Striving for Frantz Fanon’s Universal Human Emancipation

The relevance of Peter Hudis’s Frantz Fanon: philosopher of the barricades on Frantz Fanon’s revolutionary ideas to achieving universal human emancipation cannot be overstated. Hudis has been instrumental in helping me make sense of the current student politics, amongst other things, in South Africa because he writes Fanon for our times. Hudis sees it as a matter of extreme importance that Fanon is read in context. Fanon mostly writes in the 1950’s and 1960’s. During this time the Algerian revolution is underway, African countries are “receiving” independence from Europe. The word “receive” independence is deceiving and therefore problematic. Firstly it’s as if Africa’s independence was Europe’s to give, and secondly wars were fought for independence, it was not given. Nonetheless … In 1960 alone 17 countries gained independence from Europe, most of which were French colonies in West Africa. The African national movements were instrumental to ensuring independence. A very specific time in history, with very particular politics, and all of that has to be considered when discussing Fanon’s thoughts and how they are applicable to the South African context in 2016.

This is not a book review. I am pulling out three sections from Peter Hudis’s book that are helpful in making sense of the current student protests in South African universities. Of course the philosophies of Frantz Fanon are applicable to life in South Africa beyond the academy. The three sections I take from the book, for me, speak to the complexity of the current political moment, but also how we can think through this moment. The sections I have decided to highlight and write about in thinking through our current political climate are: the lack of ontology of blackness, the necessity to engage colonialism as a genesis of where we are, and lastly Fanon’s ideal of achieving universal human emancipation. The selected sections from the book, I write about them insofar as they are relevant for us in South Africa.

The philosophies of Frantz Fanon have been part of the current student movements in South African universities. Lines like “we can’t breath” have become part of the vocabulary of the movements. This was a statement screamed out by Eric Garner in NYC when he was being strangled by white police officers. Before Garner popularised this powerful line, it was a much-quoted Fanonism: “When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” Fanon has been heavily invoked in the student movements in university campuses all over South Africa. The current political climate at university campuses across the country necessitates a close, contextual reading of Fanon. It necessitates an engagement that asks, what does Fanon mean for us in the current South African political climate (which universities are part of), because surely what it taking place at the university is linked to wider social issues.

Peter Hudis’s book is invaluable in helping us think through the current political moment using Fanon’s philosophy as a guiding light. Fanon’s philosophies are powerful, and they contain within them the roadmap to liberation, but they require immense intellectual labour. We need a meaningful engagement with Fanon’s theories if they are to aid us in grappling with the current political moment. It is this considered engagement that will potentially aid us in formulating an appropriate response to the moment. This is why I think philosopher of the barricades is a necessary read for ALL of us interested in the current political moment. Firstly, this book helps us understand Fanon’s preoccupation with the lack of ontology (existence) of “blackness” – which I see at a point of departure in our engagement with the South African political moment. Hudis writes:

“Unlike the Jew, who (as Sartre discusses in ‘Anti-Semite and the Jew’) is over-determined by the view of themselves that they have interiorized from gentile society, blacks, Fanon contends, are ‘over-determined from the outside’ – that is, they are ‘slaves to their appearance.’ Colonial domination, a rather arbitrary social construction, creates over time a certain way of ‘seeing’, in which skin colour is presumed to have determinative importance. The individual becomes fixated on the supposed ‘fact’ of the person’s blackness. This defines not only the colonisers view of the colonized, but also the colonized view of themselves; they are ‘fixed’ and defined by the ‘gaze’ of the Other. Their ‘being’ is defined by the other – not by themselves. The black comes to see themselves as ‘black’ because of the distorted gaze of the white – who is unaware of the peculiar nature of colonial and racial domination. And since white society tends to associate ‘blackness’ with every negative trait imaginable – again, as a result of its need to justify its domination over them – blacks come to view themselves as inferior to whites. For this reason Fanon writes, ‘the black man (people) has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man (people).’ Ontology refers to the nature of being – it is the study of what constitutes the real. Fanon contends that there is no ontology of blackness, since ‘blackness’ is not a ‘natural’ reality – it is not a form of being that just ‘is.’ Blackness is instead a construct of specific social relations. It is produced, fabricated, not simply given. The black ‘exists’, as black, only in relation to the white: there is no pre-existing black essence that a black person can fall back upon. In other words, blacks ‘exists’ and are defined in negative self-relation to what they are NOT.” … Understanding this is a crucial starting point to understanding and genuinely engaging what’s going on around us.

