Thinking Fanon: 50 Years Later

Fanonian translations in and beyond ‘Fanon Studies’

Nigel C. Gibson

The documentary Frantz Fanon: His Life, His Struggle, His Work (Algeria/France, 52 mins.), director Cheikh Djemai uncovered and interviewed scores of former associates of Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist, philosopher and political leader. He became a spokesman for the Algerian revolution against French colonialism, and as the author of Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon documented the effects of colonialism and racism on the people of colonized countries.

Translations are not neutral; they are products of history and are highly charged politically. Yet despite this, Fanon’s thought in his translated works has remained clear, inspiring people from Steve Biko to Abahlali Mjondolo.

In the Cheikh Djemal’s film ‘Frantz Fanon: His Life, His Struggle, His Work,’ Rehda Malek, one of the co-editors of El Moudjahid at the time, recalls how he was ‘impressed by Fanon’s intellectual vivacity and the speed in which he could write papers,’ adding that ‘he could write an article almost without crossing out a word in a direct and spontaneous way.’

In a sense the same can be said of his writing of L’an 5 de la révolution algérienne and Les damnés de la terre which were ‘written’ orally, so to speak, with Fanon speaking and his assistants writing down or typing his ideas. Though we know that Fanon gave much thought to each work, they were of the time and written very much for the time, and in the latter case very much against the time. Fifty years later, we consider these works as part of the oeuvre of a brilliant man, to be pored over and taken apart, every phrase scrutinised. And yet, when it was published, Les damnés was roundly criticised by the French liberal and left intelligentsia. Communists and liberals agreed: Fanon’s analysis was flawed; his insights were simply insights not theory; he made wild generalisations; he didn’t understand Algeria, or Islam, or the peasantry, and so on.

It was in the United States of America, that land of lynchers as Fanon puts it, where his books became famous. The Americas were Fanon’s first resting place. Born in the Caribbean, he died in a Bethesda Hospital and was reborn in the 1960s revolts. And yet in his soon to be republished ‘Fanon: A Life’, David Macey’s richly detailed and valuable biography of Fanon, Macey is dismissive of Fanon’s knowledge of America which he says is not particularly empirical since it is ‘derived primarily from literary sources … based on novels’ (193). Is Fanon’s understanding of the US problematic? Certainly Richard Wright’s ‘Native Son’ tells more about the ‘Negro’ in the United States of 1940 then any empirical work.

But Macey insists that it is not only the fact that Fanon understands America through novels but also that his understanding of the novels themselves is suspect. Of Fanon’s reading of Chester Himes’ ‘If He Hollers Let Him Go’ Macey argues that his own ‘analytic schema, and perhaps at some level his own desires, almost forces him to misread the [book]’ (194).

Macey’s criticism is not, however, confined to Fanon’s understanding of the US. Macey contends that in ‘Black Skin’ Fanon ‘confuses’ Jean Veneuses’ story with Germaine Geux’s notion of abandonment, and more damningly he insists that Fanon really didn’t understand Freud and ‘misrecognizes’ psychoanalysis (192, 194). [2]

These are not new criticisms. The British Communist Party critic Jack Woodis said the same thing in the early 1970s arguing that Fanon was given to ‘exaggeration’, ‘unscientific judgments’, ‘over-simplification’ and often ‘carried away by his own eloquence’ (1972: 25, 27, 28, 34). [3]

What is at stake in Macey’s criticisms? A sense of ‘objectivity’? A criticism of sloppy research directed at Fanon and also postcolonial Fanon studies?

But then also in the conclusion, one is taken aback when Macey proclaims that Fanon had ‘certainly had a talent for hate’ (505). Certainly? On what basis? That almost certainly is without empirical knowledge.

And yet these kinds of schoolmaster’s comments also appear in a footnote to the new translation of ‘Black Skin White Masks’. One wonders why Richard Philcox chooses to correct Fanon in a note on page 131 that Joel Chandler Harris, the author of the Uncle Remus stories, was from Georgia not Louisiana. Certainly Fanon could have been misinformed even if Harris did work in New Orleans.

