- Play it again …. 20 years later
I was probably very frightened. I was probably very young. I was probably a Puerto Rican in South Africa, to play with the lyrics of Sting.1 In fact, sometimes I think that I was the right person in the right place at the right time.
But in 1991 I moved to live indefinitely in South Africa. For some strange reasons, I was awarded a scholarship through the Rotary Club International – Johannesburg branch. However in 1992 I was awarded a second fellowship, this time being named the Jill Nattrass Research Fellow at the Centre for Social and Development Studies (CSDS) at the then University of Natal. My idea of being Joseph Conrad or Ngugi wa Thiong’o, was very close to become real.
I was awarded two consecutive fellowships to conduct a rather unique research: my work focused on non-state forms of legality or justice, commonly known as popular justice. I was researching on the side of people who were claiming at the time to be organising a revolution. I really believed that I was part of the revolution.
In fact, popular justice throughout the world has been seen as metaphor for taking state power and sovereignty. Still today, almost 20 years later, I am not too clear why the Rotaries or the University of Natal, wanted me and my research. However, my research work was about exploring people’s subversive ideas and practices.
However, the events that were taking over South Africa, in particular as from February 1990, were much more complex and difficult for me to understand, than what I thought. I was a young Puerto Rican trying to comprehend life, and I was caught in the middle of one of the most important social transformations of the late twentieth century. I was indeed part of that history. However, I never knew how my colleagues at Centre for Social and [End Page 162] Development Studies saw me: I asked myself if they ever thought if I was coping with the experience.
In the process of understanding myself in this complex country, where I was conducting an unusual research project for someone trained as a lawyer, in addition to all the related work on my research, I decided to read more on postmodern theory and culture rather than law. Probably it was the right decision. I was not a traditional Marxist. In fact, I came from the radical middle classes of the Caribbean, where everything is political but where ideology is not everything. Some sort of political pragmatism did apply – and still is needed – in order to understand South Africa and to understand myself in this country.
But almost 20 years later, I can assess my two articles published in Transformation 17 and 21(1991 and 1993), not only from what I wrote at the time. More precisely I assess these articles from the effect that South Africa and what I wrote at the time had on me in my academic work and life –beyond South Africa. Although in the past decade I have been in and out of South Africa, I have settled again in my home country, Puerto Rico, and in my local continent, the Americas, where I have continued implementing some of the learnings from South Africa. In this regard, I take this opportunity to both comment and to share what happened in South Africa and in other countries where I remain involved at present, such as Puerto Rico, Bolivia, Colombia and the Basque Country of Spain.
Beyond the frontier: civil society revisited
In fact, this paper came out of a discussion at CSDS with Mike Morris. I do not remember his position or mine but I do remember that he suggested that I give a paper on the issue. So I did. At the time I was not too clear on the issues and debates, but I did my homework and got prepared. My memories of the seminar were that beyond Mike Morris and me, just two or three other people attended. Neither good nor bad. Just as it happened. However, when I look back to what I wrote in 1992, in the middle of...