Politics of Grieving


In my work, I have defended a nonviolent ethic through Derrida and Levinas, which begins with the commandment, “thou shall not kill.” But this ethic certainly does not end there. My book The Philosophy of the Limit gives us a sustained defense of such an ethic, as does my most recent book, Moral Images of Freedom. Such an ethic, however, need not advocate a politics of nonviolent violence; indeed sometimes, such an ethic is, paradoxically, actually a mandate for certain kinds of violent political action.

In what follows I would like to address some of the questions given to us by the organizers in the context of a question asked by Judith Butler in Precarious Life. Butler writes:

The question that preoccupies me in the light of recent global violence is, Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? And, finally, What makes for a grievable life? Despite our differences in location and history, my guess is that it is possible to appeal to a “we,” for all of us have some notion of what it is to have lost somebody. Loss has made a tenuous “we” of us all.[1]Judith Butler, Precarious Life (New York: Verso, 2004), p. 20.


And to show the importance of Butler’s questions, I want to situate them in the context of South Africa, and particularly in the so-called xenophobic violence that broke out in the outskirts of a number of townships in South Africa in 2008. I will do so through an interview with four young men that was conducted by myself and a co-director of the uBuntu Township Project, Madoda Sigonyela. We interviewed four boys who had been in a six-month battle with a Mozambican stall owner. The battle took place because the stall owner sold faulty headphones. The boys stabbed him, he shot them, and so it went on, until the boys finally got a gun. This battle had been going on for six months at the time we interviewed these four boys. These four boys lived in a shack that was not large enough for them to stretch out in; it was about five by six feet, and they were all tall boys. They did not know that they were Xhosa. When it was pointed out by Madoda that one of the boys had traditional Xhosa markings, he said he had been stabbed so many times that he did not recognize his traditional Xhosa markings as such. None of the boys could read or write. All of them had lost their parents by the age of three. They did not know for certain how old they were. They did not speak proper Eastern Cape Xhosa but rather Cape Town slang. They could not identify themselves through any of the Xhosa traditions, including the famous question, where are you from? The answer to that question is: I am from where my umbilical cord is buried.

The entire interview was conducted in Xhosa, because although the boys spoke English, it was a form of street English. At the end of this interview we asked the boys if they had any hostility towards the Mozambican stall owner because he was from Mozambique. They answered, what is Mozambique? We explained it was a neighboring country. The big dream of one of the boys was to leave South Africa and go to a country where there was free public education. He said the country he wanted to go to was Johannesburg. We explained that Johannesburg was actually a city within his own country.

Xenophobia, hatred of the other, turns on two very privileged assumptions: being able to identify yourself with a nation state or some other group, and being able to identify the other as from “some place else.” None of the boys were able to make these kinds of identifications.

The practice of “telling” here, which is how one identifies the enemy, a concept that Allen Feldman has brilliantly deployed in his work on Northern Ireland, was not about the recognition of who was Mozambican, or of who was Zimbabwean. The concept of telling in the streets of the townships in South Africa is “who has the goods and who should have the goods.” Here the enemy was the one “who should not have the goods,” i.e. the stall owner. In South Africa, the punishment that was often delved out to the “foreign workers” during the spring of 2008 was that of necklacing. In necklacing, a tire is put around the shoulders of a person, so that they cannot move their hands, and the person is then lit on fire. Necklacing was the frequent punishment for “informers” during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. During that time, if you had “the goods on someone,” it meant you had “proof” that he or she was an “informer.” So those who “should not have the goods,” who in the case I’m recounting to you had the headphones, for example, were often put to death in the same way that the ANC (African National Congress), or at least members of the ANC, had put to death so-called “informers” during the struggle. The putting to death of “foreign workers” was thus a strong message to the government of the ANC. The punishment here was a kind of mimicking, then, caught up in a historical notion of telling that mimicked practices that were used during the struggle.

