“Well, if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the Judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected –those, precisely who need the law’s protection most! – and listens to their testimony. Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any black man, any poor person – ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice and then you will know not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it.” Baldwin (1972, p. 130)
By way of introduction
Ronald Suresh Roberts’ book, Fit to govern: the native intelligence of Thabo Mbeki, is somehow influenced by Frantz Fanon’s work. I’m using the word ‘somehow’ because the author, without explicitly saying so of course, gives us, the readers, the impression that his book is a Fanonian one, in the sense that he likens Mbeki’s philosophy, amongst other thinkers, to Fanon’s. In other words, Mbeki, in Fit to govern is depicted as a Fanonian thinker. For one to truly know whether the book is indeed a Fanonian one or not, I think that one first needs to know what is meant by a Fanonian project. This, obviously, means that one needs to be familiar with Fanon’s work. Hence this essay will explore Fanon’s work in order to find out what he stood for, and what he, as a thinker and as an activist, fought for. Hence the first part of this review essay will provide the reader with a summation of the key arguments in Fanon’s work. These key arguments will be drawn from what I think is Fanon’s most important text, namely The wretched of the earth. Fanon’s corpus of work, of course, deals with a whole range of important issues and as a result not all of these will be included in this essay. Such a task is simply beyond the scope of this project. Rather, what I will try to do is to highlight the arguments that I think are relevant to our understanding of a Fanonian project.
I think one of the most useful ways of understanding Fanon’s ideas is by first knowing the short, yet remarkable life that he lived. Judging by the major influence he has had (and still continues to have) in the world, one can easily assume that Fanon’s seriousness, commitment and careful analysis of the world were a result of the long life he had, since most people tend to be more insightful and wiser as they get older. Fanon, though, was an exception! He, for example, passed away at a tender age of 36 years – three months before the independence of Algeria. Although he died at such a young age, he made a huge contribution to the world, especially to the struggle for the liberation of oppressed people. His inspiring contributions are still widely felt around the world to this day. Not only is he touching people through his insightful work, but his life also continues to inspire some of us. This is due to the fact that he was a self-less and passionate activist. He sincerely believed that life was about serving the needs of the marginalized and oppressed people of the world (Cherki 2006). While laying in his deathbed he wrote, in a letter to one of his friends, that “We are nothing on earth if we are not in the first place the slaves of a cause, the cause of the peoples, the cause of justice and liberty” (cited in Cherki 2006, p. 165).
Fanon served and slaved for this cause in a number of significant ways. Firstly, while working as a psychiatrist in Algeria’s Blida-Joinville Psychiatric Hospital he treated people who were considered to be mentally ill. Alice Cherki (2006), his biographer, writes that Fanon revolutionarised the relationship between the medical staff and the patients they were trying to help while he was working as a psychiatrist. Secondly, he was a committed activist, and a staunch defender of freedom. When he, as a young man, went to fight in the 2nd World War, a move he later regretted, he wrote that “[w]henever human dignity and freedom are at stake, it involves us, whether we be black, white or yellow. And whenever these are threatened in any corner of the earth, I will fight them to the end…” (cited in Cherki 2006, p. 10). Though he might have been a bit naïve, in the sense that he was fighting on the side of the French army, when he wrote these lines, the truth of the matter is that he fought for human dignity and freedom until the very last day of his life.
When he learned that he was not going to live for a very long time, he authored a book that was, according to Cherki (2006), dedicated to the oppressed people of the world, particularly those who live in the so called ‘Third World’ countries, who were fighting for their dignity and freedom. This book, entitled The wretched of the earth, is considered by some as his most important work. Fanon did not just write books, but was also directly involved in the struggle for liberation. He, for instance, fought alongside the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) in their struggle against French imperialism in Algeria. He is said to have preferred to die in the battleground, fighting for freedom than on his death bed (Cherki 2006). It is very hard not to feel inspired when one is learning about Fanon’s life. As moving as his life is, though, I think it is important to also point out that Fanon’s character, his life, beliefs, hopes, and ideologies were not inborn, rather they were shaped by his experiences. In other words, without the kind of family he belonged to, and without the education he received (including being taught by one of the foremost black thinkers and radical activists of the time; Aime Cesaire) Fanon would most likely not be the Fanon we have come to know, admire and respect so dearly. I am not saying that he was not an independent thinker (of course, he was!); rather what I am trying to put across is that his experience played a huge role in the kind of person he became.
