Blixen’s Difference: Horizontal Application of Fundamental Rights and the Resistance to Neocolonialism

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6. Dispossession15

Possession of another person, by means of the possession of land, is the essence of the fiefdom. ‘Leopold II., Louis Philippe Marie Victor (1835-1909), king of the Belgians, …was the virtual proprietor of the Congo Free State with its 30 millions of people….’ (Taylor, 1938, p 2943). Blixen’s ownership of a farm in Africa differed markedly from Leopold’s, but not absolutely so. The feudal character of her ownership is clear when one considers the reference to ‘my squatters’ in the passage from Out of Africa quoted above. The disconcerting aspect of this feudalism does not relate to the word ‘squatters’. It relates to the word ‘my’.16 In terms of the rhetoric of dispossession developed here, we are all ‘squatters’. The laws of humankind would perhaps have us think otherwise, but in terms of the ageless winds that sweep and re-arrange the patterns in the soil of the earth, our claims to property have no solid basis17.

Our temporary claims to property and to others ultimately remain the brief endeavours of mortal squatters. Or pirates (Van der Walt, 2001a). However, mortality and the brevity of human life should be understood to constitute the ultimate guarantee for plurality. Death completes the resistance to the feudal possession of others that constitutional democracy and the principle of equal liberty of all before the law promise. Death annihilates the desperate hierarchies between selves and others that the law cannot avoid institutionalising in the course of the self-preserving lifetime of legal subjects. Death restores or brings into its own the horizontality of mortals that already begins with birth, but immediately gets displaced by legal property relations, that is, by the vested rights to property through which the newly born is turned into more or less powerful embodiments of legal subjectivity18.
Constitutional review, understood in terms of the horizontal application of fundamental rights, resists the privatising reception of new life as an expression of legal subjectivity and the privatising extension of legal subjectivity in the course of a lifetime, be this the ‘public’ legal subjectivity of government officials or the private legal subjectivity of powerful business enterprises. Speaking strictly in terms of the law and the technicalities of law, the extensive understanding of the horizontal application of fundamental rights to pertain not only or not simply to the constitutional review of private legal subjectivity, but to the privatising strive of legal subjectivity as such, be it public or private legal subjectivity, can hardly expected to make a huge difference to legal practice as we know it19. The argument developed here is therefore more political than legal. The understanding of the horizontal application of fundamental rights in terms of a resistance to feudal hierarchies and the feudal appropriation of the liberty of others, be it by government or the powerful princes of commerce, is an argument in favour of a radical understanding of democracy that has its roots in the fundamental horizontality of mortals, a horizontality that is itself rooted in time. What Lefort says of democracy, that it is government by everyone and no one, finds remarkable resonance in something that Heidegger says of time:
‘The accessibility of the present moment (the now) to everyone characterises time as public. The present moment gives everyone access, and therefore belongs to no one’20.

Taylor, 1938, p2943: ‘Leopold II., Louis Philippe Marie Victor (1835-1909), King of the Belgians, …was the virtual proprietor of the Congo Free State with its 30 millions of people and immense resources. Reports of atrocities committed upon the natives of the Congo under his administration aroused the protest of the whole civilised world during the last years of his reign, but they remained unanswered. At his death, these charges and indignant condemnation of his private life completely overshadowed the many improved conditions that he had established in Belgium, especially among the industrial classes.’

2 Bloch, 1965, Vol I,pp xvii -xviii, 109 -120, 145-175; Vol II, pp 359 -407; Pollock and Maitland, 1890, Vol. I, pp 230 -231; Van den Bergh, 1988, pp 50-52; Rittstieg, 1976, pp 2 -5.

3 Section 714 of the Code Civil reads: ‘Yl est des choses qui n’appartiennent à personne et dont l’usage est commun à tous.’

4 Lefort, 1994, p 92: ‘La légitimité du pouvoir se fonde sur le peuple; mais à l’image de la souveraineté populaire se joint celle d’un lieu vide, impossible à occuper, tel que ceux qui exercent l’autorité publique ne sauraient prétendre se l’approprier. La démocratie allie ces deux principes apparemment contradictoires: l’un, que le pouvoir émane du peuple; l’autre, qu’il n’est le pouvoir de personne. Or elle vit de cette contradiction.’

