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Fanonian practices in post-apartheid South Africa
© Abahlali

Reflecting on the experiences and ethos behind South Africa's Abahlali baseMjondolo shackdwellers movement, Nigel C. Gibson considers the group's 'living politics' in relation to the philosophy of liberation espoused in Frantz Fanon's classic 'The Wretched of the Earth'. With Abahlali growing on the strength of organised, bottom-up protest against the 'ordering and geographical layout' of post-apartheid South Africa, Gibson stresses the movement's significance in challenging those in positions of governmental authority to put the poor themselves at the forefront of solutions to poverty.

'The nation does not exist in the programme which has been worked out by revolutionary leaders … [but] in the muscles and intelligences of men and women.' Frantz Fanon, 'The Wretched of the Earth'

To speak about Fanonian practices in post-apartheid South Africa one first needs to think about the question of method in two not necessarily opposite directions. First, as an engagement with Fanon’s critique of decolonisation in its contemporary South African context; and second, from the perspective of new emergent movements of the damned of the earth that challenge philosophy. At the same time, since philosophy – not simply practical philosophy but an elemental philosophy of liberation – is always already present in the strivings of liberation of the damned of the earth,[1] a philosophic moment makes itself heard when the exchange of ideas becomes grounded in both the strivings for freedom and lived experience from those excluded, marginalised and dehumanised and when, as Marx puts it, philosophy grips the masses. These dialogues – often hidden, underground and subjugated – make up what could also be called a philosophy of liberation.

Since his death, practising Fanon’s philosophy of liberation has taken many forms. For example, one could consider the resonances of James Cone’s 'Black Theology of Liberation' in the US or Paulo Friere’s 'Pedagogy of Liberation' in Brazil[2] (Cone 1986, 1997; Friere 1970). Each drew significantly upon Fanon as a liberation theorist. But on the African continent it was Steve Biko in South Africa who was perhaps the most significant practitioner of Fanon.[3] In a new context Biko extended Fanon’s project and developed 'Black consciousness' as a philosophy of liberation. In this paper I want to consider how Fanon’s philosophy of liberation is being challenged by new movements from below, specifically the shackdweller movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), and how such a movement has made concrete the importance Fanon places on the politics of space.

While Fanon’s philosophy of liberation emerges from a specific physical space, 'reality' has a proper time and the form of his work is therefore 'rooted in the temporal' (1967 104, 14). 'Every human problem', Fanon adds, 'must be considered from the standpoint of time' (1967 14–15). Yet we are stuck in time, a neocolonial/post-colonial time. At the same time the present also seems far away from Fanonian invention. Indeed, so much has changed since Fanon’s day that it is fashionable to remark that Fanon is no longer relevant.[4] And, certainly, in today’s globalised, 'post-race' liberal 'cosmopolitan' world, the colonial world that Fanon described so vividly seems no longer applicable. After all, in South Africa, apartheid, that bulwark of colonial terrorism, has officially ended. We can date that 'ending' to April 1994, when the African National Congress (ANC) won the first fully franchised election. We could even create a timeline which would include the date of Nelson Mandela’s release from Victor Verster Prison on 11 February 1990, the repeal of the pass laws in 1986 and so on. We could review the new constitution of South Africa and its guarantees of rights and freedoms, we could look at successful governmental elections and at South Africa’s economy, all of which seem to prove Fanon wrong. The question is, is Fanon’s critique simply outdated? Indeed, some might wonder whether Fanon’s philosophy of liberation is still relevant to contemporary realities.