This review essay, however, is not about Fanon’s life; I simply decided to include the above section because I think his life helps us to understand his ideas better. People’s beliefs, and the way they approach life is largely shaped by their experience in the world, hence I provided Fanon’s brief biography to try to show how his experience in the world made him the Frantz Fanon we know today. As Fanon put it, “one should not relate to ones’ past, but stand as a testimony to it” (quoted in Cherki 2006, p. 1).
One of the key themes that come up often in Fanon’s work is that of decolonization. Though this theme comes up in all of his work, one can safely argue that it features most and consequently thoroughly dealt with in the last book he authored, The wretched of the earth. This book, according to Cherki (2006), has been a great source of inspiration to many anti-colonialist movements throughout the world ever since it was first published in 1961. In some cases, like the revolutionary Black Panthers Party for instance, it has even been regarded as some kind of a revolutionary bible (Burke III 1976). Anti-apartheid movements, like the radical Black Consciousness Movement activists, are also widely known to have drawn some of their strength from this very book (Gerhart 2008).
So what it meant by decolonization? What did Fanon have in mind when he was talking about decolonization? Well, we know that the literal meaning of decolonization is a complete break away from colonization. Gibson writes that “for Fanon, decolonization is at once liberation of space, a dismantling of the restrictions of colonialism and apartheid, and a solidarity born of radical commitment” (Gibson 2012, p. 55). In The wretched of the earth, a book that is more than anything else “an analysis of decolonization” (Cherki 2006, p. 171), Fanon explains decolonization as a process that seeks to liberate people from the colonial chains that keep them oppressed. It is, writes Fanon, an “historical process” that does not happen overnight (2001, p. 27). He writes that decolonization, as a process, is usually based on two forces that are naturally opposed to one another. One is trying to liberate itself from oppression and dehumanization, while the other one is fighting to maintain the power it has over the subjugated people. Unlike the oppressor, the subjugated live in despicable environments. “They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die there, it matters not where, nor how. It is a world without spaciousness; men live there on top of each other, and their huts are built on top of the other. The native town is a hungry town, starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light. The native town is a crouching village, a town on its knees, a town wallowing in the mire” (Fanon 2001, p. 30). Like all oppressed people, these natives are not happy with their situation. Hence they often think of displacing their oppressor in order to improve their livelihood.
The rulers, since they are aware that the marginalized people want to improve their lives, use all the tools they have at their disposal in order to continue to subjugate the oppressed. Key among these tools is the use of violence. Police and military forces are established so as to protect the interests of the rulers –they often do this through violent means. In fact, according to Fanon, the whole colonialist project is maintained by violence (2001). Through all of this, the oppressed “overpowered but not tamed; he is treated as an inferior but he is not convinced of his inferiority. He is patiently waiting until the settler is off his guard to fly at him” (Fanon 2001, p. 41). Fanon believed that since colonialism is essentially based on and maintained by violence, the oppressed can only free themselves from their tormentors by also using violence (2001). In order to be a success, the violence of the oppressed has to be greater than that of their masters, he argues. More than violence, one can argue, oppressed people need to have the desire for freedom in order to overthrow their oppressors. Without the desire to be free, there can be no liberty, and no fight for freedom. The courage to wage a fight against an oppressive system comes from the desire to be treated with dignity like any other human being, it comes from the desire to be free.
