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Dingani, Mavuso (2004) The 2004 Annual Frantz Fanon lecture: A critical review. Centre for Civil Society : -.

">Mavuso Dingani

By Mavuso Dingani

Nigel Gibson Delivering the 3rd Annual Frantz Fanon Lecture (Picture by Xolani Tsalong)

The search for a new humanism! A noble goal in this world where New Labour’s Tony Blair claims to have taken “politics out of politics”; where ideologies are reduced to a few populist phrases; of cheap symbolism, the hot air of soundbite rhetoric, and the deafening clamour of neo-liberalism’s allegedly technicist project of ‘globalisation’. With the honeymoon of the advent of liberation well over and the emergence of new forms of exclusion and exploitation (not to mention the entrenchment of the old forms…), the challenges of searching for a new humanism have never been more urgent. This was the gist Nigel Gibson’s paper recently presented at the 3rd Annual Frantz Fanon lecture at the Westville campus of UKZN.

The lecture started off with an introduction by Professor Mabogo More of the Westville Campus’s Philosophy department. More, who is widely considered as the foremost Fanon scholar in South Africa, gave a brief biography of Frantz Fanon, to the benefit of some of the activists from community organisations who had never heard of this freedom fighter, writer, philosopher, psychiatrist, and great intellectual. Professor More said that Fanon was born in the Caribbean island of Martinique in 1925. Fanon fought in DeGaulle’s Free French armies because he believed that, “wherever freedom was in danger he would lend his hand”. He worked in the hospitals of colonial Algeria before deciding to join the FLN (The Algerian National Liberation Movement) fighting for the liberation of ALgeria from French colonialism. Professor More contextualised Fanon’s ideas in relation to Steve Biko’s BC Movement and the post apartheid stuggles for free water, electricity and decent housing as many of the audience were people involved in community struggles.

After a detailed and inspiring introduction, one could not wait for Gibson, a leading Fanon scholar, to present his paper entitled Fanon, Marx and the New Reality of the Nation: Black Political Empowerment and the challenges of a new humanism in South Africa. The paper states from the outset that Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth is a one of the most important pieces of critical transition literature yet written which can proftably be applied to post-apartheid South Africa as well as other parts of the continent. What was perhaps most striking in Gibson's introduction was his critical analysis of the Mail and Guardian’s recent 16 page pull-out on South Africa’s decade of democracy compiled by WISER (a misnomer a according to Gibson) at the University of the Witwatersrand under the editorial title, “A Critical Humanism”. Gibson claimed that the report lacked any grounding in the social reality of ordinary people. This was a report published by what I consider to be one of the critical newspapers in the country, a paper that has questioned the ways in which commodification of basic services is predatory on the poor. However, Gibson does have a point because the WISER report clearly lacks any real input from (or reflections about the lessons from) communities that have been struggling for the humanisation of post-apartheid South Africa. Gibson argued that the compilers miss the point, because the search for “A Critical Humanism” should based on Fanon’s dialectical methodology. A dialectic that is alive - in lived experience grounded in struggle, resistance and actuality. One that is open ended and understood in its social context.

In Part 1 called the “ The Inadequacies of Political Emancipation”; Gibson takes on Marx and Fanon to explain what he terms the unfulfilled emancipation in South Africa “because it leaves the state of human [social] emancipation unfinished”. Gibson does not expound on this statement right away. Instead, he decides to take us on a journey through Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” with occasional stopovers in The Wretched all brilliantly interwoven to give a convincing argument on the failed concepts of freedom that concentrate on political rights alone, such as universal suffrage, yet forget social rights.

Nevertheless Gibson does not underestimate the importance of political rights but says that Marx believed they were just a first step forward in realising the extent of social disenfranchisement that still exists. This can be applied to the South African context in which political rights were won within the state, in the 1994 negotiated settlement, with rights guaranteed by the political state. Yet black political empowerment did not change the material conditions of ordinary people because, as Gibson claims, it did not constitute the negation but rather the perfection of the state as it was inherited from apartheid. In other words the advent of black leadership resulted in the legitimation rather than a chllange to the self interests of those in possession, the propertied class, who are so much better placed to exercise their political rights than the dispossesed.

