In 1986 the French thinker Jacques Derrida published a text in a collection of protest tributes that he co-edited with Mustapha Tlili entitled For Nelson Mandela. The English translation of Derrida’s tribute is titled “The laws of reflection: Nelson Mandela, in admiration”. I have chosen to subvert this title by way of re-ordering its words. My motivation for the violence that I commit against Derrida’s title and, thus, against his text is inspired by the overwhelming impression that today is perhaps more a day of and for reflection or if you will for reflection precisely by way of admiration on the laws of Mandela, which in the end I venture to wager Derrida would agree are by his own account and in reflection the laws of admiration. This much at least may be discerned from the very elliptical beginning of his text on Mandela where Derrida writes: “Why does he seem exemplary and admirable in what he thinks and says, in what he does or in what he suffers? […] Why does he also force admiration in this manner […] where does that force come from? Where does it lead?”

For why do we see at the address where our beloved Madiba has passed but indeed throughout the world such an outpouring of admiration? Admiration in the form of tributes expressed in thousands upon thousands of candles, prayers, wishes, attendances, texts in all the languages of the world? Why have people from all over the world taken the time and effort to express their admiration for Mandela once more, one more time, which will not be the last?

Without succumbing to a desire to oversimplify the motivation behind these performances of admiration could it not be said that these homages are precisely beyond motivation, that they are compulsions to yield to a law of the Other, to pay tribute to Mandela as one who commands and always has commanded the laws of admiration? Is this not why we grieve and in this way? And is this not always the law of mourning, always the Other’s law to which we subject ourselves without choice, acting, in fact, beyond the reach of choice (if that was still possible), the law to which we yield without the slightest concern in the first place for ourselves?

Or is it more complicated than that? I recall here another text in which Derrida refuses absolutely the contention that mourning and by extension the admiration in or as mourning, can ever be without a concern for ourselves: “Narcissism! There is not narcissism and non-narcissism; there are narcissisms that are more or less comprehensive, generous, open, extended … I believe that without a movement of narcissistic reappropriation, the relation to the other would be absolutely destroyed, it would be destroyed in advance.” Thus we mourn by way of the other also for ourselves, in our own interest, in order to overcome, to live on. And in Derrida’s estimation there can be no mourning of and for the other without this simultaneous mourning for ourselves, without the “narcissistic reappropriation” of the other to ourselves.

And it is precisely through the implicit admission in this text of the dialectical nature of mourning as for the Other and simultaneously also for the Self that Derrida arrives at his hypothesis that would answer the question of admiration. For as he writes Mandela “becomes admirable for having, with all his force, admired and for having made a force of his admiration”. In other words Mandela is admired (mourned) because he has himself admired (mourned) so forcefully. And who / what is it that he has admired so forcefully? Derrida’s answer is simple. It is the Law: “In all the sense of this term Mandela remains then a man of the law. He has always appealed to the law even if, in appearance, he has to oppose himself to such-and-such specific legality and even if certain judges have made of him at certain moments an outlaw.” Derrida proceeds to quote from Mandela’s speech from the dock in order to explain what notion of law is at stake in Mandela’s admiration. Of the Magna Carta, democracy and a Bill of Rights he says that he is an “admirer”. And speaking of “the independence and impartiality” of the judiciary under a system of justiciable rights he says that it never fails “to arouse my admiration”.

Derrida writes that Mandela’s “experience of declared admiration” follows the line of a reflection upon the law: Mandela and the struggle against apartheid as a whole reflected — as in the holding up of a mirror — the moral bankruptcy of the white minority government who pretended to import to South Africa the laws of constitutionalism and democracy of the West, all the while attempting to render its fundamental illegitimacy (the fact that it was not grounded in the “entire nation”) invisible.

What Derrida essentially finds in Mandela’s words is the relentless appeal to conscience, to the Law of law which “resides in the most intimate conscience” and a reflection upon the conflict between the positive law and conscience — a conflict that is all too often in existence. “Conscience and conscience of the law, these two make only one […] Before any juridical or political discourse, before the texts of positive law, the law speaks by the voice of conscience or is inscribed in the depths of the heart.”

Nelson Mandela’s admiration reflects — and it reflects absolutely. The light of his reflection is the light of justice. It is a light that will not go out. As we reflect on this Light and in his light, our Leading Light, in mourning, which is to say in the deepest admiration, let us also take heart from the law, this Law, that is inscribed now within our heart as it always have been and always will be, this “immediate and unfailing sentiment of justice”, this “law of laws that speaks in us before us”.

Vaarwel, Madiba.


  • Jaco Barnard-Naudé is Professor of Jurisprudence and Co-director of the Centre for Rhetoric Studies in the Department of Private Law at the University of Cape Town. In the United Kingdom, he is the British Academy's Newton Advanced Fellow in the School of Law at Westminster University and Honorary Research Fellow at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London. He is a board member of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) and of the Triangle Project, Cape Town.


Jaco Barnard-Naude

Jaco Barnard-Naudé is Professor of Jurisprudence and Co-director of the Centre for Rhetoric Studies in the Department of Private Law at the University of Cape Town. In the United Kingdom, he is the British...

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