The Adequate Compensation for Suffering

What should be the adequate compensation for suffering? The connections between this question, the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever (1995) and the South African transitional justice mechanisms of the mid-nineties are drawn, not least, by Derrida himself. During his lecture tour of South Africa in 1998, Derrida chose to focus on the aspect of forgiveness; fittingly so, as South Africa had recently been engaged in public processes which included the reorientation of political power, the archiving of public memory and the forging of a new national identity, amongst other things.

Derrida states ‘there is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory. Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.’[1] The transitional processes, though necessary at the time, were designed primarily to facilitate political transition and enable the rehabilitation of existing social institutions. In their quasi-new garb, these institutions and related politicized processes could not be fully expected to be able to ameliorate the suffering of ordinary people who were directly exposed to violence and deprivation during apartheid.

This sanctioned remembrance, through the trope of ‘forgiveness’ and its strong desire to bury and forget, in retrospect, placed a cap on ‘true’ justice. The processes were a symbolic gesture in the memorial complex and true to their symbolic form, dealt with a handful of cases that had, in the preceding years, preoccupied the public imagination. They unquestionably managed to delay the reaction of responses to the injustices of the past and can be seen now for what they were: an exercise in the control of public memory.

The conclusion from the state appointed commissionaires’ of these processes and Derrida’s thesis appears to be that the adequate compensation for suffering is no compensation, merely one should accept the suffering as having happened: to forgive and move on.  Forgiveness being the act of releasing the perpetrators from the consequences of what they have done, in order to fulfill the ‘true’ desires of the process which was to free the victims of recent history from deeds that they could otherwise never recover from[2].

Hannah Arendt[3] perfectly articulates the dichromatic relationship of the forgiver and the forgiven as that of forgiveness and promise; in which forgiving, serves to undo the deeds of the past, whose “sins” hang over every new generation; and the promise bind ‘serves to set up in the ocean of uncertainty, islands of security without which no continuity, would be possible.’ The promise enables all sides to keep their identity, between the one who promises and the one who fulfills the promise.

The alternative to forgiveness, but by no means its opposite, is punishment, an in indebtedness[4]. This debt, evoked with every drawing of the ‘race card’, forms the underlying current of fear and distrust of the other within the current social truce in a society where not all can guarantee today who they will be tomorrow. This path does not cover the whole ground of the future and while the indebtedness to the society effectively dispossess one part of power to the advantage of the other who had previously been disposed of the said power[5], it exist until such a time that all bodies have the same capacity to act.

In Derrida’s Archive Fever, there is no memorialisation desire without radical finitude, ‘without the possibility of a forgetfulness which does not limit itself to repression.’[6] The past is a festering wound which with each eruption of discontent or misdirected violence, the short term memory of the long reaching trauma of the past, rears its head to remind us that we are not rid of the poltergeist, and as a result of this repression, all is not well in the South African collective unconscious.

In ‘Where are my fuckin’ flowers?’ Ishkar kneels head first into a recess in the earth, and he stares into the abyssal possibility of another depth destined for later archaeological excavation. His missing head evokes forgetfulness, amnesia, the annihilation of memory and the inability to remember, in this position the possibility to look forward or reflect back is not possible. The hole into which his head is sunk comes to signify the present, which separates us from the past and the future.  From this awkward position one gets the impression that the otherwise decapitated body is preoccupied, searching for something that cannot conceivably be where he is looking, making the whole search an act of avoidance. The past does not simply disappear just because we only ‘tentatively’ step around it. In fact when left untreated it haunts the present and casts a dark shadow over the future.

In contrast to the immediate amnesty given to perpetrators who testified about their activities, despite the fact that there was no way to ensure that they were telling the truth were immediately rewarded for their admissions through irrevocable public absolution for, and legal forgiveness of, their actions, the families have had to wait unsubstantiated periods of time for an incomplete sense of justice, and so the haunting with its missing persons in shallow and unmarked graves forms not only canon fodder for electioneering but the mere mention, to some, forms the loyal bind.

We need not imagine how the material composition this guilt bind and it reciprocal social debt that tangibly permeates our policies and social sphere would appear were it to physically manifest itself. The suspicious yet recognisable body of the green mummified corpse of the ‘Big Green Man’ with its prickly succulent, thorny head ‘occupies the obscure space of the in-between, the ambiguous, and the composite’[7].  It is death infecting life, transgressing the borders of what is acceptable by appearing to fulfill both the conditions of being a living object and being dead.

Abject, it lies outside on the edge of nonexistence and hallucination, of a reality that upsets even more violently the one who confronts its fragile and fallacious state. The body’s degradation here is a fate worse than death, because it carried with it a metamorphosis of man into something akin to [an] animal.[8] His posture and siting position invoke a reference to labour, labour in Arendt is a redemptive exercise[9] it redeems man from meaninglessness, and life is sustained by labor. The figure with its broom a symbol of labour taking a respite from the pain and trouble of the exhausting exercise.

The abject[10] state invoked by the sculpture confronts us, on the one hand, with fragile state where man strays on the territories of animal and on the other the desire to reject and turn away from the green and untouchable body on its bed of blood red earth. Hannah Arendts take on labour lends itself to one perspective on the reading of the Big Green Man as he sits with a broom which he might use to clean the soil he is sitting in. As Ishkar offers ‘the soil around his legs may read as excrement which he is in a process of cleaning but instead of pushing it away he draws the soil closer toward himself.’ These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death.

His head far from making his faceless and anonymous gives view of his suffering, death, and, fear, which is not apparent to us in ‘Where are my fuckin’ flowers’.He is an alien occupying a corner in a familiar, exhausted and resigned fashion, forgotten in our eagerness to not look back. Not looking back, holds us back and keeps us from being able to fully trust or know how far are we from the moment in which all people not only have the potential to act, but also the confidence that their action can affect the status quo, not in spite of the post, but because of it.


[1] Cit. 1 Jacques Derrida and Eric Prenowitz. 1995. Archive Fever: A Freudian ImpressionDiacritics, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Summer, 1995), pp. 9-6. 3Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/465144  pp. 11

[2] Cit .2 Hannah Arendt. 1998. The Human Condition (2nd Edition). Second Edition, University of  Chicago Press pp.

[3] Arendt. 1998: 237

[4] Arendt. 1998: 238

[5] Arendt 1998:241

[6] Cit 1 Derrida 1995:19

[7] Cit 3. Kristeva 1984: 4

[8] Cit 2. Arendt 1998:84

[9] Cit 2. Arendt 1998:236

[10]Cit 3 Kristeva, Julia. 1941. Powers of horror.  (European perspectives) Translation of: Pouvoirs de l’horreur  Translated by LEON S. ROUDIEZ  1984. A Series of the Columbia University Press


This text was written on the occassion of the project Digging our own grave 101: with Gabi Ngcobo – gone to print – with amazing contributions and best support from KW and the BB8 team. — with Kemang Wa LehulereMaziyar PahlevanSame MdluliNomusa MakhubuSabelo MlangeniJuan GaitanKukama Wa KukamaIshkar RichardNatasha GinwalaMbali KhozaNkule MabasoZanele MuholiMichelle MonarengAchille MbembeGabi NgcoboSinethemba Twalo and Santu Mofokeng.

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