Thursday, 18 October 2012

A Review of Nigel Gibson's 'Fanonian Practices in South Africa'

by Joel Pearson

In this book, Nigel Gibson aims to examine how Fanon’s thoughts resonate with the philosophy of Steve Biko and the practices of social movements in post-apartheid South Africa against a backdrop of the incomplete transition from a system of racial oppression to one of continued class oppression. He seeks “not to recuperate the historical Fanon but to recreate Fanon’s philosophy of liberation in a new situation” (x-xi) – that of contemporary South Africa. Gibson finds in Fanon “not only a valuable critique of post-apartheid South Africa, but also a critique of, and a practical guide to, engaging the new movements that are emerging from below” (xi). He considers Fanon as a “theorist of action”, and action as a “product of philosophy” (xi), and speaks of how Fanon’s desire to invent new concepts is recreated in South Africa. Viewing “Fanon’s philosophy of liberation as actional and engaged, rather than detached and autonomous”, Gibson uses this philosophy “to amplify the voices of the new movements among the damned of the earth, and to challenge committed intellectuals (both inside and outside the movements) to search for, listen to, and develop new concepts” (5). These new concepts are crucial if we are to realise the emergence of a “new humanism” – one that can only emerge from an understanding of the “humanity and solidarity of the damned, who have been emptied of humanity and excluded from the human community” even after the end of apartheid and the ushering in of equal political rights (9).

The first chapter of the book sees Gibson, considering the “Fanonian practices” of Steve Biko with the “eyes of today”, considering the development of Black Consciousness and Biko’s critique of “White liberalism” (xviii). Like Fanon, Black Consciousness emphasised the “liberation of the mind of the oppressed” and “constituted a movement away from colonized objectification towards black subjectivity” (1). It refused “compromise with, or reform of, the status quo” (2) and insisted on “self-sufficiency” – “Black man you are on your own” (49). “Biko understands that there is no demiurge, that freedom cannot be brought from outside just as freedom cannot be given” (59). Gibson points to Biko’s insistence on self-liberation: “Biko underscored the centrality of mental liberation to the freedom struggle” (67). In this vein, Black Consciousness could provide a “practical education, not in the sense of technique, but in the sense of thought practices in the school of struggle… in the process or act of reflection on and through the experience of the struggle” (67). Gibson also highlight’s Biko’s construction of a “national culture”, whose concern, “not unlike Fanon’s, was first and foremost with the need to reconnect to a national culture and thereby resist the reification of culture that was produced by apartheid – the inert, static and outworn custom that served as the outer shell on which ethnic entrepreneurs and chauvinists, as well as homeland leaders, apartheid academics and colonial apologists, based their patronage and power” (55). Gibson insists that “while the brilliance of the ‘Bikoian’ moment is an historical event, ‘Biko Lives’” (60). “Implicit ideas of solidarity central to Biko’s notion of Black Consciousness – however fragmented and often fleeting – continue to survive among the poor and other sectors of the population marginalised in the post-apartheid polity” (69).

Gibson uses Fanon to describe the transition from apartheid as “a kind of ‘passive revolution’ in Gramsci’s sense inasmuch as it was a revolution without a revolution, with the opposition effectively contained from the start and the potentially revolutionary mass movements rendered ineffective” (68). He argues that “Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth is perhaps one of the most perceptive and undervalued critiques of the transition scenario” in South Africa (111). Just as Fanon so presciently outlined in his “Pitfalls of National Consciousness”, the end of apartheid did not bring about genuine liberation, but only sham ‘flag freedom’ – a “fancy dress parade” in which universal democratic values are trumpeted loudly while the poor are trampled underfoot all the while. This was contained in Biko’s warnings regarding white liberalism, which, in his estimation, stood as at least an equal threat to prospects of true liberation in that it maintained a commitment to white normativity (46).

According to Gibson, “black political emancipation in South Africa is not full emancipation because it leaves the state of human emancipation unfinished” (113). What impeded the efflorescence of true liberation was, as Fanon warned, “the absence of a liberatory ideology” (xii). Instead, “post-apartheid politics was reduced to an elite project of capturing the state and the means of governance, in contrast to creating an expansive and inclusive democracy” (2). Rather than real democracy, what 1994 brought was the institutionalisation of the ANC’s already authoritarian, centralist, hierarchical structure (2). The marriage of this structure with neoliberal economic policies is said to have signalled a radical betrayal of the majority on the part of a tiny ruling elite and the repression of participatory democracy: “homespun authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism”, combined with Washington Consensus, bred an intolerance of dissent. “Critical voices within the ANC” were shunted into the “political wilderness” (3). Nor has opposition from the Left espoused anything near an affirmation of the need for true democratic participation for all, with the Left largely unwilling to break with the “dominant ‘development’ paradigms” (3).

