Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Fanon, coloniality and emancipation

by Eunice N. Sahle, Pambazuka


At a recent conference at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, my colleague Professor Joseph Jordan brought together a group of scholars whose papers and commentaries reminded us of the centrality and continuing relevance of Frantz Fanon for people who have historically and in the contemporary world been subjected to colonial and neocolonial political, cultural, and economic practices. The conference also greatly benefitted from the presence and insights from Fanon’s daughter. Why is it, some might ask, does Fanon matter? After all, we live in a post imperial world, where by the only thing each of us need to do is to work hard, and then the markers of the good life – leading among them absolute individual freedom and personal wealth – will follow, regardless of ones’ historical experiences and the power dynamics that characterise political, cultural and economic landscapes at various national and world spatial scales.
Fanon’s philosophical and political work matters because at the bare minimum, it challenges the preceding hegemonic discourse. Overall and for the purposes of my comments here which are inspired by Africa’s historical and contemporary political-economic geographies, I suggest that for many reasons, Fanon remains the entry point in any project geared to the realisation of substantive emancipation, as opposed to elite-led projects, such as the recently re-defined (although contrary to its proponents, the original underlying discursive and ideology frame of global neoliberalism remains), New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).[1] I develop two of these reasons here.

First, for political agents to construct and engage in ‘practices of freedom’ (Tully, 2008)[2] aimed at substantive emancipation at all levels of the social body in a given political geography in Africa, an understanding of the historical and political-structural roots of such a formation are a crucial starting point. In this regard, Fanon’s work provides an important entry point to struggles for emancipation. For instance, at the structural level, while if he were with us today he may be disappointed by the current economic crisis in various parts of the African continent, he would not be surprised by what is occurring mainly because he was one of the earliest intellectual and political voices to signal the limits of political projects that characterised nationalist movements in Africa in the 1940s and 1950s. According to Fanon, the ahistorical approach to the colonial order saw these movements ignore the structural underpinnings of economic structures that emerged under colonial rule and the imprint they would have on future economic processes in the continent (1963). For Fanon, colonial orders had established structural conditions that would read to the emergence of neocolonialism in the guise of independence (1963). Like critical thinkers from Latin America, then, Fanon’s work suggests that the end of formal imperial rule did not mean the end of imperialism and its attendant logics and effects. Consequently, the transitions to independence in Africa saw the reproduction of what the Peruvian critical scholar Aníbal Quijano has conceptualised as ‘coloniality of power’ (2007 and 2009; Sahle 2010). For Quijano, coloniality of power represents the reproduction of colonial practices following the end of legalised and formal colonial order. Expanding his arguments along these lines, he contends that ‘if we observe the main lines of exploitation and social domination on a global scale, the main lines of world power today, and the distribution of resources and work among the world population, it is very clear that the large majority of the exploited, the dominated, the discriminated against, are precisely the members of the ‘races’, ‘ethnies’, or ‘nations’ into which the colonized populations, were categorized in the formative process of that world power, from the conquest of America and onward’ (Quijano, 2007:168-169).

An understanding of the colonial roots of contemporary social realities such as that of Fanon is crucial not only at the theoretical level, but also at the political level. Conceptually, Fanon’s historical approach challenges the ahistorical approaches that pepper hegemonic intellectual and policy perspectives on Africa which for example represents contemporary structural crisis in the continent as a natural order of things that is the result of failure by Africans to make the necessary, natural, unproblematic, and easy transition to economic and political modernity similar to that of social formations in the dominant global North. Yet, as Fanon’s (1963) work reminds us, African economic developments cannot be understood outside the exploitation and violence that has characterised the making of world economic and political system which saw the emergence of dominant social classes at the national level. In Fanon’s view, given the emergence of these classes in the political economy of colonial rule, they emerged as key actors in the reproduction of coloniality of power even. In this regard he posits that ‘the national middle class discovers its historical mission: that of intermediary. See through its eyes, its mission has nothing of to do with transforming the nation; it consists, prosaically, of being the transmission line between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the mask of neo-colonialism’ (1963.: 152). From a Fanonian perspective then, the rise of the global North and its attendant dominance in the world political and economic order and the marginalisation of the African continent in this order are closely linked.

At the political level, Fanon’s historical approach to the study of Africa’s political and economic processes, enables Africans, as agents of their history, to de-naturalise not only the representation of the continent as a place without history, but also to utilise their political agency to challenge contemporary modes of coloniality of power, such as the intense competition for the continent’s resources and the militarisation of their social and political geographies by a range of powerful actors in the name of promoting human security, development, stability and peace (Sahle 2010). In 2011, African political agency is there for all to see even those who had rather ignore it or represent it as something new. In any event, deconstructions of ahistorical, simplistic, and normalised representations of African political-economic geographies and demonstration of African agency have emerged in emancipatory spaces in Egypt, Malawi, Tunisia, South Africa, Uganda and many others places. These processes represent what Firoze Manji recently termed as ‘political awakenings’ (2011)[3] and echoes the spirit of Fanon which always celebrated existing and potential agency for Africans to make their own history and struggle for substantive emancipation, even in the context of social realities and constraints generated by historical and contemporary imperial orders.

