Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Reflection on Nigel Gibson’s 'Fanonian Practices in South Africa'

Paddy O'Halloran

Perhaps the most shocking and discouraging aspect of the Marikana incident in South Africa in August 2012 is the fact that, before the day of the massacre, mine workers were shot at from within the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) office building near the mine—the office of their union.  Worse is the fact NUM officials at the Marikana enquiry displayed no compunctions in stating that their actions were justified in that they were protecting themselves from the workers.  What union must protect itself from the workers, its workers?  It is a paradox, an absolutely irrational train of thought.  It is another match in the “cat and mouse” game with reason that leaves Fanon so frustrated: ‘for a man [sic] whose only weapon is reason there is nothing more neurotic than contact with unreason’ ([1952] 1967, 89, 90).  When a union brings the weapons of violence against its workers, where has reason fled?

            The only conclusion that can be reached from such a situation is that such a union no longer considers its workers as reasoned, and, if not reasoned, then hardly human.  If their union sees them in this light, then what hideously skewed imagining must exist in the minds of the employers?  There must not be a face or a mind in that imagining, just a collective physicality very like what Fanon talks about in Black Skin, White Masks.  It is more than reminiscent of the stance taken during colonialism and apartheid, in which black people obviously lacked some essential element of humanity.

            And NUM is associated with a state which also committed murder at Marikana, so what can this state think of its people? However, the violence at Marikana is not the only manifestation of the implicit determination of South Africa’s poor and black populations as inhuman.  We need not dally around the fact that the liberation celebrated at the end of the apartheid state has been incomplete and unsuccessful.  Nigel Gibson reminds us that for Fanon, ‘successful action, in short, depends on a return to the idea and practice of “becoming human”’ (2011, 12).  Achieving true liberation—an ongoing liberation—is boiled down to the simple but historically arduous task of proving in thought and action that ‘everyone can think’ (Gibson 2011, vi, 12).

            The South African post-apartheid state is the project of elites.  A “paucity of debate in the South African liberation struggle” led to an incomplete transformation in South Africa and to political and economic exclusion if a majority of the population, still the black poor (Gibson 2011, 78).   In addition to political hegemony by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) (Gibson 2011, 100), the post-apartheid South African state has been marked by decentralization of government responsibilities and obligations with these roles falling to the local governments, while at the same time there is an ongoing centralization of political power through ANC nationalism and populism.  This coincides with the centralization of wealth through neoliberal global capitalist structures that increasingly marginalizes those locales and segments of the population that are already isolated politically from (though supportive of) the ANC hegemonic structure (Hart 2013).  Gibson explains that “While the constitution promotes equal rights, in reality there is a plural practice that applies differently to different citizens.  Poorer citizens…are treated not as citizens but as temporary sojourners (to use the language of apartheid)…” (Gibson 2011, 87).

Rather than addressing this politically, however, the state tends to frame the problem in terms of ‘service delivery’ (Gibson 2011, 29-30) or ‘law and its enforcement’ (Neocosmos 2006, 4).  It rewords the critique by the poor into either a palatable, emasculated idiom, or resorts to coercion to silence it altogether.  This, in spite of the fact that the “demands [of the poor, in this case shack dwellers in Durban] were far from revolutionary: they were the demands of loyal citizens making reasonable requests, borne of their citizenship, for inclusion in the ‘new South Africa’” (Gibson 2011, 148). ‘The quest “TO BE” [is] connected to becoming actional social beings’, as well as to achieving better conditions of living (Gibson 2011, 50).

If we consider that, ‘for Biko, apartheid fabrication of the tribal homeland is an imposition that is utterly in contradiction with the real needs of the mass of the people,’ then how are we to view the current conditions in South Africa, which do not meet the ‘real needs of the mass of the people’ (and in many of the same ways as during apartheid), except as an incomplete departure from the apartheid system of governance.  As Mamdani phrases it, the state was ‘deracialised but not democratised’ (1996).

In Fanonian Practices in South Africa (2011), Nigel Gibson shows how struggles have been framed in these terms of subjectivity with real-life significance.  Beginning with the Black Consciousness Movement of the apartheid era and continuing to the recent political activities of shack dwellers responding to the post-apartheid state (‘from Steve Biko to Abahlali baseMjondolo’), he shows that Fanon’s thinking has a true value in approaching these struggles intellectually as well as practically (and that, in fact, this distinction should be a vague one). 

            To pursue the topic a few years further than in Gibson’s book, we can look to the recent assertion by Ayanda Kota, the chairperson for the Unemployed Peoples’ Movement in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape:

[The Black Consciousness Movement] must isolate all forms of sectarianism. It must reject the politics of personal opportunism. It must build and it must build from the ground up. It must locate itself in the real struggles of the people. This must be the basis for achieving the unity of all BC formations. It must be a unity forged in honest and open discussion and rooted in real struggle (Kota, 20 December 2013).

Fanon can be seen at the roots of popular struggle in South Africa.  As Gibson points out, he should also be at the roots of an intellectual movement that wishes to support the people. Radical intellectuals should have their “…minds and ears open to new impulses and voices from below” (Gibson 2011, 76).  The need to re-infuse politics with reason and with ‘real struggle’, post-apartheid, post-Marikana, and for whatever future presents itself, is crucial.  Fanon’s thought can be a starting point.  Ultimately, his is just one way of thinking, and we should be open to new inventions.


Fanon, Frantz. [1952] 1967. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann. London: Pluto Press.
Gibson, Nigel C. 2011. Fanonian Practices in South Africa: From Steve Biko to Abahlali BaseMjondolo. Scottsville, South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.
Hart, Gillian. 2013. Rethinking the South African Crisis: Nationalism, Populism, Hegemony. Scottsville, South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.
Kota, Ayanda. 20 December 2013. No Title. https://www.facebook.com/ayanda.kota/posts/10152525607773846 [accessed 12 June 2014]
Mamdani, Mahmood. 1996. Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Neocosmos, Michael. 2006. From ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘Native Foreigners’, Explaining Xenophobia in Post-apartheid South Africa: Citizenship and Nationalism, Identity and Politics. Dakar, Senegal: CODESRIA.