Fanonian practices in South Africa: from Steve Biko to Abahlali baseMjondolo, by
Nigel Gibson, Durban, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2011, 312 pp., R248
(paperback), ISBN 9781869141974
In Fanonian Practices, Gibson recreates Fanon’s philosophy of liberation in line with new realities. He traces Fanonian practices in South Africa from Steve Biko in the 1970s up to the emergence of Abahlali baseMjondolo in post-apartheid South Africa. According to Gibson, Biko’s critique of the white liberal idea of integration was derived in part from Fanon’s notion of Black Consciousness. Fanon’s Black Consciousness is a critique directed at blacks who internalise white supremacist values and beliefs. Black Skin White Masks basically maps out Fanon’s Black Consciousness in detail. According to Gibson, Fanon later developed this critique to explore how in the post-colonial context the black elite betray the emancipatory goals of the anti-colonial movement partly because of a ‘desire for a place in the machinery of colonial/capitalist expropriation’ (61).
Similarly, Biko’s philosophy of Black Consciousness interrogates the impact of
racial oppression on black people’s psyche. In an essay entitled ‘Black Souls in White Skins?’, Biko (2004) argues that blacks in South Africa suffer from an inferiority complex due to being subjected to white supremacist oppression for 300 years. After studying South Africa’s racist history, Biko concludes that ‘the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed’.
Biko further points out that white liberals in apartheid South Africa were not
immune to the white supremacist ideology that the apartheid societal institutions
encouraged the white population to adopt. What Biko was arguing was that the fact that white liberals were opposed to the apartheid government did not necessarily mean that they had fully divested themselves of white supremacist ways of relating to black people. According to Gibson, both Fanon and Biko’s writings show that they regarded white liberals as suffering from narcissism which compelled them to recognise the slave as human only in as far as the slave is an extension of the white liberal’s humanity. Gibson argues that it was partly for this reason that Biko saw white liberalism as a great threat to post-apartheid liberation. He explains that Biko held this view because he reasoned that white liberalism would naturally expect postapartheid liberation to be ‘mapped out on its contours with blacks having to prove themselves in terms of its values’ (48).
Gibson’s comparative analysis of Fanon and Biko’s philosophies is useful for
understanding Gibson’s claim that Steve Biko was perhaps the most significant
Fanonian practitioner. The weakness of Gibson’s project, however, is that it does not explore the limitations of the psychological discourse that both Fanon and Biko utilise to discuss the main weaknesses of this psychological discourse is that it often portrays blacks as damaged and crippled people. The black elite is said to be relatively more damaged than the masses, writes Daryl Michael Scott (1997).
It is against this backdrop that Fanon argues that post-colonial governments and
the black middle class betray the revolution because, among other things, they want to be white or to occupy the position formerly occupied by the coloniser. The problem with this narrative is that it does not encourage us to explore other reasons that may compel post-colonial governments to betray the emancipatory goals of the anti-colonial movement. History teaches us that revolutions are often betrayed due to a combination of issues such as the lack of vision regarding the new institutions we want for a post-colonial society, as well as a mixture of internal and external forces.
Internal forces refers to sections of society that might be resistant towards the new regime due to their own selfish interests, while external forces refers to the global economy and global political climate (see Majavu 2008). By foregrounding the psychological discourse in our discussion of the post-colonial society, our debate becomes narrow in scope.
However, to Gibson’s credit, his discussion of the South African transition from the white supremacist system to the post-apartheid society overcomes the limitations of the psychological discourse. For instance, Gibson argues that the reason that the post-apartheid government has failed to bring about fundamental societal and economic changes in South Africa is partly due to the anti-apartheid movement’s lack of developing an alternative humanist political vision. Instead, what the African National Congress (ANC) government has done is to embrace neoliberal economic policies. Thus, the main beneficiaries of post-apartheid economic redistribution have been South Africa’s banks and multinationals, as well as the black elite. It is in this context that Gibson argues that serious discussion of the socio-economic consequences of years of apartheid has given way to a neoliberal discourse about how to manage poor people’s needs and aspirations.
Poor people, on the other hand, have responded by forming their own social
movements to resist the ANC government’s neoliberal economic policies. According to Gibson, a post-apartheid social movement that has made a significant contribution to the creation of spaces for alternative political thinking is the shack dweller’s movement called Abahlali baseMjondolo. Additionally, as far as Gibson is concerned, Abahlali’s political struggles express Fanon’s dialectic. Fanon’s practice of the dialectics is based on two ideas, explains Gibson. Firstly, Fanon ‘grounds his philosophy of liberation in the lived revolt and creativity of the damned of the earth, and second, from this standpoint, he maps out the internal contradictions of national liberation as it unfolds’ (10).
Similarly, Abahlali subscribes to the notion of ‘living politics’ an idea that
communicates the fact that the movement’s politics are based on its daily struggles.
Through this radical praxis, Abahlali has repeatedly exposed the internal contradictions of the post-apartheid democratic government. For instance, in April 2006, Abahlali organised 5000 South African shack dwellers not to celebrate the public holiday called Freedom Day, but instead to mourn ‘Unfreedom Day’. Gibson quotes S’bu Zikode, the Chairperson of Abahlali, to explain why the movement decided to mourn ‘Unfreedom Day’.
How can ‘we celebrate freedom when we only hear tales of freedom or see people’s lives changed for the better in other parts of the country, but never in our communities?’
asked S’bu Zikode, questioning, in effect, the state of freedom in the whole country. (153)
Although Gibson explores what the concept of ‘living politics’ means as far as how Abahlali organises itself, he says very little about the kind of alternative economic vision the movement subscribes to. S’bu Zikode also does not say much about the movement’s alternative economic vision in the preface of the book. It is my view that this is one of the weaknesses of the concept of ‘living politics’. To fight against neoliberal policies is absolutely necessary; to develop an alternative economic vision is crucial.
Similarly, Fanon and Biko write insightfully about the impact of white supremacy
and colonisation on black people’s communities. However, I am of the view that the challenge facing African activists in the twenty-first century is how to augment that insight with radical economics that address the needs of poor people. Gibson’s book does not address this question. Nevertheless, Gibson’s Fanonian reading of Abahlali baseMjondolo’s politics and struggles makes this book an important contribution to the field of post-colonial social movements. Further, Gibson’s novel exploration of the South African transition adds a new dimension to our understanding of South Africa’s negotiated political settlement.
Biko, Steve. 2004. I Write What I Like. Johannesburg: Picador Africa.
Majavu, Mandisi. 2008. ‘‘Life after Colonialism.’’ In Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21st Century, edited by Chris Spannos, 112129. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
Scott, Daryl Michael. 1997. Contempt and Pity: Social Policy and the Image of the Damaged Black Psyche, 1880-1996. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
PhD Candidate in the Sociology Department
University of Auckland