At the end of the interview, we did deliver to each of the four boys a set of headphones, which we bought from a Zimbabwean stall owner. One of the boys turned to me and said that these headphones are to die for. I was of course a white foreign worker, but I was not a threat to them because I was not entrapped in the space of their struggle for survival. “Spatial” is one of Allen Feldman’s terms, which is not meant to be simply a physical location, but to some degree also a symbolic or metaphoric location of those who view themselves as oppressed or excluded. But there was a particular form of space here. This shantytown was at the edge of the Khayelitsha township of Cape Town. Here you have new refugees from countries in Southern Africa, many of which had been economically destroyed by the wars during the apartheid era, such as Mozambique, and refugees from the Eastern Cape, who live so far outside of the city limits that even the “people’s taxis” do not go there. Often, the new refugees set up stalls to sell goods because it is very difficult for people who live in the shantytowns to travel back and forth to Cape Town. It took us almost an hour and a half to get there by car. One of the boys said to me at the end of our interview, “Prof. I know how to describe it, we are refuse fighting garbage,” which is an even more violent identification in Xhosa than it is in English.

Note, I do not mean to reduce political violence to a neat description, of devastation as the basis for expression in violence and as an inevitable form of redress, because Allen Feldman has taught me not to do so. Yet I also need to add here that Mahmud Mamdani, Sampie Terreblanche and myself publicly challenged the designation of violence as xenophobic and explicitly called for the establishment of a Justice and Reconciliation Commission as the only appropriate response to the violence. As I have already said, even the chosen method of punishment, based on who has the goods, was mimicking a kind of punishment that the ANC had used in the struggle. As Feldman reminds us, social antagonisms are irreducible to class conflicts.

And yet at the same time we have to remember the basic lesson of Rosa Luxemburg. Rosa Luxemburg’s work has been rightfully given a central place in South Africa, both by left-wing economists and by social movements struggling for what they now call “living communism.” Luxemburg’s basic lesson is that “the time of primitive accumulation of capitalism” is not a period of capitalism; it is integral to capitalism as a mode of production. To put it simply, her argument is that capitalism must always produce a surplus population, both for the sake of dumping excess goods, and thus for solving “underconsumption,” and for the sake of finding a work force that can be “superexploited,” which is why almost all the industrial labor in the United States is outsourced at this point, something that we take for granted. The last presidential candidate to object to outsourcing was Robert Kennedy.

The surplus population in what has come to be known as the “second economy” within South Africa, or those who are excluded both from the formal first and the informal second economy, should be understood as an inevitable result of the dynamics of neoliberal capitalism. In the late 1980s, the leading group of corporations decided that the only way in which they could exclude black workers, who were granted the right to unionize in the late 1980s, and who were leading protests and strikes that were effectively shutting down the country, was to bear for several years profit loss through a move to capital intensity. There was a move then, to modernize industry, and thus the level of highly technological constant capital, so as to rely on fewer black workers in order to effectively run the corporations.

The “Bantu” education system certainly did not train workers to move into this highly skilled technological industry. During the first year of Mugabe’s rein in Zimbabwe, he provided free English A-level education. Thus, Zimbabwean workers were more skilled than South African workers, and many of these Zimbabwean workers had been recruited in the first economy.[2]See The Accumulation of Capital in Southern Africa: Rosa Luxemburg’s Contemporary Relevance. Proceedings of the Rosa Luxemburg Seminar 2006 and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Centre for Civil … Continue reading

Sampie Terreblanche, in his excellent book, A History of Inequality in South Africa, shows us in great detail why the majority of the black population cannot enter into the so-called first economy. With many others, he has also shown that the so-called first and second economy are tied together, in that the so-called second economy provides the necessary cheap labor force on which the first economy, in Luxemburg’s sense, is so dependent. Terreblanche also calls for effective tariff barriers to global capital, so as to establish in South Africa labor-intensive industries that could become competitive in the internal markets of their own country, and thus help to solve the massive unemployment problem in South Africa. These tariff barriers were refused as antithetical to neoliberal capitalism, and there has been no effective change in the huge numbers of unemployed in South Africa.

But I want to return to the original setting of my remarks and to Butler’s questions to us. Butler not only asks the question whose lives are grievable, she asks the further question: how is grievability tied to an imagined vision of whose lives are “real”? To quote Butler:

What is real? Whose lives are real? How might reality be remade? Those who are unreal have, in a sense, already suffered the violence of derealization. What, then, is the relation between violence and those lives considered as “unreal”? Does violence effect that unreality? Does violence take place on the condition of that unreality?[3]Judith Butler, Precarious Life, p.33.