Linked to the first point about the lack of ontology for “blackness”, a major problem with our analysis and discussions of the current political moment is the lack of historical context. Discussions about why we are where we are are often without any historical considerations. Racism as we have come to know it developed under very specific economic conditions of domination and exploitation such as slavery and colonialism. In South Africa colonisation is something we seem to skip over when we talk about our current political milieu, but it is the genesis of the struggle against white racism. It is the current student movements that have brought the issue of colonialism to the fore by demanding a decolonisation of higher education institutions. When the black students at campuses around the country are talking about economic hardships, having no access to residences, bringing a shack to campus to demonstrate the lack of housing not only on campus but in their communities, they are highlighting (intentionally or not) that the inferiority that plagues the black psyche has it’s origins in economic subjugation, but obviously thereafter “takes on a life of it’s own that surpass that of the economic.” So the socio-economic problem is not divorced from the psychological problem. In South Africa the phrase “human dignity” is often loosely thrown around without any real considerations on what it means for everyday life of black South Africans. This is something the ruling party is very guilty of doing. There is no dignity in poverty. There is no dignity in not having proper sanitation. Poverty is often wrongly framed as a personal failing, ignoring all the colonial history that created the social structure that enables poverty and sustains it. As Hudis demonstrates racism can only be overhauled by dealing with it on both the socio-economic and the psychological level. Hudis notes:

“Fanon adopts a socio-genetic approach to a study of the psyche because that is what is adequate for the object of his analysis. For Fanon, it is the relationship between the socio-economic and psychological that is of crucial import. He makes it clear, insofar as the subject matter of his concerned, that the socio-economic is first of all responsible for the affective disorders: ‘First, economic. Then, internalization or rather epidermalization of this inferiority.” Fanon never misses an opportunity to remind us that racism owes its origin to specific economic relations of domination – such as slavery, colonialism, and the effort to co-opt sections of the working class into serving the needs of capital. It is hard to mistake the Marxist influence here. It does not follow, however, that what comes first in the order of time has conceptual or strategic priority. The inferiority complex is originally born from economic subjugation, but it takes on a life of it’s own and express itself in terms that surpass the economic. Both sides of the problem – the socio-economic and the psychological must be combatted in tandem: ‘The black man (people) must wage the struggle on two levels; whereas historically these levels are mutually dependent, any unilateral liberation is flawed, and the worst mistake would be to believe their mutual dependence automatic.’”

“On these grounds he (Fanon) argues that the problem of racism cannot be solved on a psychological level. It is not an ‘individual’ problem; it is a social one. But neither can it be solved on a social level that ignores the psychological. It is small wonder that although his name never appears in the book (black skin, white masks), Fanon was enamoured of the work of Wilhelm Reich. This important Freudian-Marxist would no doubt feel affinity with Fanon’s comment, ‘Genuine desalienation will have been achieved only when things, in the most material sense, have resumed their rightful place.’” … In South Africa things are far from resuming their “rightful place” – The uprisings on campuses across the country are indicative of this. They are also symptomatic of a larger socio-economic and psychological national problem.

Fanon 2

Lastly, Fanon’s ultimate goal was to create a roadmap to achieving universal human emancipation. Although he endorsed nationalism in Algeria and in other African states, Fanon understood that nationalism had limitations. In South Africa and in other Africa states we are very aware of the shortcomings (mostly downright failure) of national movements post-independence. The big question then becomes how do you achieve universal human emancipation, while endorsing nationalism? It is clear that Fanon’s wants us as black people, as Africans, to move us towards what he called New Humanity. Not the European kind of “humanity”. According to Hudis “Fanon’s central philosophy message is that instead of trying to copy or catch up with Europe, it is time to leave it behind – not because all of the values and ideas that arose from it were necessarily wrong, but because they remained unrealised by a Europe which speaks of “man” (humanity) while slaughtering man en masse. Europe has failed humanity; but humanity is not a failure. Its renewal IS possible.” So how do we achieve the New Humanity set out by Fanon while straddling nationalism and full emancipation? Hudis through Fanon seems to think that the seeming contradiction is a necessary one, a contradiction that we need to think through. This contradiction did not come about because of Fanon. “Rather, the contradiction is endemic to the revolutionary process itself.” Hudis states:

“‘Fanon’s commitments revealed a contradiction in his position that he, in effect, never fully resolved, between the wholehearted endorsement of nationalism, and his hope that it would nevertheless produce a nation prepared to transcend its limitations of nationalism.’ This is questionable, since in the Rome speech Fanon does not issue a ‘wholehearted endorsement of nationalism.’ He wholehearted endorses the struggle for national culture and national liberation, which is not reducible (at least in his eyes) to nationalism. Nor does it appear that in the Rome speech he ‘remains divided between the genuine commitment he had to the Algerian movement on the one hand, and the continuing concern he felt for the predicament of black men and black society.’ Fanon plunged into the Algerian movement not because he moved away from concern for ‘the predicament of black men and black society’ but because he viewed the Algerian struggle as the vanguard force in weakening French colonialism and leading to the liberation of black Africa. He did not embrace Algeria’s fight because he became won over to Arab nationalism, but rather because he saw it as a catalyst to the liberation of Africa as a whole. From the start of his career he understood that ‘blackness’ is a creation of colonialism and that embracing any ontology of ‘blackness’ buys into the very logic of racism. [It is crucial then, as we talk about blackness in the current student movements in South Africa, that we don’t get trapped in the very logic of racism we are fighting against] To transcend the fixation associated with racism it is necessary to posit, as an absolute, a particularity that is not fixed or essential but which is the conduit to a new humanism. By the late 1950’s Fanon had wagered that he found that in the national liberation movement.”

“Still, is there not a contradiction between supporting a national struggle, which clearly has a nationalistic component, and seeking to achieve universal human emancipation, which transcends any form of nationalism? There certainly is a ‘contradiction’ here but it is not one that is a mere product of Fanon’s making. Nor is it a matter of him being ‘ambivalent’ about his commitments. Rather, the contradiction is endemic of the revolutionary process itself. Any effort to achieve emancipation entails a development through contradiction – a development from posing particular demands and perspectives to reaching for universal human emancipation. As Marx once put it, ‘the transcendence of self-estrangement follows the same course as self-estrangement.’ There is a tenuous, contradictory relationship between means and ends, and there is no guarantee that it will be successfully navigated – whether we are speaking in terms of struggles over race, class, or gender. An automatic, predetermined teleology is out of the question here. It is not possible to reach the goal except by certain means, but there is no guarantee that the means will be universally recognised as but a step to something else. It is always possible to fall prey to fixation, even in the struggle to liberate oneself from it. This problematic defines the very project of emancipation. One can wish the contradiction away, but it will not disappear. One can seek to deny it by skipping over the particular in order to leap to the universal, or one can ignore the universal in favour of the particular. But in either way case the contradiction is unresolved and remains to haunt us.”

It is my hope that as we strive to achieve a universal human emancipation that we do it in the Fanonian way. Because as Hudis so beautiful put it: “A movement is ‘Fanonian’ not because it consists of peasants, lumpenproletarians, or shackdwellers, any more than it is ‘Fanonian’ because it consists of the working class, students, women, gays and lesbians or blacks and other national minorities. A movement is ‘Fanonian’ insofar, and only insofar, as it ‘re-examines the question of humanity’, rejuvenates it, and actualises it.”

We Must Free Our Imaginations


“We ‘feel free’ because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.” – Slavoj Zizek

2014 was a dramatic year for LGBTI Rights on the African continent. The ‘we must free our imaginations’ videos came after Binyavanga Wainaina came out in 2014 through an article that was the ‘lost chapter’ from his book One Day I Will Write About This Place. His coming out and subsequently these videos came after the homophobic bills against homosexuality and same-sex marriage were proposed in different African states. Wainaina’s response to the homophobia and irrational justification for the prosecution of queer people in different parts of the African continent was to come out and speak out against the prosecutions. His main message was about the need to free our imagination. He asks us to imagine a different world from the one we are living.