At this point Gibson reminds us of Thabo Mbeki’s call for the creation of a new black capitalist class. Gibson says it is actually a kind of “inferiority complex” in that it is a compulsion to prove oneself – to show that one can replace the whites (and finally be accorded a place “on the hill that dominates the city”). That one can be just as good at being White. Of course it’s not the ordinary street trader that benefits but the well connected urbane few. And, as Marx says, being is reduced to having. Somehow the rise of new multimillionaires like the Sexwales and Motsepes is supposed to be the culmination and redemption of the struggles of millions of people over hundreds of years. Gibson quotes Fanon, in a speech given at the 1st Congress of Black Writers [see below] which states the obvious - that exploitation can wear a black mask - but then a makes a bold statement in saying that racism can also take many forms. Maybe Gibson means that the new black bourgoise would institute a kind of discrimination based more on class than just race. Or perhaps he was also thinking about xenophobia or the racialising and sometimes racist electioneering and containing politics of the new ethnic entrepenuers.

In Part 11 “The Poors” Gibson begins by quoting Fanon’s famous epigram from Marx’s 18th Brumaire . He goes on to look at the Silesian weaver’s rebellion. The Silesian workers, in their open ended rebellion, not only destroyed the machines that tormented them but went further and also destroyed account books, ownership titles, and even attacked the banks that supported their exploitation. In a sense they attempted to destroy the entire exploitive by ripping out the stiches at its seams. Gibson/Marx argues that the workers had realised a new stage of consciousness never before accomplished by previous rebellions. Gibson attempts to link this to the struggles around basic services in the townships around Durban. For example the Mpumalanga “Ten Rand campaign”, the Diepkloof and the Chartsworth debacles and so on. These revolts all emanate from the material reality of their situations and the urgency of questions like “how long should I work?” or the more familiar “what will I do if they cut off my electricity?”, as compared to abstract concepts such as the inalienable rights of man. Gibson stresses that in both instances it was not their alienation in the political discourse but rather in “their own physical and spiritual discourse” that was the issue. Hence his scathing attack on WISER. But I would contend that in the Silesian Weavers’ case profound political alienation in 19th century Prussia was also a reality which is not the same as in contemporary South Africa where, despite the obvious limits of representative democracy, there are significant even if often co-opting gestures towards inclusion.

However, the essence of their attacks on the concept of private property in both instances remains, and these unlikely “Poors” - from different times and separated by an ocean –were both trying reconstruct society in their own ways and with their own hands and minds. So we come full circle again to Fanon’s dialectic of lived experience, not to be separated from the reality of the circumstances that bred them, driving forward and “starting a new history”. Gibson says that this is possible with decentralisation and direct grassroot involvement in political and social discourse. Gibson’s policitics comes down to, in the spirit of The Wretched, empowering the masses to take govern themselves. A politics of the being of all rather than the having of a few.

The climax of his speech was the third part in which Gibson brilliantly links Fanon’s Wretched and Marx’s 18th Brumaire. In Gibson’s paper, we see that both writers try to explain what is born after the long labour of revolution after the anti-colonial/class war - that imperfect progeny of revolutions that go astray by seeking only to capture the levers of state power rather than to destroy it. In Marx’s 18th Brumaire as in Fanon’s Wretched the new rulers institute repressive measures to crush all opposition. With this in mind, Gibson tell us that both writers give a clear diagnosis of what constitutes the difference between a bourgeois and a proletariat revolution. In both instances, social revolution should be the aim - i.e. the end result should be the transformation of society from the bottom up not vice versa. In other words, Gibson argues that Fanon advocates the transformation from the Manichean reality and thinking that gave rise to the anti-colonial revolution to the transcendal dialectic logic which creates new liberating histories.

Having also read Nigel Gibson’s celebrated new book Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination in which he explores in further depth many of the concepts touched on in the paper, I could fully understand that The Wretched is actually The 18th Brumaire adapted to the colonial and African context. But it's more than just an adaptation. Fanon also uses the structure of the 18th Brumaire to prophesie as no other writer has. In Gibson’s book I could understand what Gibson/Fanon calls the reactionary ideas in negritude that sought to look into the imagined stability of Africa’s past for ‘solutions’ (and strategies to discipline the fractious in the present) instead of harnessing the creativity and energies of the unstable present to create new futures. Gibson’s book, like his talk, gets to the heart of the matter, the heart of our matter, Fanon’s vision, of a new reality.

see also
Black Consciousness 1977-1987: The Dialectics of Liberation in South Nigel Gibson
The Pitfalls of South Africa's Liberation by Nigel Gibson
Fanon and the Postcolonial Imagination by Nigel Gibson
A Review of Nigel Gibson's Fanon and the Postcolonial Imagination by Richard Pithouse

Click on 'email' to email Mavuso Dingani and 'website' to read Frantz Fanon's speech at the Congress of Black African Writers, 1959
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