Friday, 9 December 2011

Fanon, Guevara, Mandela and Malema

Stef Terblanche, Black Business Quarterly

As the year draws to a close we enter a period of celebration, peace and goodwill. Across Africa millions will be commemorating the birth of Christ this month. A short while later the New Year will be welcomed with much celebration. And across the Atlantic in faraway America, many of the children of the African Diaspora will also be celebrating Kwanzaa. But last week, on December 6, many Africans – and others around the world - were commemorating the life of one of Africa’s true heroes, Frantz Fanon.

As the popular memory fades and people are bombarded daily by global recession, climate change, the ravages of war in many parts, the eurozone crisis, Arab Spring uprisings, Hollywood culture and more, many may ask who this Fanon was.

Fanon was a kind of African Che Guevara, a revolutionary fighting a liberation war far from his original home, a distinguished intellectual and writer, perhaps remembered mostly by Marxist scholars, revolutionaries, African intellectuals and people in francophone North Africa.

And yet, despite his relative anonymity today outside of these circles, he was a giant, an African icon ranking right up there with his close friend Patrice Lumumba, Nelson Mandela, Julius Nyerere and other immortalised Africans. On December 6 it was 50 years since Fanon’s untimely death from leukaemia at the age of 36, an event that was remembered in lectures, articles and tributes across Africa from Algeria to Grahamstown, and across the world from France to Pennsylvania.

Fanon was born on July 20, 1925 on the French colonial Caribbean island of Martinique to a father  descended from African slaves and a mother said to be an illegitimate child of African, Indian and European descent.

During World War II he fled the oppression and rampant racism of Vichy French soldiers on the island, joining the Free French forces of De Gaulle. He fought in Algeria and France, was wounded and decorated. And yet, as the war ended he and other black soldiers were hidden from sight, the news cameras showing only a bleached French army.

After the war he returned briefly to Martinique before going to France where he studied medicine, psychiatry, literature, drama and philosophy. In time Fanon grew in stature as a radical existential humanist thinker. He used his background in psychiatry and his clinical work among both mentally wounded Algerian freedom fighters and the French soldiers who fought them to develop his ideas on the psychopathology of colonisation and the psychological effects of colonial subjugation on people identified as black.

Supporting the Algerian freedom struggle he joined the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) and did clandestine work for the rebels, while also being a member of the editorial collective of El Moudhahid for which he wrote until the end of his life.

After a gruelling trans-Saharan journey to open a Third Front for the FLN, he was diagnosed with leukaemia, treated in the Soviet Union and eventually died in Bethesda, Maryland in the United States.
While Fanon had written several books and many papers and articles, he is perhaps best known for his classic on decolonisation, The Wretched of the Earth (Les damnés de la terre), which he literally dictated on his deathbed. With a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, the book analyses the role of national culture, class, race and violence in the struggle for national liberation, establishing him as the leading anti-colonial thinker of his time.

This book, his life and other works inspired liberation movements across colonised Africa and beyond for half a century, being a major influence on people like South Africa’s Steve Biko, Che Guevara in Latin America, Malcolm X in the US. Even President Barack Obama quotes him in his book Dreams from my Father.

Colonialism, racism, oppression, the dehumanisation of people, and the use of force and violence against the oppressed presented Fanon with the same kind of difficult choices a young Nelson Mandela had to make.
In The Wretched of the Earth Fanon defends the use of violence by the colonised and the oppressed in their struggle for freedom, arguing that the sub-human status imposed on them and the violence perpetrated against them by their oppressors and colonisers justifies it.

Mandela also reached a stage where he questioned the continued use of non-violent methods “against a government whose only reply is savage attacks on an unarmed and defenceless people”, signalling the start of the ANC’s armed struggle.


The dangers and oppression, however, do not end with liberation. In the liberated South Africa of today Fanon is a major inspiration for poor people with movements such as the shack-dwellers organisation Abahlali base Mjondolo embracing his ideas. Ayanda Kota, chairperson of the Unemployed People’s Movement in Grahamstown, has written a scathing critique of the rise, role and objectives of ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema and his “nationalisation” demands, guided by the principles and thoughts of Fanon.

“We must never forget that the tenderpreneurs plundering our resources while unemployment is hovering around 40%, with the majority being young people, are an elite ... Fanon is clear that if national consciousness does not turn into social consciousness then a predatory elite can capture the state and enrich themselves in the name of the nation,” Kota writes.

His alleged possible motives aside, it was Malema who pointed out that massive poverty remains and that political liberation needs to be complemented by economic liberation, an ideai with which many other leaders have concurred – both before and after Malema.

But it is the exploitation of this issue, of which Malema is accused, to which Fanon alludes in his writings, warning those liberated from their oppression of the dangers they face during decolonisation and the transition to a neo-colonial and globalised world.

Fifty years after his death, the dangers remain. “After half-a-century, the toll of independence in the African and Arab worlds has not been mitigated; whether on the social, economic or political plane, the failure is total. The gaining of independence has not liberated the people from the misery, injustice or neglect they suffered under colonial domination,” Fanon’s daughter Mireille Fanon Mendès-France wrote on the occasion of the 50th commemoration of his death.

“In Africa, in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and America, Fanon appears more current than ever. He makes sense to everyone who fights for freedom and human rights, because emancipation is always the first objective of a generation reaching political maturity. Many men and women have learnt that the fight for liberty, democracy and human rights is led against local despots and also against the tenets of the neocolonial order which they protect. They are used to pillage resources and then ejected when they are no longer useful,” writes his daughter.

Good reason for Africa to jealously guard its hard-won freedoms.