Mutuality, desire and biographical relations in a South African liberation movement
This paper is drawn from a project that seeks to rethink the conventions of South African political biography that have produced (and continue to produce) heroic lives of leaders of formal political formations and liberation movements through the story of an incremental chain of consciousness and person formation. I have attempted to approach the individual and biography more through questions of narrative and the relationship between subjects and discursive practices. I have sought to understand the complex relationship between life and narrative, the dialogue between biographical processes and autobiographical traces, and the narrative worlds of institutions such as political formations, which have given rise to storied lives. This I do through studying the political and love relationship between Non- European Unity Movement leader, author and activist, Isaac Bangani Tabata and literary critic and novelist, Dora Taylor. This was an instance of mutually constitutive biographical relations.
Here I draw upon David William Cohen’s approach to the production of history to present a case for examining processes of biographic production, with attention to biographical relations and to an understanding of conditions of biographical production. It is critical to understand different forms of biographical mediation as well as the uses to which biographies have been put. It is necessary appreciate the existence of multiple and contending biographical narrations, as well as different genres, mediums and formats in which biographic narratives have been produced. It is the genealogies of these biographic productions that need to be understood, including their continuities and narrative ruptures.
Within these frames, Isaac Bangani Tabata’s biography underwent a transition from biographic denial and a stress on collective leadership, to biographic narration under conditions of repression. This process culminated in the embrace of biography as an element of a politics of presidentialism, in which Tabata’s biography became a means of projecting the Unity Movement in exile. While this transition from collectivity and reticence to individuation and biography was evident in photographic images, it was Tabata’s work of writing and authorship, characterised by a process of individuation, which constituted a biographic threshold.
The most significant relationship through which Tabata became a writer and author was that with Dora Taylor. This was also the relationship through which Tabata acquired a biography. Indeed, it can be argued that it was Dora Taylor who was the primary author of Tabata’s biographic narrative. Tabata’s complex relationship with Dora Taylor of mutuality, devotion and desire over a period of forty years unfolded in a borderland between the public and the private domains. It was a secret and underground relationship that spanned assistance with political agitation through writing, and incorporated mutual cultural interests and inevitably a love relationship.
In return, Tabata supported Taylor’s efforts at literary and historical writing, and assisted in the attempts to have these published. What began as a working relationship of party members grew into a vital intellectual and emotional partnership which went through different phases in South Africa and overseas, and lasted until Taylor’s death in England in the mid-1970s. It was out of a relationship of utter devotion and selflessness that Dora Taylor produced the biographic narrations of Tabata that fed a politics of presidentialism. Perhaps the most significant biographical tribute to Tabata that Taylor constructed was the archival collection that entered the University of Cape Town from 1989.