Nigel Gibson. 2011. Fanonian Practices in South Africa from Steve Biko to Abahlali baseMjondolo. Scottsville, South Africa: University of Kwazulu-Natal Press. 312 pp.
The author employs a Fanonian theoretical and ideological framework in his penetrating critique of post-apartheid South Africa in an earnest commitment to the aspirations and “living politics” of the shack dwellers of South Africa. It is a highly important work that illustrates the relevance of Fanon’s philosophy of liberation to the socio-economic and political developments in South Africa since the ANC formed the country’s first multi-racial democracy in April 1994 to date. In short, “ultimately a Fanonian perspective insists that we view the sweetness of the South African transition from apartheid as bitter, realised at the moment when ‘the people find out that the ubiquitous fact that exploitation can wear a Black face’ (Fanon 1968: 145) and that a Black, too, can be a Boer (amabhunu amanyama)” (p. 5).
Gibson begins examining “the problem of [South Africa’s] unfinished liberation” and specifically how Steve Biko’s philosophical interpretation of Fanon informed the conception, ethos and agenda of Black Consciousness, formed in 1969. This is the focus of Chapter 1. In the following chapter, “the specific political economic choices [that] defined and [were] made during the transition period by the nationalist political elites” (p. 74) are outlined. Such choices contributed to the prevailing systemic inequalities of South Africa in which black poverty has increased. For the author, “the shift from the Freedom Charter towards neoliberalism was an ethical shift away from ideas of the social and public good” (p. 77). This betrayal by the ANC occurred during the decade of the 1980s as the ANC elite “outmanoeuvred its opponents on the left” (p. 78), encouraged a climate of anti-intellectualism, and supported the 1986 slogan of making South Africa ungovernable.
The forms of spontaneous educative direct democracy that was spawned in the townships was hijacked by the ANC in order to create an opening in the negotiations with the white minority elite and consequently the “the rank and file of the movement became cannon fodder” (p. 95). Neither did the collapse of the USSR help the unfolding political developments, for the demise contributed to a continued defensive Stalinism within the ANC and South African Communist Party (SACP) that became wedded to the politics of compromise. By the mid-1990s the ANC had fully embraced the fundamentalism of the market—heralding a shift away from a radical social-democratic paradigm. Consequently discussions on alternative conceptions of a future South Africa were silenced.
“The New ‘reality of the nation’”(the focus of chapter 3) has been the rise of a small but significant black bourgeoisie through the adoption of the Black Economic Empowerment program (BEE). Gibson contends the program “is essentially a conservative project that acts against empowering poor communities by naturalizing poverty and reinforcing the neoliberal status quo.” (p. 121). The consequences of neoliberalism are examined and the new forms of spatial apartheid in the affluent gated communities as well as how the ANC elite has appropriated Biko’s Black empowerment for narrow class interests that excludes the black majority.
The history of the founding of the shack dwellers movement—Abahali base Mjondolo—is presented in chapter 4, entitled “Unfinished Struggles for Freedom.” Here, the author presents a detailed socio-economic and political context of the struggles of the shack dwellers and how they draw parallels with former struggles against apartheid but also their differences. However, the people of the shacks with their “shack intellectuals” such as S’bu Zikode are demanding not only the right to houses promised them by Nelson Mandela’s government, but dignity, recognition and a right for their demands to be fulfilled in the unfinished project of emancipation. More importantly, Gibson is convinced that their democratic collectivist methods of solving community and societal problems is the new way forward for South Africa in adopting creative and people-centered strategies or what the organization calls a “living politics.” In their boycott of the 2005 municipal elections they sought to remind the ANC that their vote could not be taken for granted in the slogan: “No Land, No House, No Vote” (p. 156). Gibson claims: “Just as the struggle against apartheid brought the vote, the shack dwellers’ struggle has challenged the meaning of the vote and given a voice to the poorest of the poor” (p. 157).
The final chapter, “Xenophobia or a new humanism?” is a further enunciation of the Fanonian principles and thinking of Abahali. It is committed to political self-education and eschews the Manichean thinking of illegal and legal shack settlements, insisting that regardless of their culture, ethnicity and language, all are entitled to membership. The latter is made up of Indians, Pondo, Xhosa, young, and old in a cosmopolitan urban reality. Unquestionably, in challenging the legacies of post-apartheid South Africa, Abahali offers an inspiring new vision of inclusive democracy and an alternative politics for not only the southern region but the rest of Africa.
Ama Biney, Independent Scholar, London