Tuesday, 17 June 2014

A Response to Nigel Gibson’s' Fanonian Practices in South Africa: From Steve Biko to Abahlali baseMjondolo'.

Jonis Ghedi Alasow

Over the past five months I have been doing this course which focuses on engaging with the work and legacy of Frantz Fanon. Arguably the most pertinent question that was raised throughout this course is the question of Fanon’s relevance. How useful is the literature produced by a man who died 53 years ago to my life in contemporary South Africa? Nigel Gibson’s 2011 book, Fanonian Practices in South Africa: From Steve Biko to Abahlali baseMjondolo[1] has been engaging with this very question of Fanon’s continuing relevance. Gibson provides an interesting and thoughtful study of the degree to which Fanon’s fundamental messages of a universal humanism and a living politics are applicable to South Africa. Throughout an engagement with various themes, Gibson always returns to Fanon’s ideas of humanism and true democracy based on people ruling in the literal sense of the word. In this response I will highlight some of the interesting issues that Gibson engages with. Though this response will by no means be conclusive, I hope to show how Gibson’s nuanced text manages to “recreate Fanon’s philosophy of liberation in a new situation[2]” (Gibson, 2011: xi).

In engaging with Fanon, Gibson is particularly critical of the trajectory South Africa’s liberation movements have chosen to take. Fanon and Gibson both emphasise the importance of a ‘living politics’ this means that politics is based on an assumption that people, regardless of their status in society, are able to contemplate a future for their society. This means that they are able to think politically and thus should be taken seriously. People therefore do not need leaders to represent them. They are able to articulate their interests without the need for interventions by intellectuals and elites (Gibson, 2011: 77). Gibson points out that this was in fact the case in South Africa during the 1980s when the resistance to apartheid was a truly democratic people’s movement. Unfortunately, the rise of the ANC into power resulted in an adoption of representative politics where the masses of poor black people who had been participating in a living politics in the 1980s were side-lined (Gibson, 2011: 92).

This pacifying of the masses has according to Gibson’s insightful analysis gone hand-in-hand with a rise of black elites. In the Gramscian sense, these black elites have created hegemony over the idea of politics. They have managed to ensure that the “ground of reason” (Gibson, 2011: 107) was shifted. Thus they managed to create a system where it was, at least superficially conceded that politics is meant for the domain of those who are ‘qualified to lead’. A representative from of politics thus developed out of the true politics of the 1980s. This form of politics has encouraged passivity amongst what Partha Chatterjee calls “most of the world” (Gibson, 2011: xv). Gibson is therefore quite meticulous in showing that South Africa has lost fidelity to Fanon’s idea of a living politics.

In response to the above observation, Gibson however points towards places where these very limited ideas of politics are challenged. Most significantly he shows how grassroots movements such as Abahlali baseMjondolo are in fact challenging the idea of being spoken for whilst not being allowed to speak for themselves. Gibson shows how they take on board Fanon’s ideas of a future based on humanism as a premise, whilst also adopting his method of a living politics to take us to this humanist future. One of the interesting things that Gibson shows about movements such as Abahlali is how they are reclaiming the right to the cities that they have been denied by both the apartheid and post-apartheid government. Fanon argued that colonialism is totalitarian (Gibson, 2011: 187). Thus people are oppressed in all aspects of their lives. This oppression includes a spacial oppression as understood in the work of Henri Levebre (Gibson, 2011: 24). Fanon even recognised this spacial oppression in Les Damnés de la Terre when he contrasted the “compartments” of the colonial world (Fanon, 1961: 29-30). The city was therefore a locus of oppression during apartheid and unfortunately the transition in South Africa from apartheid to ‘democracy’ was according to Gibson more of a handover of a system. There was no fundamental change to the system of oppression and exclusion, it is merely occupied by different people. Movements such as Abahlali are challenging this framework. They wish to see a true transition from an oppressive system to a true humanism and they are emphasising the role of the people in getting South Africa to this point.

The last thing I want to briefly mention is Gibson’s engagement, from a Fanonian perspective, with intellectuals. He quotes Alain Badiou who considers the role of the intellectual to be one where they decide “not to represent victims…but to be faithful to the events during which victims politically assert themselves” (Badiou in Gibson, 2011: 39). This is an echo of Fanon’s ideas. Fanon in fact considers political action as the only “way of knowing” (Gibson, 2011: 41). Philosophy is therefore tied into praxis and the role of the intellectual is to do both. Doing either in abstraction or without the other is according to Fanon, and Gibson, a dangerous thing. In fact, Gibson points out how the South African political landscape is the result of a divorce of theory from praxis (Gibson, 2011: 93). The transition from apartheid took the form of people thinking about a South African future without being immersed in the lived experiences of ‘the people’. Intellectuals must therefore show fidelity to the lived experiences of the people whilst remaining intellectual about their own actions. Fanon’s praxis towards humanism needs to move away from the Manichean certainty of struggle (Gibson, 2011: 108). It is not a case of one group/movement being automatically good and the other being bad. Rather the intellectual needs to continuously question both the oppressor and the liberation movement. Failure to do this can easily result in the movement’s collapse into authoritarian, elitist, representative politics that loses what Badiou calls fidelity to the plight of the people. The ideal intellectual for both Fanon and Gibson is therefore one who operates from the premise that everyone can think and is able to recognise and grapple with the contradictions inherent in this movement as well as the contradictions of being an intellectual.

I the above I hope to have shown in a limited sense the importance of Nigel Gibson’s book in contemporary South Africa. Fanon’s ideas are living and relevant and not only can his analysis of Algeria 50 years ago be applied in part to South Africa, but it can also be used towards an emancipated future. Nigel Gibson shows how Fanon’s ideas of a living politics towards a universal humanism remain goals for many people in South Africa. After reading his book it becomes evident that every person will need to make the decision of what kind of politics and future do we wish to endorse. Gibson’s response is clear: we must show fidelity to the people and to the idea of true emancipation.

Works Cited:

·        Gibson, N. 2011, Fanonian Practices in South Africa: From Steve Biko to Abahlali baseMjondolo, University of Kwazulu-Natal Press: Pietermaritzburg.
·        Fanon, F. 1961, The Wretched of the Earth, Penguin Books: London.

[1] Referred to as Fanonian Practices for the purposes of this response.
[2] The ‘situation’ mentioned here is the contemporary South African context.