by Shaun R. Whittaker, The Nigerian Daily
Frantz Fanon participated actively in the anti-colonial struggles in northern Africa, which is currently undergoing an astonishing phase of social change. It was probably inevitable that Fanon’s magnum opus about colonialism, ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, would start off with a discourse about violence.
With a sense of urgency, Fanon (1963) asserted:
‘National liberation, national renaissance, the restoration of nationhood to the people, commonwealth: whatever may be the headings used or the new formulas introduced, decolonization is always a violent phenomenon… The naked truth of decolonization evokes for us the searing bullets and bloodstained knives which emanate from it… you will see the native reaching for his knife at the slightest hostile or aggressive glance cast on him by another native; for the last resort of the native is to defend his personality vis-à-vis his brother’ (pp. 35-37).
Fanon’s pivotal thesis was that the political violence of the colonised was revolutionary in nature and an unavoidable aspect of the anti-colonial struggle. Colonialism was sustained through repressive violence and could only be overthrown through liberating violence. Furthermore, it amplified different types of violence. Although criminal violence, for instance, represents the opposite of political violence, these kinds of violence are interlinked. The quick reaching for a knife or, even worse, in this day and age, a machete, that symbol of genocidal violence, to defend a social identity, is usually done by young males with a humiliated status, and the defending or attacking is usually done vis-à-vis other youthful men, but, also of course women and children. In post-colonial society, this displaced aggression continues to be connected to the shame of a low social-status or a subordinate identity. The continuation, or even intensification, of violence is consequently to be expected.
Using a powerful, yet apt image, Fanon referred to colonialism as ‘an avalanche of murders.’ The overwhelming violence implied in this phrase captures the essence of what colonialism and apartheid were about. Oppressing others leaves behind a culture of endemic violence. Namibians should admit that colonialism was much more than what is implicit in Fanon’s phrase, namely, that it was an avalanche of murders, assaults, robberies, rapes, suicides, tortures, imprisonments, abuses, etc. Colonialism signified nothing less than the collective traumatising of the Namibian people who must carry the heavy burden of the consequences for generations. In this regard, the alarming legacy of bloodshed is everywhere in southern Africa: The anti-colonial fighters who were imprisoned and beaten, the detainees who were tortured, the women who were raped and molested, the children who were abused and collectively punished, the unemployed and the ex-colonial soldiers who commit suicide, the families who mourn for loved ones, the general trauma and self-destruction of the people.
Due to this appalling inheritance from colonialism, Fanon was of the view that a negotiated political settlement, like in Namibia, would not lead to fundamental social change. The complicated process of decolonisation would be unsuccessful and the politically independent nation would be, in Fanon’s words, ‘an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been’ (p.148). In such a neocolonial or neo-apartheid society, violence would become internalised and the people would be torn apart by differences of social class, tribe, gender, religion, etc. The ex-colonised would become demoralised and disheartened by the lack of grassroots change.
Indeed, it is against this background that the northern African revolts should be comprehended. The mass uprisings against neoliberalism in those post-colonial societies signify the historical appearance of a world-wide interregnum right in front of our eyes. Social change there has happened, not due to revolutionary violence, as postulated by Fanon, but due to mass action or street power, which have had more empowering consequences. Nevertheless, at least since the Great Recession, the post-colonial societies, in particular, have irrevocably moved beyond the honeymoon phase of political independence.
Postcolonial Namibia was born in the aftermath of the historical disintegration of the Soviet Union and the consequent hegemony of what French philosopher, Daniel Bensaid, termed ‘neo-liberal authoritarianism.’ This economic authoritarianism, derived from the political power of the right-wing, is manifested in increasing social inequality and pauperisation, which tragically had become the defining feature of postcolonial and post-apartheid southern Africa. In Namibia, specifically, the shift from pre-independence Keynesianism to postcolonial neoliberalism laid the foundation of increasing social fragmentation. Neoliberal authoritarianism led to the constant downward spiral in the living conditions of the people and ensures exorbitant food prices, rampant unemployment and endemic violence.
Expressions of social inequality have reached catastrophic levels. The rising food prices, in particular, had the greatest immediate impact on the lives of the people and have resulted in widespread anger and frustration. The speculation with food on the global stock markets and the development of so-called biofuels mean that humanity everywhere entered an era in which the specter of mass hunger has become all too common. The question of large-scale hunger is not going to be easily resolved and, needless to say, this holds grave implications with regards to violence.
Militarism is about power and control over others. In Namibia, this organised violence was an outflow of a century of colonialism which not only aimed at entrenching social inequality, but also establishing patterns of gratuitous violence. Just a few decades ago, the northern part of the country was the most militarised zone in the world and had to endure a 20-year state of emergency. Since colonialism was upheld through militarism, the armed struggle became the principle form of resistance and, consequently, the militarist culture lives on in the country. Namibian monuments like Heroes Acre are very real examples of the continuing presence of militarism. This militarisation is not only confined to the ever-expanding Namibian military, but is also evident in the police force and prison service. In addition, the paramilitary Special Field Force absorbed former combatants, while the National Youth Service targets the youth with a program of militarism. The military mindset is ingrained in the postcolonial psyche.
Militarism remains an indispensable part of neoliberal authoritarianism. The progressive Namibian intellectual, Alex Kaure (2011), has consistently drawn attention to the increasing militarisation in the country. The military budget continued to escalate over the past few years and the Namibian army recruits large numbers of young people every year. The country is firmly on the road to rising militarisation.
Militarism distorts the male identity into a hyper-masculine identity and reinforces male authoritarianism. In the main, young males are the perpetrators, as well as the victims, of the different kinds of violence, whether or not this happens as soldiers, tsotsis or protestors. In turn, the militarised male identity is central to the violence against women and children.
It is indeed in this context that sexual violence – as an instrument of power – and rape, in particular – as a political weapon of intimidation and punishment – are often manifested. The aim is to terrorise and humiliate the political opposition as seen in Zimbabwe; this kind of violence is clearly motivated by a political agenda. This sexual violence represents an intersection of militarism and the oppression of women. The paramilitary male youth groups usually target young women, which leave them with the scars of trauma, HIV/AIDS and unwanted pregnancies. This political violence is also deliberately perpetrated in front of family or community members in order to spread mass trauma. With regards to Namibia, it should also be admitted that there is tremendous silence about the political rape of women during the national liberation struggle.
The reality is that militarism impacts on all levels of Namibian society. Ultimately, it militates against nation-building and creates a vertical structure. Militarism also compliments other vertical structures such as tribal authorities and churches. There exists a strong need to demilitarise minds in postcolonial society.