In Butler’s sense, the lives of the boys we interviewed had been derealized. Their lives do not count. They have ceased to matter and in the official story of the ANC government, they are reduced to a third force. They have lost all individuation. And of course for the boys themselves, since they were orphaned so young, they have no idea what their names are or what their ancestry is. The derealization of their lives that is already taking place is also what Butler calls us to mourn.

As S’Bu Zikode, who is the current president of the Shackdwellers Movement, has passionately argued, “The systematic oppression of the majority of South Africans has disappeared from the official political discourse of the country.”[4]Interview with S’Bu Zikode in uBuntu in Everyday Life, conducted by Madoda Sigonyela and Drucilla Cornell. Forthcoming 2011.

And how can that suffering enter into the perceptual field, which is one way in which those that have been “derealized” demand redress for their suffering? This appearance must itself be political, to quote S’Bu Zikode again, “The only language that they, the leaders of the ANC, can understand is, guess what, putting thousands of people into the street. Amandla! It works, it worked for us, it may work for you.”[5]S’Bu Zikode, “The Shackdwellers Movement of Durban.” In The Accumulation of Capital in Southern Africa: Rosa Luxemburg’s Contemporary Relevance. pp. 163-165.

So what is his politics, and how does it define itself? According to S’Bu Zikode, it must be explicitly anticapitalist. In a speech he gave to the Cape anti-addiction campaign, which Madoda and I were present at, Zikode said:

So comrades, today I appeal to you that what we need to do is conquer this capitalist system, because each second you turn your head the capitalist system is there. We face electricity cut offs and water disconnections and so on because we cannot afford to pay. We are pushed below, way below, a livable life, and then our disappearance is mandated by the government as our shacks are destroyed. But we will make them see us, we will take back what is ours. We will develop an ethics of living communism and throw it in their face as a promise that they have betrayed us.[6]Ibid.

Zikode, like leaders of so many of the movements in South Africa, is fighting for a better world, a form of living communism. But in keeping with my original discussion, his struggle is also to make lives matter in Butler’s sense, so that the systematicity of violence against the poor, not only as a depravation but also as police force, can be seen and named as violence.

Here we return to the original paradox: can we be called by an ethic of non-violence to a violent response? To respond as the shanty dwellers did when they were attacked, by what would we call this violent means of self-defense? Who gets to call what kind of action is actually political violence? The shanty dwellers refused to move from their shantytown and defended their occupation of Kennedy Road. Their actions have been called violence by the ANC.

The uBuntu electricians are famous for smashing prepaid electrical meters and for turning on electricity for those who cannot pay their bills. They are also designated as criminals. When you drive from the airport into Cape Town you will see signs saying that those who turn on electricity and smash prepaid electrical meters are dangerous criminals. But the electricians themselves see their actions as part of a nonviolent ethic guided by uBuntu. uBuntu is a Zulu and Xhosa word. To briefly describe uBuntu; uBuntu is an activist ethic of virtue, in which the human is always performed ethically in day-to-day acts with and towards other people. It is neither a law-bound nor a rule-bound ethic, but one in which we are always realizing both our individual and our collective freedom together, and this becomes “Abahlalism,” which is the word for “the people together acting politically.” So their actions are explicitly tied to uBuntu, which is certainly an ethic of non-violence. Is smashing electrical meters violent? In one sense, yes, but this violence does not violate the dignity of others. Indeed, the opposite is the case. If one thinks that dignity is tied to basic socio-economic rights, what we do in the name of dignity and respect for all others, the very dignity and respect the ANC purports to stand behind, may involve acts of political violence. But in the examples I have given, these acts of violence are themselves conducted in the name of furthering a non-violent ethic, and hence we have the paradox.

I now want to come closer to home to Michael Patrick MacDonald’s All Souls, a book on Southie, a poor, primarily white working class area in Boston. I do so to argue that vigils of grieving can and should be seen as a necessary political and ethical action to bring back the dead that did not count in life to the register of the human. I will be speaking of on-the-ground rituals. These on-the-ground rituals should not be confused with legally established grieving procedures. I want us to think about the contrast between on-the-ground grieving rituals, which are mobilized by movements of people, and those that are imposed from above with rules and legal restrictions on whose narratives can count and in what way these narratives can count. An example of the latter is the story of the woman who testified before the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission but strongly refused Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s call to follow the commission’s particular narrative of forgiveness to forgive the murderers of her son.