In The wretched of the Earth Fanon points out that the oppressors have no qualms with recruiting a few members of the oppressed group into their ranks. This recruitment does not take place because the oppressor is genuinely concerned about the wellbeing of the subjugated, but is often meant to discourage the rebellion of the oppressed by making it seem as if things are changing for the better. Through this recruitment a certain relatively empowered class within the oppressed group develops. Fanon calls this class the national bourgeoisie. Some, within this class often try to break away from their colonial masters by forming nationalistic parties that seek to challenge the old order. The national bourgeoisie, while agitating for change, initially focus on trying to get the urban people on their side, while neglecting the country people, writes Fanon (2001). The change that some members of the national bourgeoisie talk about, however, does not necessarily mean the complete change of the way in which the socio-political sphere is structured; rather it means the transfer of the oppressive system into new hands. Put simply, their talk about change is not about decolonizing the society. It is, as Fanon eloquently put it, about “the transfer into native hands of those unfair advantages which are a legacy of the colonial period” (2001, p. 122). Furthermore, the “new caste is an affront all the more disgusting in that the immense majority, nine-tenths of the population, continues to die of starvation” (Fanon 2001, p. 134). The national bourgeoisie’s complicity with the colonial masters can easily be seen when they take over from them. For instance, once in power the national bourgeoisie, as a class, have no difficulties with passing “disparaging judgments upon the other Negroes and the Arabs that more often than not are reminiscent of the racist doctrines of the former representatives of the colonial power” (Fanon 2001, p. 134). And when the masses challenge the native rulers they are often told that if it was not for the national bourgeoisie they would still be in bondages, under the whip of the colonialists. Hence the masses are expected to be grateful and not challenge the native rulers. Fanon adds that every now and again, “the leader [of the national bourgeoisie] makes an effort; he speaks on the radio or makes a tour of the country to pacify the people, to calm them and bemuse them” (2001, p. 136). When talking on the radio or touring the country is not enough, political commissars, one can safely argue, are hired to propagate and defend the ideology of the State. Robert Suresh Roberts, through his Fit to govern, is one such political commissar.
Fit to govern: the native intelligence of Thabo Mbeki
Prior to its publication, as well as after it was published some people regarded Fit to govern as if it was about the ‘life and times’, that is a biography, of Thabo Mbeki. In truth though, Roberts’ book is not a biography of Thabo Mbeki, the former State President of South Africa. Rather, as the title suggests, it is about his ideas and his worldview. It is a book that is supposedly written with the intention of helping us understand the way that Mbeki reasons. It, according to Roberts, sets out to rectify some of the distortions and ‘myths’ that the mainstream media has placed around the African National Congress, particularly its former president, Thabo Mbeki. Instead of writing a biography, Roberts contends that he is rather “interested in ways of seeing…” (2007, p. 22). In other words, the book focuses on how Thabo Mbeki was represented while he was the State President. Fit to govern, writes Roberts, was written to displace “certain fictions [and that the book is] an engagement with many of the myth and invidious discourses that have piled themselves high around Mbeki” (2007, p. 22). Put simply, this book was, more than anything else, written to defend Mbeki’s presidency. And, indeed, Roberts did not disappoint his handlers. He is able to quote the right quotes from the right sources. Roberts’ analysis borrows heavily from post-colonial discourse. This allows him to pass off his project as a radical critique of post-apartheid South Africa. This also allows him to depict Mbeki’s Administration as being somewhat inspired by Fanon’s philosophy. This, however, is misleading, since Roberts’s project is about defending the interests of the elite. And, there is nothing radical nor Fanonian about Mbeki’s government and or about Roberts’ project.
The theme of Roberts’s book is that the mainstream media’s coverage of the post-apartheid black government is deeply misleading and, in fact, has not yet cleansed itself from the colonial mentality. Roberts is of the view that though South Africa is a democratic country, it is, nonetheless, still a colonized country when it comes to its intellectual culture. For instance, writes Roberts, the report cards that are used by some news publications, like the weekly Mail & Guardian, were historically used by colonialists to prove that the ‘native’ blacks were not as intelligent as white people. The colonialists made use of these report cards to ‘prove’ that blacks were unable to think sensibly. Roberts finds the re-introduction of these cards seriously problematic, especially since they are being used today to determine the efficiency of the predominantly black government (2007).
When the ANC was about to take over from the right wing National Party, the same media, writes Roberts, started asking questions as to whether the ANC was “fit” or not to run the country. Roberts is of the view that this was not a genuine question. Rather, he contends, that what was being asked is whether the natives had the intellectual capacity to take the lead. Their intelligence was, once again, being questioned! Not only did the media doubt the intelligence of certain leaders, but the entire ANC, which is predominantly black, was being doubted. The notion of questioning black people’s intelligence is not new, but goes back to our terrible history. The whole nonsense is based on the foolish idea that black people are inferior to white people. Roberts states that “through the World War Two, the natives were deemed, on the one hand, fit to fight but, on the other hand, still not yet fit to vote, let alone govern. The attitude is ancient. It continues to be expressed today” (2007, p. 38).
