Admiration of Law: Derrida’s Salute to Mandela.

In all the images,messages, articles that were posted on the internet to honour the legacy of Nelson Mandela now that he has passed, one struck me, and I just finished reading it: a tribute by Jacques Derrida, written in 1986. At that time, Mandela had lived twenty years of his imprisonment, which was meant to be for life, and his future was yet uncertain. Derrida is to my view the philosopher who has up till now presented the profoundest understanding of time – of the interconnections of future and past, removing reflection from the center of the present towards which Heidegger had lead it in his attempt to capture the event of Western philosophical tradition. At the same time he has succeeded in questioning this notion of ‘the West’ as the locus of the articulation of universal human rights, of law as something universal.

It struck me as curious that Derrida, who, in his understanding of time re-interpreted Nietzsche’s notion of eternal return, somehow managed to write this profound farewell, or welcome (as these presuppose each other according to Derrida) to Mandela when the latter was still to live what many see as his greatest contribution to the world – helping the peaceful ending of the apartheid regime to become real. And that this investigation of the great ‘attorney/advocate’ floats to the surface almost ten years after the philosopher himself passed away or over. Its online accessible version on scribd had only a hundred views two months ago, and has a thousand at present. In it, Derrida provides a reading of the defense which Mandela gave to the court before his imprisonment, a text which, he states, re-institutes the law, i.e. justice, in front of those who represent ‘the law’, a law which had never been real since its institution. Of this text he asks: ‘Is it a testament? What has become of it in the past twenty years? What has history done, what will history do with it?’

A testament, Derrida writes, can be received as a memorizing of something lost forever, like, for example (and in this case) ‘the Christian West’, or as an invitation to join in the responsibility for the future.’ As the present was a situation of lawful unlawfulness, it would not have been proper (with regard to justice) to focus on that: justice demanded to remember the original inspiration of the law, which, at the moment Mandela gave testimony to it, became a call for a just future. Thus the past and the future concur. Here Derrida also asks the question whether this heritage of an original call for justice should be seen as bound to the history of ‘the West’ – a question which he does not answer. As for Mandela, his inspiration, according to his own text, springs from ‘admiration of the law’, as he learned it in its modern Western version. This admiration is again inspired and transformed by another admiration, that of the African past, about which young Mandela heard the elders speak. They spoke of ‘a classless society [in which] the land, then the means of production, belonged to the tribe. There were no rich or poor, and there was no exploitation of man by man.’ This latter admiration, Mandela admits, has joined with his reading of Marxist literature, to install in him the idea of what Derrida calls ‘revolutionary democracy’ – the idea of a democracy which does not legalize oppression of one group over another, but which has abandoned class and privilege.

Mandela spoke in his defense, over against the law which had ‘outlawed’ him, and thus asking for the law to be instituted finally. He did this out of admiration, admiration for the law, be it in the form of its formal articulation in the West, or of its seminal prefiguration in the African past, the past of the continent where those from whom all humans are said to originate lived. This past is said to have left behind ‘seeds’ – and what is a seed other than a testament – a testimony – laying itself bare to give fruit to what has been protected and kept in its inside from the past. Derrida plays, finally, with the double face of the genitive, as he does more often, referring to ‘the admiration of Mandela’: when we admire Mandela, which Derrida thinks is inescapable, we admire the reflection, in Mandela, of that which was admired by him: the law.

Derrida leaves his readers with a question, a question from the past (1986), which is still to be asked, also by us who worry about WhaM (What happens after Mandela) – not only in South Africa, but around the world. ‘Who is Nelson Mandela? We will never stop admiring him, him and his admiration. But we do not yet know whom to admire in him, the one who, in the past, will have been the captive of his admiration or the one who, in a future anterior, will always have been free (the freest man in the world, let us not say that lightly) for having had the patience of his admiration and having known, passionately, what he had to admire.’ The question, of course, has a rhetorical ring to it: it would help those who are left behind by this great man who passed, us, if we understood that he reflected what he had to admire, and which we can admire in him too.

Nelson Mandela just passed, and lived from 1915 untill 2013.

Jacques Derrida lived from 1930 untill 2004, and should be considered to be one of the most influential African philosophers, i.e. if we define one’s Africanness by the place of one’s birth.

I cited from Derrida’s article ‘The Laws of Reflection: Nelson Mandela, in Admiration’, which can be accessed here:

In so doing, I cited also from the text of Mandela’s defense from 1964. This text is readable in its entirety here.

  1. Ada said:

    An admirable piece Angela. I’m encouraged to give Derrida a second chance.

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