These videos about freeing our imagination were really the inspiration for me to start writing about queerness in South Africa. So I developed the Queer Consciousness website. We often feel so helpless in the face of hate speech and homophobic violence, and I thought maybe writing about it could be a small contribution to us thinking differently and critically about being queer on this continent. The message contained in these videos really challenge us as black people to imagine the kind of Africa we would like to live. It challenges us to see the ways in which colonisation still affects us and affects how we navigate the world. The fact that in many African states colonised by the British, there is still all kinds of laws against “unnatural” acts is just one of the ways we have remained chained by colonial powers and restrictions. These videos were a great inspiration to me, and I hope they will be to you as well.






Queering Postcolonial Reality

Many of us who grow up intersex, lesbian, gay, or generally with a gender non-conforming way of being often have a difficult time in developing positive self image and self identity. Growing up is complicated further when you have to negotiate this non-gender conforming way of being and/or same-sex attraction with having an African identity. The now very famous adage “homosexuality is un-African” is a deeply held belief that has seeped into almost every segment of African society.

It has been repeated ad nauseam by different statesmen from different corners of the African continent people like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, Jahya Jemmeh of Gambia, the Congress of Traditional Leaders in South Africa. This axiom has come to hold as much power as bible scriptures. It is used at once to denounce the sexual immorality of Western society that is supposedly infiltrating Africa while at the same time promotes the sexual morality of Africans. Growing up in South Africa I was very aware of the supposed contradiction of African identity and homosexuality and how these two things couldn’t and shouldn’t intersect.

The sentiment of homosexuality as un-African is a postcolonial phenomenon. Anti-colonial movements never really addressed the question of homosexuality. The ANC was forced to deal with the issue of homosexuality towards the end of apartheid. We need a queering up of postcolonial understanding of Africa through problematizing the logic used to discriminate against homosexuality. The recent anti-homosexuality laws that have been enacted in Uganda and Nigeria and the passive response, which I read as consent, from African leaders, including South Africa, speak to the narrow and limited interpretation of postcolonial existence in postcolonial Africa.

What does it mean to be an African in postcolonial times, a time that some argue is not as “post” colonial as we would like to believe? What do we do with a postcolonial existence that does not look like the postcolonial world imagined when independence was won and democracy instituted? The ongoing battle over the “authenticity” of the African homosexual is really a battle of what does it mean to be African in the fraught postcolonial existence. Who are we and where are we situated in history? These are really big questions. It is not the task of this piece to address African existential questions. I want to take issue with the ways in which homosexual discrimination is constructed, and then talk about the possibilities for self-invention that are created by a free imagination.

The complexity of postcolonial life needs to be negotiated carefully, and moving away from simplifying human experience in African is paramount. There are three main arguments that are often evoked against homosexuality in Africa. Firstly there is a fictitious Africa that we are often told about where homosexuality never existed. Secondly, religion is used to substantiate the arguments against homosexuality. Popular scriptures are used like the famous Leviticus 18:22 to demonstrate how it is against god to have same-sex attraction. Lastly I interrogate how African homosexuals are misguidedly used to snub supposedly Western imperialism.

Postcolonial reality is burdened with complexity that will not be solved in the near future. Complexity that is baggage from colonialism, the partition of the continent, independence/democracy with “development” loans, which has all lead to unstable economies, poverty, and civil wars. People underestimate the deep and long lasting consequences that colonialism, and in South Africa apartheid, has had on African states.

One of the ways in which Africans deals with the heaviness of a colonial past that paints the African as savage, with no history, hyper sexual, and with no contribution to the development of the world – there is a creation of what Africa looked liked, what Africans used to do with their bodies prior to colonialism. This fictitious Africa is without same-sex attraction, same-sex love, and same-sex marriage. It is an Africa without any homoerotic tendencies. This fictitious Africa is a place where homosexuality doesn’t exist. In this artificial pre-colonial Africa, same-sex love has never existed. It is seen as learned from Western colonizers upon arrival.