Roberts’ analysis of race in the media is, to say the least, interesting. For instance, he seems to be only interested in the racism that the media has shown towards the country’s prominent leaders, and not necessarily the ‘ordinary’ or the less affluent black people. Nor does he discuss how the government and the same media that he is criticizing have at times both expressed contempt for black Africans who are not in possession of the South African citizenship. It is seriously problematic for one to criticize a certain institution for having a colonial mind, while not criticizing others for the same thing. In other words, what I am saying is that I agree with Roberts that the mainstream press in South Africa has not let go of its colonial mindset, but I, unlike Roberts, think the government has also not cleansed itself off the colonial mindset. Furthermore, I am not equating xenophobia to racism, the two, nonetheless, are strikingly linked and to an extent similar to each other. For instance, both anti black racism and xenophobia, at least here in South Africa, operate systematically (Neocosmos 2010). They are, as Neocosmos correctly argues, both based on the appearances and physical traits of black people (2010). Anti black Racism and xenophobia are political tools that are systematically and brutally used to exploit, marginalize, dehumanize and oppress black people.
While the press has also been guilty of perpetuating xenophobia in South Africa, the ANC government has also been at the forefront of xenophobia as well. It is the State that decides who is ‘illegal’ and who is not (Neocosmos 2010). The movement (ANC) that, along with others, fought courageously against the rule that forced black people to carry their documentation at all times during the apartheid era, is now doing the same thing to black people who are not seen as South Africans. The ANC government has over and over again denied certain rights to people who are not seen as true South Africans (see Neocosmos 2010). Any book that claims to be concerned with the representation of blackness and or questions around ‘natives’ in the post-apartheid South Africa needs, at least, to discuss how the State also perceives people through the colonial gaze. It also needs to examine how the so called foreigners are treated by both the press as well as by the ‘native’ State. Roberts’ book though fails to do this. I suppose he did not want to bite the government hand that feeds him.
Roberts’s book also touches on the history of liberal or what he calls ‘illiberal’ politics in South Africa. He, like the Black Consciousness activists before him, writes that not every white person who opposed apartheid necessarily supported black people’s right to self determination. He further notes that some of the people who have often been hailed as liberals in the press and in some history books were actually self serving white people who were only interested in protecting their own interests. Helen Suzman, for instance, who is always represented as a staunch supporter of human rights and democracy did not, at least at one stage in her life, believe that black people were as intelligent as white people. As a result, she was not always in favour of black people’s right to vote; she apparently changed her ideas very late in her political career, writes Roberts (2007). Suzman along with other white ‘illiberals’ were of the view that black people were not human enough to vote, control, and govern themselves (Roberts 2007). They saw the natives as ‘primitive’ subjects who were unable control their urges and govern themselves let alone the whole country, hence they needed to be under the guidance of their superiors, white people, notes Roberts (2007). Returning from an international conference on human rights, in 1947, Suzman, according to Roberts, said that the “Native's extreme primitiveness, both in his mentality and his living conditions, and the difficulty at his juncture of allowing him to vote and the responsibility that went with it, without previously subjecting him into some kind of literacy test to determine his capability of voting” (2007, p. 30). Roberts further debunks the notion around her activism for justice by stating that, “[t]hroughout her career, Suzman was always more a self-styled ruling class trustee of native welfare than a champion of native democracy or self-determination: her work of ‘conscience’ was in seeming to care for and look after the native, [and] not securing the simple right of every adult black to exercise their right to vote…” (Roberts 2007, p. 32). He further states than she “was a grand-master at shrouding liberalism's racism in nuances” (Roberts 2007, p. 30).
