Even the Dead

By Richard Pithouse · 20 Nov 2012

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Picture: Neil Aggett and Steve Biko courtesy South African History Archives and Wikipedia.
Picture: Neil Aggett and Steve Biko courtesy South African History Archives and Wikipedia.
And then, despite the fear, I set off
I put my cheek against death's cheek
− Roberto Bolaño, 'Self Portrait at Twenty Years', The Romantic Dogs, 2006

On the 26th of September1940 Walter Benjamin – a brilliant writer struggling to the point of being short of paper, an intellectual acutely attuned to the poetic, Jewish and, in his own way, communist – found himself, for the second time in his life, in desperate flight from fascism. On the border between Spain and France, with his library lost to the Gestapo in Paris and his way through Spain blocked, he took his own life.

The manuscript that he carried in his briefcase was lost but some people think it may have been his Theses on the Philosophy of History. He’d written it earlier in the year in the shadow of the Nazi invasion of France and it would be published ten years after his death. Its arresting images speak to history as a permanent state of emergency for the oppressed, of every civilisation having a barbarous underside, of the need to brush history against the grain and, in the strained machismo of a delicate man, to burst its continuum open. “The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is”, he concluded, “the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious”. Benjamin also offered a famous interpretation of a painting of an angel by Paul Klee, a painting that Benjamin, broke as he was, had owned and which he described as image of the Angel of History:

His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel cannot close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

We can't refuse the rush of time, or the world historical forces that shape it. The longing to restore the wholeness of lost worlds is a fantasy, that, while it can certainly legitimate the exercise of power in the here and now, cannot actually restore what has been lost. But, Benjamin implies, we can redeem the dead by contesting the future and striving to make it worthy of the suffering that has marked our passage through time. 

Just over twenty years later, in the midst of another war, and on the eve of his own death, Frantz Fanon warned that “the weary road to rational knowledge” requires us to give up our “too-simple” conceptions of who is and is not the enemy and, also, of what counts as victory. The rule of people who have been oppressed can itself be oppressive and so while the removal of all barriers to equal participation in the governing of society is a necessary condition for emancipation it is not, on its own, a sufficient condition. For Fanon liberation was not merely about replacing one set of rulers with another but, rather, about enabling the restoration of dignity, to “create a prospect that is human because consciousness and sovereign persons dwell therein”.

Two new books take us into the heart of the courage and imagination that, to borrow another metaphor from Benjamin, set the sails that carried us out of apartheid. Xolela Mangcu's Biko: A Biography opens a door into Steve Biko's world and Beverley Naidoo's Death of an Idealist does the same for Neil Aggett. These books carry the weight of death – of Biko and Aggett naked and alone, their bodies broken by the police. They are heavy with the price that was paid - by women and men whose journeys through oppression will not be written into history in their singularity as well as those whose names have come to mark out our shared journey along the weary road. But they also sing with the spirit that affirms life against oppression.

Biko and Aggett both reached towards and, in their most decisive choices, embodied a sense of justice that moved beyond narrow calculations of material and discursive interest to touch the universal. Biko looked forward to 'a true humanity' and insisted that 'you are either alive and proud, or you are dead'. In his last moments Aggett chose, as part of his epitaph, a line from William Faulkner that spoke to his communism: “to hold the earth mutual and intact in the communal anonymity of brotherhood”. From Nikos Kazantzakis he added the line 'Faces change, crumble, return to earth; but others rise to take their place'.                                                                     

Both men, in their different ways, sought to organise in a manner that enabled the oppressed to assume their own agency. This set them at odds with much of the ANC in exile and today it would set them against both the ruling party and the strands in the independent left that have sought to rally people behind their own authority, be it mediated through individual charisma or NGO bureaucracies.

In 2012 much of the horror of apartheid has been decisively overcome and there is much to celebrate in society. But while we are not Colombia, Pakistan or Zimbabwe we are moving away from and not towards our highest aspirations. Amongst the facts that cannot be denied are these: The ANC, sometimes operating on its own and sometimes through the state, is, in its attempts to crush dissent, willing to kill, to openly threaten to kill, to torture, to jail people against whom there is no evidence of having committed any crime and to drive people from their homes and their livelihoods. The language of war festers in the mouths of leading figures in the party. Open sanction has been given for action, sometimes, violent, to be taken outside of the law and democratic institutions in defence of the party. Places where popular dissent has attained some sort of critical mass are temporarily ruled with the logic of a police state. Millions are excluded from any rational grounds for hope and the state's approach to functions as basic as education, housing and policing are marked, above all, by sheer contempt for the people who are most dependent on them.

It is true that there is not a single state that has moved directly from colonialism and into a confident democratic flourishing. In fact there is, across space and time, not a single state in which an attempt at radical or revolutionary change has not encountered serious limitations or outright disaster. But real social progress is possible. And every day all sorts of choices, choices of consequence, are made. One of those choices has been for various government departments to employ Steven Whitehead, the man who tortured Neil Aggett with sadistic delight, as an intelligence consultant. Reading Mangcu and Naidoo is a salutary reminder that Zuma's ANC disgraces the dead as much as it insults the living.
Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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