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Fanon’s Project Remains Unfinished—and Still Relevant Today

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Frantz Fanon remains vital not only for his bracing anti-racism and anti-colonialism, but equally for the less-recognized, empathetic politics of solidarity he cultivated and exemplified.

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Fanon’s Project Remains Unfinished—and Still Relevant Today
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In no way is it up to me to prepare for the world coming after me,” Frantz Fanon writes in his classic first book, Black Skin, White Masks (1952). “I am resolutely a man of my time.” Yet, over sixty years later, the presence and influence of Fanon appears to be everywhere, from student movements in South Africa to racial violence in Ferguson, Missouri, and other parts of the United States.

Fanon’s interrogation of racial attitudes—white and black alike—and his commitment to the Algerian independence struggle—a country not his by birth—continue to offer lessons for our political present. His arguments speak to the persistent problem of racism, but, more significantly, the importance of activism beyond our own, often self-imposed, limits. I want to stress this last point in particular. Fanon remains vital not only for his bracing anti-racism and anti-colonialism, but equally for the less-recognized, empathetic politics of solidarity he cultivated and exemplified.

Born on the island of Martinique in the French Antilles, Fanon died from cancer at the age of thirty-six in 1961. Despite its brevity, Fanon lived a full and complex life, studying under the famed Negritude poet Aimé Césaire, serving in the French resistance during the Second World War, earning a medical degree at the University of Lyon, and circulating with esteemed intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. He completed three books, most famously The Wretched of the Earth (1961), which detailed his argument for anti-colonial revolution based on his experiences serving the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) during its long struggle against French rule. Published just days before his death, The Wretched of the Earth established Fanon’s reputation.

But Fanon has remained a polarizing figure for many precisely because of his advocacy for armed struggle. His rationalization of anti-colonial violence has served as a source of inspiration and condemnation both, with Hannah Arendt, among other critics, remarking on the “rhetorical excesses” and “irresponsible grandiose statements” of Fanon and his supporters like Sartre, who wrote the preface to The Wretched of the Earth.

Violence has consequently been a troublesome topic for Fanon’s admirers—an issue intrinsic to his politics, yet one often handled carefully. Many have correctly pointed out that Fanon defined violence in a specific sense, as a distinct response to the sheer violence of French colonialism. Anti-colonial violence was, in a Sartrean manner of speaking, an anti-violence violence. The colonized of Algeria were faced with a decisive choice: either accept continued dehumanization by a colonial power or fight for their dignity.

But this focus on violence also obscures Fanon’s other contributions. Indeed, his critics often overlook his practice as a psychiatrist in Algeria and Tunisia and his deliberate inclusion in The Wretched of the Earth’s penultimate chapter of medical cases regarding the physical and psychological trauma of total war. Fanon was all too aware of the costs borne by both Algerians and the French, combatants and civilians, women and men, and adults and children, as his diverse set of patients attested.

This recognition of a shared dehumanization is first explored in Black Skin, White Masks. Less appreciated when it first appeared, this book has arguably surpassed its famed successor. As examined by Lewis GordonAto Sekyi-Otu, and Reiland RabakaBlack Skin, White Masks is primarily concerned with the limits of French citizenship—the fact of blackness in the face of French nonracial claims to the contrary. Though citizenship had been granted to all Martinicans, regardless of race, following the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century, Fanon understood, similar to his African-American contemporaries like Richard Wright, that equality was not possible due to his “epidermal” condition.

It is on this point—the juridical promise, yet social limits, of citizenship—that continuities can be drawn between Fanon’s world of the 1950s and our world today. Indeed, the problem of race cut both ways for Fanon. Similar to the mutual dehumanization that resulted from colonialism, Fanon emphasized the mutual dehumanization that resulted from racism. “The black man is not. No more than the white man,” he declared, underscoring the illusory, damning qualities of race, whether as a source of imposed inferiority or feigned superiority.

Black Skin, White Masks is undoubtedly a complex work—his most psychiatric by far—and he does not call for decolonization in the direct manner of his final book. It marks an internal civic critique of France, in a manner akin to Wright and his fellow expatriate James Baldwin toward the United States. Fanon, though fully aware of systemic racism, believed in classic psychiatric fashion that change should begin at the individual level—a point later embraced by Steve Biko, also a former medical student before founding the Black Consciousness Movement during the late 1960s.

