Fifty years later, Frantz Fanon, the Martinican revolutionary who inspired Steve Biko, lives on. His writings, and the conversations that they continue to inspire, reach beyond skin colour into the deeper politics of the human mind in Fanon's questioning of what it is to be human. In ‘Black Skin, White Masks’, Fanon looks at what he calls the cognitive dissonance that emerges when people are presented with new evidence that contradicts their core beliefs. Fanon says that “because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn't fit in with the core belief."
As fires blazed on the streets of London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, so the words of Fanon come back to haunt us. In his statement to parliament, Prime Minister David Cameron said 'This is criminality pure and simple', and promised to 'restore order to Britain's streets and make them safe for law-abiding citizens'. Cameron argued that 'everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organised via social media’. Threatening ‘to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality’ was justified on the premise that the 'free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill'. It is perhaps too early to say whether the events that are unfolding in various parts of the world are of mass protest, civil war or revolution, but what is clear is that there is a burning desire for change that resonates with what Fanon had laid out fifty years ago. When referring to the UK riots, the media and government express outrage and speak of ‘opportunistic thugs’ looting and setting light to the shops and homes of English citizens in wild and violent sweeps of collective madness.
It has been said that the alleged shooting by police and death of Mark Duggan is what set the first riots in London on Saturday in motion. However, rather than acts of ‘criminality’, what is slowly emerging is the mass struggle against social and economic exclusion and a response to the austerity measures laid out to curb the UK debt crisis. One of these measures was a cut in police budgets leaving poorer communities vulnerable, and yet, government was able to increase policing of elite circles and thus, enhancing a social divide. In a country so distant and so foreign from South Africa, the media reports suggest that perhaps our struggles are not so different.
The death of Mark Duggan which is seen as a main catalyst behind the UK riots was a saddening reminder of the death of Andries Tatane. The police brutality and shooting of Andries Tatane which was caught on film was a manifestation of an othering, in which the policing around the periphery of elite circles was a clear indicator of particular social divides and economic exclusions within South African communities. Many past revolts and revolutions have been a response to the exclusion and alienation of so many, often poor people, as a means to maintain and protect the position, riches and super-rights afforded to such elites.
In 2004, just ten years after liberation and the creation of a democracy, South Africa claimed the highest rates of public protest and became known as the ‘protest capital of the world’. Falsely and simplistically, up until present, all protests and struggles are bundled together by the media as under the single issue of service delivery. These protests, for instance around toilet and water provision in settlements, initially started in the rural areas by people who felt excluded and denied the rights enshrined in the South African constitution. However, as municipal revolts increased, so the protests moved closer to the urban areas and city centres, resulting in increasing displays of police brutality in a desperate move to prevent escalation of outrage, and to ensure the protection of the interests of the elite.
Rights can only be extended so far as they do not infringe on the rights of others. In the clashes between protesters and the physical location of their protests, there are those caught in the crossfire – shopkeepers, for instance, sympathetic to economic struggle, might find themselves at the receiving end of violence during the protest. But this is the point: in the war between the oppressed and the oppressor, we become complicit in the oppression of our fellow community members if we are not on the side of the oppressed – whatever our sympathies or intentions. When it is economic oppression, those who have something to protect, and who fight for its protection, become members of the oppressive class in a moment of extreme binary opposition.
The distinction between the UK protester as rebel or freedom fighter is further blurred when there is no clear ‘evil dictator’ to point to, as has been the case in recent African uprisings. As ‘opportunistic thugs’ loot and burn down homes and shops of the major cities, the necessary question should be what the real motivations behind such actions are? What ignited the blaze, what fuel has fanned it? Perhaps we are forgetting that looted, burning stores, are located in a culture of excessive consumerism; the desires which capitalism necessarily inspires are compelling, but deliberately unfulfilled for most. The looting and attacking of stores in the UK are consequences of the complex layering of inequalities and oppression against those who are now in revolt. A revolt does not simply imply rebellion and destruction at the expense of others, but rather the expression of freedom through action which questions the predetermined destiny imposed by others, which entitles everybody but favours only a select few. Austerity measures, which affect health, security and education, have been imagined and implemented with little inclusion of those affected most, and so their aspirations and a shared imagined future remain unarticulated. If anything, these riots reveal the clear desire to be heard.
Every single time there is a riot or a revolt, people are wanting to be heard. In South Africa and the UK and Libya, people are experiencing transformations and cognitive dissonance. To challenge the core belief is to question one’s own position – and the complex layers that tie us to each other’s destinies. Those who have worked hard to find a place in the economic system, and those who are favoured in it, are challenged to recognise those who have been systematically excluded from participating. When the first person dies publicly – as did Duggan and Tatane, the intangible protections and exclusions become embodied, and create the space to express unarticulated versions of humanity. The ‘they’ who are ‘plotting violence’, and the hidden elite agendas requiring police protection, are unhelpful and deliberately confusing polarities.
Despite the many differences, both South Africa and the United Kingdom stand at a similar crossroad. The often espoused ideals of freedoms are currently overshadowed by cognitive dissonance. In South Africa, despite the recent history of oppression that has been overcome; and the struggle to make this victory possible; there are oppressions still existent that threaten to silence imagined futures. The UK seems to present a similar position as the muzzled screams from within the confinement of liberal institutions dare to challenge the continual oppressions that present themselves in various forms. Freedom cannot be given and is not a given in both geographical contexts. Liberation may only come into existence when it is both thought and practiced, when muzzles are removed and silenced voices are allowed to speak. If not, we face the threat of further blazes, broken windows and an angered citizenry: incensed by the failure of the freedom often heard about, but yet to be realised, a populace that is unconvinced by the dubious break between rhetoric and reality.
How do we protect a core belief and reclaim a vision without betraying others? Perhaps this may only be achieved after the conversation has begun; a space in which we stop name calling; a space in which governments are not painted as fixed, but operations which need continual questioning; a space in which ‘thugs’ and ‘freedom fighters’ are people, and given the space to speak and present their own cases; a call for cognitive dissonance that evokes a fresh imagination and allows us to start at a new beginning. As Fanon declared in his last offering, the ‘Wretched of the Earth’, "Each generation must discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it, in relative opacity."