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The particularity of race and the universality of being human: Derrida on Mandela

Judging by the seemingly never-ending spate of articles, debates, and to-and-fro accusations that reflect a veritable obsession with race in this country — an obsession one might have expected to abate somewhat at this point in time, almost 22 years after the demise of apartheid — it appears to me a timeous moment to return to Jacques Derrida’s illuminating essay on Nelson Mandela. Timeous, because such an obsession tends to emphasise, and exacerbate, particular differences between black people and white people, overlooking the universality of their common humanity in the process. Derrida’s essay does the opposite, by offering a reading of Mandela’s verbal self-defence in which the latter himself stressed the common, universal humanity shared by whites and blacks, instead of the particular differences between them.

This essay, titled “Admiration of Nelson Mandela, or The Laws of Reflection” (Law & Literature, 26:1-30), is based on Derrida’s reading of Mandela’s statements during the Pretoria and Rivonia trials of 1962 and 1963–64, respectively. At the outset (p. 9-10) Derrida raises the question of the reasons for Mandela appearing “exemplary — and admirable — in what he thinks and says, in what he does or in what he suffers … ” And he alludes to the fact that Mandela always witnesses for “[m]y people and I … ”, and — unlike many current political “leaders”, “ … without speaking like a king”.

What interests Derrida here is the question, why Mandela “forces” admiration, even (secretly) from his persecutors. His answer is complex, and within the limits of this blog-post I can merely mark its most salient moments. To begin with, he observes (p. 10): “We will perceive in it first, let us say it without any other premise, the line of a reflection. It is, in the first place, a force of reflection. To begin with, it is evident that the political experience or passion of Mandela is never separated from a theoretical reflection: on history, on culture, on law, above all”.

In fact, Derrida demonstrates, Mandela was a master in interweaving the relations among these three domains in his argumentation, while conducting his own defence at his trial. He also shows that “admiration” played a central role in Mandela’s thinking, given that the latter’s self-defence was grounded in his admiration for the “law”. Admittedly the concept of “the law” is used here in more than one sense, namely the historically and culturally PARTICULAR “positive” laws of a country (such as the South African government’s apartheid laws at the time), and — more importantly — “the law” (or “Law”) in the sense of the UNIVERSAL moral law, which is binding for all human beings, regardless of race, gender or culture.

For Derrida the crucial, and paradoxical thing about Mandela’s ingenious, and irrefutable, argument is this: that he demonstrates the apartheid government’s contradictory position, to be simultaneously (supposedly) committed to the western tradition of democracy (with all that this implies regarding universal “equality before the law”) of which it claims to be a part, AND basing its persecution of Mandela (and other persecuted and prosecuted persons) on the particular laws of the apartheid state.

In defending his own actions Mandela made no secret of the fact that he had the greatest admiration for the democratic tradition of the West, and in particular the law — “[t]he law itself, the law above laws” (p. 11), in other words, the moral law on which western democratic practices and the positive laws underpinning these are based. At this point Derrida quotes Mandela to remove all possible doubt in this regard, and Mandela’s stated preferences may come as a surprise to many (p. 11):

“From my reading of Marxist literature and from conversations with
Marxists, I have gained the impression that communists regard the
parliamentary system of the West as undemocratic and reactionary.
But, on the contrary, I am an admirer of such a system.

“The Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights, and the Bill of Rights are
documents which are held in veneration by democrats throughout
the world.

“[. . .] the independence and the impartiality of its [the British] judiciary
never fail to arouse my admiration.”

Derrida draws attention to the significance of the “formal universality” of the law that Mandela perceived as “presiding ” over constitutions and institutions such as a democratic parliamentary system, the “separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary” (p. 12), and proceeds by raising the question of the criterion for deciding who is the rightful “heir” of this democratic tradition, built on admiration for the law (p. 12): “One may recognise an authentic heir in the one who conserves and reproduces the legacy, but also in the one who respects its logic to the point of turning it, on occasion, against those who pretend to be its depositaries”.

This “inflexible logic of reflection” practised by Mandela, Derrida remarks further, led him to insist, against the liberal whites opposing apartheid, that it was not sufficient, as they argued, to work within the constitutional framework of the time, which was founded on the particular wills of a minority of the population. What was required was the general will of the people, to make possible a constitution that would finally “legitimise” the positive laws of the state, as opposed to the mere “legality” of state (or police) actions based on “that anti-constitutional constitution” (p. 13). Paradoxically, Derrida observes, such a legitimate constitution is called into existence “only on the basis of the violence of the minority” (p. 14).

