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Review of Complicities: The Intellectual and Apartheid


By Yvette Hutchison

Complicities: The Intellectual and Apartheid by Mark Sanders. Duke University Press, 2002. ix+273pp. ISBN 0-8223-2998-0. £15.50.

Complicities is both a challenging analysis of the place of the intellectual and artist in South Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; and by implication, the artist and intellectual in any oppressive society. The book weaves a complex analysis of the notion of complicity, defined broadly in terms of subordinating oneself or the group to which one belongs. Sanders tracks this idea from Zola, through Dreyfus, Habermas and Derrida, including Fanon’s deconstruction of Sartre and references to South African philosophers like Degenaar. Significantly, he then begins his analysis of the South African situation with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s strong insistence on the significance of the individual’s “moral obligation”, which it argued “goes deeper than legal and political responsibility” (3). It is this obligation that Sanders suggests calls for the acknowledgement of the “little perpetrator”, an acknowledgement of our place in the oppressive society. He relates this idea to Zola’s insistence on the need to speak out in order not to be an accessory to crime. Thus for European intellectuals complicity is related to silence, and invokes the necessity to speak out “on behalf of another” (his italics).

Dreyfus suggests that this requires a larger complicity in the common experience of being human, which implies common responsibility. However, the distinction is drawn between “acting-in-complicity” and a “responsibility–in-complicity”. In order to deconstruct and reveal the oppression, the intellectual or artist must engage with and understand the processes of the oppressor beyond the superficial and stereotypical. The intellectual and artist thus acknowledges her/ himself as a “little perpetrator”, and calls upon readers to likewise “assume responsibility for another in the name of a generalized foldedness in human-being (and perhaps beyond human-being) (author’s italics,17)”. Paradoxically this may result in a simultaneous closing of the reference of common humanity as nationalist movement define themselves by excluding an ‘other’; as exemplified in Afrikaner resistance to British dominance, or Black Consciousness to white liberalism.

Sanders explores and illustrates these complex philosophical ideas about complicity against close readings of carefully selected extracts of specific South African writers and intellectuals. These include Sol Plaatjie, Afrikaner nationalist poet N.P. van Wyk Louw, Drum writers Ezekiel Mphalele and Bloke Modisane, Xhosa novelist A.C. Jordan, Afrikaner dissident Breyten Breytenbach, black consciousness leader, Steve Biko, and other black consciousness writers like Njabulo Ndebele, as juxtaposed to the white liberal Nadine Gordimer. Sanders’ intention to expand his exploration of the nature of complicity in racial terms to include gender issues is evidenced in its framing: it both opens and closes on women writers. It begins by analysing the work of Olive Schreiner and it ends on an analysis of the structuring of and report on the three special women’s hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This framing explores the complexities surrounding the degree and processes of women’s complicity in their own silence and marginalisation, as in South Africa, race discourses have subsumed gender issues into themselves, and women have tended to speak for and about men, both the living in dead, rather than themselves. This introduces an important concept insofar as it extends complicity beyond the intellectual, involving consciousness and language, to the corporeal. This idea of embodiment is introduced in the chapter on Black Consciousness, where he carefully analyses the impact of Fanon’s opposition to Sartre regarding embodiment of Blackness on Steve Biko. Turner and Fanon argue for the psychic and social inscription of race and gender, the latter not really engaged with by either Fanon or Black Consciousness, suggests the need for more than intellectual resistance. The engagement with physical and social inscription of race, or gender, is offered as the way to shift from victim to activist.

In the last chapter Sanders suggests that this embodiment may extend to include speaking for another, particularly if dead. Embodiment as advocacy, like apartheid is complex. He acknowledges the paradoxes of presuming to speak for another, but simultaneously reminds us of the more generalised reference to complicity in responsibility and the broader appeal to the common human-beingness. He also traces the paradox of this embodiment of apartheid as, at the same time as one is diasavowing the other, by insisting on separatedness, one denies the possibility of this separateness because this disavowal binds both parties in an inextricable [and often unwanted] intimacy and awareness.

Finally, Sanders outlines the potential of taking this “responsibility in foldedness with others” as a powerful departure point for extending the margins of history, race and gender.

The notes, index and bibliography are extensive and a resource in themselves. This combination of European and African philosophy and literature challenges the role and place of the intellectual and artist in society. South Africans have long seen complicity as contamination and resisted any association either with the word or people to whom it has been applicable. This book offers an alternative perspective whereby we can look at these discourses differently, with less anxiety. It has been one of the most challenging and stimulating books I have read in the past year.


[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 66 (2004), pp. 84-86]


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