Yet Fanon would move beyond this early position as reflected in his personal movements from France, where he studied medicine; to Algeria, where he worked as a psychiatrist; and, finally, to Tunisia, where he spent the rest of his life, except for a brief stay in Accra. By the time of his death, he believed that revolution, at the societal level, was the ultimate solution to the ills introduced by colonialism. But to conclude that Fanon thought violence alone would bring change is both a misreading of his writings on violence, as well as a reductive take on his personal politics.

A less addressed, if conspicuous, aspect of his political life is how Fanon identified with a cause beyond his own background. He was not Algerian, nor an Arab, nor a Muslim by birth. Indeed, he was middle class, received an elite education, and was a French citizen, as cited. Fanon was not of the wretched of the earth. Yet he developed a deep sense of solidarity with the Algerian struggle, based on a mutual history of racial discrimination and colonial chauvinism. An outcome of his contingent internationalism, this radical empathy not only had practical effects on his life direction. This solidarity also forcefully disrupted a politics of difference—by race, nation, culture, and class—established by colonialism. This form of empathetic politics that was grounded in his medical work, informed by his readings in philosophy, and expressed in his political journalism and diplomacy for the FLN actively undermined a colonial order that sought to divide and circumscribe the free will of colonial subjects. Radical empathy thus provided a subterfuge for problems of difference and inferiority introduced by colonialism, beyond the tactics of armed struggle alone.

Fanon did not use the expression “radical empathy.” Though this ethic implicitly emerges in his later writing, its most meaningful expression appears in “actional” (to use a word of his), rather than written, ways. Indeed, philosophy, African and otherwise, too often privileges the written text. Yet this unspoken practice supplied a foundation for Fanon’s understanding of a “new humanism”—a recurring expression in his work that pointed to a world without social distinctions, whether on the basis of race, class, culture, or nation.

In this sense, Fanon’s project remains unfinished—and still relevant today. While some may dismiss such politics as utopian and, thus, too impractical, such criticism neglects the price of non-action, as well as the acute severity of political alternatives—whether violence in its oppositional or institutionalized forms. From Ferguson to South Africa, we can see the continued effects of political indecision, how tragic events that initially appear isolated and contingent can form part of a pattern, become part of a dehumanizing routine. Transcending differences by empathizing with one another—not simply embracing pre-given solidarities of soil or descent, which are often deeply colonial in their inception—provides a different option. Among many principles, perhaps this is Fanon’s most enduring lesson.

This post is from a new partnership between the African website Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week.

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Christopher J. Lee, a historian, has published five books, including on Fanon and Alex la Guma. He is currently completing a book on Kwame Anthony Appiah.

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Haiti: The Struggle for Democracy, Justice, Reparations and the Black Soul

Only the Haitian people can decide their own future. The dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse and its imperialist enablers need to go – and make space for a people’s transition government.

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Haiti: The Struggle for Democracy, Justice, Reparations and the Black Soul
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Haiti is once again going through a profound crisis. Central to this is the struggle against the dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse. Since last year Mr. Moise, after decreeing the dismissal of Parliament, has been ruling through decrees, permanently violating Haiti’s constitution. He has refused to leave power after his mandate ended on February 7, 2021, claiming that it ends on February 7 of next year, without any legal basis.

This disregard of the constitution is taking place despite multiple statements by the country’s main judicial bodies, such as the CSPJ (Superior Council of Judicial Power) and the Association of Haitian Lawyers. Numerous religious groups and numerous institutions that are representative of society have also spoken. At this time, there is a strike by the judiciary, which leaves the country without any public body of political power.

At the same time, this institutional crisis is framed in the insecurity that affects practically all sectors of Haitian society. An insecurity expressed through savage repressions of popular mobilizations by the PNH (Haitian National Police), which at the service of the executive power. They have attacked journalists and committed various massacres in poor neighborhoods. Throughout the country, there have been assassinations and arbitrary arrests of opponents.

