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On Building a Nation: The Price of Utopia 

Written by Megan Sickmueller, this piece discusses the thought of Martinican philosopher Franz Fanon in regards to the nation, race and colonial struggle, and relates it to the legacy and project of Steve Biko, a pre-eminent figure in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

Frantz Fanon’s theory of decolonisation, as manifested in his work The Wretched of the Earth, emphasises the complexities inherent to and the dialectical factors concerning the process of liberation. He explores the delicate relationship between racism, colonialism, mental illness and freedom, predominantly in colonial Algerian society. Yet, much of what he philosophises can be applied to a wider global context concerning colonial resistance movements. Consequently, Fanon’s work was an inspiration to several vanguards around the world who fought for the emancipation of oppressed communities – including the “father” of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa during the notorious Apartheid regime, Steve Biko.  

The psychological colonisation of a people underlies Fanon’s theory and inspired the foundations of Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement. In his dialectic on liberation, the psychological impact of anti-colonial violence in relation to post-colonial nation building is not lost on Fanon. Not only does colonialism disfigure the past, but also dominates the present and future by provoking the anxieties of newly independent nations. This drives into the psyches of global audiences that once the settler leaves, the nation will immediately ‘fall back into barbarism, degradation and bestiality.’ The objective of psychological colonisation is therefore to deny a people their history, dissolving any trace of identity and paralysing resistance. The Black Consciousness Movement challenged this notion of domination through psychological manipulation, instead it theorises a philosophy of self-emancipation from the inferiority complex issued by the Apartheid government, and a promotion of agency through national mobilisation. It is through decolonisation that a country can begin to dismantle the structures vital to subjugation and white supremacy and construct its own history. 

In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon elaborates on the topics of violence, mass mobilisation, national consciousness, and national culture as methods of effective decolonisation. His theory of violence is heavily criticised as irresponsible, often misunderstood as anti-pacification rather than a passage for oppressed, dehumanised communities towards unmitigated emancipation of body and mind. Fanon’s call for armed struggle is reciprocal to the violence of the colonial regime as he believes that ‘the colonized man finds his freedom through violence’ which is a ‘cleansing force’, a vessel to regain self-respect and combat conditionalized fear ensued from colonialism. Though Biko makes no reference to the use of violence in his own theories, both he and Fanon maintain the importance of mass mobilisation regarding decolonisation. Biko was inspired by Fanon’s dialectic of liberation, particularly on national consciousness, which links the individual’s psychological liberation to the collective nature of social action. The exiling of the Pan-African Congress and the African National Congress (ANC) – vanguards of the anti-Apartheid resistance movements – in the 1960s silenced Black political expression in South Africa for some time, inhibiting the ground gained by Black Consciousness as many felt it to be impossible to achieve autonomy. However, Biko still believed that, though difficult, self-determination could be achieved through a dismissal of settler values which Fanon defines as inherently ‘separatist and regionalist’. Thus, Black Consciousness was a political movement whose philosophy was not simply strategic, but a demand for total liberation.’ 

Significant agents in the struggle for liberation was the national middle class who were held responsible by Fanon and Biko to mobilise and politically educate the rural populations, the ‘nuclei of the struggle, yet instead an antagonism exists between the ‘native’ who is excluded from the advantages of colonialism and his counterpart who turns colonial exploitation to his advantage. The Apartheid government ensured this Manichean society through the installation of Bantustans, segregated self-governing homelands to which Black South Africans were designated, which were governed by regime-appointed members of the community. Instinctively, this society nurtures internal hostilities as survival becomes the primary motive for the oppressed, white domination is maintained by fear and force where ‘natives’ are bowed but not broken. While Fanon stresses the importance of collectivism and humanism to combat internal dichotomies, Biko adopts the stand that oppression is not tribal nor individual, but fundamentally racist. National culture should be malleable and evolutionary, uninhibited by the static nature of ‘native tradition’: a psychological construct molded by the settler to ensure superiority, the misinterpretation of a so-called “primitive society” based purely on speculation. Both Fanon and Biko call for the acknowledgement of this distorted past as a point of reference of the diametrical direction nations must take to ensure effective liberation as, ‘…the proof of success lies in the whole social structure being changed from bottom up,’ which creates an environment that nurtures the ideals of a new nation. 

Through their philosophies, both Fanon and Biko challenged oppressive regimes by rejecting the authority they imposed and empowering the people to embrace their autonomy. They envisioned a utopian reality absent of Occidental structures and prejudices, where classifications of race, culture, class, religion, and ethnicity have no worth. In other words, they dreamed of an egalitarian world. Many have criticised the optimism and practicality of their individual visions, flawed in their idealism of having too much faith in humanity. Yet it is this idea itself that is radical: the first step in the fight against discrimination is defining the desired outcome. Therefore, Fanon and Biko must not be reduced to their time, as their philosophies are still applicable today vis à vis the living legacy of colonialism. 

Written by Megan Sickmueller

Bibliography:

Ahluwalia, Pal, and Zegeye. A, “Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko: Towards Liberation.” Social Identities 7, no. 3 (2001): 455–469.  

Fanon. F, The Wretched of the Earth, (London: Penguin Classics, 2001) 

Gibson, Nigel C. “Upright and Free: Fanon in South Africa, from Biko to the Shackdwellers’ Movement (Abahlali baseMjondolo).” Social Identities 14, no. 6 (2008): 683–715. 

Olorunsola .V, and Vaitheswaran. R, Reflections Prompted by Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth”: A Review Essay, Review of The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon. The Journal of Developing Areas, 123-126, Vol. 5 No. 1, October 1970. 

Shatz. A, “Where Life Is Seized,” Review of Écrits sur l’aliénation et la liberté, by Frantz Fanon. The London Review of Books Vol. 39 No. 2, January 19, 2017, https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v39/n02/adam-shatz/where-life-is-seized  

Young. R, “Frantz Fanon and Decolonization”, New York University, 2019, https://as.nyu.edu/departments/xe/curriculum/past-semester-courses/courses-fall-2019/frantz-fanon-and-decolonization.html 

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