Friday, 12 August 2011

Thinking and Living Fanon

by Chantelle Malan and Danielle Bowler, Pambazuka & The Daily Dispatch

People are still laying bottles of alcohol outside her house and she’s been a trending topic on twitter and Facebook. Additionally, she has been ushered in as a new member of the “27 club” of artists who have died at the tragically young age of 27 and across the world, her music is being bought and downloaded in remembrance. Few would dispute the importance of Amy Winehouse a week after her death, but what will her legacy be in 50 years time? In a small part of South Africa, young people have been contemplating the legacy of Frantz Fanon and the fiftieth anniversary of his death by choosing this week instead, to buy his books. While most people are largely unaware of the significance of the man from Martinique, as opposed to a singer from North London, the question is perhaps who is more relevant for contemporary South Africa?

Frantz Fanon is the relatively unconsidered psychiatrist, philosopher and revolutionary who dedicated his life to the liberation of the African continent and theorising the racialised black experience. As a philosopher on the experience of being black, he is an extremely relevant and useful entry point into the conversation on race in South Africa today. Given that black people were entirely oppressed during Apartheid and the continuation of this oppression in the post-Apartheid moment, Fanon’s insight is to bring light to this experience and how it must be transcended. To celebrate the anniversary of his death, Rhodes University held a Colloquium to bring together a unique set of scholars and students to rethink Fanon and his importance for South Africa today.

In a time of shrinking press freedom, trust funds for elites in power and “shoot to kill”, the country’s past consistently rears its head. As such, the rainbow masquerading as a symbol of our democracy reveals itself as a façade in the excesses of injustice and oppression both Apartheid and Post-Apartheid have left. Erasing the past, and/or pretending it didn’t happen in attempts at national amnesia have been convenient for some and useful for others, particularly when enjoyed with wasabi and soy sauce. Consequently, we seem prone to “chicken little syndrome”, convinced that at any moment of criticism the sky will be falling – bringing the rainbow, however faint it might be, down with it. In those events where the failure of adequately dealing with the post-Apartheid state and its transitional delusions, our memory is selective and we do not consider the past in its entirety – history, for some began in 1948, others 1994. The ANC’s memory for example is trotted out consistently when it comes to recalling during and after apartheid. We have seen it deploy these memories like artillery, particularly through the strategic use of their tale of the liberation struggle. Its memory however, is remarkably short-term and fails to capture the last seventeen years of democracy which has not improved the lives of the poor and the oppressed since its rule. The Damned of the Earth, to use Fanon’s phrase, remain so. 
Fanon, despite his death, is still very much alive in some spaces in South Africa and it’s only through constantly coming back to his work that he will stay this way. It’s hard to imagine that a snappy dresser who changed several times a day while working in a mental hospital in Algeria has much to say about contemporary South Africa. It’s hard to imagine that he “thought” South Africa at all, and indeed some have wrongly argued that he didn’t. Yet, Fanon spoke of South Africa most prominently in his seminal work Les Damnes de la Terre translated as The Wretched of the Earth. In his writings, Fanon thought Africa, and this year at the Colloquium in Grahamstown, we thought Fanon, his work, South Africa and Africa. 
Outside this space though, are we, as the youth, thinking South Africa at all? Thinking emerged as one of the most important themes of the colloquium, both what it means to think, who thinks and the role of thinkers in society. We know it to be a problem in South Africa and elsewhere that not everyone has the privilege to be thought of as being capable of thinking, particularly the poor and black. That we think is not a surprise, but the recognition that we all think, that we all have the ability to think and that we all have the ability to think beyond our most basic human needs is another struggle that we need to wage. As S’bu Zikode, president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Shack Dweller’s Movement rightly asserts “people must know that we think”.

The notion of thinking remained with us all the way through the conference, into the Winter School and into the Round table. A cross section of South Africa was present at the events, young people from universities, townships, schools, engaging and thinking in fidelity to Fanon – a man whose thought matched his action, a man who was so much more than his revolutionary thoughts. His dedication to the struggle for liberation in Algeria, and towards the end of his life, for the larger struggle of a united, liberated Africa demonstrate how he positioned himself in such a way that he was able to live his thought. To practice it. His ideas may have been captured in books, but they were also undoubtedly expressed in his action, his harried insistence in getting the work of thinking done at all costs. For Fanon, there was little time for sleeping or resting, in fact, doing nothing often agitated him and caused him to agitate those around him. 
This is what we take from the events we were privileged to be a part of in July this year. Regardless of the particular topic of conversation, be it, Fanonian thought, or how to restructure Universities to better accommodate the lingering pitfalls of race post-Apartheid, or how class fits into the picture, we were all “thinking South Africa”. And thinking about how re-thinking South Africa from the beginning of its history could be used practically for change. The thinking was merely a precursor to the hope of a dedication to action – a project and challenge for the masses of South Africa, across racial lines and class divides, and not just elites. The task perhaps is to think our past as it pertains to our future, and how to transcend our strategic amnesia. 
We, who are now continually thinking both Fanon and South Africa, keep him alive in thinking and re-thinking his work in relation to our mission as young South Africans, a mission that must be centred around the fulfilment of a truly emancipatory politics in this country. Whilst it remains difficult to assume what legacy Amy Winehouse will leave, perhaps one of the most important aspects of Frantz Fanon’s legacy for the youth of South Africa is to take seriously his call for real engagement, at the point where thought meets action. 

Because, as Fanon warns, this generation has a mission, and we must either fulfil or betray it.