5 Derrida, 1991, pp 110 -111: ‘[O]n peut interroger…même la distinction privé/public dont la rigueur sera toujours menacée par le langage, à lui seul, et dès la moindre marque. Quelle place publique - et donc politique - faire à ce type de questions?’

6 Section 23(2) reads: ‘Every worker has the right - (a) to form and join a trade union; (b) to participate in the activities and programmes of a trade union; and (c) to strike.’

7 See also the report of The Times, London, 10 February 2002: ‘British policy in Africa has rarely been more cynical. Taxpayers are financing one of the biggest ever sales pitches aimed at flooding Africa with weapons. Government promotion alone is worth USD 200 million. Under the Labour Party, arms exports to the continent have, according to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, risen from GBP 52 million in 1999 to GBP 125 million in 2000. Next year’s figures are about GBP 200 million. These exports must be paid for either by extra debt, which western taxpayers will one day ‘relieve’, or by the sweated labour of Africa’s people’.

8 BVerfG 25, 256 at 264 -267, especially at 265: ‘Jedoch müssen die Mittel, deren sich der Verrufer zur Durchsetzung der Boykottaufforderung bedient, verfassungsrechtlich zu billigen sein. Ein Boykottaufruf wird durch das Grundrecht der freien Meinungsäusserung dann nicht geschützt, wenn er nicht auf geistigen Argumente gestützt wird, sich also auf die Überzeugungskraft von Darlegungen, Erklärungen und Erwägungen beschränkt, sondern darüber hinaus sich solcher Mittel bedient, die den Angesprochenen die Möglichkeit nehmen, ihre Entscheidung in voller Freiheit und ohne wirtschaftlichen Druck zu treffen’.

9 In this regard the significant choice of words of Aminata d. Traoré (former Minister of Culture of Somalia) in his comment on the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in 2002: ‘Il est heureux que, à Johannesburg, dix ans après le Sommet de Rio, le continent africain accueille la Conférence mondiale sur le développement durable. Mais le dévelloppement – même durable – n’est qu’un mot-clé et un mot d’ordre de plus. Il est d’autant plus redoubtable qu’il permet la poursuite de la mission ‘civilisatrice’ des puissances coloniales, mais cette fois, avec l’appui et la complicité des elites locales qui, à leur tour, leurrent et assujettissent leurs propres peoples’ (D Traoré, 2002, p 28, emphasis added). D Traoré’s strong views on the ideal of sustainable development may be debatable, but his view of local elites in African states becoming accomplices of colonial powers in suppressing their own peoples resonates remarkably with the arguments expounded in the text above.

10 Treatment Action Campaign and Others v Minister of Health and Others [2002] (4) BCLR 356 (T); Minister of Health and Others v Treatment Action Campaign and Others [2002] 10 BCLR 1033 (CC). The text of the judgment can also be found on the website of the Constitutional Court <>

11 See especially paras 96 -114 of the Constitutional Court’s judgment.

12 English law would seem to be less sacrificial. See the decision in R. v Dudley and Stephens 1884 14 Q.B.D. 273 that one may not kill in order to save yourself. However, see in this regard Levinas’reference to the law ‘tu ne commettras pas de meurtre’. In the same context, two pages later, he refers to the law stipulated by the Rabbi Yochanan: ‘Laisser des hommes sans nourriture - est une faute qu’aucune circonstance n’atténue; à elle ne s’applique pas la distinction du volontaire et de l’involontaire.’ Cf Levinas, 1971, p217-219. And we do let people die from hunger and malnutrition, and so do the English (if not locally, certainly in a global context), in order to maintain property and self-interest. See also Van der Walt, 2001a, p 524.

13 Hannah, 1971, pp 33 -34 for a further discussion of Blixen’s understanding of her responsibilities towards the ‘natives’ on her farm.