Most recently, a judge of the High Court was detained under the pretext of promoting an alleged plot against the security of the State and to assassinate the president leading to the illegal and arbitrary revocation of three judges of this Court. This last period has also seen the creation of hundreds of armed groups that spread terror over the entire country and that respond to power, transforming kidnapping into a fairly prosperous industry for these criminals.

The 13 years of military occupation by United Nations troops through MINUSTAH and the operations of prolongation of guardianship through MINUJUSTH and BINUH have aggravated the Haitian crisis. They supported retrograde and undemocratic sectors who, along with gangsters, committed serious crimes against the Haitian people and their fundamental rights.

For this, the people of Haiti deserve a process of justice and reparations. They have paid dearly for the intervention of MINUSTAH: 30 THOUSAND DEAD from cholera transmitted by the soldiers, thousands of women raped, who now raise orphaned children. Nothing has changed in 13 years, more social inequality, poverty, more difficulties for the people. The absence of democracy stays the same.

The poor’s living conditions have worsened dramatically as a result of more than 30 years of neoliberal policies imposed by the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), a severe exchange rate crisis, the freezing of the minimum wage, and inflation above 20% during the last three years.

It should be emphasized that, despite this dramatic situation, the Haitian people remain firm and are constantly mobilizing to prevent the consolidation of a dictatorship by demanding the immediate leave of office by former President Jovenel Moïse.

Taking into account the importance of this struggle and that this dictatorial regime still has the support of imperialist governments such as the United States of America, Canada, France, and international organizations such as the UN, the OAS, and the EU, the IPA calls its members to contribute their full and active solidarity to the struggle of the Haitian people, and to sign this Petition that demands the end of the dictatorship as well as respect for the sovereignty and self-determination of the Haitian people, the establishment of a transition government led by Haitians to launch a process of authentic national reconstruction.

In addition to expressing our solidarity with the Haitian people’s resistance, we call for our organisations to demonstrate in front of the embassies of the imperialist countries and before the United Nations. Only the Haitian people can decide their future. Down with Moise and yes to a people’s transition government, until a constituent is democratically elected.

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Deconstructing the Whiteness of Christ

While many African Christians can only imagine a white Jesus, others have actively promoted a vision of a brown or black Jesus, both in art and in ideology.

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Deconstructing the Whiteness of Christ
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When images of a white preacher and actor going around Kenya playing Jesus turned up on social media in July 2019, people were rightly stunned by the white supremacist undertone of the images. They suggested that Africans were prone to seeing Jesus as white, promoting the white saviour narrative in the process. While it is true that the idea of a white Jesus has been prevalent in African Christianity even without a white actor, and many African Christians and churches still entertain images of Jesus as white because of the missionary legacy, many others have actively promoted a vision of Jesus as brown or black both in art an in ideology.

Images of a brown or black Jesus is as old as Christianity in Africa, especially finding a prominent place in Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has been in existence for over sixteen hundred years. Eyob Derillo, a librarian at the British Library, recently brought up a steady diet of these images on Twitter. The image of Jesus as black has also been popularised through the artistic project known as Vie de Jesus Mafa (Life of Jesus Mafa) that was conducted in Cameroon.

The most radical expression of Jesus as a black person was however put forth by a young Kongolese woman called Kimpa Vita, who lived in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Through the missionary work of the Portuguese, Kimpa Vita, who was a nganga or medicine woman, became a Christian. She taught that Jesus and his apostles were black and were in fact born in São Salvador, which was the capital of the Kongo at the time. Not only was Jesus transposed from Palestine to São Salvador, Jerusalem, which is a holy site for Christians, was also transposed to São Salvador, so that São Salvador became a holy site. Kimpa Vita was accused of preaching heresy by Portuguese missionaries and burnt at the stake in 1706.

It was not until the 20th century that another movement similar to Vita’s emerged in the Kongo. This younger movement was led by Simon Kimbangu, a preacher who went about healing and raising the dead, portraying himself as an emissary of Jesus. His followers sometimes see him as the Holy Spirit who was to come after Jesus, as prophesied in John 14:16. Just as Kimpa Vita saw São Salvador as the new Jerusalem, Kimbangu’s village of Nkamba became, and still is known as, the new Jerusalem. His followers still flock there for pilgrimage. Kimbangu was accused of threatening Belgian colonial rule and thrown in jail, where he died. Some have complained that Kimbangu seems to have eclipsed Jesus in the imagination of his followers for he is said to have been resurrected from the dead, like Jesus.