Fanon’s resonates and remains an important intellectual and political figure in imagining substantive emancipation in Africa for the following second reason: His involvement in emancipatory struggles as an intellectual and his calls on intellectuals to generate knowledge geared to emancipation. Fanon’s involvement in the anti-colonial struggles in Algeria is well known, thus its discussion not need to detain us here. Nonetheless, it is important to highlight his emphasis on the importance of practical involvement by intellectuals in struggles for emancipation. In his influential work, ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ (1963), he declares that an intellectual ‘must take part in action and throw himself body and soul into the national struggle’ (1963: ibid.).

For Fanon, intellectuals much also engage in production of ideas that challenge hegemonic knowledge and its apparatus. When it comes to Africa, hegemonic apparatus of knowledge production and dissemination represent and its organic intellectuals (Gramsci, 1971) represents neo-colonising ideas and systems of as the natural and scientific truth, and as the only hope for African people to become modern consumer citizenship like their counterparts in the modern global North; a socio-cultural geography that is represented in these knowledge regimes as the universal norm for all peoples of the world. From a Fanonian perspective, and as I have suggested in a different context (Sahle, forthcoming)[4], ‘ideas generated by intellectuals are significant in anti-oppression’ struggles ‘because they enable the framing of…social grievances and demands’ and in addition they are crucial ‘in the liberation of consciousness that’ was historically ‘brutalized under colonial conditions’ and in the contemporary epoch underpinned by projects of coloniality of power. Overall and according to Fanon, ‘the consciousness of self is not the closing of a door to communication. Philosophic thought teaches us, on the contrary, that it is its guarantee’ (1963, 247). The liberation of consciousness leads to liberated forms of subjectivity and formation of new political identities; developments that contribute to social mobilizing for the transformation of oppressive social orders’. Fanon’s work therefore challenges us to reflect on a question that a colleague from Malawi, Ollen Mwalubunji, posed to me in 2006, which is whether our practices of knowledge production concerning political, cultural and economic processes in any part of Africa are contributing to what he termed as ‘the auctioning of our continent’ or its liberation. The preceding question by Mwalubunji – which is deeply embedded in my memory – and other ideas that I have suggested here reminds us of the many reasons why on this 50th Anniversary of Fanon’s death, his work forms the central building block to projects aimed at substantive emancipation in contemporary Africa.

* Eunice N. Sahle, Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a Ph.D. in political studies from Queen’s University in Canada. She has an M.A. in political science, and a B.A. with honors in political science and international development from the University of Toronto.


[1] For more details see, NEPAD Planning and Coordinating Agency: A technical body of the African Union,
[2] For extended discussion see, James Tully, Public Philosophy in a New Key: Volume I, Democracy and Civic Freedom (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008) and James Tully Public Philosophy in a New Key: Volume II, Imperialism and Civic Freedom (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008)
[3] Firoze Manji, ‘Public Lecture’, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, April, 2011.
[4] For further discussion see, Eunice N. Sahle (forthcoming) , ‘Intellectuals, Oppression, and Anti-Racist Movements in South Africa’, in Abigail Bakan and Ena Dua (eds), Theorizing Anti-Racism: Rethinking the Tensions Between Marxism and Post-Colonial/Critical Race Theory


Frantz, F. (1963) The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Weidenfeld).
Firoze Manji, F. ‘Public Lecture’, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, April, 2011.
Gramsci, A. (1971) Quintin Hoare, and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (translators). Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (New York: International Publishers)
Quijano, A. (2007) ‘Coloniality and modernity/rationality’, Cultural Studies, 21 (2–3): 168–178.
——— (2008) ‘Coloniality of power, eurocentrism, and social classification’, in M. Moraña, M., E. Dussel, and C. A. Jáuregui (eds), Coloniality at Large: Latin America and the Postcolonial Debate (Durham and London: Duke University Press): 181–224.
Sahle, E. (2010) World Orders, Development and Transformation (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan).
________ (forthcoming) , ‘Intellectuals, Oppression, and Anti-Racist Movements in South Africa’, in Abigail Bakan and Ena Dua (eds), Theorizing Anti-Racism: Rethinking the Tensions Between Marxism and Post-Colonial/Critical Race Theory
James Tully, Public Philosophy in a New Key: Volume I, Democracy and Civic Freedom (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008)
_____ Public Philosophy in a New Key: Volume II, Imperialism and Civic Freedom (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008