14 Throughout her life, Blixen showed clear contempt for the possessiveness that often if not most often come to cloud love relationships, but she also struggled with the possessiveness of love in her own life. See the significant passage in Thurman, 1982, pp 184 -85: ‘‘He was happy on the farm, he came there only when he wanted to come’, Isak Dinesen wrote of Denys [Finch Hatton], and those were his terms – no commitments and no demands. She made a virtue of them, writing of their friendship as a ‘love of parallels’, scorning those lovers who stared soulfully into another’s eyes, who took possession of each other’s lives, who intersected. But like many women proud of their strength and superstitious about their mystery, she also suppressed a neediness that she wanted to disown. She could put her affairs in order before Denys came, and she could even, for the brief period he was with her, master all her sorrow and irritation. But the constraint, the instability, the fear of abandonment had to find some outlet, and apparently did. She sometimes took to her bed for a fortnight after he had left, sick or depressed or both.’ See. also the description of the end of their relationship at p 246. A clear resistance against possessiveness in love relationships is also evident in Blixen, 1977. It nevertheless remained a question as to what extent she really lived up to the ideal of a ‘love of parallels’, the ideal of a dispossessed and non-possessive love. In this regard, see also Cederborg’s reference to her possessiveness as regards her relationship with Thorkild Bjornvig in Blixen, 1977, p 14, note 22. I am indebted to my friend Kevin Drummond for the reference to this work. On the love of parallels, cf, also Hannah, 1971, p 39. Blixen’s notion of the love of the parallels resonates remarkably with the distant friendship that Derrida (1994, p 56) invokes. Finch Hatton’s terms of ‘no commitments and no demands’ should nevertheless not be mistaken for the deconstructive understanding of non-possessive friendship. ‘Commitment without demands’ would probably be a more accurate reflection of the Levinasian concern with otherness without which the Derridian understanding cannot be contemplated.

15 The remarks that follow (and those in op cit12) were prompted by invaluable comments by Peter Fitzpatrick on a previous draft of this paper that ended with Part Four.

16 See the passage quoted in the text (at note 13) above. However, the ambivalence that attaches to her usage of the word ‘my’ in this case should be clear from the above.

17 Indeed, the law has all along understood itself as inseparable from fixed patterns in the soil or ground, fixed patterns of habitation and cultivation, the absence of which suggested the absence of law. On this understanding turned/turn the claims of colonial rulers to have founded the law in the colonised territories. See Fitzpatrick, 2001, pp 161-175.

18 Most significant in this regard is Roberto Unger’s resistance, in the name of democracy, to property claims beyond death as embodied in the law of succession. See Unger, 1998, pp 144; 1996, p 14.

19 One of the judges of the Constitutional Court of South Africa once considered my argument for a moment (in a private conversation). I could see in his eyes how, brilliant lawyer that he is, his mind worked at breath-taking speed through the whole spectrum of possible implications that the argument may have for the law before he bluntly told me that he can only think of one: A government that appears as the defendant in a civil suit for damages, should not be able to claim a special immunity that is not available to other legal subjects. But it is perhaps also not that remarkable that he should have come up with this response so instantaneously. They were working on the case of Carmichele v Minister of Safety and Security and Minister of Justice [2001] 4 SA 938 CC at the time, a case in which the Constitutional Court decided that the special immunity claimed by government against civil actions is not reconcilable with the fundamental rights entrenched in the South African constitution. For a discussion of the case, cf. Van der Walt ‘A special relationship with women’ 2002a, p148.

20 Translated from Heidegger, 1975, p375: ‘Die Zugänglichkeit des Jetzt für jedermann…charakterisiert die Zeit als öffentliche. Das jetzt ist jederman zugänglich und damit keinem gehörig.’ The translation of das Jetzt as ‘the present moment’ is hugely problematic though. The key concern of Heidegger’s thought on time is to show that the present moment is fundamentally permeated with (the nothingness of) the past and the future, so much so that a present point of time cannot be identified. Higher up on the same page we find the following statement: ‘Die Zeit ist in sich selbst gespannt und erstreckt. Kein Jetzt und kein Zeitmoment kann punktualisiert sein’. Cf also the reference to this statement in Nancy, 1993, p105.

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BVerfG 7, 198.

BVerfG 25, 256.
Carmichele v Minister of Safety and Security and Minister of Justice [2001] 4 SA 938 (CC)
Du Plessis v De Klerk [1996] 5 BCLR 658 (CC)
Fose v Minister of Safety and Security [1997] 3 SA 786 (CC).
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R. v Dudley and Stephens 14 Q.B.D. 273
S v Goliath [1972] 3 SA 1 (A).
Treatment Action Campaign and Others v Minister of Health and Others [2002] (4) BCLR 356

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