Frantz Fanon’s ideas will bring us only ill

Tim Crowe on the dangerous embrace by the EFF and RMF of the ideas of the Martinique philosopher

Frantz Fanon has a place in the history of Black Consciousness not in post-Apartheid South African politics

31 May 2016

The local implementation of ideas of Frantz Fanon and his local avowed acolytes, members of the Economic Freedom Fighters political party, their leader Julius Malema and expelled member Andile Mngxitama, are potentially terrifying for a range of reasons.

First to Fanon’s development.

Frantz Fanon was born in Martinique, a former colony of (and now literally part of) France. His ancestors include African slaves, indigenous Caribbeans and French Europeans. His family was wealthy enough to send him to the finest local schools. Following the policy of aggressive colonial assimilation, his education and educators were totally culturally French and he strove to become ‘French’.

Indeed, as recently as 2005, the French National Assembly continued to support the “positive role of the French presence overseas, notably in North Africa”. The one major exception in Fanon’s development was his mentor poet Aimé Césaire: founder of the Negritude Movement (a non-violent, intellectualized form of Black Consciousness), biographer of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture, Shakespearean interpreter and avowed Marxist.

During World War II, Fanon’s Martinique was brutally oppressed by the fascist, racist Vichy government. Teenager Fanon volunteered and fought for the Free French. He was wounded and decorated, but was still subjected to blatant, vicious racism.

Subsequently, during his government-funded studies as a medical doctor and psychiatrist and later in war-torn Algeria, he experienced further overt racism and professional discrimination while developing novel ways to deal with the psychopathology of racism in general and colonialism in particular. Now to his ideas.

Fanon’s ideas attempt to justify, even sanctify, violence by colonized ‘black’ people against the foreign colonizer as necessary for their mental health and political liberation. This is best illustrated in his own words:

“The native’s work is to imagine all possible methods for destroying the settler. . . . For the native, life can only spring up again out of the rotting corpse of the settler . . . for the colonized people, this violence, because it constitutes their only work, invests their character with positive and creative qualities. The practice of violence binds them together as a whole.”

Fallon’s primary focal audience was that at the margins of society, i.e. disaffected lawbreakers, robbers and the institutionalized impoverished masses, i.e. Marx’s lumpenproletariat.

Now to South Africa.

Although they might have had application in Algeria whose independence required a "dirty war" characterized by massive (>1 000 000) deaths, including civilian massacres, mass rapes, ‘strategic’ torture, mutilation and other atrocities, Fanon’s ideas have little relevance (other than his predictions of post-liberation betrayal/corruption) in South Africa.

To paraphrase, J.M. Coetzee, Apartheid was an evil system of enforced segregation that promoted/manipulated ‘racial’ distinctiveness, culture and ethnicity (not assimilation) put in place by an exclusive self-defined group of resident conquerors in order to consolidate a their conquest, in particular to cement its hold on the land and its natural resources. 

South Africa’s liberation was achieved largely through open and effective multi-party negotiations, followed by undisputed democratic elections and the drafting of a highly regarded and effective constitution that condemns violence as a means to any end. More than two decades after liberation, South Africa still functions, although badly, as a democracy subordinate to the rule of law.

Post-liberation Algeria, however, soon descended into renewed violence resulting in the mass, often brutal, murder of up to 100 000 harki, indigenous Muslim Algerians who had pro-French connections. Thereafter, it became an authoritarian, one-party, secular, repressive state in virtual perpetual conflict with Moslem fundamentalists. The one constant theme is the justification of the use of violence to achieve political goals. This had a profound effect on Fanon’s widow leading her to commit suicide.

Given the EFF’s, Malema’s and Mngxitama’s predilection for radical, potentially dangerous socio-political change if necessary through the “barrel of a gun”, “kill the boer”, “one bullet, one settler”, “we are ready for war” and mass violence, the last thing that South Africans should hanker after is Frantz Fanon.

I won’t even mention misogynistic and homophobic elements of his philosophy.