QA 57. “Need I remind anyone, again?”

armedstrugglefistBetween 1987 and 1990, my husband Rob and I ran a safe house for the liberation movement in apartheid South Africa. We were part of what we would later learn was named Operation Vula, short for Vul’indlela (“Open the road” in Zulu). Its aim was to infiltrate exiled leaders of the African National Congress/Umkhonto we Sizwe back into the country to help co-ordinate the different streams of popular resistance within the country – trade unions, civics, students, armed units and others – and to open a secure channel of communication between the leadership inside the country, in prison and in exile.

This was the time of State President PW Botha, he of the wagging finger and brutal states of emergency. With the townships locked down by the military, Vula operatives would need access to hideaways in the white suburbs, but any white South African who was trustworthy enough would already be known to the regime. The operation thus required white internationals who could come into the country, set themselves up as immigrants, rent a house and blend into the neighbourhood to provide camouflage for underground activists. With a couple of twists of fate, a couple of fairly low-key anti-apartheid activists in Vancouver got the call. We said yes.

Thirty years later, unsurprisingly, South Africa still struggles to come to terms with the history of the struggle. Various narratives have been fashioned to serve various agendas, and what can be known or asserted is very much under contention. Last November, the University of the Witwatersrand’s History Workshop, the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA) and South African History Online (SAHO) hosted a conference on the Politics of Armed Struggle in Southern Africa to “provide a space for recounting narratives of the armed struggle from the perspective of its protagonists… [and] to make an intellectual contribution to the historiography of the liberation struggle”.

Well, I had to go. But I went as a poet, not a philosopher. I wanted to reflect on what I  learned from my experience of underground. I called my piece “Need I remind anyone, again?”, from a poem by Keorapetse Willie Kgositsile that begins, “Need I remind anyone, again, that armed struggle is an act of love?” I introduced it like this:

When I first heard of this conference, I thought you might come together for three days and not mention love at all. I couldn’t let that happen. Then I thought you might talk about love after all, and I wouldn’t want to miss that. And so, here I am. Presente. Here I am, bearing witness. In the name of love, after all, I find myself here to remind us, again, that armed struggle is an act of Love. Because it was not Politics at the beginning. And it is not Politics all the way down.

You might think this sounds naïve and idealistic, but I promise you it is anything but. Whatever else happened in the struggle, there was also the experience of putting oneself on the line for the freedom of everybody, of the indivisibility of that freedom and that solidarity. You don’t see so much of this in the world these days. And because I believe there’s little future without it, I feel obliged to say, “at the risk of seeming ridiculous”, that “the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love” (Che Guevara).

I am so very tired of people talking at each other, or past each other, hurling barbs, planting mines. Really, I want to scream, I hate it, I feel helpless, because it’s all so stupid. (Okay, not all of it.) But when I rehearsed my piece with small groups of friends before the conference and gave a couple of public readings since, each time people have been moved to speak from the heart of their own experience and concerns. These encounters have been a balm, cool water, shelter, relief. People talking to each other and with each other, as if it really mattered. Discovering that it does. Look, we are still people together! Reminding ourselves, again, that if difference is the condition for hatred, it is also the condition for love. That even when we lose sight of ourselves, a return to our senses is always as close as a breath.

Listen to my reading at Kalk Bay Books, 16 February 2017:


South African Journal of Philosophy, 35 (2), 2016, pp 123–131.

You can find it here or there.

The self-confidence of the human being, freedom, has first of all to be aroused again in the hearts of these people. Karl Marx

ABSTRACT: sajp-coverIf a time of crisis calls for a new mode of thinking, philosophical practice offers the means to answer that call. Contemporary philosophical practice revitalises the ancient Greek understanding of philosophy as a way of life that cultivates personal transformation and new ways of seeing the world. This article describes the development of the author’s philosophical counselling practice as a practice of emancipation, in concert with the writings of Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Rancière. It considers the significance of personal engagement and companionship for the cultivation of practical wisdom, and suggests that the intransigence of our global social and economic crises ultimately indicates an incorrect view of human nature and an ossified or unbalanced relationship between practical and theoretical ways of knowing and wisdom.

QA 56. Four touchstones for thinking about peace

mandelaFor Nelson Mandela’s birthday, and because I’m reading Thula Simpson’s Umkhonto We Sizwe: The ANC’s Armed Struggle, thinking about and respecting the lives of everyone who stood against apartheid, those whose names are known or unknown, remembered or forgotten. Thinking that the aim of the struggle was peace, and how we’re not there yet. Thinking that peace without justice isn’t good enough, but neither would be justice without peace. Continue reading


I’m still here philosophising, counselling, writing… just tending other fields so long…

Taishun tending the fields

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) 24 Paragons of Filial Piety: Taishun Tending the Fields Assisted by Elephants, 1840. Oban yoko-e.


QA 55. Tenebrae

Tenebrae (L. darkness) is the only Christian service I ever trusted. It’s made up of psalms of grief and lamentations of the lost and forsaken. The evening of Holy Saturday. The messiah is crucified, god has abandoned his people to their enemies. Why God? There are no signs for us to see; there is no prophet left; there is not one among us who knows how long. Continue reading

QA 54. #What rises?


The student movement that flashed into life this year in South Africa, from #Rhodesmustfall at the University of Cape Town to the extraordinary #Feesmustfall protests last week in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Stellenbosch, Grahamstown and Pretoria, is a complex and dynamic phenomenon. Lots going on there. But there are two things I’ve been trying to think about. Two things that they are “getting right” (that’s the phrase in my head). Two elements that have held us in thrall, enthralled even as we participate here on the outside, that make it feel so momentous.

One element has been their use of disruption to open up space, to interfere with the old game with its rigged and futile moves, their refusal to play along anymore. And then to occupy the space and not let any new game begin. Standing vigil, wide awake. Holding open the space where we could imagine something new. This manner of disruption and occupation gives them (and the rest of us) a chance to think differently, to breathe, to find their/our bearings with each other, to be quick and bold and lively. Continue reading

QA 53. The wheels in my head go round and round

Bus to Swaziland. Photo: Melissa Wrapp

Bus to Swaziland. Photo: Melissa Wrapp

Participants in last year’s “Archives of the Non-racial” mobile workshop through South Africa and Swaziland were asked to submit fragments of our notebooks – doodles, notes, reflections, poems, coffee stains. These have been gathered in the JWTC’s online journal, The Salon.

Check out all the loveliness here.  This is my bit.

Solidarity and the non-racial (Political struggle 1)

“I’m not going into definitions with academics. Making resolutions and policy is one thing. These things evolve.” Ahmed Kathrada

He made it sound too easy! As if he, Sisulu, Mandela and the others had just sailed into a non-racial ANC. Building on the Congress Movement, it was they who made it such through their lived work. Brought to life with integrity, discipline, trust, humour, love. Practicing (non-racial) freedom, dignity and equality here and now, continually. And of course having a shared radical political project: not non-racialism for its own sake but as a method of struggle for national liberation. These things evolve. Continue reading