Yet the Ghanaian Fanon scholar Ato Sekyi-Otu forcefully argues that Fanon’s 'slight revision of the Marxist analysis' is manifest in the elevation of spatial metaphors in the structure of dominance. Thus, added to a critique of inequality and the Manichean haves and have-nots, Sekyi-Otu’s reading of Fanon’s 'stretched Marxism' emphasises how the 'absolute difference and radical irreciprocity' of the coloniser–colonised relation is made manifest spatially (Sekyi-Otu 72–3). In 'The Wretched' Fanon argues that the oppressed is literally pressed from all sides and is only able to find freedom of movement in dreams of muscular prowess. Colonialism is also an experience of spatial confinement, of restraint and prohibition, a narrow world of poverty, oppression and subjugation. Fanon’s description of the open and strongly built colonial city, a town of light and plenty on the one hand and the cramped oppressive hungry 'native town' on the other (1968 39) as well as the Manicheanism of the colonial world – with its absolute difference between the coloniser and colonised, which finds its apogee in apartheid – is thus clearly expressed in spatial realities. In the colonial world 'space and the politics of space "express" social relationships and react against them' (Lefebvre 2003 15). Because the socio-economic spatial reality of the compartmentalised, divided colonial world can never mask human realities, an examination of this division – 'the colonial world’s … ordering and its geographical layout' – Fanon argues, 'will allow us to mark out the lines on which a decolonized society will be reorganized' (1968 38-40). In other words, since social relations are manifested in space, one Fanonian test of post-apartheid society is to what extent South Africa has been spatially reorganised. On this score, it is quite clear that 'deracialisation' of the city has been an essentially 'bourgeois' phenomenon with full membership and rights now accessed by money and consequentially with urban policy – under the guise of providing 'housing' – geared mainly toward the removal of the poor from urban areas.[5]

In other words, by creating urban settlements, the shackdwellers had created some freedom for themselves as apartheid began to crumble but with plans to remove these urban settlements, the post-apartheid policy of 'slum clearance' is a return to the Manicheanism of the earlier period.[6] A fixation on creating 'formal' structures – the government has built around two million housing units since 1994 – tells us very little of the new housing for the poor. Those frightfully small and poorly built structures called houses[7] are based on the removal of the poor from city centres and built far away from bourgeois eyes and fears outside urban spaces. The poor are othered, uninvited and the shack communities fragmented. Post-apartheid housing, whether that be gated communities, or temporary tin shacks thus reinforces spatial segregation.[8] In the minds of the city planners, urban policy technicists and real estate speculators, and FIFA (World Cup) administrators, a 'world class' city cannot be built with shack settlements in the line of sight. Moreover, shack settlements and middle-class housing cannot exist side by side. And just as with other gentrification schemes, under the guise of 'upgrades' the poor are 'removed' from the city. These 'forced removals' – to use the language of apartheid – are the outcome of the ANC’s current promotions of 'slum clearance' which threaten millions of people who live in urban shack settlements with removal to 'transit camps' and other so-called 'temporary' tin-shack housing.[9] So what is at stake in Fanonian practices is not simply a critique of government failures and its inability to keep up with housing needs in terms of sheer numbers but the ways the 'ordering and geographical layout' of post-apartheid South Africa remaps apartheid.

Since colonialism is about the expropriation of space it is immediately political. Addressing the politics of space, Fanon challenged the newly independent nations to deal with the legacies of colonialism by redistributing land and decentralising political power, vertically and horizontally. This move seems counter-intuitive in the context of Fanon’s critique of regionalism and chauvinism, and the threat of xenophobia, but the point is that the degeneration of national liberation arises in part from the race to take over the seats of power, leaving intact the privileges of the centres of colonial administration and expropriation. Additionally, for South Africa, Fanon’s critique is an important challenge to the centralistic and hierarchical culture of the ANC. As Fanon argues, decentralisation is not simply an administrative or technical issue, it is connected with the goal of involving the damned of the earth in what the shack dweller organisation Abahlali baseMjondolo call a 'living politics'.[10] And explaining to the formerly excluded but newly politicised people that the future belongs to them, that they cannot rely on an imaginary leader, prophet, or anybody else (1968, 197) necessitates a decentralisation of politics, but also that emergent movements demand it and challenge intellectuals to break with their elitism and work out new concepts.