The “elite pact” with capital (3) has meant that while apartheid laws have been abolished, “the law of capital” continues to operate unchallenged: “it certainly did not free the majority of blacks from having noting to sell but their labour, nor has it ended the pauperisation of labour, employed and unemployed. Indeed, one could say that is has, in fact, expanded the law of capital” (123). At the same time, avenues for emancipatory politics have been closed off (3). “Born during the high period of neoliberal globalisation, the postapartheid government silenced more radical alternatives by trading on its credentials as the ‘party of liberation’. Successfully outmanoeuvring its left critics, the trajectory in South Africa has been a succession of neoliberal restructurings” (xiii-xiv).

Gibson argues that the constant assertion that there was “no alternative” on the part of the ANC was not as a result of “pessimism of the intellect” but of “intellectual laziness” (xiv). Indeed, he contends that “anti-intellectualism continues to be especially prevalent in the ANC” in which “rather than encouraging a culture of discussion, a virtue is made of a military-like discipline and silence in the ranks” (79). The new government presided over what Gibson calls “the depoliticisation of politics and the suppression of grassroots, democratic voices” (83), which has been achieved through at least two models of “co-option” which, according to Gibson, have been applied in post-apartheid South Africa: “one governmental and the other non-governmental” (13). The first rationalises people not as active citizens but as passive receivers of state resources to be “looked after and controlled by various government agencies” (28). This form of governmentality reconfigures rights “into the neoliberal discourse of ‘access’ and thus based on ‘cost recovery’ rather than need” (29). The second entails the “NGOization” of the state. In South Africa, Gibson argues, “the realm of civil society is in fact a small one, one that is ‘quintessentially bourgeois’  (28), and “civil society is decreasingly a space for the vibrant political dialogue that could have evolved from the 1990s and increasingly a restricted, commercialised and restricted space where, alongside ANC patronage, the freedoms of the market and the rights of property take precedence as protected rights” (29). In this matrix, NGOs “often create a systemic popular disempowerment through a language of individual ‘equal rights’” (31). According to Gibson, “left-leaning NGOs in Africa are generally hierarchical, urban-based, Northern focused operations, accountable to their donors and to developing activities in terms of their benefactors’ missions rather than being responsible to the people they supposedly represent” (32). Their activities are said to generally “undermine the incipient participatory democracy that characterises grassroots organisations” (32). They represent the “safety valves” which channel “popular discontent along constitutional, peaceful and harmless ways” (33). And they are even held to be “midwifing recolonisation”: “it is the NGOs, not military interventions, that play a significant role in shoring up neo-colonial globalisation” (33).

According to Gibson, “to be truly democratic and accountable to the poor, NGOs must shift the geography of reason and cease to operate like NGOs” (33). This means abandoning “their donors as their key priority” and fostering “solidarity with [popular democratic] movements” (34). Instead, most share a belief with government in the “backwardness, unpredictability, and idiocy of the masses” (35). Indeed, the poor are routinely blamed for their situation by the state and NGOs alike in post-apartheid South Africa, rendered, as DuBois would put it, “problem people”. They are portrayed as being plagued by “moral degeneracy” (37).

Politics of space

Because the rationalisation of space according to race was one of the most divisive legacies of apartheid, Gibson analyses the post-apartheid situation from the perspective of the politics of space, contending that “although post-apartheid South Africa has shifted the racial boundaries of space, the location where one lives still plays an important role in determining identity, class and political voice” (14). In this landscape, the poor have become increasingly alienated as post-apartheid cities have changed (14). This is not a far cry away from Fanon’s characterisation of the native quarter in the colonial city: “colonialism is a total experience. Built on spatial exclusion and repression, the ‘native’ is restricted and constantly reminded not to move. In this context, liberation consists of the breaking down of these internal and external barriers” (14). This has not been fundamentally restructured in the post-apartheid nation (18). “One of the pitfalls of national liberation,” Gibson argues, “is that the colonial city is not reorganised but taken over, and this includes taking over colonial attitudes towards the ‘native quarters’ (25). And indeed there is visceral stigmatisation of shack settlements (19) which perpetuates the same social Manichaeism that characterised apartheid: “under apartheid and colonial rule, the African poor were poor because it was their ‘nature as Africans’; today the African poor are poor because it is ‘their nature to be poor’” (124). The poor are regarded as ‘corrosive element’ which threatens ‘bourgeois society’ (20); they are represented as “‘undifferentiated, unwilling carriers of social diseases’… as morally corrupt and behaviourally undisciplined – or, to use the language of apartheid, ‘surplus population’” (150). Gibson quotes Huchzermeyer when he contends that “the post-apartheid state now speaks of the growth of shanty towns using ‘terminology otherwise applied to life-threatening epidemics’ such as ‘eradication’” (152). “It is not surprising… that where the poor live, and where they wish to live, has become a fault line in the vision of post-apartheid liberation” (19).