But what is more important is the internal audience. Philcox adds: ‘It is interesting for Fanon scholars to know that Fanon was not very rigorous in his scholarship.’ The concern with scholarship has little to do with Fanon but represents tensions and pretensions within postcolonial studies as an academic field. This is not to say that Fanon was not concerned with correct data. Indeed, his articles on sociotherapy at Blida hospital and on day-hospitalisation in Tunis reflect his concern with empirical veracity.

The tension is best understood instead as a stress between text and context, that is to say between Homi Bhabha and David Macey, but it is one where everyone agrees first in principle that Fanon’s political writings have little contemporary relevance. [4] This governing attitude to Fanon is evident in Bhabha’s 2004 foreword to Philcox’s translation of ‘The Wretched’ titled ‘Framing Fanon’ which quite literally frames Fanon by throwing Fanon’s decolonial revolutionary humanism into the garbage, reducing his contribution to violence, and thus ends up with nothing to put in its place but a kind of wishful ethics against the IMF and World Bank.

Translations are not neutral; they are both products of history and are also highly charged politically. Translations therefore take on lives of their own. Tellingly, Macey and Philcox also tell us when they first read Fanon. Macey bought copies of his work in 1970 in France, quickly adding that after reading ‘Althusser, Lacan and Foucault[,] Fanon began to look naive.’ Like other Marxists of the British new left, Macey was drawn to French structuralism, and Fanon’s work seemed decidedly dated and passé.

Macey’s description of Fanon as naïve is reminiscent of Bhabha calling Fanon’s humanism ‘banal and beatific’ in his now seminal piece ‘Remembering Fanon.’ Attracted to Lacan through structuralism, both Bhabha and Macey are, in a sense, products of the same intellectual trajectory. So Macey’s ‘return’ to Fanon could only be refracted through a postcolonial academic discourse that is in fact indebted to and read through French theory – Althusser, Lacan and Foucault. In other words, Macey’s biography is intimate with Bhabha’s ‘Remembering Fanon’ even if he is at pains to disagree with its consequences; the unquestioned assumption, as I mentioned earlier, is that the historical Fanon has almost no resonance with British postimperial realities.

In ‘On Retranslating Fanon, retrieving a lost voice’, the afterword to ‘The Wretched’, Philcox more self-consciously writes about his reading Fanon and tellingly quotes Macey, ‘“it was his anger that was so attractive.’ After all,” continues Philcox, “we Brits have a long history of angry men.”

I wouldn’t necessarily include myself among ‘we Brits’, but I was introduced to Fanon through a pamphlet by John Alan and Lou Turner, ‘Frantz Fanon, Soweto and American Black Thought’. Fanon was immediately connected to a ‘Black world’ and most concretely to Biko and Black consciousness in South Africa. Sure, I was angry in 1981; you could say that about many Black and White youth in Britain’s Thatcherite ‘inner cities’ facing the racist violence of the British nationalists and criminalisation by the British police.

But it wasn’t anger that drew me to Fanon. What interested me in how Steve Biko used Fanon’s theory was the way in which theory could become concrete in different situations. I was interested in how and why revolutions had gone wrong and in the context of the Irish question (the hunger strike was just about to begin) I was drawn to thinking about the relationship between national liberation and internationalism. Early in 1981, before the Brixton ‘riot’ and the 1981 inner city rebellions in England, I got hold of a copy of ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ in New York for a dollar from the Barnes and Noble annex on 16th street. [5]

It was the 1968 mass market Black Cat edition, the one with a black image of people in motion set against an orange background. Black Cat: I thought it had something to do with the Black Panthers (which I later found out from Charles Denby was named after the Black Panther of the Lowndes County Freedom Democratic Party in Alabama). For me it was always the Black Panther edition. 1968. The year of revolutions. In France, Czechoslovakia, Mexico and in the United States [6]… It was Fanon who had been right there.