Born in Durban in 2005, Abahlali baseMjondolo (Zulu for people who live in shacks) has become the largest autonomous grassroots organisation in South Africa, with members across the country.[11] Propelled by those who have almost nothing, the shackdweller’s movement, which lives in a daily state of emergency and contingency, represents a truth of post-coloniality and offers a critique of its ethics in the most Fanonian sense. After all, the damned of the earth judge wealth not only by indoor plumbing, taps and toilets, but also by human reciprocity and the relationships that develop through a rigorously democratic and inclusive movement. It is a wealth that builds on and emphasises thinking, namely the thinking that is done collectively and on a continuing basis in the shack communities. Theirs is a politics of the lived experience of scale that begins at the bottom. It challenges policy-makers 'up there' to come down to the settlements and listen to the poorest of the poor and thus by doing encourages a new language of dialogue.

The shackdweller movement represents a clear and emergent case that makes the intertwining of household and community scale explicit with national politics, and responds to Fanon’s critique and call to realise the radically humanist, decentralised national scale of postcolonial struggle. Fanon’s revolutionary theory also necessitates that space is produced differently. Abahlali may not equal Fanon’s 'future heaven',[12] but in its participatory democratic, decentralised and inclusive form, it is implicitly the idea of 'new society'. At the very least, it is a challenge to theoreticians to engage with it and rethink philosophies of liberation to help create a cognitive leap. What is significant about this new organisation is that it expresses a new beginning in the daily struggle, and its brilliance lies in its grassroots democracy and 'living politics' that is its 'own working existence'.[13] For example, while land and housing are essential elements to the struggle for a decolonised society, they understand that the struggle is ultimately about building spaces that recognise the humanity of all.

In short, the shackdwellers are voicing their right to live in the city, challenging the idea of citizenship and insisting on an active democratic polity. In this sense, these organised shackdwellers are expressing a new kind of inclusive politics from the ground up, one which appears local and reformist, such as providing services to settlements, but which is also radical and national. They do not speak in terms of a critique of 'the state', nor in terms of a critique of political economy, but they do address the politics of the state and the spatial political economy of post-colonialism that concerned Fanon: If the shackdwellers' demand for housing in the city is won – and in Durban negotiations are currently taking place between AbM and the city[14] – and if housing policy is based in fully democratic and open discussions with the poor, the spatial and political economy of the city could be radically altered, and a fundamental shift in post-apartheid social consciousness and a decisive intervention in its spatial economy could occur. Crucial to this shift, and toward the 'reconceptualization of the urban' (Lefebvre 2003 15) would be a move from technocratic state planning toward 'grassroots urban planning' (Souza 2006).

Such a radical change of consciousness, where 'the last would be first and the first last' (quoted in Fanon 1968 37), would encourage a shift in the 'geography of reason'[15] from the elitist and technical discussion of service delivery – mediated 'between those who decide on behalf of "private" interests and those who decide on behalf of higher institutions and power' (Lefebvre 2003 157) – to people’s needs mediated by the minds of those who were so recently reified as dirty, uneducated, poor, violent, criminal, not fully human and named the damned of the earth. This double movement – the de-commodification of the city and 'the new rights of the citizen, tied in to the demands of everyday life' (Lefebvre 2006 250) – would amount to a de-fetishisation of the city,[16] a shift away from the Northern-focused elite discourse of creating 'world-class' citadels in South Africa. But this movement from the praxis of 'the underside' of humanity will not be easy, nor will it come all at once. In July 2009, a new period of revolt and violent repression began with mass arrests, and a number of people have been shot dead. Indeed, Abahlali emerged from an earlier period of revolt that has been ebbing and flowing since 2004. The revolts emerge from necessity – namely from the state of emergency that is its daily reality and a historical necessity – and in the challenge to thought about the post-apartheid city itself toward humanist geographies based on people’s needs. In 2008 when xenophobic violence spread through the shack settlements across the country, Abahlali’s response was to take action while the authorities dithered. They simply declared that no one is illegal and that everyone counts: 'A person cannot be illegal. A person is a person whether they find themselves.'