Kimbangu’s status among his followers is however similar to that of some of the leaders of what has been described as African Independent Churches or African Initiated Churches (AICs). These churches include the Zionist churches of Southern Africa, among which is the amaNazaretha of Isaiah Shembe. Shembe’s followers see him as a divine figure, similar to Jesus, and rather than going to Jerusalem for pilgrimage, his followers go to the holy city of Ekuphakameni in South Africa. The Cameroonian theologian, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, in his Christianity Without Fetish, see leaders like Kimbangu and Shembe as doing for their people in our own time what Jesus did for his people in their own time—providing means of healing and deliverance in contexts of grinding oppression. Thus, rather than replacing Jesus, as they are often accused of doing, they are making Jesus relevant to their people. For many Christians in Africa, therefore, Jesus is already brown or black. Other Christians still need to catch up with this development if we are to avoid painful spectacles like the one that took place Kenya.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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In Magufuli’s Shadow: The Stark Choices Facing Tanzania’s New President

One immediate concern is what steps Hassan will take on the pandemic, and whether she will change direction.

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In Magufuli’s Shadow: The Stark Choices Facing Tanzania’s New President
Photo: Flickr/Gospel Kitaa
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The sudden death of Tanzania’s President John Pombe Magufuli has thrown the East African nation into a period of political uncertainty.

Vice-president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, has been sworn in as his successor, making her Tanzania’s first woman president.

The transition is all the more challenging given the major rupture – both political and economic – caused by Magufuli’s presidency. Magufuli, who won a second term in October 2020, dramatically centralised power and pursued an interventionist economic policy agenda. He courted controversy on a number of fronts, most recently, by claiming that Tanzania – contrary to mounting evidence – was Covid-free.

Hassan has called for unity and counselled that now is not the time to look at what has passed but rather to look at what is to come.

Despite the 61-year-old leader’s forward-looking stance, questions remain about how Magufuli’s legacy will shape her time in office.

The authoritarian turn

Magufuli oversaw the marginalisation of opposition parties and a decline in civil liberties. His first term was defined by heightened intimidation and violence against opposition leaders, including disappearances and physical attacks.

Thanks to five years of repression, the October 2020 general elections saw the opposition all but wiped out of elected office. The ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi now controls all local government councils. It also holds 97% of directly elected legislative seats, up from 73% in 2015.

In addition, media freedom and civil liberties were also restricted. A law passed in 2018 imposed jail terms for questioning the accuracy of official statistics.

But Magufuli’s authoritarian tendencies were not unprecedented in Tanzania. For instance, the rule of his predecessor Jakaya Kikwete was also marred by human rights abuses as well civil society and media repression. Kikwete also cancelled Zanzibar’s 2015 election due to a likely opposition victory.

It remains to be seen whether Hassan will adopt a more liberal approach, loosening restrictions on opposition parties, the media and civil society. Even if she does, the damage will take time to repair. Opposition parties, for instance, may well struggle to regain their strength. Among other setbacks, they have lost almost all local elected representatives – a core element of their organisational infrastructure built up painstakingly over decades.

Centralising power in the party

Another key pillar to Magufuli’s legacy is the centralisation of power within the Chama Cha Mapinduzi.

In the early years under founding president Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s ruling party was dominated by the president and a hierarchy of appointed state and party officials. But, following economic liberalisation in the 1980s and Nyerere’s retirement from politics, the party became steeped in factional rivalries. These were spurred by new political alliances and an emerging private sector business elite.

This factionalism reached its height under Kikwete amid accusations of widespread corruption. Magufuli’s nomination as party presidential candidate only occurred because the rivalry among these factions left him as the unexpected compromise candidate.

