- After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writing
The strongest indictment of the postcolonial state is not just the history of its leadership, but the ways in which the authorities have treated dissident intellects and oppositional political tendencies. Successive generations of leaders, from India’s Jawarlahal Nehru to Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, from Trinidad’s Eric Williams to Namibia’s Sam Nujoma, have established and reaffirmed the cynical model of democratic revolutionary movement turned postindependence neo-imperialistic/autocratic government. Against this backdrop, the recent experience of Zimbabwean journalist Newton Kanhema bodes especially ill for the future of postapartheid South Africa. In February 1998, after some six years as a writer for Reuters agency, Independent Newspapers, Kanhema was deported from the country. He was, for all intents and purposes, a victim of his own journalistic assiduousness. Described as “terrier-like” by his colleagues, he had shown himself in possession of a nose particularly sharp for uncovering unsavory African National Congress (ANC) activities, from a shady arms deal to fiscal mismanagement to the new government’s coziness with Mobutu’s fleeing generals. All Kanhema’s reports, scrupulously researched and documented, cast the new ANC government in a light not only decidedly unflattering, but one that subjected them to a critical spotlight they so resent. Branded a “troublemaking foreigner” by the ANC authorities, the Zimbabwean journalist had incurred the special ire of Thabo Mbeki, the country’s deputy president. With Mbeki as the man poised to inherit Nelson Mandela’s throne after the 1999 elections, there resides a special ominousness in the fact that Mbeki took it upon himself to register his dissatisfaction with Kanhema’s employers. [End Page 229]
Published in 1996, Barbara Harlow’s After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writing is animated precisely by Newton Kanhema’s spirit of relentless critique, a practice both the Zimbabwean and the subjects of this text show to be valuable even beyond the achievement of a new nation. By mapping the oeuvres of three casualties of the post/colonial struggle, Harlow illustrates the significance of an interrogative ideological mode that shifts its focus from support for the revolutionary movement to vigilant appraisal of the postcolonial state without a reduction in critical intensity. After Lives is a study of three assassinated revolutionaries, the Palestinian author and journalist Ghassan Kanafani (killed by Mossad), the Salvadorean poet and activist Roque Dalton (executed by members of his own organization, the Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo), and the South African feminist scholar and activist Ruth First (killed by a letter bomb mailed by the apartheid security forces). It is Harlow’s contention that these figures all perform a pivotal historical function: even in the heat of battle and the cauldron of internal ideological debate, they give substantive expression to “critical dissent” (10). Or, to invoke more fully the poetry of Harlow’s phrasing, they “continue to give critical dissent a good name” (10). Theirs is the “language of criticism, of questions and answers” (63).
In the midst of radical social upheaval, Kanafani, First, and Dalton ask “questions” and demand “answers” of their own organization at the same time they cast critical glances on the “interrogations” conducted externally as well as internally (63). The greater value of these figures for Harlow, however, is the way in which their lives—or more accurately, their deaths—can be used to interrogate the “negotiations” (“from interrogation and assassination to negotiation”) that signaled the end of the discord in their respective countries (9). Implicitly, of course, the end of civil strife also marked the abortion—or abbreviation—of the “revolution” itself. Girding After Lives is the premise, one that articulates a crucial political difference, that revolutions are concluded with surrender, a resolution that distinguishes clearly between the victor and the vanquished. On the other hand, intractable, unwinnable “civil wars,” such as those that have characterized South African, Palestinian, and El Salvadorean life for decades, result in negotiated settlements, a process that depends upon the capacity for compromises, a narrative and political exchange that always exploits historically disenfranchised constituencies. Negotiations produce a new formation of...