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.


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...

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