Moreover, that configuration of “all the people” — instead of a white minority masquerading as, or in the place of “all the people” (both of which are necessarily political fictions, of course) — is what the Freedom Charter appeals to, in so doing (p. 15): “ … reflecting, against the white minority, the principles by which the latter claims to be inspired, but which in fact it never ceases to betray. Democracy, yes; South Africa, yes; but this time, the Charter says, ‘all the people’ will have to include all the national groups; such is the very logic of the law to which the white minority pretends to refer. In the thus delimited territory, all human beings, all men ‘worthy of that name,’ will then effectively become the subjects of the law”.

Attentive readers would have noticed by now that Mandela’s argument, reconstructed and analysed by Derrida, judged the “particular”, historically contingent, political and legal practices of the apartheid state — which placed itself, ironically, in the western democratic tradition — in terms of the very “universal” criteria which it flouted. In other words: what mattered for Mandela was that, as human beings, blacks, no less than whites, were entitled to be treated as subjects of “the law” applicable to all rational human beings, and not a caricature of this (universal) law, as embodied in apartheid laws.

The upshot of this argument is that, the racial differences between blacks and whites notwithstanding, they share a common humanity. In the present, hyper-racialised atmosphere in South Africa, this rather obvious fact seems to be constantly and regrettably forgotten. To be sure, one cannot be blind to racial difference which, more often than not, becomes conspicuous because of cultural difference; but beyond that, we are all people, human beings. This is the universal, which should never be forgotten, even if it is ineluctably mediated by the particular.

Finally, this tension between the particular and the universal is evident in Derrida’s masterly summing up of Mandela’s motives beyond his indictment of the mendacity of his persecutors (p. 26): “He wants to seize the occasion … of this trial to speak, to give to his speech a space of resonance that is public and virtually universal. It is necessary that these judges represent a universal authority. Thus will he be able to address himself to them all the while speaking over their heads. This double provision allows him to summon up the meaning of his history, his and that of his people … the image of that which ties his history to that of his people must be formed in this double focus which at once receives it, gathers it in summoning it up, and preserves it, yes, above all, preserves it: the judges present here who listen to Mandela, and behind them, far above and beyond them, the universal tribunal.”


  • 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.


  1. michael michael 26 January 2016

    It has got nothing to do with race it is culture that divides us.

  2. Manu Manu 26 January 2016

    “… and to-and-fro accusations that reflect a veritable obsession with race in this country — an obsession one might have expected to abate somewhat at this point in time, almost 22 years after the demise of apartheid …”

    As the author makes claims to philosophy, I am compelled to ask, this question. Considering that South Africa is presently a massively racially unequal society, why is the author surprised that race continues to remain a contentious subject?

    A philosopher is the first person I would expect to understand that in a society fraught with injustice, the subject of justice will continue to occupy the minds of men.

  3. Manu Manu 26 January 2016

    Mandela was a great man. No doubt about that. But he has been overused (one could even say abused) to the point that it’s damaging his relevance to the present circumstances.
    To explain what I mean. Mandela was not infallible or perfect. His insights were a product of a life of struggle like all of us. He offered a perspective that was useful for a precise moment in time. He wanted all South Africans to aspire to a better and more harmonious future. This however was one of many possible futures.
    Was Mandela’s future realized? Depends on which side of the fence you are sitting on, and this is problematic because for the majority the reality doesn’t match the dream. So to continue using him as a standard for perseverance and sacrifice exposes him to unfair examination, because many thought that the sacrifices of the last 22 years would have equalized society somewhat.
    People know that they are human. But society fails to affirm this humanity and because of this many don’t feel human. Race will cease to be an issue in South Africa when it stops interfering with peoples’ sense of humanity. It’s not something that can be rationalized.You can’t argue someone into feeling human in an inhuman society.

  4. Bert Olivier Bert Olivier 27 January 2016

    Manu – You have just confirmed that you, like (probably) the majority of South Africans, are also obsessed with race. Otherwise, why ask me whether I know that “South Africa is presently a massively racially unequal society” (your own words)? Remove the “racially”! South Africa is the most unequal society in the world, yes, but that includes both whites and blacks across the board – not wealthy whites and poor blacks, but wealthy black AND white people and poor black AND white people. There are now more black billionaires in SA than white ones, in case you did not know, including the deputy president of the country. The protests in Lusikisiki today were motivated, one protester said over the radio, by ANC councillors flaunting their big cars to the poor people of the area, while not addressing service delivery. There are at present also thousands of poor whites. Stop obsessing about “race”, and start thinking (economic) “class”. Besides, my article – if you understood it at all) should tell you clearly that I am as interested as Mandela and Derrida were in justice (all philosophers who are worthy of the name MUST promote justice) – that’s why I have been an outspoken opponent of apartheid all my life.