The organised shackdwellers have developed an infrastructure for self-organisation in what they call the 'University of the Abahlali'. It is a new kind of organisation; not outside, not above, not separate from the shackdwellers, but self-organised and insistent on decentralisation, autonomy, grassroots democracy and accountability. It appreciates acts of solidarity but shuns money and political power from government and non-governmental groups. It is an organisation, as Fanon understood it, a 'living organism'. This living politics represents the kind of challenge to committed intellectuals and activists that Fanon mapped out in 'The Wretched', namely that intellectuals need to put themselves in 'the school of the people'. After experiences of the elitism of some left, often Northern, intellectuals who actively deny that poor people can think their own politics, S’bu Zikode, the elected chair of Abahlali argues:

'We have always thought that the work of the intellectual was to think and to struggle with the poor. It is clear that for [some] the work of the intellectual is to determine our intelligence by trying to undermine our intelligence. This is their politics. Its result is clear. We are shown to the world to not be competent to think or speak for ourselves' (Zikode 2008).[17]

In the discussions that Abahlali has named 'Living Learning' what remains crucial is the principle that the usefulness of whatever is learnt from outside the shacks in schools and university courses is judged by the lived experiences of the struggle of people in the shacks. Knowledge is thus considered neither private property nor the means for private advancement; it is to be a shared endeavour that begins by shifting the geography of reason by putting 'the worst off' at the centre.

Fanon’s visionary critique of post-colonial elite politics mapped out a 'living politics' based on a decentralised and democratic form of self-governing which opens up new spaces for the politics of the excluded from the ground up. Thus, Fanon’s project can be understood as building counter-hegemony from below that opens up spaces that fundamentally change the political status quo and contest the moral and intellectual leadership of the ruling elites. Recently Fanon's conclusions in 'The Wretched' – with their challenge to Europe and call to work out a 'new humanism' based on the inclusion, indeed centrality, in the 'enlightening and fruitful work' of nation-building (1968 204) – have been critically rearticulated by S’bu Zikode of Abahlali as he reflected on the current countrywide revolts (2009): 'It is one thing if we are beneficiaries who need delivery. It is another thing if we are citizens who want to shape the future of our cities, even our country. It is another thing if we are human beings who have decided that it is our duty to humanise the world.'