Once in office, though, Magufuli quickly signalled he would be nobody’s puppet. He used his position as ruling party chairman to create a “new” Chama Cha Mapinduzi. This involved breaking with party heavyweights, including Kikwete, suppressing factional organising, and consolidating his own support base.

Magufuli’s new base was a cohort of freshly appointed party officials as well as civil servants and cabinet ministers. His loyalists likened these changes to a revival of Nyerere’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi. But, in our view, the comparison is misleading.

Like Magufuli before her, Hassan will be taking office – and party leadership – without her own political base. She will also have to contend with revived factional manoeuvring as sidelined groups try to regain an upper hand.

Hassan could align with a loyal Magufuli faction, which includes influential figures within the party. But, early indications suggest she intends to follow the advice of “party elders”, notably Kikwete. The former president reportedly attended the party’s most recent central committee meeting on Hassan’s invitation.

Aligning herself with Kikwete will likely lead to the reemergence of the internal factional rivalries that characterised the former president’s tenure.

Implications for economic policy

If president Hassan does continue to take a political steer from Kikwete, one likely outcome is that there will be a change in economic policy. In particular, a return to growth that’s led by a more business-friendly approach to the private sector.

Calls are already being made for such a course of action..

The danger for Hassan, however, is that under Kikwete this model was associated with high levels of corruption and unproductive rent-seeking.

A careful reassessment of the Magufuli era is needed to guide future policymaking.

Magufuli used his control over the ruling party to pursue an ambitious policy agenda. This was also linked to his political project of centralising power.

Although this trend actually began under Kikwete, Magufuli accelelrated a move towards more state-led investment. Under his leadership, both state-owned and, increasingly, military-owned enterprises were offered strategic contracts.

This ambitious programme initially won him praise. But over time, his authoritarian decision-making, mismanagement, and lack of transparency prompted a more critical response.

Many state enterprises remained cash-starved, relied on government financial support, and registered losses.

When the government’s controller and auditor general called for more scrutiny of public finances, his budget was slashed. And he was ultimately forced to retire and replaced by a Magufuli loyalist.

Alongside state investment, the president also sought to discipline private sector actors. Some observers suggest that this led to more productive investment, notably by domestic investors. But others point to renewed crony capitalist ties.

Magufuli’s most high profile corporate battle was against Canadian-owned Barrick Gold and its former subsidiary, Acacia Mining. From the two, he demanded USD$190 billion in tax arrears and a renegotiation of operating terms.

Many saw this resource-nationalist approach as an inspiration and a model for African countries seeking to take greater control of their mineral wealth. But in the end – partly due to externally imposed legal and economic constraints – Magufuli walked back on some of his demands. Instead he opted for cooperation rather than confrontation.

He negotiated a joint venture in which Barrick took a majority stake of 84% and Tanzania the remaining 16%. Key elements of the nationalistic mining legislation passed in 2017 were also reversed.

On the plus side gold overtook tourism as Tanzania’s biggest foreign-exchange earner. In addition, some small-scale miners saw their livelihoods improve. Results were more mixed elsewhere, especially for Tanzanite miners in the country’s north.

Ultimately, Magufuli leaves behind a mixed economic legacy. It combines misdirected authoritarian decision-making with positive efforts to pursue an active industrial policy. Reining in unproductive domestic investors and renegotiating adverse contracts with foreign investors were part of this agenda.

There is a risk, given this complex mix, that Tanzania’s policymakers may learn the wrong lessons from his presidency, leading back to the flawed model existing before.

Significantly, neither Magufuli nor his predecessors managed to achieve more inclusive growth. For this reason poverty levels have remained stubbornly high.

The pandemic and beyond

One immediate concern is what steps Hassan will take on the pandemic, and whether she will change direction.

Whatever she does, the health emergency and associated economic crisis will likely define her presidency. It could indeed define the economic trajectory of the African region in years to come.

Both Kikwete and Magufuli ruled through an economic boom period. Commodity prices were high and access to international finance was fairly easy. This gave them latitude to choose between various development approaches.

If Tanzania reverts to the status quo of the Kikwete years, the risk is a reemergence of rent-seeking but without the same highly favourable economic growth conditions. Indeed, as external conditions worsen, Hassan may find her options far more limited.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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