  5. Richard Richard 28 January 2016

    Derrida’s analysis seems wholly descriptive, and not fundamental. Terms are used without considering their actual predictive value. Do you think, for instance, that the fact of a shared “humanity” makes any difference in the reality of a political state? Think about other African examples, say, Rwanda, where the differences were purely cultural and recent ancestral (Nilotic versus Bantu), and yet nearly a million people were slaughtered. The mere fact of a shared categorisation doesn’t really imply any imperative to a particular action. Cattle and we are both mammals, yet we eat them. Chimanzees, our closest primate relatives, are consumed in places like Cameroon. Species, genus, tribe, or family are simply descriptive terms that possibly, but not necessarily, demand allegiance. In like vein, we cannot pretend that all religions are the same: the devil (pardon the metaphor) is in the detail. And likewise subdivisions within religions: Sunni and Shia in Islam, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism in Christianity. Calling on a particular repertoire of behaviour because of similarity, history shows us, is not always likely to work. Vested interests, however, are another matter.

    Such interests point the way to what might succeed through self-interest: despite differences, people can find reasons to work together towards a common good. Apartheid removed the “common” good and made it the good of one sector of the population. The new order has removed that one sector’s control of the good, without replacing it with a common one. That is the work of the moment. It is not to pretend that we are all equal in ability, height, weight, athleticism, intelligence, eye-colour, hair, or even ancestry, because we are not. Some of the differences are deep, and go back hundreds of thousands of years, and are manifest in our genes. However, that does not mean that we cannot work together. Indeed, in order for the whole of society to succeed, we have to draw from the strengths of all of its parts, not trying to crush them out of existence.

    Politicking in a democracy demands a fair amount of rabble-rousing, usually with promises of goods at the end of the process. That is the real elephant in this room. It is the bogey-man of envy and resentment that fuels the fire.

  6. Bert Olivier Bert Olivier 28 January 2016

    Richard – I agree with you that, in many, if not virtually all, cases of persecution and/or conflict or genocide (the Rwandan example you mention), people tend NOT to see the importance of a shared humanity, BUT that does not diminish the moral importance of such a consideration. Lacan’s symbolic order – language as discourse – confirms this as the social order, and the one in which the moral law (that Derrida refers to, NOT merely descriptively, by the way) is inscribed. If the particularity of race (in the final instance located in the ineffable Real, even if people think they grasp racial difference, but in fact really only its cultural expression), is all that most people focus on, it does not say much for our vaunted status as rational beings. But alas, that’s what happens, despite Mandela (correctly) arguing that it is the humanity of both blacks and whites that require their equal treatment. This is all that I insist on, too, instead of this endless exacerbation of so-called racial (but really cultural) differences that could potentially lead to more and more conflict. The economic differences between rich and poor in SA at present is a huge factor (and I have written on it on TL before in psychoanalytic terms, because it is not as simple as people think), brought about by the ANC opting for neoliberal capitalism instead of a social democracy where economic differences could be ameliorated by “distributive justice”. See AND

  7. Manu Manu 28 January 2016

    Fact check

    [b]There are now more black billionaires in SA than white ones[/b]
    [b]Wrong[/b]: As of the end of 2015 there are seven billionaires in SA. Only two of the seven are black.

    [b]Remove the “racially”! South Africa is the most unequal society in the world, yes, but that includes both whites and blacks across the board – not wealthy whites and poor blacks, but wealthy black AND white people and poor black AND white people. [/b]
    [b]Muddying the waters:[/b] South Africa’s inequality most certainly has a racial character. A quick visit to statistics SA will clear this up very quickly.
    It’s a given that in any society you will have poor people. The reality of racial inequality doesn’t mean that there are no poor whites. At issue here is the distribution of wealth within the demographics. For example the unemployment rate within the white demographic is in the order of 7%. Withing the Black demographic it’s well over 25%.

  8. Manu Manu 28 January 2016

    Bert, now on to this matter of being obsessed.

