Friday, 20 April 2012

Frantz Fanon 50 years later: a ‘Thinking Africa’ conference

Richard Pithouse
by Richard Pithouse, Social Dynamics, Vol. 37, No, 3, 2012

The Thinking Africa Project in the Department of Politics & International Relations at Rhodes University hosted its inaugural annual conference in July 2011. It was decided to dedicate the conference to an examination of the contemporary meanings of Frantz Fanon due to the fact that 2011 is the fiftieth year since Fanon’s death and, also, the ongoing centrality of Fanon’s work to the thinking of emancipatory political possibilities in Africa.

Fanon died, in Washington, in December 1961. In his 36 years, the arc of his life moved from the Caribbean to Europe and North Africa. He had been a soldier with the Free French Forces, a student in France, a psychiatrist in the French colonial system and a revolutionary in the Algerian National Liberation Movement. Black Skin, White Masks, written while he was a student, is a canonical text in critical race studies. The Wretched of the Earth, written through failing health in 10 weeks in Tunis, stands as a foundational text in the critique of colonialism, the description and assessment of anti-colonial struggle and the diagnosis of the pathologies of the postcolonial state.

The extent of Fanon’s academic and political importance in Thinking Africa is clear enough. But what was particular striking about this event was the remarkable degree to which, 50 years on, Fanon’s work retains an extraordinary capacity to inspire and stimulate students. A good number of Rhodes students, including some undergraduates, gave up their holidays to come to the conference, and students from universities in Cape Town and Johannesburg also made their way to the event.

The conference was preceded by a Fanon reading group, made up of academics, students and grassroots activists, which met weekly in Grahamstown. The event itself was planned to begin with a public lecture by V.Y. Mudimbe followed by the official launch of both the Thinking Africa project and Nigel Gibson’s new book, Fanonian Practices in South Africa. In the end, Mudimbe’s flight was delayed and his lecture
rescheduled and replaced, at the last minute, with a spontaneous but excellent public panel discussion.

Siphokazi Magadla and Leonhard Praeg spoke to the launch of Thinking Africa and David Ntseng spoke to Gibson’s book. These public events, along with a Fanon film festival, were part of the programme of the National Arts Festival.

The conference itself included presentations by, arguably, the three leading Fanon scholars currently writing in English: Nigel Gibson, Lewis Gordon and Ato Sekyi-Otu. We were also very pleased to be able to secure presentations by Grant Farred, Nomboniso Gasa and Pumla Gqola, leading South African scholars with an interest in Fanon. There were also presentations from three young Fanon scholars – Mandisi Majavu, David Ntseng and Siphiwe Ndlovu. Gill Hart, Mazibuko Jara and Mabogo More participated as discussants. Each morning the conference began with a presentation from an activist. Barney Pityana spoke about Fanon and the black consciousness movement, Ayanda Kota spoke about the significance of Fanon for the Unemployed People’s Movement in Grahamstown; there was also an input from Nosigqibo Soxujwa from the Women’s Social Forum in Grahamstown and S’bu Zikode spoke about Fanon and Abahlali baseMjondolo.

The conference was followed by a week-long winter school for postgraduate students, including students from other universities, which was taught by some of the participants, and then a semester-long postgraduate course on Fanon. A number of the students in the postgraduate course have already published newspaper articles on Fanon and there are book reviews, review essays and journal articles in preparation

Although two of the three books that Fanon published in his lifetime, as well as the posthumous collection of essays, deal directly with the African situation during the moment of decolonisation, Fanon’s work has, with noted exceptions such as Ari Shariati in Iran, largely been read through metropolitian concerns. The great African reading of Fanon is, of course, that of Sekyi-Otu whose exquisitely brilliant and precise Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience, written in 1996, is also, to some extent, a meditation on the prospects for South Africa after apartheid. It was a singular honour to have been able to host Sekyi-Otu in South Africa for the first time.

In his 2003 essay in response to Achille Mbembe’s ‘African Modes of Self- Writing’, which has just been republished in Living Fanon, a new collection of essays edited by Gibson, Sekyi-Otu makes the point that Fanon has a particularly strong presence in South African debates. Fanon’s work first entered the South African drama via Steve Biko and the black consciousness movement and it retains a striking and widely recognised resonance in contemporary South Africa. It is a direct influence on work as wide ranging in form and content as that of Michael Neocosmos and Moeletsi Mbeki, artists like Lesego Rampolokeng, church intellectuals interested in liberation theology and intellectuals in popular movements.

There are a number of valuable books that bring Fanon to bear in their engagement with South Africa, but Gibson’s new book, Fanonian Practices in South Africa, is the first monograph to sustain a dialogue with Fanon and the South African situation. It offers an examination, very well informed by the intellectual work done within South African struggles, of South Africa through a Fanonian lens that moves from the 1970s until the contemporary moment. The edited volume that will emerge from this conference, which will be published by the University of KwaZulu- Natal Press, will mark another moment in the ongoing expansion and deepening of the South African engagement with Fanon.

The 2012 Thinking Africa conference will be convened by Leonhard Praeg and will be organised under the theme ‘Ubuntu: Curating the Archive’.


Fanon, Frantz, 1967. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, New York.
Fanon, Frantz, 1976. The Wretched of the Earth. London: Penguin.
Gibson, Nigel, 2011a. Fanonian practices in South Africa. Pietermaritzburg: UKZN Press.
Gibson, Nigel, ed., 2011b. Living Fanon. London: Palgrave Macmillian.
Sekyi-Otu, Ato, 1996. Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University