‘And then there is the way he has been treated,’ writes Philcox, ‘pulled in all directions by postcolonial scholars, made to fit their ideas and interpretations — and a great sense of injustice comes to mind every time Fanon is mentioned’ (2004, 244). For Philcox, his translation of ‘The Wretched’ is an attempt to give back Fanon’s voice, his ‘tone, intensities, rhythms, and pauses’ (2004 245). And though this is not the place to delve into the translations (and I have spoken about the translations by the African-American poet, Constance Farrington and by Richard Philcox elsewhere [7]) I do want to make one point about ‘Black Skin White Masks’.

Published first by Grove in 1967, it is forgotten that it was an American translation for a popular market. One example: while ‘Y a Bon Banania’ refers to a popular breakfast cereal in France (with ‘the obvious connection between blacks and apes through the mediating symbol of banana flour [See Gordon 2005 17], it meant nothing to most people in the US. Markmann’s translation ‘Sho good eatin’ certainly made sense and conveyed a similar meaning to what Fanon was saying (see Turner 2011).

The thing about translations is not only that they take on a life of their own but they also reflect different contexts. Homi Bhabha’s ‘Remembering Fanon’, which became the introduction to the 1986 Pluto Press British edition (Markmann translation) of ‘Black Skin’ has become a canonical re-reading of Fanon for postcolonial studies. It doesn’t refer to the French text at all, but is explicitly connected to a dig at English leftism: ‘In the popular memory of English socialism’, Bhabha begins, ‘the memory of Frantz Fanon stirs a dim deceiving echo … a polite English refusal.’

If in France in the 1970s Fanon was found only in obscure second-hand bookshops, in the United States his works were being newly minted in mass market editions and becoming essential to discussions and intellectual debates foundational to the evolving Black and antiwar movements (and embryonic Black studies programs). And yet along with the US translations, we should also remember the groundedness of ‘Black Skin’ in the American drama. If, for example, the ‘lived experience’ or ‘fact of blackness’ [8] expressed by America’s ‘native son’ at the end of chapter five drives Fanon to weep, the reference to ‘twelve million black voices’ (a title of Wright’s later book) reflects the American drama ‘cast in a different play’, he says: a play in utter contrast to the French tragedy; a play of struggle and war, the defeats, truces, and victories (1967a 221) with which Fanon identifies. [9]

Still involved in the French drama, a whole different play would begin with the Algerian revolution. If the real context for sociotherapy at Blida-Joinville Psychiatric hospital was a dynamic and living society, he logically could not carry on the work in a society that had become the asylum, with the medical profession intimately connected to the production of pathologies which rationally pursue the torture ‘inherent in the whole colonialist configuration’ (1967b 64). Thus, in one of his first articles for ‘El Moudjahid’ (October 1957), Fanon questioned the humanist commitment of the European left and liberals to a society which, using medical terminology, is a ‘gangrene germ and the source of an epidemic’ and whose essence is torture, violation and the inauguration of an ‘unconditional reign of justice’ (1967b 64-66). In other words, there was no middle ground, no space for an intellectual’s autonomy. Such a society had to be opposed.

Fanon’s own break with the ‘French drama’ is a product of the objective situation. 1 November 1954 dates the beginning of the Algerian liberation struggle. He often refers to the date as a historical dividing line — a before to which there is no going back. The struggle requires an absolute commitment, as he puts it in his 1956 speech to the first congress of Black writers. And just as he demands, in ‘The Wretched’, that intellectuals practically aid the revolution through commandeering resources snatched from colonial education, he works concretely, counseling those scarred by torture, harbouring guerillas on the run and training fighters in how to take care of the wounded (see 1967c), and directly aiding the armed struggle by teaching the bombers how to remain calm. As De Beauvouir recounts: ‘he taught them to control their reactions when they were setting a bomb … and also what psychological and physical attitudes would enable them to resist torture best’ (315).