    What you seem to be arguing is “Don’t be obsessed with race, be obsessed with class”. This is a rather self serving argument.
    If I believe that the quality of my life and the opportunities I receive are defined by race, then why shouldn’t I be able to argue the problem from that perspective? Why should I have to restrict my arguments to your view of the world? Actually what would be the point of debating if all I am doing is reproducing your views of the world?
    It’s like telling a feminist that she is obsessed with gender, and that instead she should argue for equal rights for everyone irrespective of what they maybe. Should the feminist comply?

    I am a strong believer in facts and evidence. The evidence shows that there is massive (yes that word again) racial inequality in South Africa. This evidence can be seen in our lived experiences.

    Finally I would like to point out that being against apartheid and being against racial inequality are not necessarily the same thing. Apartheid was a legislated system of racial segregation designed to create racial inequality.
    Apartheid no longer exists, but racial inequality continues to this day. So it kind boils down to does racial inequality exist or not?

  9. Bert Olivier Bert Olivier 28 January 2016

    Manu – It seems to depend on what articles one reads – this one states that there are at least 5 black billionaires in South Africa (Rand billionaires, of course, I never said Dollar billionaires): You should read some Lacan, then you’ll perhaps understand why race “does not exist” (racial difference being in the unsymbolisable ‘real’); only cultural differences do. Race is a cultural marker in language. Inequality exists everywhere, but across such a variegated register that no one could really perceive it. In the final analysis everyone is different and unequal, EXCEPT as human beings, and before the moral Law. To bring economic equality in line with the latter kind of equality is a task that not even Hercules could accomplish, but social democracy stands a better chance than neoliberal capitalism – recall the recent news, that 62 individuals now own more than the rest of the world’s more than 7 billion people.

  10. Bert Olivier Bert Olivier 28 January 2016

    My previous response is bound to sound contradictory – what I meant is that race is ordinarily regarded as being real in the usual sense of being ‘part of reality’, and obviously, in an experiential sense, this is the case. But, in a Lacanian sense, ‘race’, as well as sexual difference – as opposed to gender – belongs to the ‘real’ as that realm which lies beyond language, discourse or the symbolic realm – after all, ‘race’ inheres in the polyvalent body, and not even genetic differences, minuscule as they are, can express this, because genetics comprises a discourse, which is in the symbolic. Hence, paradoxically, the closest we can come to grasping ‘race’ is at the level of the cultural differences among people of different ‘races’. When we say ‘black’ or ‘white’ we usually mean to refer to someone who belongs to a specific cultural group, as the pejorative use of the term ‘coconut’ demonstrates – a black person with ‘white’ cultural preferences.

  11. Manu Manu 28 January 2016

    So Bert, if I were to place a Chinese person, a Nordic person, an African person, a Polynesian, a Turkish person, an Indian person, etc., against a wall, the only valid difference between them would be their culture?
    My intelligence refuses to accept this.
    The reality that I see and experience is this: We are all different. But some of us are more similar to some than we are to others. The obvious and visible differences between groups of people can’t be wished away.
    And we can’t rely on people to switch off their intelligence to accept this idea that these differences are virtual. Our minds were not designed for this kind of dissonance.

    For example you mention the word coconut. The existence of that expression is proof that some recognize a dissonance between the person and their cultural persona.
    It’s like seeing a cat barking. If a barking cat troubles your intelligence, then it means that you recognize a difference between cats and dogs.

    Instead of trying to convince people that race is an artificial construct, it’s more constructive to embrace it and educate all that in spite of it we are all equally worthy.

  12. Manu Manu 28 January 2016

    Bert you are mixing issues.
    The fact that 62 people now own more wealth than half of the world’s population (not 7 billion) has no bearing on the racial inequality within a society.
    The fact that South Africa has 5 rand billionaires has little to no bearing on the racial inequality in South Africa.

    What matters is, if we are to generate statistical distributions of the income/wealth/opportunities/etc. of the difference race groups in South Africa, will the distributions match up?

  13. Richard Richard 28 January 2016

    @Bert, the genetic differences are not that minuscule. The proportion of Neanderthal DNA, for instance, contained in non-sub Saharan African people is between one and five percent by current estimates. Bonobos and chimpanzees are 99% related to modern humans (we share 99% of the same DNA), to give you some yardstick. However, the point is that we are at least 95% similar, which is a statistically acceptable margin of error. We need to understand that we are not identical, but share a great deal in common. We also form genetic in-groups: if somebody of north European ancestry requires an organ transplant, physical reality would force them to look for such material from people of the same ethnicity. Likewise sub-Saharan Africans. In other words, these are not trivial issues, and are not merely superficially cultural. They do form part of the discourse of the “real”. Unlike mathematics, genes are not merely symbolic representations of underlying truths, but are physically malleable and manipulatable things.

