Vote of Thanks

By: Jaco Barnard Naudé

Vice-chancellor, deputy vice-chancellors, madam dean, distinguished guests. I am deeply honoured by having been asked to give this vote of thanks. If I am to begin to do justice to the register and tradition of thought within which this inaugural lecture has taken place, I am, in advance as it were, obliged to pay tribute to what this tradition has to say about the ethics of "thanks", the "thank you" and the "vote of thanks". For in the tradition of thought that begins in the work of Emmanuel Levinas on the face of the Other, the "thank you" ultimately represents an encounter with the Other, which resembles the acceptance of a gift. That the "thank you" comes to resemble the acceptance of a gift comes as no surprise when one recalls that in Levinas the Other is, in a profound sense a gift and, moreover, a gift who gives gifts. Representing the Other as a gift, however, does not in any way imply that the Other is thereby rendered as an object or possession for the self. This is the case because "the gift of the Other ... remains of the Other", stands in a relation of dissymmetry to the Same, the Self or the familiar, so that for Levinas the "I" is in a profound, even constitutive, sense only in and for the Other. In other words, the gift of the Other is the encounter in accordance with which the Self is given (for the Other).

I hasten to add here that I have absolutely no understanding whatsoever for those philosophers who continue to insist that formulations such as the aforementioned are hopelessly riddled with so-called "postmodern jargon". To me it is obvious that these purveyors of truth have not read enough of the other – Immanuel Kant – for, after all, it is Kant who first writes about the constitutive alterity of the I.

Ethically speaking (and here I am back at what it means in this tradition to say "thank you") it is impossible ever to return the gift of the Other and the gifts that the Other gives, such as, for instance, this inaugural lecture. In turn, this would mean that, in order to be ethical, the one who is asked to accept the gift on behalf of the academic community represented here, will simply have to admit that it is impossible to thank Pumla for the inaugural lecture she has given us here. For if I were simply to say "thank you on behalf of the academic community", it would mean that I am already attempting to return the gift by giving the "thank you" in exchange. Thus, contrary to the convention and conviction in certain circles, a simple "thank you" turns out to be, well, not so simple and, for this reason, I prefer to recognise gifts.

As an academic Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela has offered us many gifts. I think here especially of that extraordinary text entitled A Human Being Died That Night – a text which fundamentally represents the complex dimensions of an encounter with the face of the Other. Apart from receiving, amongst others, the distinguished Alan Paton award, this text attracted the attention of, amongst many others, the internationally acclaimed scholar and psychoanalyst, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, whose biography of Hannah Arendt, entitled Hannah Arendt: For the Love of the World, remains definitive in the vast body of literature that has appeared in the wake of Arendt's death. In a later text entitled, Why Arendt Matters, Young-Bruehl concludes that Pumla's text convinces her that Arendt underestimated the potentiality of the human power to forgive when she wrote that radically evil deeds can neither be punished nor forgiven because they transcend the realm of human affairs. Young Bruehl writes: "A person always has the power to forgive ... such potentiality cannot be destroyed unless ... every last person is destroyed". It is no overestimation to say that A Human Being Died That Night will go down in history as one of the most important testaments of the human power to forgive the unforgivable. Evidence of this is already present in the selection of the book by internationally renowned terrorism scholar, Jessica Stern, as one of the best 5 books on her subject area.

Apart from this text, Pumla recently co-edited (with Chris Van der Merwe) two collections that involve questions of narrative, trauma and forgiveness. The first of these collections represents the outcome of an international conference that the editors organised in Cape Town at the end of 2006 and is entitled Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness. The foreword of the volume was written by celebrate Harvard scholar, Martha Minow. In his review of the volume, James L Gibson writes: "This is not a book about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission; nor even about South Africa itself. Rather, the various chapters explore and analyze fundamental processes of memory, healing, forgiveness, and memorialization of the past. This volume is an extraordinarily useful contribution to our understanding of truth and reconciliation throughout the world".

Pumla's gifts extend far beyond her texts. Her service on the Human Rights Violation Committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as her involvement in many local, national and international efforts to address the traumas of our divided past, come to mind here. In this regard, I recall one afternoon at the offices of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation where Pumla and I were due at a meeting of the executive committee of the board. It was the 23rd of May 2008. Pumla had indicated her attendance in earlier correspondence, but shortly before the meeting we received a message that she was unable to attend the meeting because, as the xenophobic violence had escalated and spread across the Cape Town metropole over the previous 24 hours, she was unable to leave the place where she was counselling an ever-increasing number of victims.

The incident illustrates to me the complexities in South Africa as regards the encounter with the face of the Other, for there is always more than one face, more than one demand, more than one Other for and to whom we are infinitely responsible. It is precisely this infinite responsibility that requires us to calculate and to determine, as far as possible, where our response is most needed, while knowing that even that most needed response will always be inadequate. There is no reason for despair or paralysis in this realisation. As Elisabeth Weber writes, "any careful reader [of Levinas] knows that the work waiting to be done cannot wait".

Let me conclude by saying that if this vote sounds too much like the votive offering of a devoted colleague and friend, it is because it is given in by the conviction that disagreement, departure and critique is a crucial dimension of the gift that an academic friendship is. As Derrida writes: "in order to follow in a consistent way, to be true to what you follow, you have to interrupt the following". When we met on Monday to discuss the "Living Reconciliation" event, Pumla described her work to me as a project of the heart. A project that belongs to her heart thus, that is hers and yet only because it is from the heart – given, and as such, to the hearts and the faces of all Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela's countless Others.

Jaco Barnard-Naudé, 11 November 2010.

 
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