Fanon had been recruited into the FLN by Ramdane Abane, the Kabylian leader who became Fanon’s mentor. Abane was a key figure behind the battle of Algiers and the conference at Soummam in 1956 held to create a coherent political program for the FLN, which was essentially a united front of different tendencies. Soummam declared that the military wing be brought under collective political control and put forward a vision of a future Algeria that remained Fanon’s. [10] They both believed in the ‘revolutionary dismantling of the colonial state’ (Cherki 105). Explicitly critical of theodicy, the principle adopted as the Soummam platform was for a future democratic Algeria with the ‘primacy of citizenship over identities (Arab, Amazigh, Muslim, [Jewish] Christian, European, etc.)’ (Abane 39). Soummam, in other words, represented a political position and vision, which Fanon acknowledged in ‘Year 5 of the Algerian Revolution’, arguing that ‘in the new society that is being built there are only Algerians. From the outset, therefore, every individual living in Algeria is an Algerian … We want an Algeria open to all, in which every kind of genius can grow’ (1967c 152, 32). By 1958 Abane was dead, liquidated by the FLN.

Fanon refused to be publicly critical of the FLN even after the murder of Abane. This he later regretted, recounts De Beauvoir, but at the same time he needed to work out his thoughts through writing (Cherki 106). Despising some FLN leaders and militarists who reduced the struggle for independence to a simple equation of power, ‘Year 5’ was interesting in that it says almost nothing about the FLN or about political organisation but concentrates instead on the radical changes that had taken place in Algerian society since November 1954. He first titled the book ‘the reality of the nation,’ [11] but even so felt that that did not reflect the specificity and fluidity of the revolutionary moment.

But Fanon balked when Maspero later changed the name to the ‘sociology of revolution’ saying, as publishers do (when they get overly concerned about marketing), that it was no longer the fifth year of the Algerian revolution. Fanon recoiled because ‘sociology’ was too intimately connected to an imperial project (1967c 37). The problem with sociology, including an ethno-sociology, is not that it doesn’t contain an element of truth but that it has a false premise taking a situation arising out of colonialism as a dehistoricised cultural fact. Fanon insists that colonialism throws all elements of society into confusion, distorting and subverting all cultural relations. The first thing the colonised learn is to remain in place, argues Fanon.

Similarly, the anticolonial revolt can throw everything into confusion in a new way, fundamentally upsetting colonised society and ‘upsetting its limits’ (2004 15). Under the most severe conditions — bombardments and raids on civilians — new attitudes and new relations emerge in what Fanon calls the ‘drama of the people’ (1967c 142), and the militant intellectual’s role is to aid this unfolding and avoid ‘erecting a framework … which follows an a priori schedule’ (2004/1968 113). In other words, though organisation is absolutely essential to help bring together scattered and local rebellions against colonial society, the organisation can itself become a pathology which suffocates thinking. Fanon warns against the brutality of revolutions, not only the brutal violence and counter-violence that worries him in ‘Year 5’ (see his introduction) but also the ‘sclerosis’ that knee-jerk anti-imperialism brings.

In ‘The Wretched’ he is explicitly critical of what he calls the fetish of organisation often along military lines whose goal is to silence political discussion, calling the militant who wants to take shortcuts in the name of getting things done not only an anti-intellectual but atrocious, inhuman and sterile. Instead, gesturing to organisation as organic, he insists that the search for truth is the ‘responsibility of the community’ (2004 139) with the local, fully inclusive and democratic meetings the practical and ethical foundation of the liberated society. These ‘liturgical acts’, he writes, ‘are privileged occasions given to a human being to listen and to speak … and put forward new ideas …’ (2004 195) to become self-determining and decolonise the mind. Connected to everyday life and decision making, these daily acts are seemingly banal, but in the local engagements time becomes ‘space for human development,’ as Marx puts it, is ‘no longer … of the moment or the next harvest but rather of the rest of the world’ (2004 135).