    However, given that most people do not exist within the space defined by the need for organ donation, the closest we can come to the real in this regard is its manifestation in the idea of culture, as you say.

  14. Richard Richard 28 January 2016

    The main difference between the socio-economic divide in South Africa and the similar divide that exists in Nigeria, say, is that by-and-large, there is a racial dimension to it. This dimension would remain if there were to be a punitive redistribution too, because the people contributing most to this system would remain an ethnically identifiable group. At no point would a satisfactory taxation proportion arise, because there would always be those who would call for a greater redistribution, and those who would complain that they were having to contribute too much, and the racial overlap in identifying to which group one belonged would be very great. Therefore, it would not resolve the racial dimension at all, save that it would hasten the exit of those called upon to make the greatest contribution. By international standards, the wealthiest proportion of the population in South Africa – white people – do not in fact enjoy a hugely elevated material standard of living. It is also not possible to tax 8% of the population to uplift 92% unless that 8% were all hugely wealthy, like the Oppenheimers or Ruperts.

  15. Bert Olivier Bert Olivier 29 January 2016

    Manu, I have already acknowledged that we are all different, and that’s true at an individual level as much as between people from different cultures, but every step of the way you have confirmed what you found problematical in my article in the first place, namely that South Africans (you included) are, by and large, obsessed with race. We are supposed to be a “non-racial democracy”. For as long as people do not act accordingly, and forget about race, there are bound to be all kinds of social problems. I rest my case.

  16. Richard Richard 11 February 2016

    @Bert, I am not sure whether these posts are read by you at a later point, but in any event, just to add that nobody I know would deny that we are all human, and deserving of equal treatment in law. However, there are substantial, verifiable and measurable differences between races, owing to breeding in isolation and responding to different environmental pressures. The article you link to is heavily ideological, quoting a politician in closing, to provide some sort of justification for a scientific position. That alone makes it suspect as far as I am concerned, and not really worthy of serious consideration. Just as a scientific truth does not require a theological underpinning, it does not require a political one.

    From your previous posts, I am aware that you read “Time” magazine: there was an interesting piece in that publication a couple of years ago on this issue, readable here

    A readable explanation of the differences is also given in a fascinating book, called “The Ten Thousand Year Explosion”.

    The position from the Left is to deny difference even when it is measurable and known, which is entirely redolent of the position of the Church during the time of Galileo and Copernicus. Because they are afraid of possible consequences of acknowledging difference, they prefer to deny it. Stephen Jay Gould, for instance, did not like the fact that a study of human cranial capacity by Samuel Morton revealed differences closely correlated to race. For this reason, he accused Morton of manipulation and fabricating results. It turned out that Gould did precisely this in attempting to smear Morton, for ideological reasons. You can read about it at this Stanford URL

    Fortunately, we have not yet reached the position where incompatible human tissue is forced upon those in need of transplants out of some ideological belief in physical equality. However, that is a real possibility. That difference throws up challenges does not mean we should live in a world of dictated untruth.

  17. Maria Maria 23 March 2016

    Richard, this is where Derrida’s notion of différance (difference-deferment) is so useful. Difference implies deferment which means the meaning of a difference is always still to come – the more one talks about someting (i.e. tries to make a difference), the more there is to say about it … And that is what causes people to want to reduce differences to simple binaries, they are freaked out and frustrated by things not being able to brought under control, not being able to be brought to a position where they can belong to it, finally and forever, without ever thinking about it ever again …

    And that is then also where Derrida’s notion of a taste for the secret (Latin, secretum, related to se-cernere, separation) comes in handy – we need to develop a taste for not ever being able to belong for once and for all. Derrida makes it very clear that his taste for the secret has to do with a fear and terror regards belonging because, apart from it being a situation in which the secret is not broached/breached, belonging spells totalitatianism.

    In short, a certain violence is unavoidable because without it there would be no culture, as Derrida reminds us, but we need to learn the difference between good and bad violence. Bad violence is brutal, it does not open to the future.

    One can call Derrida’s taste for the secret also a taste for paradox: We are all the same in the sense that we are all absolutely unique, singularities, just like every moment in time, an Erstmaligkeit, a first-(and last) time, appearing to disappear. How do one keep house with such a multitude, such a movement? You try to reduce things to simple, binary good-bad categories, to commit A CERTAIN apartheid. Ultimately we need to become more discerning, to be able to discern between good and bad apartheid. And that is then also why the human sciences need to receive more respect and resources.

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