This argument makes me wonder what does it mean to learn, adopt, and/or copy from Western countries? The structures of many African universities, physically and philosophically, are modeled after European universities. Shouldn’t they be outlawed as well? Albeit sometimes reformed, the parliamentary systems and “democracy” are all systems of governance adopted from the West. The very constitutions governing African states outlawing homosexuality as a Western construct are rough drafts from Western countries. The “homosexuality is copied from the west” excuse is an ignorant and inconsistent excuse to discriminate against homosexuals.

Anti-homosexuality arguments are draped with concern over the disappearance or pollution of African culture. The many ways in which African culture can be preserved for future generations does not include the execution of homosexuals. The best ways in which African culture and traditions can be preserved is by writing books that chronicle African life, we should be writing textbooks and novels in isiXhosa and isiZulu and other indigenous languages. We should be building language institutes and cultural centers whose main goal is to document and preserve culture. We should be making sure that schools in townships, in rural areas, in far flung areas are well equipped to teach students in the vernacular and to teach the history of the very culture in which society is trying to preserve.

Preservation of African culture, African traditions, and African ways of being means that you incentivize people who speak, read and/or write more than two, or three or four African languages. Create and subsidize publishing houses that publish work in indigenous languages. This will go much further and will actually help in preserving some essence of culture, at least in archival form. Indigenous languages are only glorified in the constitution, and South Africans love boasting to foreigners that they have eleven official languages. In reality South Africans mostly use one language, English, all the other ones are basically ornamental, unless of course you live in Stellenbosch.

Now if government leaders were interested in the preservation of African culture, languages would be a priority because we know that culture is lived through language. This is more so for African communities because many of our cultures have not been written down like most of Western culture. Our cultures are passed down mostly orally which means they live and breathe only as far as people speak and practice them. What I have outlined here are concrete steps towards the preservation of African culture and traditions. The creation of laws that seek to prohibit two people of the same-sex from loving and sexually pleasing each other will not do much for the preservation of African culture and traditions.

The issue here is not about African culture. If it were, other strategies of preserving the culture would need to be employed. Moving away from talking about a fantasy Africa is important because we need to be talking more about the Africa we want to live in, an Africa that Nelson Mandela hoped would be “at peace with itself.” An Africa at peace with itself will not be achieved by “correcting” African lesbians through rape or by imprisoning people that are suspected of being homosexuals.

In trying to understand the anti-homosexuality laws, discrimination, and violence I wonder how in the postcolonial narrative homosexuality is Western but Christianity is not branded the same. Christian fundamentalists do not even bother to engage with the arguments that Christianity is un-African. Africans who live according to the bible often act like they are better than people who don’t read the bible. It has been my experience that religious people are the most heartless and will maim people in the name of god.

When listening to the news, reading newspapers, or listening to friends talk, religion is always tip toed around. There is a double standard in our society on calling out religious fundamentalists about the ways in which they inflict pain, harass, and oppress people who are non-believers. African homosexuals have been heavily affected by the hatred of the church, and that’s what it is, hatred.

Religion is not unlinked to colonialism, and I would have imagined that as a society we would have reservations about religion, especially Christianity because it came to be a force on the African continent through missionaries. The missionaries saw the African way of life as barbaric, savage like, and in much need of civilising. The Christianity that is used to demonise homosexuality is the same Christianity that was used to demonise black people during apartheid. We often skirt around the horrible role that religion played in the construction of black Africans as other in colonialism and in apartheid South Africa.

The very people who orchestrated apartheid were reading the same bible that black South Africa were reading then, and continue to read. We are oblivious to the fact that the very notions that are used to lash out by the majority of black Africans on African homosexuals were used by white Europeans in rationalising colonisation of the African continent; indeed apartheid in South Africa.