The popular belief that Thabo Mbeki was always silent about the Zimbabwean crisis turns out to be another ‘myth’, propagated by what Roberts calls the ‘colonial media’. Roberts writes that “Thabo Mbeki has in fact spoken out – repeatedly” against the Zimbabwean crisis (2007, p. 157). He adds that “Mbeki has not only spoken out, but has been blamed for doing so” (Roberts 2007, p. 158). A whole list of evidence to prove his argument is provided. Ironically, some of his evidence comes from the very same ‘colonial media’ that, according to Roberts, accused Mbeki for failing to speak out on Zimbabwe. One of the interesting topics that Fit to govern deals with is the biasness of the mainstream media in its coverage of the Zimbabwean crisis. The situation in Zimbabwe got far more media coverage in the press than other places that had more or less the same issues (human rights violations – to be more precise) as Zimbabwe, argues Roberts (2007). He notes that the mainstream press covered the Zimbabwean crisis as if it was the only burning issue in the continent and in the international sphere. The other issues, like the crisis in the Democratic Republic Congo (DRC) for instance, did not garner as much attention from the ‘colonial media’, despite the fact that people in the DRC were dying at a more faster rate than the people in Zimbabwe –not to mention that almost the entire ‘international community’ was, one way or the other, involved in the DRC crisis (see Herman & Peterson 2010). The Zimbabwean crisis dominated the press because of the land reform program that was driven by the government of that country. And, more importantly, because the way it was carried out led to the death and suffering of white people at the hands of black people, writes Roberts (2007). I agree with Roberts on this point. By that I mean that if the mainstream media is seriously concerned about human rights violations in Zimbabwe, it must also be honestly, sincerely and equally be concerned with human rights violations in other places as well. Roberts argues that the “point is not merely that the West ought to be consistent in its spotlight of human rights abuses, or that the world ought to be silent unless it can be perfectly consisted”, Roberts continues, “but rather that international infrastructures such as the United Nations need to be democratised so that all pain counts the same” (2007, p. 167-168).
According to the colonial media, to use Roberts’ phrase, and some HIV/AIDS activists, Mbeki is well known for his ruthlessness and “arrogant stupidity of his denialist position on HIV and Aids” (Mail & Guardian editorial cited in Roberts 2007, p. 188). Fit to govern, though, rejects this as a pure myth. Far from denying that HIV causes AIDS, Mbeki, according to Roberts, simply “raised a range of questions about the drug safety” and its “co-factors (nutrition, poverty) in the manifestation of the disease” (2007, p. 182). The questions, according to Roberts, were based on the assumption that AIDS was caused by HIV. Roberts writes that Mbeki assembled an “AIDS Advisory Panel meeting… where orthodox scientists outnumbered dissidents two to one” (2007, p. 188). The Panel was established in order to get “some answers, so that”, Mbeki stated, “as public representatives we are able to elaborate and help implement policies that are properly focused, and that actually have an effect” (cited in Roberts 2007, p. 192). Roberts also outlines how this ‘myth’ (Mbeki as an AIDS denialist) took shape and who propagated it. Interestingly, all the people who have labeled Mbeki as an AIDS dissident have, in Roberts’ view, not been able to come up with any prove, that is any statement from Mbeki that positions him as such.
The HIV/AIDS issue though is a very sensitive and serious topic. When we are talking about HIV/AIDS we are talking about people’s lives. It is a matter of life and death. Peoples’ health matters and it should not be treated as if it is some kind of an academic question. People have and continue to suffer and die as a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. So whether Mbeki was an AIDS denialist or not is, to some people, not very important. Genuine people want to know what was done, apart from debating and philosophizing about HIV/AIDS, to help alleviate the suffering of the people. People who are sincerely concerned about other peoples’ wellbeing could not be bothered if the President of the country is an AIDS denialist or not, rather they would like to know whether the President, who was elected by the people, is listening and fulfilling the people’s demands. Mbeki, since he dismally failed to fulfill the wishes of the people, has been likened to a mass murderer for the many HIV/AIDS related deaths of innocent people. For instance, Zackie Achmat, the prominent Treatment Action Campaign activist, writes that “his culpability in the death of hundreds of thousands of people in South Africa with HIV/Aids cannot be underestimated and its impact will be felt for generations. Death certification by Stats SA shows more than 1,5-million deaths in the ages 0-49 and more than two million new infections during his rule. The long-overdue roll-out of a comprehensive antiretroviral programme, compounded by state-sponsored pseudo-science, has left 524 000 people desperately in need of the life-saving treatment unable to access it” (2008).