* Nigel C. Gibson is currently a research associate in Africa-African Studies at [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1] I use the phrase 'the damned' rather than 'The wretched' because I think it better emphasises the philosophical, existential and material being of those people who are damned, outside and silenced. However, throughout I use the standard English translation of Fanon’s book 'Les Damnés de la Terre': 'The Wretched of the Earth'.
[2] Friere’s 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed' has been viewed as an extensive reply to 'The Wretched'. Friere’s relationship to Africa, specifically to post-independence Guinea-Bissau should also be noted. See Friere (1978).
[3] This is certainly not to downplay the significant influence of Fanon on the revolutionary theorist Amilcar Cabral (1969) or on writers such as Ayi Kwei Armah and Ngugi wa Th’iongo. The point here is that Biko’s debt to Fanon in his creation of a philosophy of liberation. On the continuing legacy of Fanon’s thought, see Gibson 1999.
[4] See Homi Bhabha’s foreword to the new translation of 'The Wretched of the Earth' (2005). For a critique of Bhabha see Gibson 2007.
[5] In 2000, Mrs Irene Grootboom successfully brought a case before the South African Constitutional Court on behalf of 510 children and 290 adults living in deplorable conditions in Wallacedene, Cape Town. The judgment called upon the state to design and implement 'a comprehensive and coordinated program to realize the right of access to adequate housing.' The case, as liberal lawyers argued, highlighted the potential radicalism of the South African constitution. But, as Marie Huchzermeyer argues (2004: 4), the judgment did not reform the system of access to 'temporary land' but was a request for 'disaster management, i.e., temporary relief for those living in desperate or life-threatening conditions. Mrs Grootboom never got her house. The temporal realities intervened to thwart the 'victory'. On 30 July 2008 she died in a shack, still waiting for the South African government to meet her constitutional right to a home.
[6] Central to the removal (or 'relocation') is the KwaZulu-Natal Elimination and Prevention of Re-Emergence of Slums Act which Marie Huchzermeyer (2008) argues is 'not only reminiscent of apartheid policy [but] it reintroduces measures from the 1951 Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act, which was repealed in 1998'. The underlying assumption of the act is that all informal settlements should be removed and replaced by formal. This is, Huchzermeyer continues, despite admissions, even by the government, that RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) housing has removed people from their livelihoods, imposed transport burdens and made poverty worse. The 2004 'breaking new ground' policy of the national housing department sought to redress this by introducing an 'upgrading of informal settlements programme' (see Pithouse 2009).
[7] The minimum standard for a house is 30 square metres (100 square feet) of floor space and the provision of water through a standpipe. The quality of houses has in fact declined, not only from the apartheid period matchbox housing (over 250 square feet) but also from the post-apartheid 'RDP' houses. Thus critics declare that 'Mandela’s houses are half the size of Verwoerd’s.' Following the privatisation model favoured by the World Bank, houses are built through subsidies to private builders. The builders look to use the cheapest possible materials and construction to guarantee a profit. Inflation has squeezed developers’ profits, who have in turn searched to make further cuts in the quality of the buildings.
[8] Policy has been contested and alternatives developed. However the more progressive 'Breaking New Ground' which includes a proviso for 'in situ' upgrades of shacks has lain fallow (see Pithouse forthcoming). Even if lip-service is paid to it, the hegemonic position is that of removal and eradicating the shacks.
[9] Since 'slum clearance' has been largely been directed toward shack settlements in the centre of the city (which under apartheid were areas designated for 'white', 'Indian' and 'coloured') rather than settlements in the urban periphery where conditions are worse, the policy also recapitulates the apartheid policy of separation.
[10] 'Living politics' is a commitment to a politics that in Fanon’s terms speak in the language that everyone can understand: 'we must – as we always do – start with a living politics, a politics of what’s close and real to the people. This has been the basis of the movement’s success' (quoted in Ntseng and Butler).
[11] By November 2009 the paid-up membership of AbM was just over 10,000 in 53 settlements. In 2008, AbM together with the Landless People's Movement (Gauteng), the Rural Network (KwaZulu-Natal) and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign formed the Poor People’s Alliance, a national network of democratic membership based on poor people’s movements.
[12] Jovel Kovel remarks that AbM has opted 'to recreate commons … [and] have organized themselves into a modern simulacrum of the Paris Commune' (Kovel 2007, 251).
[13] A phrase Karl Marx used, referring to the Paris Commune. One could add today that the brilliance of the shackdwellers' grassroots democracy and 'living politics' is its 'own working existence'.
[14] It should be noted that at the same time the movement in Cape Town is being criminalised and shot with rubber bullets – especially since the Constitutional Court approved the 'removal' of residents of the Joe Slovo settlement to make way for a housing project that will not be affordable for the poor.
[15] 'Shifting the geography of reason' is the motto of the Caribbean Philosophical Association (CPA).
[16] Since the commodity is a social relationship between things, it is important to maintain that de-fetishisation is crucial to de-commodification. Without a critique of alienation and thingification of human relations, de-commodification is reduced to a critique of the market rather than the commodity form place and a new fetish is made of nationalised and public property.
[17] In other words, they reject the Trotskyist position that they are lumpen in need of leadership and also reject the autonomist and Maoist desire that they are the suffering poor, a blank slate upon which one can write the most beautiful characters.


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the state: Social movements as ‘critical urban planning agents’' City, Vol.10, No. 3, December, 327-342

Zikode, S’bu. 2008. 'The Burning Issue of Land and Housing'

Zikode, S’bu. 2009. 'Meaningful Engagement,'