145. Present predicament: The relevance of Frantz Fanon’s ideas 96 years after his birth

Author: Stephen Phiri
Date: 19 July 2021
Publication: Daily Maverick
Image courtesy of: Pach J. Wilka via Commons.wikimedia.org

It was 96 years ago today (20 July) that a boy child was born from parents of mixed race. Little did he know that his very birthplace was a “curse” and his race automatically relegated him to the “zone of non-being”. Little did he even realise that he was being introduced into a world in which he needed not only to explain his humanity but to fight for it. Little did he know that the struggle for a black person’s integrity as a human being was for a lifetime. Fortunately, being relatively privileged, he got a “decent” education provided by a system that incorporated him into its culture but denied him his humanity.

The child’s name was Frantz Fanon, the Martiniquan philosopher.

His realisation of being classified as belonging to the “zone of non-being” became explicitly evident in his doctoral dissertation at Lyon University in France. Since Fanon was writing from within a system that undermined the opinions and existential position of people of his kind — “blacks” — his dissertation failed, but later became one of his iconic publications: the 1952 Black Skins, White Masks.

The study is an analysis of the racism that he experienced when he was studying medicine in France. He wrote two other books: the 1959 Dying Colonialism and the seminal 1961 The Wretched of the Earth. The latter seems to have drawn the most interest, attracting much criticism which depicted Fanon as an instigator of violence. His supporters, however, dismissed these criticisms as a misrepresentation and a lack of contextual understanding of his work.

Fanon’s writings are intimately related to his experience, not just on a personal level as indicated by Black Skins, White Masks, but also at a political level as expressed by The Wretched of the Earth. What makes him unique is that he gave up his privileges as a doctor and of French citizenship in order to fight the French, whom he once defended. His first objective was a quest to find himself beyond the realm of “non-being” as expressed in Black Skins, White Masks. His second key goal was to seek ways to confront and change the forces that create inhuman and colonial conditions.

The Wretched of the Earth starts on an optimistic note, anticipating a freedom whose means would be realised through the decolonisation process. A close reading of this book makes the reader realise that “true” freedom is only possible when the “old” order, which is a breeding ground of subjugation and coloniality, is completely purged.

Freedom, in this context, is neither negotiated nor attained through compromise. For Fanon, freedom is never given but is fought for. He advocated a revolution in the Marxist sense: “replacing one species with another”. Due to a lack of alternative terms and the repressive nature of his context, Fanon regarded violence as the best method to purge the system.

It is important to note that the Martiniquan’s understanding of decolonisation was synonymous with the contemporary idea of decoloniality. It is not surprising that he has been placed at the forefront of contemporary student movements when issues related to “the Decolonial Turn” are discussed.

The Wretched of the Earth was mostly written after the first African states had gained their independence, from the 1950s on, and following the assassination of the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba in 1961. It expressed profound disappointment at the failures of decolonisation. The book also highlighted how post-colonial African states have been compromised through the betrayal of the masses by their leaders, who “prostituted” their freedom for personal benefit.

Fanon seems to be witnessing reverse gains through the re-enactment of the colonial state, which is superficially decorated by black leadership who, for him, act effectively as colonial ambassadors. In this sense, Fanon views the anticipation of true freedom in the terms of African-American poet Langston Hughes’s idea of “a dream deferred,” and regards celebrations of independence as nothing more than just symbolic enactments devoid of meaning.

Fanon empathised with the predicament of the masses who find themselves in the exact position of oppression where colonialism left them, or in even worse circumstances.

Looking back at Fanon’s words and reflecting on our present predicament, we can rightly say that he was indeed a prophet. It is, however, of paramount importance to highlight the fact that Fanon was not prophesying, but rather reflecting on what was happening in the context of his own time.

What strikes us as “prophetic” is the coincidence of what is happening now and what happened then. What is more striking are some of his ideas that vividly describe our contemporary deep-seated problems around ethnicity, xenophobia, and corruption.

What makes Fanon important in the contemporary age is his continuing relevance. He explained socioeconomic inequalities as outcomes based on policies and structures informed and dictated by former imperial powers, which continue today with these same powerful countries as well as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank which they continue to dominate.

Fanon’s birth month coincides with South Africa’s Jacob Zuma’s arrest, and it is a month after the death of Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda. Kaunda and Zuma provide a contrasting but interesting Fanonian analysis. With all the allegations levelled at Zuma, he seems to fit Fanon’s profile of post-colonial African leaders, middle-class and black entrepreneurs.

Kaunda, however, did not fit this profile and requires analysis beyond the Fanonian interpretation of post-colonial leadership. The Zambian leader was widely regarded as a principled politician who left office almost broke and relatively “homeless”, but his rule was not spared the rod of economic failure as with other African states.

Fanon clearly and prophetically anticipated the depth of colonialism and its deeply rooted after-effects in post-colonial African states.

Dr Stephen Phiri is a Senior Researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.