And indeed on the other side of this Manichean divide is bourgeois society, which may have changed somewhat in complexion, but not in its fundamentally exclusive structure – and even the racial transformation of this pampered stratum has not changed radically. The white elite today, Gibson contends, “enjoy a freedom and a feel-good factor that they could have never imagined before, while the majority of the country’s population is pauperised or living close to poverty levels” (xviii). Gibson quotes Richard Ballard: “the change from segregation to assimilation is not necessarily a weakening of the white social agenda but a shrewd move that ensures the sustainability of white social control” (18). And indeed, “the share of white households in the top fifth of the income scale actually grew after the end of apartheid” (73). However, Gibson contends that, in the post-apartheid era, it has become apparent to the masses that oppression “can wear a black face” too. “There is no racial solidarity: black capitalists are just as exploitative as white; in fact BEE companies have been among the worst labour law violators” (117-118). And this is a result of “a limited transition that ‘allows’ a minority of the black population to feed off state resources, the logic of which is patronage, corruption and exploitation” (118). Yet, Gibson echoes Fanon’s idea of the uselessness of the nationalist bourgeoisie: “the old problem of the accumulation of capital and technological backwardness is addressed through the creation of cheap, skilled labour. Yet the problem for the nationalist bourgeoisie remains: it can’t become an ‘authentic’ bourgeoisie because it can’t accumulate capital” (118). Nevertheless, the rise of this bourgeoisie has been accompanied by “public displays of greed and power” (xiv). “Overt manifestations of individual greed as justification for the profound inequalities would have been frowned upon in the late 1980s, but became quite acceptably by the late 1990s” (77). He points to the 2010 World Cup, alongside the “citadelisation and securitisation of the cities and the ‘elimination of the slums’ as expressions of the contemporary commodification of space where the lines of force are quite clear” as being proof of what Fanon would call a “fetish of grandiose buildings and prestige expenditures” on the part of the nationalist bourgeoisie (25).

Gibson quotes Fanon’s description of the bourgeois society as “a closed society where its not good to be alive, where the air is rotten and ideas and people putrefying. And I believe that a man who takes a stand against this living death is in a way a revolutionary” (18). A place where “they talk of humanism but kill the human being wherever they are found” (26). And Gibson points out that this foetid bourgeois existence has increasingly barricaded itself behind the high walls of ‘privatised communities’: “The exclusivity of heavily guarded colonial spaces that Fanon describes has probably increased since the ANC came to power… gated communities and secure shopping and entertainment centres are the new Manichaean divides which, with private security and rapid-response patrol units, keep poor people out” (71). Gibson points to the property market as “a representation of a larger economic process where, as Ballard points out, racially coded fears about falling prices are fixated on the proximity of shack settlements (the presence of which are always a threat), and ‘fortified enclaves’ provide almost ‘total security’ from real and imagined threats” (19). Biko could have been speaking of our contemporary context when he said “township life alone makes it a miracle for anyone to live to adulthood. There we see a situation of absolute want, in  which black will kill black to be able to survive. This is the basis of vandalism, murder, rape , and plunder that goes on while the real sources of evil – white society [which we might today instead characterise as bourgeois society] – are sun-tanning on exclusive beaches or relaxing in their bourgeois homes” (1978:75).