Roberts concludes his book by looking at what could be called self serving blacks in powerful institutions, mainly black media commentators. Roberts argues that some black editors, in the mainstream press, are “hired to express contempt for blackness” whilst protecting “the vested interests of the whiteness rather than to offer serious analysis” (2007, p. 252). Roberts’ critique of black commentators is not very different from Malcolm X’s critique of the house slave. Malcolm X, the radical Afro-American civil rights activist, distinguished between the house slave and a field slave (2001). He noted that while the field slave despised the rule of the master, the house slave was so happy with the master to the point that s/he even saw her/ himself as the master (Malcolm X 2001). In other words, the house slave internalized the world view of their masters up to the point that they ended up wholeheartedly defending the interests of the masters at all costs. The black commentators criticized in the book are depicted as the house slaves who are willing to do anything to defend their white corporate master’s interests. The people criticized in the book, of course, are those who have, one way or the other, challenged Mbeki. The problem with Roberts’ analysis of these black commentators, however, is that he is not very different from them. He is, for instance, also serving a very powerful institution; the State. Roberts, like the blacks he is criticizing in the media, is also not questioning some of the injustices that Mbeki’s government is responsible for. Serious issues like the water and electricity cut-offs, and the housing crisis in the beloved country are not mentioned in the book. Nor are the protests that occurred throughout the country prior to the book’s publications discussed in the book. The uprising in Khutsong that took place between 2006 and 2008 is also not mentioned in the book. So Roberts is, again like the media commentators he is criticizing, not interested in changing the oppressive power structure. His support and defense of Mbeki’s government makes him, together with the ruling party, national bourgeoisies who are not seriously committed to the decolonization of our society. The only difference between him and the people he is criticizing is that they serve different masters. His detractors are serving the private sector, while he is the government’s man. In other words, Roberts together with the media commentators, are all ‘house slaves’ who are willing to go to extremes just to defend the interests of their neocolonial masters.
Contextualizing the debate: the ANC as the national bourgeoisie?
To do a Fanonian reading of the post-apartheid South Africa, Roberts would need to interrogate both the private sector as well as the ANC government. The obvious point of departure would be to point out that one of the significant changes that came with the post 1994 phenomenon was that the wealthy class of South Africa was joined by a small nouveau riche blacks. As significant as this is, it is still a far cry from the sharing of the country’s wealth amongst the people that the Freedom Charter promised. In fact, numerous promises that are in the Freedom Charter have been largely sidelined. For instance, the land has not yet been restored to “those who work it” (see the Freedom Charter 1955). The sad reality is that black South Africans still own less than 10% of the country’s arable land (Ashton 2012). And ‘those who work’ the land, under inhuman conditions, continue to receive meager wages (see Human Rights Watch 2011; Majavu 2012). The mines and the banks are still privatized despite the promise of the Freedom Charter that they were going to be “transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole” (see the Freedom Charter 1955). The people who work in the mines, just like farm workers, receive far less wages than they actually deserve.
Poor black people continue to be discouraged and forcefully, that is violently, removed, as they were during the apartheid era, from the city (Gibson 2011). Their “right to occupy land wherever they choose”, as the cherished Freedom Charter put is, has been continuously violated by the ANC government. The oppressed and marginalized blacks in South Africa, like most people of color in other parts of the world, are not free. Freedom, to us, is, at least the freedom that the government is forever celebrating, just a tale! It is something that we are still fighting for. Freedom, in South Africa, only exists in government’s, and their cohorts, documents. The systematically impoverished people see and hear about it in our television sets and radios, but not in our communities. The government’s rhetoric about progress and democracy in South Africa, is, ironically, not very different from the ‘sugar candy mountain’ that Moses, the raven, raves about in George Orwell’s master piece, Animal Farm. In Animal Farm, as in the post 1994 South Africa, sugar candy is, as the name suggests, an imaginary promised land where all the animals (in South Africa, it is the oppressed people) are blissfully enjoying their freedom. As in Animal Farm freedom, for the majority of South Africans, is imagined and not lived. And, ironically, the wealthy whites and BEE blacks are more equal than the rest of us.
