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.

The first touchstone is Haile Selassie’s 1963 speech at the UN:

Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned … Until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven; Until that day, the African continent will not know peace.

I think that’s right. It’s a two-part “philosophy”: an underlying guiding premise that there are higher and lower degrees of human being, which are delineated by racial difference. Both parts are lies. We have to know it’s a lie, and say so. Until we get that, entirely, and abandon it “finally and permanently”, Bob Marley is right: “everywhere is war”. Without also exposing that noxious foundation, all the necessary political, personal, social, theoretical, legal and institutional anti-racist decolonising work will continue to founder. We need a true foundation.

A second touchstone is a memory from Johannesburg in the late 1980s, when we stayed next to Patterson Park in Orange Grove. People coming from the busses and taxis in Louis Botha Avenue would cross the park on their way to and from work in Norwood and beyond. One morning, before sunrise, I lay in bed listening to passing shouts, laughter, and soft conversation in language that was opaque to my ear. It suddenly occurred to me – and I’m still embarrassed what a blinding revelation this was – that they were conducting their lives completely without reference to me and my world. I burst out laughing, and then I put my white man’s burden down.

I was reminded of this at a philosophy café last year, when the participants (all persons of pallor) took up the vexed question of what they were supposed to give up for the “new South Africa”, to whom, and how, and how that would make things better. One woman proposed that maybe it wasn’t so much the stuff we had to give up, but our attachment to a particular identity. I think that’s right, and again, at the philosophical level: at the heart of what we take humanness to be. White people ­– especially the educated, liberal middle/upper class – are not the centre of the universe. Really, lay that burden down. Black people are fine. They know what they’re doing. Just like the rest of us.

mandela doveThe third touchstone is how we get it right, and what’s involved with that. Because we actually do get it right, right here, right now. Every day, people simply get on together. As co-workers, classmates, teammates, friends, lovers, parents and children, neighbours, or strangers sharing a moment on the street or in a shop, black and brown and white people in South Africa are relating with each other as “free beings”, equal in each other’s eyes “as they are in Heaven”. Even in these nasty times, amity and goodwill is also evident. It can’t be denied, but it can be dismissed. Why do that? Let this evidence count for something; let it be factored into our ideas of possibility. Our realistic hopes.

Which, fourthly and finally, brings to mind Mary Oliver’s Swan. The poem asks if you have seen the swan on the black river at night, seen it rise into the air in the morning (“an armful of white blossoms”), heard its “fluting and whistling”, and seen it as a “cross streaming across the sky”. Finally it asks,

And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything? And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for? And have you changed your life?

This is how change happens at the foundational level of belief, the level of life and loving. The practical level of philosophy, I mean. And I’m not talking about “white” or “black” people here, but each one of us, in ourselves. Can we learn to notice, and help each other to notice, the minute particulars of the lives and worlds around us? Not generalities, not assumptions, but real immediate undeniable contact. It can hurt, sometimes so much you can hardly bear it. And then you finally figure out what beauty, and suffering, is for. You change your life.


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

QA 52. The real world keeps us honest

standard equationStill thinking about the need for a new mode of thinking… What is the proper relation between philosophy and science now?

Last year, citing Stephen (Philosophy-is-Dead) Hawking and Martin Heidegger, I wrote about “the end of philosophy” in the triumph of science. Given the massive productivity of scientific theory and technology and a world in turmoil, social-order thinking put its faith in scientific standards of evidence, objectivity and rationality. But it’s no good. Science can’t tell us about the meaning of life, precisely because meaning belongs to another order of thought: call it “ethics” or “wisdom”. Pascal knew that the heart has its reasons, but we don’t give the heart much credit. And so it seems that the new task for thinking is to return to the beginnings of philosophy, to inquire into the nature of subjectivity and how to live well with others.

With this division of labour, I effectively left science to its own devices and carried on with my own business. (After all, it is hard to relate to someone who gloats about leaving you in the dust.) Happily, it seems that my judgement was premature. A reconciliation, under new terms, may be on the cards. Continue reading

QA 51. Optical illusions, the political economy of

My_Wife_and_My_Mother-In-Law_(Hill).svgOne image that can be seen in two distinct ways, but never both at once. Faces or a vase? Duck or rabbit? Crone or maiden? Someone shows you: See, the old woman’s chin is the young woman’s throat! All of a sudden, you do see. You start to switch the two back and forth, grinning like a kid. You can’t believe your eyes!

In times like ours, which call on us to think differently, the skills of vacillation are good to cultivate. Look at it this way. We are all, more or less, caught in the thrall of a particular mode of thinking and its moral order. Call it Western hegemony or what you will, this dominant perspective prizes objectivity, reason and utility, and excels in categorisation, prediction and control. It conceives of humans as self-interested and separate beings that are concerned with their own being, and as winners and losers in competition for scarce resources. It is a view that marginalises and dismisses human tenderness, vulnerability and relatedness. But it knows a duck when it sees one! Continue reading