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Rightlessness: The Case of Basil D’Oliveira

From: Levinas Studies
Volume 7, 2012
pp. 197-218

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The rights of man manifest the uniqueness or the absolute of the person, despite his or her subsumption under the category of the human species, or because of that subsumption.

— Emmanuel Levinas, “The Rights of Man and the Rights of the Other”

Origins trouble the voyager much, those roots that have sipped the waters of another continent.

Africa is gigantic, one cannot begin to know even the strange behaviour furthest south in my xenophobic department.

— Arthur Nortje, “Waiting”

In September 1968 a member of the English national cricket team, Basil D’Oliveira (1928–2011)1 was effectively denied the right to enter South Africa. Born in Cape Town, the “coloured”* — apartheid’s designation for “mixed-race” South Africans — D’Oliviera, by this time a naturalized Englishman of some years, was originally omitted from England’s 1968 touring party. However, when Tom Cartwright, an all-rounder (a cricketer who has equal proficiency as a batsman and a bowler), withdrew because of injury, D’Oliveira (mainly a batsman, although he could bowl a little) was chosen to replace him.2 This decision set off an international furor, with the apartheid government wasting no time in making known its opposition to D’Oliveira’s inclusion and the English cricket authorities insisting on their right to determine who was eligible for their team. A decision supported, with a conviction that was sometimes less than resolute, by the British government. At the end of it all, however, the 1968 tour by the MCC (the Maryleborne Cricket Club, which was how England’s touring teams were then known) was canceled and apartheid South Africa was, for all intents and purposes, banned from international sport.

Therein, Levinas might suggest, lies something more critical than simply — although it is no small matter — the supreme historical irony of this event, an event that almost immediately became known as the D’Olivera Affair. The irony is, of course, self-evident. In its denial of the right of the other (the “coloured,” disenfranchised by the apartheid state) to return as the subject who is no longer other, the denial of the right of return, the apartheid state of Prime Minister B. J. Vorster condemned itself to international isolation. For the apartheid state, D’Oliveira’s otherness was historically absolute. In the apartheid political there could be no thinking of the other’s rights (the other having the right to rights), except as the bearer of rightlessness. Nothing less than an insurmountable rightlessness, a rightlessness without end, a rightlessness that can only be conceived if Nortje’s warning is heeded: “one cannot begin/to know even strange behaviour furthest/south in my xenophobic department.”3 The D’Oliveira Affair, born out of “those roots/that [had] sipped the waters of another continent,” revealed itself as an event provoked by a series of rare questions — it might even be understood as an attack on prevailing certainties — about rights and the power and peculiar vulnerability of the state, both in its liberal Western and apartheid articulations: Can the unjust state claim its right to withhold rights? Is the sovereignty of the state (and not only, of course, the apartheid state) such that it can retain unto itself the right to determine who is worthy of rights? Can the state be grounded in a right that does not proclaim itself as just? Is the unjust state where rights at once meets its limits and demonstrates itself, because of the deleterious effects of its absence, an absolute human necessity? That is, do rights constitute the inviolate right without which humanity cannot sustain itself ?

For the apartheid state, in the moment of the affair, D’Oliveira was unalterably coloured and, as such, had no right to return as an Englishman. His status, notwithstanding his acquisition of British citizenship, was an anathema to the apartheid state. It was precisely his ineradicable colouredness that made him intolerable to the apartheid regime. For Vorster and his governing Nationalist Party, D’Oliveira’s apartheid-derived rightlessness was infinite; it was limitless and so could not be overcome by his taking on foreign citizenship. D’Oliveira’s rightlessness, in apartheid thinking, was irrevocable — it could not be revoked, given up, or annulled...

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