This morning, just after reading the news of Nelson Mandela’s death — uncannily coinciding with the world premiere of the film on his life — my partner and I were exploring the beautiful churches in Freiburg, Germany. In one of them (the Herz-Jesu) there is a series of magnificent paintings by Charles Bevaert, (I hope I recall his name correctly) from 1906, depicting 14 Stations of the Cross. The figure of Jesus is depicted in various positions of suffering, carrying the cross, as well as being nailed to the cross, followed by scenes of his body being retrieved by Mary and his disciples. Whatever one may believe about Jesus in religious terms, it is unquestionable that he was a revolutionary in Julia Kristeva’s sense of “returning” human beings to what they truly are: finite, fallible beings (or, in religious language, creatures mired in “sin”), who needed constant reassurance that there is a way to redemption open to all.

Setting aside the religiously and ecclesiastically based differences between Jesus and Nelson Mandela, I would argue that the latter, too, may be regarded as a revolutionary in this benign sense of “returning” human beings to themselves as beings who are fallible and finite, and for that reason should not lord it over one another in political, racial, or any other terms. He has even reminded those who lionize him for his courageous and principled stance against apartheid that there are thousands of unsung individuals who also contributed to the fight against that moral abomination.

In more explicitly political terms, Mandela insisted on the radical equality of all human beings in the face of the apartheid state’s actions proclaiming the contrary. In fact, Jacques Derrida has argued (in his wonderful essay, “Nelson Mandela: The laws of reflection”) that Mandela employed a proto-deconstructive strategy in his defence against the charges brought against him by the apartheid state — something that demonstrates Mandela’s radical democratic approach in terms of equality well.

Appealing to the long western tradition of political democracy, to which the apartheid state claimed allegiance (paradoxically), Mandela indicated his own admiration for this democratic ethos (Derrida pointed out), but then proceeded to show the incoherence of the state’s position on the matter. One of the pillars of democracy is the equality of all citizens before the law — their individual, or cultural, or racial differences notwithstanding. In this respect the apartheid state may be seen to have succeeded and failed, simultaneously. It succeeded in recognising the cultural differences between Africans and the whites descended from western ancestors (recall the rationale behind separate development), but failed dismally in recognising the common humanity that they shared, regardless of race and culture. Given this common, inalienable, shared humanity, apartheid was a denial of the existing grounds for equality before the law — a law that applies to everyone in a unitary state.

Here Mandela showed himself to be a true democrat, in Jacques Ranciere’s sense of democracy, where the radical equality of all people is asserted in a totally uncompromising fashion. Recall that, for Ranciere, the political manifestation of democracy is an event where, in the face of what he calls “the police” (not in the usual sense, but meaning those who arrange society in a hierarchical, unequal way), something, or someone, suddenly and clearly uncovers the grounds of democracy: that everyone, from beggar to prime minister or president, is EQUAL. This explains why Mandela, in a manner that seemed to defy all expectations, turned to South African white people with a gesture of acceptance and forgiveness: only someone who asserts the equality of all people, can do that, despite the suffering that he had to endure for 27 years in prison.

Several considerations suggest themselves against this backdrop. The first and most obvious is that those in South African political life who are in the process of styling themselves as “revolutionaries” whose revolutionary credentials are supposed to show themselves in their willingness to hate and become so-called “killing machines”, misunderstand the meaning of “revolutionary” as defined by Mandela, Socrates, Hypatia of Alexandria, Mahatma Gandhi and others. Sure, the meaning of “revolution” also gets its meaning from political revolutions of the past, such as the French Revolution of 1789, but Kristeva stresses that underpinning this more familiar meaning of the concept, there is the sense of “returning to ourselves as human beings”, for the sake of which people have admittedly had to resort to bloody, violent revolution in the past, when conditions became intolerable.

This brings me to the second consideration. “Equality” in the political sense, as used earlier, is not the only meaning attributable to this concept. While people may be equal as human beings — in terms of their nature, their right to life, and to being treated similarly before the law — in a different sense no human being is exactly “equal” to another in the strict sense of being wholly the same. People differ a far as intelligence, interests, values, and so on, are concerned. Because of this, although a democratic constitution such as ours declares the equality of all people, in actual fact there are major differences among South Africans along the lines mentioned, in addition to which there are cultural and racial differences, as well as the differences in educational and economic opportunity that can make all the difference between poverty and economic stability.

To illustrate, I recall Foucault and his research group observing in their study of the court documents pertaining to a young French peasant’s trial, for the murder of his mother, sister and brother (I, Pierre Riviere … ), that, although the new democratic laws in France around 1835 protected those who were easy victims of political violence before the advent of democracy, they were not exempt, in the new democracy, from a novel form of violence — the “violence of money”. Not only in South Africa, but all over the world today, we increasingly witness the effects of the “violence of money”, which has had the effect of eliciting calls for economic revolution. South Africa is not exempt from this, and nor should anyone be surprised, given the fact that millions of people here still live in abject poverty, while others wallow in enough cash to be able to pay something like R18 million for a buffalo.

As South Africans face the future without Mandela, but with the precious gift of his moral and political legacy, we should remind ourselves of all these meanings of equality, paradigmatically embodied in his towering figure. Failing this, the (especially economic) inequalities in the country could become so unconscionable that those who are espousing a kind of revolution at odds with the benign revolution exemplified by Mandela, are given all the demagogic ammunition they need.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

Leave a comment