When I think about colonisation, apartheid, and the bible I am reminded of Eugene De Kock’s confession that he really believed that he was carrying out the mission of God, that black Africans, particularly in the ANC were against God and the state and so should be killed. The bible that Eugene De Kock and many others in the South African Defence Force during apartheid carried the state issued bible with a message from P.W. Botha and it partly read: “The bible is an important part of your calling to duty. When you are overwhelmed with doubt, pain, or when you find yourself wavering, you must turn to this wonderful book of answers. …… It is my prayer that this bible will be your comfort so that you can fulfil your duty.” The “fulfil your duty” from P.W. Botha includes the mutilation of thousands of African bodies at the hands of the South African Defence Force written in a bible. The bible has now found new use, to oppress and to vilify people with divergent sexual orientations. So yes, I am extremely skeptical about the bible and I am vigilant on whom and how it is used to oppress. Religion can and has been used for the most evil of purposes. As Africans we need to be attentive indeed critical of religion because it is the very religion that was used to justify our enslavement.

The convoluted nature of postcolonial reality is revealed when draconian anti-homosexuality laws, which harken back at puritanical anti-sodomy laws, are being created by Africans to oppress fellow Africans in the name of a colonial Jesus. The messiness of postcolonial life is also revealed at burials where priests and church leaders preside over mutilated bodies of African lesbians in South Africa but fail to link the church’s hatred of homosexuality and the consent it generates for the murders of African lesbians. The Christian obsession with people’s sexuality and “how” homosexuals have sex knows no boundaries, to a point where gay pornographic videos are shown in church.

In the tirade against homosexuals many are oblivious or look the other way at African men and women who are not “gay” or “lesbian” but engage in what sociologist would call situational homosexual sex. This is the sex between people of the same-sex that would occur in prisons, in boarding school, in the mines, and in woman only spaces, not because these people necessarily identify as homosexual but the opportunity for same-sex sex presents itself. With this then I would echo Michelle Foucault’s assertion that people are not really affronted about homosexual sex per se but are unsettled by the audacity of people to actually love each other.

I advocate caution with the ways in which everything “African” is measured by “going against the West.” We need to interrogate the narrative that ALL that we are as Africans is what the West in not and vice versa. This is not to say that there aren’t differences between African cultures and Western cultures, there are, but we need to be vigilant of the simplistic rendering of acts, in this case sexual acts, as black and white. Human life is far more sophisticated than that. Human existence and world history provides a precarious and fraught colonial history that impacts on African life today. A history that is difficult to understand because it is ever shifting.

This reactionary business of always going in the opposite direction of the West, for the sake of moving in the opposite direction, just so we are not like them, is not helpful to the African Renaissance. It is not helpful in our journey of building a continent with people who are at peace with themselves. We cannot un-do colonialism; we cannot create legislation to govern people’s lives in 2014 with an invented pre-colonial existence. This is not to say that there was no pre-colonial African life, or that life should be ignored, on the contrary, we can write books about it. What I am suggesting is that, yes, we need to deal with the fact that what we are as Africans today is probably not what we would have been without colonization. But we also have to know and believe that even without the influence of colonization, what we were in 1652 we wouldn’t be the same people in 2014.

The insinuation that African homosexuals are only but a product of the West is really insulting and negates LGBTI people’s agency. It is misguided because the African homosexual has worked tirelessly to create a self without a model. The African homosexual has against horrendous odds claimed an identity that is demonized and relegated to the bottom of humanity. In spite of all of this, the African homosexual says I am here. It would seem to me that African homosexuals embody the spirit of the African Renaissance. They have taken the possibilities afforded by postcolonial reality and in South Africa by post-apartheid freedom and crafted a self, a sexual self.

Remember amongst many things taken from us by colonialism, it robbed us of a way to construct ourselves, but living in postcolonial times we have the opportunity to imagine and subsequently create the Africa and the African-self we envision. The African homosexual is probably one of the greatest examples of the prospects fashioned by living in postcolonial times, the opportunity for self-invention. Freed from the shackles of colonialism, the possibilities are endless and they include forming a sexual self that is different. There cannot put a limit placed on how we imagine a future Africa. We cannot cap the potential of human imagination in how people see themselves and their world and their future. So, instead of stoning, imprisoning, or maiming African homosexuals, I would advocate using them as examples of an uncapped imagination, of possibility, and freedom in a convoluted postcolonial reality.