But let me now return to Southie, where there was a kind of violence in the 1970s that could not be read by the liberal press because it seemed simply like it was poor whites against poor blacks about nothing. But in fact it again gets back to the very telling Xhosa question of who has the goods and who should have the goods and what is the distribution of those goods. All too often, because of the segregation of communities, the only available way of expressing your agency is against those who come into your territory. Note that many of the white people at the time who were interviewed in Southie did not say they had any hostility towards black children or that they were racist.

I leave you with MacDonald’s moving narrative, precisely because the day-to-day violence, which took the lives of many of his siblings, was seen as simply the way things were by the community. This acceptance became a further mandate of an imposed code of secrecy, which actually protected the gangs that were killing the children of Southie. MacDonald lost four siblings to the violence, “the kids,” as his mother called them because to refer to them individually was too painful for both MacDonald and his mother to register at the level of consciousness. “The kids” were lost to drugs, to gang violence, to drug-induced suicide, and ultimately to detention for an unwarranted charge of murder. Four out of the five siblings who died were killed (the fifth sibling died as a young baby), another has been rendered, after a drug-induced stroke, into a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

MacDonald became involved in nonviolent politics, the vigil of safety, and more specifically the buyback of guns. But it is the on-the-ground vigils of naming the dead that transform them into lives that matter, and thus the violence against them could appear in the perceptual field as violence. I will leave you with Michael MacDonald’s words, because they return us to Judith Butler’s question, can there be a politics of grieving associated with building a community, in which those lives that have been brutally repressed, below the level of the human, actually have a moment of transubstantiation and come back from the dead, at least in the sense that they finally matter? These are MacDonald’s words:

Standing at the altar, I at last felt I might be able to reconcile myself with all my memories of confusion, bloodshed, and betrayal. And that I could do it with love. I love my family, I love Southie. “These candles burn for my brothers.” I stopped and I took a deep breath. Then I spoke up. “Davie, Frankie, Kevin, and Patrick…” And for all souls.[7]Michael Patrick MacDonald, All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), p. 263.


Prior to beginning her life as an academic, for a number of years Drucilla Cornell was a union organizer. She worked for the UAW, the UE, and the IUE in California, New Jersey and New York. She played a key role in organizing the conference on deconstruction and justice at Cardozo, where Jacques Derrida made some of his most defining contributions on questions of ethics. Most recently Professor Cornell was a national research foundation chair in customary law, indigenous values and the dignity jurisprudence at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty. She organized and remains co-director of the uBuntu Project in South Africa. She is currently a professor of political science, women’s studies, and comparative literature at Rutgers University. She is also a visiting professor at Birkbeck College in London and the University of Pretoria. Her latest books include Moral Images of Freedom, and Clint Eastwood and Issues of American Masculinity, and co-authored with Kenneth Michael Panfilio, Symbolic Forms for a New Humanity: Cultural and Racial Reconfiguration of Critical Theory (2010).


1 Judith Butler, Precarious Life (New York: Verso, 2004), p. 20.
2 See The Accumulation of Capital in Southern Africa: Rosa Luxemburg’s Contemporary Relevance. Proceedings of the Rosa Luxemburg Seminar 2006 and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Centre for Civil Society’s Colloquium on Economy, Society and Nature. Ed. Patrick Bond, Horman Chitonge, and Arndt Hopfmann. Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and Centre for Civil Society, South Africa.
3 Judith Butler, Precarious Life, p.33.
4 Interview with S’Bu Zikode in uBuntu in Everyday Life, conducted by Madoda Sigonyela and Drucilla Cornell. Forthcoming 2011.
5 S’Bu Zikode, “The Shackdwellers Movement of Durban.” In The Accumulation of Capital in Southern Africa: Rosa Luxemburg’s Contemporary Relevance. pp. 163-165.
6 Ibid.
7 Michael Patrick MacDonald, All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), p. 263.

drucilla cornell