completely different. I think that the post-apartheid was not merely a project of transcending apartheid, but of producing a difference at the very heart of apartheid’s reasoning. That was a massive undertaking, a gift if you like, to those who sought to build a just society. And it is that difficulty, that struggle, for which Mandela must be remembered.
In various parts of the African continent, we have seen that leaders prepare to stay in power. But Nelson Mandela, only stood for one term. And can it also be that he couldn’t meet the expectations?

I have heard the question posed again and again. But there may be a problem with the question, because it already presumes to know in advance what the problem of the state in Africa. It may be better to ask what effect Mandela has had on the idea of the state in Africa and what his leadership means for how we assess the state in Africa.

I think the first point to recognise is that most states in Africa were formed as a consequence of independence struggles. State power followed long and bitter anti-colonial struggles, with the promise not only of building a nation, but also enabling a public sphere. The consequences of these struggles have had an enduring and lasting effect on the political formation of the state in Africa. The second is that many of these states came into being at the height of the Cold War. And the ideological struggles of the Cold War have had devastating consequences for the shape of African politics.

Mandela is one of the last in that generation of leaders to come out of this mileu and in some sense his lesson is an important one. He recalled what the struggles of the twentieth century were principally about. In the aftermath of a long twentieth century, he reminded us that Africa would have to change its concepts if it was to remain true to its anti-colonial convictions. His was a reminder that Africa could no longer rely on the scripts of the Cold War. The Cold War left in its wake mangled bodies and fractured subjects and political formations across Southern Africa. In fact apartheid was a project of the Cold War and its devastation was felt in Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. If one thinks about apartheid and what its consequences were in Southern Africa those were the consequences of the Cold War. Liberation movements and post-independent states were marked by the effects of the Cold War.

What Mandela offered us was a possibility of re-inventing the concept of the political. We’ve got to think about other modalities for building democratic societies, one’s that are cognizant of the dehumanization of race and underdevelopment. But we have to think of these in ways that do not simply repeat earlier scripts of resistance. We need new scripts, new concepts and new questions.
But let me address the fantasy of the West that it is better off because it has a change of leadership every so often. To determine the importance of Mandela along these lines is to lower the bar on what we expect from our leaders. We should not measure a democracy in terms simply of a change in leadership. Rather, the health of a state should be measured in terms of leaders who leave office with a significant shift in political discourse that affirms and actualises as far as possible a theory of change. That’s the sign of great leadership…to leave behind a stronger set of possibilities in one’s wake.

Were there any areas under Mandela’s rule which are left for criticism?

In these past few weeks there are many who have expressed their criticism of Mandela’s legacy. In some of the critiques for example, Mandela is criticized for his failure to foresee the onset of neoliberalism. He is also seen to have pandered to neoliberalism. Some have argued that he had lost his connection to popular politics while in office. There will be enough time to work through these questions in years to come.

But we must be mindful that Mandela was not the state. Mandela was part of a state. He was part of a project to create a new society, to build a new constitutional consensus in this country. In so far as he did, we must acknowledge his enormous effort at trying to offer some very productive responses to very difficult questions. But at the same time we know that he could not necessarily have accomplished the full intensity of his thought. There was something about what he was trying to do and what that state was trying to do that was always going to come up against a limit. And so, we must think about Mandela’s legacy critically, but also allow ourselves to think at the limit of his thought. We mustn’t just accept the hagiographic script. Mandela refused to be someone who was beyond criticism. He demanded criticism. With his death, we are being asked to live up to is the possibility of building on another concept of the political, but at the same time of avoiding hagiography. We should forget the idea of Saint Mandela. We need to think about what it means to build a concept of politics after the Cold War. 

There are three things that I think we ought to consider which would serve as a tribute to Nelson Mandela. The first, is the need to enable the emergence of a vibrant public sphere; we must build a vibrant democratic public sphere with institutions of culture and education that are accessible. So that’s the one thing – we must build a public sphere that is aimed at deracialising  South African society. Secondly, we need a new contract between the state and society. In the first years of Mandela’s presidency, the contract between the state and society was formed around the freedom charter. We need another contract between the state and society. We need a contract that commits the state and society will continue to think about how to become post-apartheid. And thirdly we need a state that trusts its institutions. In other words we must build relations in society, that are not simply based on institutions that follow the dictates of the state. We want institutions that are critical, that build a critical citizenry. That’s what the struggle against apartheid was about; that’s what brought apartheid down. Our struggle was won on the strength of its intellectual traditions and the capacity of people to understand that they were building something new; and it is that desire for newness, for something that is different to apartheid, that we feel is critical for producing another idea of politics that is not built solely on a pedagogy of violence. The development of this idea will require us to work through older scripts of resistance to discover new questions, one’s that return us to the problem of the relationship between law and politics, and that which lies in the interstices. There’s no easy road. Mandela discovered that the road to freedom was long. Building a post-apartheid society is going to be hard work. What Mandela has given us is the possibility to think again, especially in these thought provoking post-apartheid times.

And last, what do you think South Africa will be without Mandela?

That is such a difficult question. When one thinks about it, it’s hard to imagine a South Africa without Mandela’s physical presence. At the time of Mandela’s hospitalization in 2013, I argued that we must discover a way to think of Mandela as someone who remains with us. I suggested that the best way to do this was to ensure that we placed his thought in a longer genealogy of thinking against apartheid. As long as the questions that Mandela’s generation posed are not adequately answered, he will remain with us. When we inquire into the meaning of the post-apartheid, the thought of Mandela’s generation will haunt our response. In my opinion, we have as yet not arrived at a proper answer to that question. So I think that Nelson Mandela is going to be with us for a very long time. We’re going to have to rethink his ideas, we’re going to have to go back to his concepts, his legal thinking, his writing. We also have to return to the critique of Mandela. And we have to rediscover what Mandela might not of have foreseen in his own political outlook. So we have much work ahead of us. At the same time, when you look at the enormity and the outpouring of human grief at the passing of Mandela, we learn to understand what his death means for South Africa and the world. Yet, the celebration around his life’s work is palpable. With time, we must return to the gift of his thought.

South Africans are mostly very determined to return to the questions that Mandela posed, perhaps to reformulate these questions. I think what is very promising in this country is that we all have the capacity and desire – and desire is the operative word here – to create something new. I’m not just sloganeering in making this claim.  I think many of us realise that this is a time to gather our thoughts, to prepare ourselves to think again, to ask different kinds of questions, and to offer other ways of thinking about our world and society through elaborating a concept of the post-apartheid.

Thank you very much Mr Lalu.