The politics of space brings to light the question of “the Right to the City”, as elucidated by Henri Lefebvre. According to Gibson, the “elite vision” imagines South African cities rising to the level of “world class cities” (19) – a vision which “cannot, and does not, support or accommodate the poor – especially those who live in shack settlements close to middle-class residences, and are considered a threat to security, health and hygiene” (20). The state uses its muscle to intervene in cases “where the real-estate market fails to reinforce class lines and exclusions”, employing forced “removals and intimidations couched in the rhetoric of development”. This is part of a renewed politics of “divide and rule” which “generates zero-sum market-based identities of haves and have-nots”, rendering the poor and marginalised “always, by definition, a stigmatised mass” (134). The post-apartheid, neoliberal rationalisations of the government have insisted that “shack dwellers have got to understand that it is far too expensive to build housing for them in the city, and that new developments will create economic opportunities on the city’s margins” (152).

This is contrary to Henri Lefebvre’s idea of “right to the city” as “freedom of movement as an affirmation of life” (xvi) – and indeed, this right has come to be increasingly espoused by social movements of the marginalised which, Gibson argues, are calling for a “new urban humanism” (xvi) and to “democratise our cities from below” (xvi). Indeed, the right to the city is framed as “part of the continuing struggle for liberation” (xvi). Quoting Fanon, Gibson agrees that “the beginning of the end of the colonial city is… marked when the colonised subvert the violence employed to police the dividing line between the ‘conqueror’s city’ and the ‘native city’ by surging into forbidden quarters, transgressing the boundaries and subverting the lines of force” (24). “A transformed and renewed right to urban life” (25) sees people refusing “to remain in their place and insist on the importance of thinking a politics that does not begin from the art of the possible” (27).

Gibson echoes Fanon when he asserts that “those hemmed in by lines of force” – those in the “shanty towns and shack settlements, in the ghettos and ‘native quarters’” – play a pivotal role “in leading the urban revolutionary movement” (26). This resistance “begins from the perspective of a common struggle founded on a consciousness of post-apartheid’s broken promises” (20). Through action, they have “articulated a living politics that challenges the ascriptive idea of South African citizenship” (21). And these revolts are not to be understood as “service delivery strikes”: “social revolts were products of the broken promises of liberation, but they were misunderstood in terms of neoliberal discourse as service-delivery revolts” (xiv). “Organised shack dwellers don’t simply want things, they want to be recognised as human equals. They are fighting for freedom and justice and the right to the city, a struggle that fundamentally challenges the production of space” (18). As Friedman puts it: “Public service starts from the recognition that, in a democracy, the government’s job is not to ‘deliver’ to citizens. It is, rather, to listen to them, to do what the majority asks, if that is possible, and, where it is not, to work with citizens to ensure that what is done is as close to what they want as it can be” (38). According to Gibson, local uprisings “expressed a break with the state/party discourse of ‘development’ and an unwillingness to be co-opted or spoken for” (133).

One such example of this sort of action is embodied by Abahlali baseMjondolo, a shack-dwellers movement which, according to Gibson, has “in a small way, attempted to reappropriate colonial space”, connecting this to the “need to transform politics.” Abahlali stands out for its “democratic practices with its insistence on discussion and reporting back to fully inclusive meetings” (xv). Thus, he argues, “the shack dwellers’ movement concretises the importance of Lefebvre’s idea that there is a politics of space because space is political” (27). The insistence “that the policy makers ‘speak to us not about us’ was not a request for service delivery but for the democratisation of development” (xv). “Rather than a pre-approved plan, there is reflection, decision and action at each step” (16). Rather than a philosophy of ‘leader knows best’, S’bu Zikode is instead described as enacting “a Fanonian principle: the leader does not lead the people, but rather helps in the work of self-clarification; the philosophic idea of ‘knowing thyself’ is and must be a social and collective process” (155). And just as Fanon indicated that negotiations with an oppressive force was futile, so Abahlali is not concerned “with political negotiations but with principles that flowed from an open and egalitarian moral discourse and democratic practice” (157). Humanisation is the goal of the organisation: Zikode argues that through Abahlali “people are starting to remember that they are human beings” (157).

Gibson also considers the role of the academic intellectual. Fanon writes “everything can be explained to the people on the single condition that you really want them to understand” (40). Gibson points to the fundamental problem: “the reformer’s disconnection from the people, believing that things are better ‘without letting the people interfere’” (40). What is required is “a break with the idea that they are privileged theorists, and a recognition that while their work is not to cheer from the sidelines, being serious and critical listeners and interlocutors is the key starting point” (41). Gibson thus demands nothing less than “shifting the geography of reason”, which is to be understood as “not simply a critical move away from the positivism of the powerful, but a critical move towards the often hidden praxis and thinking of the damned of the earth” (220).