Indeed the post apartheid situation is a far cry from what the Freedom Charter promised. In fact, South Africa under the ANC is also not very different from what Bantu Biko predicted and warned against in 1972. Five years before he was cruelly murdered by the apartheid State, Biko, for instance told Gail Gerhart, an American academic, that South Africa “is one country where it would be possible to create a capitalist black society … [and] succeed to put across to the world a pretty convincing, integrated picture, with still 70 percent of the population being underdogs” (Gerhart 2008; 41- 42). In other words, Biko, like Fanon before him, was warning that without fundamentally changing, that is decolonizing the society, the oppressive power structure will continue to benefit less than a handful of people while impoverishing the majority. The ‘70 percent’ that Biko had in mind, of course, is the overwhelmingly black majority of South Africa. Though the interview took place in 1972 at the height of apartheid, during a period in which blacks were subjected to all kinds of human rights violations, ranging from the creation of Bantustans to the introduction of the migrant labour system and etc, the ‘pretty convincing picture’ has become a heartrending reality in the post-apartheid era. As Biko predicted, the ‘pretty picture’ is only for the few, while the majority of the people, which is mainly the impoverished and damned blacks of course, are living as underdogs in despicable environments. This is one of the reasons that the marginalized people in the country, or as Biko called us the ‘underdogs’, see very few, if any, reasons to celebrate what the government calls the Freedom Day on the 27th of April. It is not that we refuse to celebrate the country’s ‘progress’ since the terrible days of apartheid, rather it is that there is no freedom for us. Freedom, to paraphrase Michael Parenti (2011), is only for the few. Consequently on the 27th of April, radical grassroots movements like Abahlali baseMjondolo, come together to ‘mourn the unfreedom day’. While the ‘country’ is celebrating, the majority of blacks remain marginalize, destitute, homeless, landless and continue to be dehumanized under the supposedly democratic government of the ANC.
It is worth mentioning the fact that the ANC’s failure to introduce liberatory policies that would benefit the majority of the population has further strengthened white privilege. Hence white people, young and old, continue to enjoy privileges that come with being white in a white supremacist society. This is partly why people like Andile Mngxitama convincingly argue that the endless oppression of black people is an indication of the fact that when the ANC took over the government in 1994, rather than dislodge the cruel white power structure, it “provided legitimacy to white supremacy in our country” (Mngxitama, 2009: 20). Instead of implementing liberatory economic policies to help improve the lives of the many destitute blacks, the ANC government reintroduced draconian policies that ensured that the poor stay poor while the rich continue to get more wealth. The needs of the oppressed poor were put aside for the benefit of the rich (Terreblanche 2002).
By way of concluding
Though Roberts’ book is an important text that deserves attention, it is, despite all the rhetoric, not talking about revolution. It is not a liberatory text that is talking about decolonization in the Fanonian sense; hence it cannot be regarded as a genuine or a serious Fanonian text. Despite the fact that the book makes a number of references to Fanon, it applies his philosophy very selectively. Fanon in this text is only for the powerful State. His philosophies are used to justify the actions of the State. Fanon in Roberts’ text is used to defend a State that continues to dehumanize and exploit people. Fanon is being used to justify an oppressive government’s actions. The radical, true and beloved Fanon, though, same goes for Biko, is to be found where people are fighting and demanding their rights (Gibson 2011). Fanon exists where people are courageously defending their dignity as human beings (Gibson 2011). The post-apartheid government, and its political commissars, can quote and paraphrase Fanon all they like, but I dare say that their use of Fanon’s work is far from being legitimate. Fanon, the humanist, was for true democracy, and equality. Fanon believed that “a society that drives its members to desperate solutions is a non-viable society, a society to be replaced” (cited in Gibson, 1999, p., 96). The current situation in South Africa, for the majority of the people, is ‘non-viable’. It needs to be changed. The people at the bottom of the social structure know this very well; the people who are suffering from the current unjust system know this, that is why we are forever demanding change. We are fighting for change because we want freedom and justice!
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