Critics have dismissed Fanon’s claims as romantic, but they are based on experience not flights of fancy. Fanon gives the example of lentil production during the liberation struggle, writing of the creation of production/consumption committees among the peasants and FLN, which he says encouraged theoretical questions about the accumulation of capital: ‘In the regions where we were able to conduct these enlightening experiments,’ he argues, ‘we witnessed the edification of man through revolutionary beginnings’ because people began to realise that ‘one works more with one’s brain and ones heart than with one’s muscles’ (2004 133; 292).

Talking of the political economy of food he adds, ‘We did not have any technicians or planners coming from big Western universities; but in these liberated regions the daily ration went up to the hitherto unheard-of figure of 3,200 calories. [But t]he people were not content with [this] …. They started asking themselves theoretical questions: for example, why did certain districts never see an orange before the war of liberation, while thousands of tons are exported every year abroad? Why were grapes unknown to a great many Algerians whereas the European peoples enjoyed them by the million? Today, the people have a very clear notion of what belongs to them.’ It would not be surprising to hear questions about the objectivity of these enlightening experiments.

In ‘Black Skin White Masks’ Fanon decries social science research methods, saying that they should be left to the botanists. Why? Because scientific objectivity was barred to him (1967a 14, 225), he was part of the research. Here, in ‘The Wretched’, he talks about ‘objectivity’ always being directed against the colonised. And then there is the revolutionary ‘objectivity’ of the enlightening experiments, and in ‘Year 5’ he posits himself as part of the ‘we.’

At the time of its publication, ‘Year 5’ did not cause much of a stir in France; even Pierre Bourdieu recognised in his work that radical changes were taking place in Kabylia. [12] The government, however, found the book particularly incendiary and banned it as it was continually reprinted by Maspero. And yet in the wake of Algerian independence and the 1965 English translation by Haakon Chevalier (a Berkeley professor of literature, friend of Robert Oppenheimer’s and Communist Party member who left the United States in 1950 after being accused of ‘anti-American activities’), the divide between Fanon’s descriptions and post-independence Algerian reality became the source of new criticisms from Marxists (and later from feminists [13]) that Fanon was a romantic conservative.

Discounting Fanon’s ‘enlightening experiments’, a British Marxist, Ian Clegg, argued in his book ‘Workers’ Self-management in Algeria’ that Fanon simply ‘lacks a critical and dialectical analysis of the process of the formation of consciousness.’ It is an argument repeated by Neil Lazarus, who while generally sensitive to Fanon’s work finds, in his recent ‘Postcolonial Unconscious’, that Fanon ‘often phras[es] subaltern thought in the elitist-idealist vocabulary of negation, abstract totalisation and self-actualisation’ (2011 177). Lazarus references James Scott to emphasise the disconnection between the intellectual’s romanticism and the local movement’s concern with the concrete immediate. Beyond the tired vanguardist notions of saving theory for theoreticians, Fanon was concerned in ‘The Wretched’ that the work of intellectuals and militants was to patiently explain to the people that the future depended on their self-conscious and collective work. At the same time, Fanon rejected as populist and opportunist the idea that put an end to theoretical. In other words, isn’t dialectical movement — engaging practice and theory — exactly what is at stake, not simply in what is living and what is dead in Fanon but what is living and dead in our period?

It is the latter question that calls for us to approach Fanon’s thinking not as an a priori application of theoretical categories but as always dedicated to the practical matter of changing the world. In other words, the fact is not only that Fanon would, as Edouard Glissant put it, act on his ideas by joining a revolution [14] but that for Fanon ideas were at one and the same time influenced by practice and themselves transformative. What Lazarus elsewhere calls Fanon’s ‘remarkable’ essay, ‘The Pitfalls of National Consciousness,’ is precisely the product of a critical and dialectical analysis, a summing up of the experience of decolonisation. And yet, interestingly, in one of those ‘snares of history’ that Fanon speaks of, the American rebirth of Fanon — in the context of King and Malcolm, and debates about non-violence and self-defense — was made famous by the book’s first chapter ‘On Violence.’

