Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Thinking Africa, rethinking everything

by Nigel Gibson, Thinking Africa Newsletter No. 2, 2011

The fact is that everything needs to be reformed and everything thought out anew.
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

Has it paradoxically become more difficult to be an oppositional critical humanist in the post-apartheid academy? I ask because during the 1980s some quite amazing intellectual spaces opened up in the universities, often related in one way to the social movements, the trade union movements and so on, in the struggles against apartheid. After 1994, the problem seemed one of practice and policy, leading to policy units trumping the development of more reflective units of academic study.

Additionally, the logic of the neoliberal university  has furthered a hierarchy where an elite can still afford to study in the humanities with guarantees of future employment while those that can afford a university education are in practical-career oriented pre-professional study, often with humanities as a broad-based but very much a second-rate often under-resourced “general education” requirement. Positivism rules. Questions are reduced to how to fully realize market mechanisms. Entrepreneurship (social, political, economic, and psychological) we are told is the most rational and equitable model.

Yet, South Africa remains an intensely political society marked by constant rebellions and revolts which quickly take on political discourses related to the shortcoming of the society as a whole. But what has happened to the fundamental questions and discussions about creating a new society?  Away from the noise of what might be considered policy talk or the election discourse of improving service delivery, questions continued to be asked in exactly the places that Frantz Fanon would expect. 

At a meeting last month in Pietermaritzburg, Ntombifuthi Shandu from the Rural Network remarked that life has gotten more difficult since the end of apartheid. Reflecting on the brutality of some of those who rule she wondered whether “we are led by people who were damaged by the struggle during apartheid.” The remark immediately reminded me of Fanon’s case notes in The Wretched of the Earth. Fanon understood that the struggle for “true liberation” also bred traumas and stresses created by extreme situations. Shandu’s comments also reminded me of Fanon writing with “pain in his heart” about a politics based on resentment which simply takes the place and attitudes of the colonizer. Rather than building a culture of discussion (and democracy) there exists in the nationalist party, he argues, a “sclerosis” which leads to a “brutality of thought.”  Of course, today it is hard to read Fanon’s “Pitfalls of National Consciousness” as a critique of post-apartheid South Africa, but Shandu’s point also insightfully expressed Fanon’s concern that hatred and revenge, feelings often encouraged during the struggle for short-term ends, cannot sustain liberation nor create liberated beings. What is absolutely essential, Fanon concludes, is the force of intellect. And just as the colonized understand the “thinking” of the colonial regime, the formerly colonized are quick to understand postcolonial political reality. For Fanon, the problem for university trained intellectual is the lack of appreciation of the thinking that takes place among those excluded from the new dispensation—the poor, the landless, the unemployed—but who have never given up on the idea of freedom. 

Fanon argues that violence is unending as long as the brutality of colonialism—with all its dehumanizing practices—continues in the independence phase. Violence is structural and  it is internalized, constantly reproducing dehumanization.  Fanon’s concern about continued brutality is connected to his notion of decolonization as a restructuring of consciousness. This is where a discussion of the role of critical humanities, or perhaps better, a decolonial humanities, must begin and must be connected to a larger project of a decolonial education. Fanon insists that such a change in consciousness will not be  quick and certainly cannot be completed through a few slogans and marketing campaigns. It has a material basis but also takes patience and time to recentre the psyches fragmented by colonialism and oppression and to instill into people that they and not some demiurge will fashion the new society. 

A decolonial humanities takes the people’s questions about freedom, democracy and dignity seriously as it relates to Fanon’s insistence that everything needs to be rethought, and that all should be involved in imagining the future. Liberation and invention, not reduced to human output and balance sheets, need both commitment and autonomy. Committed to overcoming alienation and oppression, in Fanon’s sense, a decolonial humanities must include discussions about the nature of society and thus helps to unlock human capacities and powers to consciously remake the world. It requires a democratic inclusiveness, accountability and equality as well as an atmosphere of questioning, criticism (freedom in terms of a liberated perspective) and openness where all are encouraged to participate in thinking. Fanon’s notion of rethinking everything, in other words, cannot be subject to any external evaluation, or funding agency. This new era of rethinking must begin with a thorough accounting of the last 17 years—the post-apartheid period—and must begin with a rejection of the mindset that reduces intellectual work to a study, even if critical, of policy outcomes. Theory must be taken seriously as something to be engaged with and produced as well as used in South Africa. In other words Fanon’s demand at the conclusion of The Wretched that independence really means working out “new concepts” in the very geographic spaces of independence must be taken very seriously.