Achille Mbembe – Democracy and the Ethics of Mutuality: Notes from the South African Experiment

Report by Lucy Graham
Additional reporting by Leon de Kock

In his first public seminar in Stellenbosch as a professor in Stellenbosch University’s Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Achille Mbembe, possibly the most eminent political philosopher working South Africa right now, offered some speculations on South African democracy, and specifically on the path of South Africa “from the fort to the court”.

Tracing the relationship of the Freedom Charter and the South African Constitution to the great humanising intellectual traditions, Mbembe’s address was remarkable for restoring rigour but also dignity and compassion to debates about South African current affairs. Although South Africa was now a democratic country, he suggested, the wretchedness and severity of poverty within the borders of this national polity meant that there would be elements of society who were inevitably driven to “war envy”.

This was a critical condition, symbolised by Julius Malema appearing in a civil court with armed bodyguards, which theorists of democracy should take very seriously.

Mbembe began with the global question: what remained of democracy in an age of secrecy, torture, wars of occupation and renewed forms of race thinking, in a context in which human life is accountable to the logic of the market? He mentioned critics of liberal democracy such as Slavoj Zizek and Wendy Brown, citing their work as casting a skeptical eye on the depoliticising tendencies of late capitalism within modern democracies.

A further question, Mbembe said, is what remains of the human, of humanism, in such a context. Not only was he considering here aspects of law, sovereignty and the political in relation to life, but also the very real contemporary threat of nuclear or ecological disaster that could lead to the extinction of life itself.

Speaking of the process of bearing witness to the condition of being human, he claimed that there were two major traditions that testified about human life as a relentlessly regenerative force in the face of disaster, namely the Jewish tradition and the black tradition - the latter a radical intellectual tradition, which included writers such as Du Bois and Fanon, and which has attempted to disrupt and destabilize Western concepts of the human (one thinks here of Fanon’s idea of the “new humanism”).

Writing the human in both of these traditions, he said, was also an attempt at writing the future, and both traditions depended on two categories: the category of “hope”, and of “the promise”.

The concept of hope we could find, for instance, in both Levinas and Derrida (both coming out of the Jewish tradition), as well as in black narratives of slavery and captivity. As an example of the category of “the promise” Mbembe analysed the Freedom Charter, which he claimed calls into being a radical freedom based on political and material equality and the right to be heard. The right to be heard, like the right to a “fair share”, is a key article of “the promise”.

“The promise”, he said, was the pledge of an “horizon” and a “shared future”. The most important contribution of the Freedom Charter to modern society, he speculated, was its emphasis on non-racialism.

The welfare state was an attempt to solve the question of what to do with the working class, and another question addressed in the history of democracies has been the question of women and political equality. But before the adoption of aspects of the Freedom Charter into the South African Constitution, Mbembe remarked, no democracy anywhere had resolved the question of race.

Drawing attention to a renewed bioligising racism in the global sphere, Mbembe noted the dual impact of globalisation: it does not simply exert an homogenising effect, it also depends on the reinvention of difference. Commenting on “renewed Balkanisation”, he spoke about people who can, and people who cannot move, cross borders and boundaries. He also mentioned new technologies that turn bodies into data, because globalisation is a process of separation based on fear: “we do not know who is what”; “we cannot know that you are who you say you are”.

From this fear came the urge to unveil, to force a body to yield up its identity (cf. the current controversy in France about Muslim women being forced to unveil). Clearly, as he noted, this is not the disciplining impulse (anatomopolitics) that Foucault describes in Discipline and Punish. What Mbembe was gesturing to here is the rise of biopolitics on a global scale.

Citing Fanon, he continued by noting that the moment of liberation is often the moment when a new authority sets itself up, and the moment of openness is thus very limited. Remarking on the relevance of this to the South African situation, he observed that it was instructive to compare the Freedom Charter to the Constitution, because, although the Constitution is based on the Freedom Charter, it also leaves out some of the most revolutionary aspects of the Freedom Charter.

This is related to the idea, he continued, that the functions of democracy are to “suspend revolution” and to “suspend war” (although he acknowledged that, following Foucault, we could also say that “politics is a form of war by other means”).

At this point Mbembe focused on an issue that has been at the centre of South African news stories recently, namely Julius Malema’s trial for alleged hate speech, for singing the song “Kill the Boer”. Remarking that public understanding of Malema has become a “caricature”, Mbembe posed the question why Malema arrived at court with bodyguards who were armed to the teeth and literally dressed to kill.

In an attempt to reach beyond media depictions of Malema, he recalled Malema’s personal history, a childhood of extreme material deprivation, of poverty that recalled Fanon’s notion of “wretchedness”.

Like Ngugi, who details his childhood in a recent autobiography, Malema has been born out of a life of hunger, out of what Dambudzo Marechera refers to as “the house of hunger”. While the history of democracy in South Africa has been a history of turning “the fort into the court” (Mbembe noted that the Constitutional Court building was first a fort, then a prison, then a courthouse), of turning a militarised society immersed in civil war into a more just and peaceful one, what Malema’s case emphasises is “war envy”.

According to Mbembe, the Freedom Charter and the Constitution form an “utopian archive” that has attempted to give flesh to democracy, but challenges to the democratic project in South Africa are ongoing. The first of these challenges is the rehumanisation of society and the institution of an ethical community. He noted that since 1652 in South Africa, under the effects of discourses of capitalism and race, some humans have been treated as “waste”. The task, then is to build a democracy that retrieves the human from waste.

The second challenge to democracy that he mentioned was the issue of wealth and property. Describing some insights he had gleaned from popular media in the Cape since his departure from Wits University and his arrival at Stellenbosch University at the beginning of 2011, namely radio talk shows and newspaper letters to the editor, he noted the persistence of property and dispossession as central terms in naming and framing social issues.

He acknowledged the emergence and widening of the black middle class, of pockets of wealth and privilege, but he also commented on the life of the poor, who struggle continually to create some sense of stability and permanence in a life that is constantly shaken up by power and the vagaries of their environment.

To conclude, he asserted that liberation in South Africa had not put an end to the question of poverty, rather, it had made it more visible. He also mentioned a third challenge to democracy in South Africa, namely the question of what to do with “the stranger in our midst”.

In question time, Mbembe responded to a remark about how adventitious the timing of his talk was, coinciding as it did with the opening of Marlene van  Niekerk’s coruscating play in which, it is suggested, democracy in South Africa is an abject, violent and extreme failure (Die Kortstondige Raklewe van Anastasia W). In his response, Mbembe said he had not seen Van Niekerk’s play and therefore could not comment directly on it, but as he saw things there were two options for cultural engagement in the current context: to dwell on failure or to work with the possibilities of re-engaging the future.

In a similar vein, Mbembe responded to another question by asking the question: where are the theorists of democracy in South Africa right now? Where are the people who, instead of reactively describing what is before them, try instead to re-engage the South African archive of hope and theorise intellectual and philosophical possibilities for the future within the peculiar conditions of democracy as it is being practised now? The implication, the call to intellectual action arising from Mbembe’s talk, could not have been more clear.

  • Achille Mbembe, Democracy and the Ethics of Mutuality: Notes from the South African Experiment, Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, University of Stellenbosch,14 April 2011.