‘The Wretched of the Earth’ became essential reading for Black revolutionaries in America and profoundly influenced their thinking’, remarks Kathleen Cleaver (214), adding, ‘Fanon’s analysis seemed to explain and to justify the spontaneous violence ravaging across the country, and linked the incipient insurrections to the rise of a revolutionary movement.’ The colonial world that Fanon wrote about ‘bore a striking resemblance,’ she continues (215), ‘to the world that American blacks lived.’ [15] For Cleaver (216), the special relevance to the Black Panthers ‘was Fanon’s analysis of colonialism and the necessity of violence.’ This is not to suggest that there were not other discussions of Fanon in the US in the 1960s, [16] but Cleaver’s summation suggests that was powerfully attractive to young American revolutionaries was the clarity of Fanon’s descriptions of colonial manicheanism, the problem remains how to get beyond a Manichean reaction toward a new politics.

Associating Algeria with Fanon, some Panthers fled to Algeria in the late 1960s and thus it was through the Panthers that Fanon returned momentarily to Algeria. But noticeably shorn of his internal critique of the liberation movements and postindependence, Fanon became reduced to the status of just another anticolonial figure. Yet, just as Eldridge Cleaver was opening the First Pan African Cultural Festival in 1969, Fanon had made his way across the Limpopo into the heart of settler colonial Africa — apartheid South Africa with US Black theology intellectuals like James Cone providing an important link between Fanon and the emergent Black Consciousness movement.

The situation in South Africa was Manichean, but recognising that ‘The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed,’ Biko took from Fanon a critique of alienation and interiorised fear as the basis for a new politics of solidarity, and a notion of Blackness not reducible to claims to indigeneity or a politics of identity but an “attitude of mind.’ Linking Black consciousness to national consciousness and grounding his analysis in Fanon’s ‘Pitfalls of National Consciousness,’ Biko argued in an interview with Gail Gerhart in 1972 that it was possible to create a ‘capitalist black society, [a] black middle class,’ in South Africa, and ‘succeed in putting across to the world a pretty convincing, integrated picture, with still 70 percent of the population being underdogs’ (Biko 42).

Biko’s prediction became painfully true. And a Fanonian critique of post-apartheid South Africa now seems quite obvious. And yet it is in the responses to the crises of contemporary South Africa and the liberation party’s social treason that the high point of the struggle recognised by Fanon can be recast. The maturity of our age means that a non-state directed politics based in what Fanon calls ‘the rationality of revolt,’ which begins in the refusal to remain quiet and stay in place, can as a movement in motion, ‘uncover unknown facets,’ ‘bring to light new meanings … underline contradictions … [and] decipher social reality.’

This is not simply voluntaristic; the struggle, he says, is the work of the muscles and brains of African collective working out politics from the ground up. This is the school of the struggle, and the challenge for each generation is to think with it and inside it. It is in this context that we can also call on Fanon’s work to help illuminate and aid new political subjectivities and spaces to develop autonomous politics. Rather than reducing Fanon to the past or to a politics of the experiential, perhaps we can take Fanon’s writings as interlocutions in which different historical moments and movements bring out new resonances and explicate new insights.

The damnation of the world’s majority inscribed in the Manichean geographies so well described by Fanon in ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ obviously did not end with the negotiated settlement and the withdrawal of formal colonial rule. The violence that orders colonialism, the violence that follows the colonised home and enters every pore of their body, is reconfigured in the contemporary world of razor wire transit camps, detention zones, and prisons, in rural pauperisation and in the shanty towns and shack settlements. It is the silent scream of much of the world’s population, who appear most of the time without solidarity, without agency, without speech. Beyond the gated citadels, beyond the zones of tourism, in the zone of often bare existence, there seems no way out. And yet, at a moment like ours in 2012, all of a sudden the rationality of rebellion is made absolutely clear. So too the relevance of a Fanonian political will.

Yet more than a simple us and them, the ‘we’ for Fanon was not simply a commitment but a creative ‘we,’ a we of political action and praxis, thinking and reasoning. Indeed this was not only his critique of colonialism but also of the neocolonial afterlife. ‘Colonialism is not a thinking machine,’ Fanon argues, but all too often its aftermath, the new nation, is mired in the same mindlessness, indeed stupidity created by the nationalist party’s will to power often mediated by crude force and in crude colonial ideologies against the very people who made liberation possible. In contrast, Fanon’s ‘we’ is wonderfully articulated in Derek Walcott’s poem, ‘the Schooner Flight’: ‘Either I’m nobody or I’m a nation.’ It is the nobodies, the damned, the impoverished and the landless who for Fanon become the source, the basis, the truth of the ‘reality of the nation.’ As S’bu Zikode from Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa first said, ‘we are poor in life but not in mind.’ The movement stresses that collectively ‘we think our own struggles.’

In the context of the continuing legacy of apartheid’s spatial politics, so clearly articulated in ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, it is not surprising that one of the largest and most sustained social movements in post-apartheid South Africa is a movement of shack dwellers called Abahlali baseMjondolo, people who live in shacks.

I speak of Abahlali because it is a movement I have worked with, bringing it into conversation with Fanon, as Zikode puts it in the preface to ‘Fanonian Practices in South Africa’.

Like other grassroots movements, their struggle was not the result, as Fanon puts it in ‘Black Skin’, ‘of a Marxist or idealistic analysis but quite simply because [they] cannot conceive of life otherwise than in the form of battle against exploitation, misery, and hunger’ (1967a 223). In the same vein, James Scott’s argument that resistance begins ‘close to the ground, rooted firmly in … the realities of daily experience,’ expressed the birth of Abahlali. Their initial goals were, as Scott continues, ‘modest.’

The revolt began in one shack settlement in Durban in 2005 in response to seeing the land promised to the settlement cleared for commercial use. They wanted the promised-land, they wanted the politicians and city officials to speak with them not about them, and they wanted the promises of housing in the city that had been made by Nelson Mandela to be realised. And as Scott notes, they were not ‘aiming at large historical abstractions such as socialism’ or criticisms of the World Bank and globalisation. They deplored these ‘isms’ as detrimental to building solidarity and as they grew politically they became skeptical of leftists and researchers who said they supported them but only wanted to use them for their own organisations, ideologies, research programs or careers.

Unlike NGOs like the Shack Dwellers International, which claim to represent settlements to the housing department, Abahlali is a grassroots movement that grew from one settlement to settlements across the city based on local democratic inclusivity. Their meetings began to include discussions of socialism or what they call ‘living communism’ alongside inclusive and careful readings of the provincial slums act, which Abahlali later defeated at the constitutional court in 2009 with the help of lawyers who, in a Fanonian sense, took their orders from below. The victory came at a cost. Nothing is ever given for free, to paraphrase Frederick Douglass. Two weeks before the formal decision, armed men attacked Abahlali’s office in Kennedy Road destroying the library that included all of Fanon’s titles and violently evicting many Abahlali members from the settlement. Over 1000 people fled as the local ANC branch took over the settlement.

In contrast to Scott’s intimation, Abahlali was never anti-intellectual, and they made the very subtle distinctions between the demand for things needed to live — such as electricity to prevent shack fires and struggles against removal to peri-urban areas far away from the city — and life. Life as creative, social, and fully human; life, in other words, as the struggle against what Fanon called a daily ‘living death’ (1967b 11) which meant subverting space and place. ‘When Abahlali began to resist evictions it created a crisis,’ argues S’bu Zikode, Abahlali’s former president, and ‘when we began to take our place in the discussions and political life in our cities it created a[nother] crisis because,’ he adds in a Fanonian vein, ‘we as shack dwellers should have known our place.

We should not live or think or speak or act outside that place’ (Zikode 2011). In other words, by refusing their place in life (as things) they become political subjects as they break out of the confines of place, becoming ‘human during the same process by which it frees itself” (Fanon 2004), and in doing so ‘they make that oppression visible and force a rethinking of conceptual categories’ (Neocosmos 2012).

In ‘Black Skin’, Fanon argues that a Black intellectual is not only a contradiction in terms [17] but a threat. The same can be said for the ‘shack intellectual.’ The shack dweller is seen as smelly, dirty, uneducated, lazy, feral and criminal and so the idea of a shack dweller who is also an intellectual is seen as a priori absurd, as outrageous, even as fraudulent. [18]

And yet Fanon has becomes part of Abahlali’s library, which begs Abahlali’s implicit challenge to militant middle class and university trained intellectuals who are committed to social change. This is a question addressed in my book ‘Fanonian Practices in South Africa’ (which I don’t have the space to rehash here); it touches critically on the massive academic corporation and its reproduction (citation industries, think-tanks, funding, grants, all of which reproduce themselves hegemonically, i.e. allowing for criticism promoting calculation and ulterior methods) and the effort of trying to find spaces, sensitive to thinking beyond place, to do something different.

It is not good enough to herald the movement; aiding it begins by being sensitive to thinking outside of place and thus being wary, as I put it in ‘Fanonian Practices’, that ‘the idea that radical intellectuals should abandon critical intellectual work to become ‘one with the masses’ is just as unrealistic and detrimental to a grassroots movement as to think that to really be critical the intellectual must become ‘autonomous’ from all grassroot movements’ (Gibson 2011 219, conclusion). Thinking Fanon fifty years later offers new beginnings for thought and praxis.


1. Abane, Beläid. “Frantz Fanon and Abane Ramdane: Brief Encounters in the Algerian Revolution,” in Nigel C. Gibson, editor, Living Fanon. New York: Palgrave, 2011.
2. Bhabha, Homi. 1986. “Remembering Fanon,” reprinted in Nigel C. Gibson, editor, Rethinking Fanon Amherst: Humanity Books
3. Biko, Steve. “Interview with Steve Biko” in Andile Mngxtama, Amanda Alexander and Nigel Gibson editors, Biko Lives. New York: Palgrave, 2008.
4. Cherki, Alice. Fanon: A Portrait. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006.
5. Clegg, Ian Workers’ Self-management in Algeria
6. Cleaver, Kathleen, Neal. “Back to Africa: The Evolution of the International Section of the Black Panther Party” in Charles E. Jones eds. The Black Panther Party Reconsidered. Baltimore MD: Black Classic Press, 1998.
7. DeBeauvoir, Simone. 1992. The Force of Circumstance. New York: Paragon.
8. Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin White Masks. Translated by Charles Lars Markman. New York: Grove, 1967.
9 __________. Black Skin White Masks. Translated by Richard Philcox, New York: Grove, 2008.
10 __________. Toward the African Revolution. Translated by Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove, 1967.
11. __________. A Dying Colonialism. Translated by Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove, 1967.
12. __________. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. New York: Grove, 1968.
13. __________. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove, 2004.
14. Gibson, Nigel C. 2011. Fanonian Practices in South Africa: From Steve Biko to Abahlali baseMjondolo New York: Palgrave.
15. Glissant, Edouard. Caribbean Discourses: Selected Essays. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999.
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Fanon: The Pitfalls Of Nationalist Consciousness
Thinking Fanon: 50 Years Later
Resistance And Revolution: Fanon’s Legacy
Franz Fanon: Black Skin White Mask
Franz Fanon: Black Skin White Mask – pdf
Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon