A number of African economies have experienced a massive boom in wealth and investment over the past decade. Yet most ordinary Africans live in dire poverty, with diminished life expectancy and high unemployment and in societies with low levels of industrialisation. For the roots of these conditions of “under-development,” one historical account stands alone in importance: Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972).
Walter Rodney was a scholar, working class militant and revolutionary from Guyana. Influenced by Marxist ideas, he is central to the Pan-Africanist canon for many on the left. In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Rodney situates himself in several theoretical traditions: the writings of Caribbean revolutionary Frantz Fanon, the dependency theories of Andre Gunder Frank and others, the Pan-Africanist tradition, including George Padmore and C.L.R. James, and African socialism as popularised by national leaders such as Tanzania’s Julius Kambarage Nyerere and Guinea’s Ahmed Sékou Touré. As Horace Campbell describes, “His [Rodney’s] numerous writings on the subjects of socialism, imperialism, working class struggles and Pan Africanism and slavery contributed to a body of knowledge that came to be known as the Dar es Salaam School of Thought. Issa Shivji, Mahmood Mamdani, Claude Ake, Archie Mafeje, Yash Tandon, John Saul, Dan Nabudere, O Nnoli, Clive Thomas and countless others participated in the debates on transformation and liberation.”
Rodney’s scholarship and leadership in the working-class movement thus had a long reach, including within the revolutionary movement in his native Guyana. He was assassinated on June 13, 1980, likely by agents of the Guyanese government. The Nigerian novelist, Wole Soyinka, in noting Rodney’s legacy, wrote how “Walter Rodney was no captive intellectual playing to the gallery of local or international radicalism. He was clearly one of the most solidly ideologically situated intellectuals ever to look colonialism and exploitation in the eye and where necessary, spit in it.”
Rodney’s work has assumed a foundational place in understanding the legacies of slavery and colonialism in the underdevelopment that unfolded, over centuries, on the continent. The core of his analysis rests on the assumption that Africa – far from standing outside the world system – has been crucial to the growth of capitalism in the West. What he terms “underdevelopment” was in fact the product of centuries of slavery, exploitation and imperialism. Rodney conclusively shows that “Europe” – that is, the colonial and imperial powers – did not merely enrich their own empires but actually reversed economic and social development in Africa. Thus, in his extensive account of African history, from the early African empires through to the modern day, he shows how the West built immense industrial and colonial empires on the backs of African slave labour, devastating natural resources and African societies in the process. As he emphasises throughout How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, “[i]t would be an act of the most brazen fraud to weigh the social amenities provided during the colonial epoch against the exploitation, and to arrive at the conclusion that the good outweighed the bad.”
Wole Soyinka, in noting Rodney’s legacy, wrote how “Walter Rodney was no captive intellectual playing to the gallery of local or international radicalism. He was clearly one of the most solidly ideologically situated intellectuals ever to look colonialism and exploitation in the eye and where necessary, spit in it.”
For Rodney, underdevelopment is a condition historically produced through capitalist expansion and imperialism, and very clearly not an intrinsic property of Africa itself. He thus situates underdevelopment within the contradictory process of capitalism, one that both creates value and wealth for the exploiters while immiserating the exploited.
The peasants and workers of Europe (and eventually the inhabitants of the whole world) paid a huge price so that the capitalists could make their profit from the human labour that always lies behind the machines…There was a period when the capitalist system increased the well-being of significant numbers of people as a by-product of seeking out profits for a few, but today the quest for profits comes into sharp conflict with people’s demands that their material and social needs should be fulfilled.
As Rodney describes, African trade was central to its growth, most importantly through the slave trade from approximately 1445 to 1870, transforming Africa into a source of human raw material for the new colonies in North America and the Caribbean. It was to the three major powers involved in the slave trade – Britain, France and Portugal – that massive profits accrued. Trade with Africa was closely tied up with the growth of European port cities such as England’s Liverpool, with the exchange of slaves for cheap industrial goods established as the primary motor for profits of European firms. Drawing on the work of Eric Williams’s classic Capitalism and Slavery (1944), among others, Rodney concludes that the slave trade provided England with the capital for the Industrial Revolution to take off and with the dominant edge over its rivals.
Yet as Rodney shows, the “development” of African societies was thwarted in this process of capital expansion, first and foremost through the lost labour potential due to the slave trade. From its economic foundation in slavery, the range of exports from Africa narrowed to just a few commodities, undermining the development of productive capacity in Africa itself. These trade relations meant that technological development stagnated, creating a barrier to innovation within Africa itself, even in regions not directly engaged in the slave trade, because of the distorting influence on relations overall. The result, concludes Rodney, was “a loss of development opportunity, and this is of the greatest importance…The lines of economic activity attached to foreign trade were either destructive, as slavery was, or at best purely extractive.”
The Scramble for Africa and its aftermath
The nineteenth century “race for Africa” broke out, with European “explorers” seeking out access to raw materials. By the 1870s, colonial powers had expanded into new African territory, primarily through the use of force, further consolidating imperial powers and rivalries. By 1876, on the eve of the “Scramble for Africa”, European powers controlled only 10 per cent of the continent, namely Algeria, Cape Colony, Mozambique and Angola. Yet after the infamous Berlin Conference of 1885 and the partition of Africa, “The number of genuinely independent states outside of Europe and the Americas could be counted on one hand – the remains of the Ottoman Empire, Thailand, Ethiopia and Afghanistan.”
Racist ideology justified and facilitated European imperialism in Africa as a “civilizing mission”. As Rodney remarks, “Revolutionary African thinkers such as Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral…spoke of colonialism having made Africans into objects of history. Colonised Africans, like pre-colonial African chattel slaves, were pushed around into positions which suited European interests and which were damaging to the African continent and its peoples.”
Nonetheless, Africans met European expansion with great resistance, targeting forced labour schemes and taxation, restrictive land ownership laws and later, imposed forced conscription during World War I. Workers went on strike and engaged in boycotts, and nationalist organisations – many of them illegal – were formed from the earliest days of colonial rule.
Yet African resistance during that period was caught between larger forces. The European “Scramble for Africa” subjected independent states to colonial rule, transforming peasant and trading societies within a short span of time into a wage labour and cash crop system. The increasingly intense economic competition in European capitalism that eventually exploded into World War I likewise spilled over into military clashes in Africa. Alliances between and against the various powers attempted to block each other’s rivals, with France and Britain seeking competing axes of control over the continent.
Colonial brutality was the standard practice across virtually the entire continent, with the chief aim of leveraging force to subdue resistance and to extract profits. Turning Africa into a conveyor belt for raw materials and industrial goods required transportation and communication systems and, as Rodney describes, a pacified – and minimally educated – labour force. The major powers on the continent set up administrative apparatuses that in some cases utilised local rulers, but, as Rodney writes, in no instance would the colonisers accept African self-rule. Infrastructure such as roads were built not only to facilitate the movement of commodities and machinery, but also that of the colonial armies and police relied upon to “discipline” the indigenous population – whether through the expulsion of people from their land or the forced cultivation of cash crops. Industrial development was thwarted in Africa itself because manufacturing and the processing of raw materials happened exclusively overseas.
Compradors and sell-outs
Europeans divide-and-conquer tactics allowed a tiny section of African rulers to back the annexation by one power versus another. As Rodney puts it, “One of the decisive features of the colonial system was the presence of Africans serving as economic, political or cultural agents of the European colonialists…. agents or ‘compradors’ already serving [their] interests in the pre-colonial period.” Following Fanon on the role of local elites, Rodney is scathing in his contempt for the “puppets” of “metropolitan” capitalism, where “the presence of a group of African sell-outs is part of the definition of underdevelopment.”
According to Rodney, “The colonisation of Africa and other parts of the world formed an indispensable link in a chain of events which made possible the technological transformation of the base of European capitalism.” Copper from the Congo, iron from West Africa, chrome from Rhodesia and South Africa, and more, took capitalist development to unprecedented heights of what Rodney calls “investible surpluses”. The tendency within the drive for profit towards innovation and scientific advancement built a “massive industrial complex,” as Rodney described it. African trade not only generated economic growth and profits, but created capacity for future growth in what he called the “metropoles”, meaning the global centres of political and economic power located in Europe.
Colonial brutality was the standard practice across virtually the entire continent, with the chief aim of leveraging force to subdue resistance and to extract profits. Turning Africa into a conveyor belt for raw materials and industrial goods required transportation and communication systems and, as Rodney describes, a pacified – and minimally educated – labour force.
Colonial policies heightened exploitation, such as those preventing Africans from growing cash crops, which drove them into forced labour like the building of infrastructure to facilitate extraction. Thus, capital accumulation was derived at the expense of greatly-weakened African states and economies, effectively reversing previous development.
These two processes were dialectically related. As Rodney writes, “The wealth that was created by African labor and from African resources was grabbed by the capitalist countries of Europe; and in the second place, restrictions were placed upon African capacity to make the maximum use of its economic potential.”
This process of underdevelopment only intensified over time: as Rodney points out, investment and “foreign capital” in colonial Africa was derived from past exploitation and provided the historical basis for further expansion. “What was called ‘profits’ in one year came back as ‘capital’ the next…What was foreign about the capital in colonial Africa was its ownership and not its initial source.”
Development by contradiction
Rodney argued that development in the so-called “periphery” was proportional to the degree of independence from the “metropolis”, a central tenet of the dependency theorists. He looked to state-directed, national development in the post-colonial period as a template for growth, a model proven – particularly in the years after Rodney’s death – not to be viable. National development in Africa, as elsewhere, proved unable to overcome the legacy of colonialism and weak economies. The wake of such failures and the onset of global crises pushed many African states into the vice-grip of neoliberal structural adjustment “reforms” that brought only austerity and crushing Third World debt.
These ideas had a distinctive imprint on Rodney’s variant of Marxism and that of many leftists of his day. For Rodney, independence in Africa rested on “development by contradiction”, by which he meant that the contradictions within African society were only resolvable by Africans’ regaining their sovereignty as a people. In his view, the disproportionate weight and importance of even a small African working class offered potentially a more stable base of resistance.
However, he emphasises that this possibility cannot be fully realised as in the “developed” world because production in Africa proceeded on a different path than in Europe. In the latter, the destruction of agrarian and craft economies increased productive capacity through the development of factories and a mass working class. In Africa, he argues, that process was distorted: the local craft industry was destroyed, yet large-scale industry was not developed outside of agriculture and extraction, with workers restricted to the lowest-paid, most unskilled work. “Capitalism in the form of colonialism failed to perform in Africa the tasks which it had performed in Europe in changing social relations and liberating the forces of production. “So, concludes Rodney, the African working class is too small and too weak to play a liberatory role in the current period. Instead, somewhat reluctantly, he identifies the intelligentsia for that role:
Altogether, the educated played a role in African independence struggles far out of proportion to their numbers, because they took it upon themselves and were called upon to articulate the interests of all Africans. They were also required to…focus on the main contradiction, which was between the colony and the metropole…The contradiction between the educated and the colonialists was not the most profound…However, while the differences lasted between the colonizers and the African educated, they were decisive.
Thus, while Rodney sees the “principal divide” within capitalism as that between capitalists and workers, the revolutionary role for the African working class was nonetheless a task for another day. On this score, Rodney was mistaken: mass upheavals by workers across the continent have shown the capacity for struggle, from the colonial period up to the present day.
Crumbs from the colonial table
Yet, however contradictorily, Rodney’s ideas on political leadership and liberation indicate the potential for resistance under today’s conditions. First, as we have seen, Rodney – following Fanon – was keenly aware of the class contradictions embedded in the new African ruling classes, tensions bound to be thrust to the surface with greater clarity. He writes: “Most African leaders of the intelligentsia… were frankly capitalist, and shared fully the ideology of their bourgeois masters…As far as the mass of peasants and workers were concerned, the removal of overt foreign rule actually cleared the way towards a more fundamental appreciation of exploitation and imperialism.” This dynamic has only been accentuated over time.
National development in Africa, as elsewhere, proved unable to overcome the legacy of colonialism and weak economies. The wake of such failures and the onset of global crises pushed many African states into the vice-grip of neoliberal structural adjustment “reforms” that brought only austerity and crushing Third World debt.
Furthermore, Rodney implies that internationalism on a class basis lay in the historical development of capitalism and solidarity as a crucial “political” question. “European workers have paid a great price for the few material benefits which accrued to them as crumbs from the colonial table,” he writes. “The capitalists misinformed and mis-educated workers in the metropoles to the point where they became allies in colonial exploitation. In accepting to be led like sheep, European workers were perpetuating their own enslavement to the capitalists.”
Rodney’s characterisation of European workers “led like sheep” may be too simplistic a description of workers’ understanding of capitalism. But Rodney is correct in stressing that racist ideas undermined their own liberation. The “crumbs” Rodney describes are the products of divisions sown by ruling class ideology, and not of insurmountable material barriers. Actually realising this (future) possibility – that of an international movement of workers of Africa and the West – has much to be gained from Rodney’s invaluable research and analysis.
This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy.
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Lessons From India’s COVID Calamity
Neglect of the public healthcare system, suppression of scientific information and sacrificing citizen welfare for political mileage have led to the public health crisis facing India today.
An Australian newspaper called it “Modi’s COVID apocalypse”. The Indian activist and author Arundhati Roy calls it “a crime against humanity”. These descriptions of India’s current public health crisis may seem alarmist, but they are not far from the truth. By the end of April, India was recording more than 300,000 new COVID infections and nearly 3,000 deaths per day, a 30-fold increase from September last year, when the country reported a new infection rate of 11,000 per day. Media reports are showing overflowing crematoriums and hospitals overwhelmed by the number of patients seeking treatment. Reports of people dying in ambulances outside hospitals because the latter did not have enough beds or oxygen cylinders reveal a healthcare system that is on its knees.
However, according to those who are witnessing the catastrophe first-hand, the horrifying images shown in the local and international media are just a microcosm of what is really happening on the ground. Even those with money and connections are unable to secure the healthcare they need. Barkha Dutt, a famous media personality in India who lost her father to COVID last week, told ITV that despite her privileges and connections, she could not get access to the treatment her father needed. She never imagined that she would become the story that she has been covering for months. She said lack of drugs and equipment in New Delhi’s hospitals is even forcing people to go to Sikh temples, which are supplying oxygen for free to those who need it. Many families in New Delhi and other large cities are treating their sick relatives at home with oxygen cylinders, some bought at exorbitant rates on the black market. Crematoriums cannot keep up with the number of bodies arriving at their gates. The smell of death is everywhere.
Many of the current deaths are not exclusively due to the virus, but also to a lack of preparedness on the part of India’s healthcare system, which suddenly became overwhelmed due to a dramatic spike in corona cases. Analysts say the easing of restrictions and complacency on the part of Indians in general led to the crisis. People went back to work and continued with their daily lives as if there was no pandemic. The winter wedding season was in full swing in cities like New Delhi.
On its part, the government did little to avert the crisis by allowing the Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious gathering that is held along the banks of the Ganges river, to take place. The gathering became a superspreader event, as did the many political rallies held in states like West Bengal, which were attended by hundreds of people. At one such rally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi even boasted that the presence of large numbers of people at the rallies showed that his political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had massive support. Social distancing and wearing of masks were not prevalent at these crowded meetings.
In January, Modi told leaders at the World Economic Forum that India had “saved humanity from a disaster by containing corona effectively”. He said that India had defied expectations of “a tsunami of corona infections”. Now he is having to eat his own words. Not only has India, the world’s second most populous country, become the epicentre of the disease – with new aggressive variants being reported every week – but it is in the very awkward position of having to seek aid from other countries, including its long-time rival Pakistan, which has offered to help. The UK, USA and other governments plan to send oxygen and other medical supplies to India.
India has tended to view itself as a regional economic powerhouse, and so being reduced to a recipient of humanitarian aid is having a wounding effect. This is not how Modi, whose Hindu nationalist rhetoric has ignited a “Hindu First” movement in India, would like India to be viewed. India’s prime minister now finds himself reduced to having to accept medical aid for a country that has marketed itself as a destination for medical tourism and the “pharmacy of the world” that manufactures affordable drugs for developing nations. The Serum Institute of India is currently producing a large proportion of the AstraZeneca vaccine that is being rolled out in many countries. But Modi has decided to nationalise the institute as well, and has banned exports of the vaccine until the country sorts out its own health crisis, leaving millions of people around the world, including Kenya, in limbo.
India’s public healthcare system was already strained before the pandemic. The government spends a measly 1 per cent of its budget on health. The medical needs of Indians are met mostly by the private sector. Nearly 80 per cent of the healthcare in urban areas is provided by private facilities. In rural areas, 70 per cent of the population relies on private clinics and hospitals, which are unaffordable for the majority. This privatisation of healthcare has come at a huge cost. Poor Indians suffer disproportionately from preventable diseases. Malnutrition rates among mothers and children are also among the highest in the world. What we are witnessing is how neglect of public healthcare systems can have long-term negative consequences, especially during a disaster or an epidemic.
India is also a lesson in how leaders can impact the spread of a disease. Since he took office, Prime Minister Modi has tried very hard to control public perceptions about his achievements and the virtues of the BJP, which he has filled with spin doctors who try to present a rosy image of India under his leadership. Several journalists have been arrested under Modi’s watch and media organisations that call him out are dismissed as unpatriotic. News channels in India are dominated by pro-government news anchors and journalists who have twisted the narrative in favour of Modi, even when he stands in the way of press freedom. In March 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, Modi asked India’s Supreme Court to stop media organisations from publishing any COVID-related news without getting government clearance first. Thankfully, because the Supreme Court is obliged to protect the rights and freedoms enshrined in India’s constitution, including freedom of the press, the court refused his request.
What we are witnessing is how neglect of public healthcare systems can have long-term negative consequences.
Like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the USA, Modi underplayed the scale of the pandemic and painted independent media and journalists who questioned his policies as enemies of the people. As a result, more than half a million Americans, nearly 400,000 Brazilians and some 200,000 Indians have died from COVID-19. The link between a paranoid, media-hostile leadership and negative health outcomes is evident in these cases.
Many independent journalists and observers believe that the official figures on COVID deaths and infections put out by the Indian government are a gross underestimation, and that the actual figures could be two or three times more than those that are being reported. Crematoriums are reporting more cremations adhering to COVID protocols than what is being given as the official death toll from COVID-19. This could be partly because many deaths are occurring at home and so are not being reported. In addition, people who die from COVID but who were not tested are not recorded as having died from the disease.
Meanwhile, the BJP government, is assuring India’s 1.4 billion citizens that it is doing everything to increase the supply of oxygen and increase vaccination levels among those over the age of 18, but these measures are coming a little too late. The death toll is likely to rise significantly over the coming weeks.
Lack of trust in the government may be the biggest hurdle countries face as they try to contain the virus. In Kenya, the theft of COVID-19 donations last year and massive corruption scandals at the state-run medical supplies agency, KEMSA, have severely diminished citizens’ faith in the government’s willingness and ability to protect them. Moreover, apart from periodic lockdowns and curfews, there seems to be no strategy on how prevention measures will be instituted in the long term. Also no one is quite sure when vaccination will reach “herd immunity” levels; people like me who have received their first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine under the COVAX facility – a global mechanism for pooled procurement and distribution of vaccines for low and middle income countries – still don’t know for sure if they will get their second jab, a scenario complicated by the fact that Modi has temporarily banned the Serum Institute from exporting the vaccines.
India has three important lessons for Kenya and the rest of the world.
Lesson 1: Do not neglect the public healthcare system
Countries around the world such as South Korea and Uganda that have successfully contained the coronavirus, managed to do so because the containment measures were led and funded by the public sector. Mass testing and other measures could not have taken place if the government did not initiate them, and ensured their successful implementation through a nationwide network of public healthcare facilities. But for this to happen, people must have faith in the government, which is sorely lacking in many countries.
The emphasis on private healthcare in countries such as Kenya and India has also left millions of poor and low-income people completely vulnerable to epidemics and pandemics. Public healthcare systems in all countries should be beefed up so that countries are not caught unawares in the future. Like public education, public health is an investment that reaps economic and social dividends in the future. COVID-19 has shown us the folly of relying solely on the private sector to meet citizens’ health needs and the importance of investing in robust public health systems that play a key role in detecting, containing and stopping the spread of infectious diseases.
Lesson 2: Do not suppress or distort scientific information and data
Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro consistently underplayed the threat posed by the novel coronavirus disease. Trump initially referred to it as a minor flu even as hospital beds were filling up, and even as infection rates were rising. Both leaders also mocked the wearing of masks and social distancing, which American and Brazilian scientists advocated. Trump’s rallies were filled with people who ignored corona protocols. In India, some politicians even said that the pandemic was a hoax intended to prevent farmers in Punjab from organising protests against the government’s agriculture policies. By ignoring the science, and peddling false information, these leaders put their countries’ citizens in immense danger. Vilifying the press – which is often the public’s main source of corona-related data and information – in the face of a pandemic is also not a good idea.
Lesson 3. Do not sacrifice public health to gain political mileage
Politicians should not sacrifice people’s lives at the altar of politics. Prime Minister Modi could have banned pilgrims from attending the Kumbh Mela, just as he ordered a nationwide lockdown early last year. But he chose not to do so because he wanted to appease Hindus and his Hindu nationalist base. In addition, he attended massive political rallies where few people wore masks, thereby facilitating the spread of the virus. He put people’s lives in danger because he wanted to score political points for his party. In the United States and Brazil, leaders chose to keep the economy running even if it meant losing hundreds of thousands of lives. In Kenya, politicians engaged in Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) rallies even as corona cases were rising. Moreover, parliamentarians are discussing BBI amendments to the constitution rather than what measures could be taken to protect Kenyans not just from the coronavirus disease and its various variants, but also from the hardships they have had to endure in the past year due to job losses and business closures. This is the type of shortsightedness and lack of compassion and vision among the country’s leadership that has led to the public health crisis facing India today.
Towards an African Revolution: Fanon and the New Popular Movement (Hirak) Engulfing Algeria
Sixty years after the death of the revolutionary Frantz Fanon and the publication of his masterpiece, The Wretched of the Earth, Algeria is undergoing another revolution. In the first of a two-part blogpost, Hamza Hamouchene provides a brief historical account of Fanon’s anti-colonial thought, his critique of the postcolonial ruling elites and the new popular movement (Hirak) engulfing Algeria.
During the upheavals that the North African and West Asian region witnessed a decade ago – what has been dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’- Fanon’s thought proved to be as relevant as ever. Not only relevant, but insightful in helping to grasp the violence of the world we live in, and the necessity of a sustained rebellion against it.
Fanon’s wrote during in a period of decolonisation in Africa and elsewhere in the Global South. Born in Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean, though Algerian by choice, he wrote from the vantage point of the Algerian revolution against French colonialism and of his political experiences on the African continent. Today, we might ask: can his analyses transcend the limitations of time? Can we learn from him as a committed intellectual and revolutionary thinker? Or should we just reduce him to another anti-colonial figure, largely irrelevant for our post-colonial times?
For me, as an Algerian activist, Fanon’s dynamic and revolutionary thinking, always about creation, movement and becoming, remains prophetic, vivid and committed to emancipation from all forms of oppression. He strongly and compellingly argued for a path to a future where humanity ‘advances a step further’ and breaks away from the world of colonialism and European universalism. Fanon represented the maturing of anti-colonial consciousness and he was a decolonial thinker par excellence.
Despite his short life (he died at the age of 36 from leukaemia in 1961), Fanon’s thought is rich and his work, in books, papers and speeches, prolific. He wrote his first book Black Skin, White Masks in 1952, two years before Điện Biên Phủ (the defeat of the French in a crucial battle in Vietnam) and his last book, The Wretched of the Earth in 1961. His 1961 classic became a treatise on the anti-colonialist and Third-Worldist struggle, one year before Algerian independence, at a moment when sub-Saharan African countries were gaining their independence – an experience in which Fanon was deeply and practically involved.
In Fanon’s intellectual journey, we can see the interactions between Black America and Africa, between the intellectual and the militant, between theory and practice, idealism and pragmatism, individual analysis and collective action, the psychological life (he trained as a psychiatrist) and physical struggle, nationalism and Pan-Africanism and finally between questions of colonialism and those of neo-colonialism.
Fanon did not live to see his adoptive country become free from French colonial domination, something he believed had become inevitable. Yet his experiences and analysis were the prism through which many revolutionaries abroad understood Algeria and helped to turn the country into the mecca of Third World revolution.
Six decades after the publication of his masterpiece The Wretched, Algeria is witnessing another revolution, this time against the national bourgeoisie that Fanon railed against in his ferocious chapter ‘The Pitfalls of National Consciousness.’
Fanon and colonial Algeria
The Algerian independence struggle against the French was one of the most inspiring anti-imperialist revolutions of the 20th century. It was part of a wave of decolonisation that had started after the Second World War in India, China, Cuba, Vietnam and many countries in Africa. The wave of decolonisation inscribed itself in the spirit of the Bandung Conference and the era of the ‘awakening of the South’, the Third world as it was then known, which has been subjected to decades of colonial and capitalist domination under several forms, from protectorates to settler colonies.
Frantz Fanon methodically unpicked the mechanisms of violence put in place by colonialism. He wrote: ‘Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state.’ According to him, the colonial world is a Manichean world (to see things as having only two sides), which goes to its logical conclusion and ‘dehumanises the native, or to speak plainly it turns him into an animal.’
What followed the insurrection on November 1, 1954, launched by nationalist forces against the French, was one of the longest and bloodiest wars of decolonisation, which saw the widespread involvement of the rural poor and urban popular classes. Huge numbers of Algerians were killed in the eight-year war against the French that ended in 1962, a war that has become the foundation of modern Algerian politics.
Arriving at Blida psychiatric hospital in 1953 in French controlled Algeria, Fanon realised quickly that colonisation, in its essence, produced madness. For him, colonisation was a systematic negation of the other and a refusal to attribute humanity to them. In contrast to other forms of domination, the violence here was total, diffuse, and permanent.
Treating both French torturers and liberation fighter, Fanon could not escape this total violence. This led him to resign in 1956 and to join the Front de libération nationale (FLN). He wrote: ‘The Arab, alienated permanently in his own country, lives in a state of absolute depersonalisation.’ He added that the Algerian war was ‘a logical consequence of an abortive attempt to decerebralise a people’.
Fanon saw colonial ideology being underpinned by the affirmation of white supremacy and its ‘civilising mission.’ The result was the development in the ‘indigènes évolués’ (literally the more evolved natives) of a desire to be white, a desire which is nothing more than an existential aberration. However, this desire stumbles upon the unequal character of the colonial system which assigns places according to colour.
Throughout his professional work and militant writings, Fanon challenged the dominant culturalist and racist approaches on the ‘native’: Arabs are lazy, liars, deceivers, thieves, etc. He advanced a materialist explanation, situating symptoms, behaviours, self-hatred and inferiority complexes in a life of oppression and the reality of unequal colonial relations.
Fanon believed in revolutionary Algeria. His illuminating book A Dying Colonialism (published in 1959) or as it is known in French L’An Cinq de la Révolution Algérienne, shows how liberation does not come as a gift. It is seized by the popular classes with their own hands and by seizing it they are themselves transformed. He strongly argued the most elevated form of culture – that is to say, of progress – is to resist colonial domination. For Fanon, revolution was a transformative process that created ‘new souls.’ For this reason, Fanon closes his 1959 book with the words: ‘The revolution …changes man and renews society, has reached an advanced stage. This oxygen which creates and shapes a new humanity – this, too, is the Algerian revolution.’
Bankruptcy of the post-colonial ruling elites
Unfortunately, the Algerian revolution and its attempt to break from the imperialist-capitalist system was defeated, both by counter-revolutionary forces and by its own contradictions. The revolution harboured the seeds of its own failure from the start: it was a top-down, authoritarian, and highly bureaucratic project (albeit with some redistributive aspects that improved people’s lives in the reforms carried out in the first years of independence).
However, the creative experiences of workers’ initiatives and self-management of the 1960s and 1970s were undermined by a paralyzing state bureaucracy that failed to genuinely involve workers in the control of the processes of production. This lack of democracy was connected with the ascendancy of a comprador bourgeoisie that was hostile to socialism, workers control and staunchly opposed to genuine land reform.
By the 1980s, the global neoliberal counter-revolution was the nail in the coffin and ushered in an age of deindustrialization and pro-market policies in Algeria, at the expense of the popular classes. The dignitaries of the new neoliberal orthodoxy declared that everything was for sale and opened the way for mass privatization.
Fanon’s work still bears a prophetic power as an accurate description of what happened in Algeria and elsewhere in the Global South. Fanon foretold the bankruptcy and sterility of national bourgeoisies in Africa and the Middle East today. A ‘profiteering caste’, he wrote, that tended to replace the colonial ruling class with a new class-based system replicating the old structures of exploitation and oppression.
By the 1980s, the Algerian national bourgeoisie had dispensed with popular legitimacy, turned its back on the realities of poverty and underdevelopment. In Fanon’s terms, this parasitic and unproductive bourgeoisie (both civilian and military) was the greatest threat to the sovereignty of the nation. In Algeria, this class was closely connected to the ruling party, the FLN, and renounced the autonomous development initiated in the 1960s and offered one concession after another for privatizations and projects that would undermine the country’s sovereignty and endanger its population and environment — the exploitation of shale gas and offshore resources being just one example.
Today, Algeria – but also Tunisia, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, Gabon, Angola and South Africa, among others – follows the dictates of the new instruments of imperialism such as the IMF, the World Bank and negotiate entry into the World Trade Organisation. Some African countries continue to use the CFA franc (renamed Eco in December 2019), a currency inherited from colonialism and still under the control of the French Treasury.
Fanon predicted this behaviour of the national bourgeoisie when he noted that its mission has nothing to do with transforming the nation but rather consists of ‘being the transmission line between the nation and capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the masque of neo-colonialism.’ Fanon’s analysis of the class basis of independence speaks to the contemporary postcolonial reality, a reality shaped by a national bourgeoisie ‘unabashedly…anti-national,’ opting he added, for the path of a conventional bourgeoisie, ‘a bourgeoisie which is stupidly, contemptibly and cynically bourgeois.’
Fanon also noted in 1961 the international division of labour, where we Africans ‘still export raw materials and continue being Europe’s small farmers who specialise in unfinished products.’ Algeria remains in a extractivist model of development where profits are accumulated in the hands of a foreign-backed minority at the expense of dispossession of the majority.
The Hirak and the new Algerian revolution
Fanon alerted us sixty years ago that the enrichment of this ‘profiteering caste’ will be accompanied by ‘a decisive awakening on the part of the people and a growing awareness that promised stormy days to come.’ In 2019 Algerians shattered the wall of fear and broke from a process that had infantilised and dazed them for decades. They erupted onto the political scene, discovered their political will and began again to make history.
Since 22 February 2019, millions of people, young and old, men and women from different social classes rose in a momentous rebellion. Historic Friday marches, followed by protests in professional sectors, united people in their rejection of the ruling system and their demands of radical democratic change. ‘They must all go!’ (Yetnahaw ga’), ‘The country is ours and we’ll do what we wish’ (Lablad abladna oundirou rayna), became two emblematic slogans of the uprising, symbolising the radical evolution of a popular movement (Al Hirak Acha’bi). The uprising was triggered by the incumbent president Bouteflika’s announcement that he would run for a fifth term despite suffering from aphasia and being absent from public life.
The movement (Hirak) is unique in its scale, peaceful character, national spread – including the marginalised south, and participation of women and young people, who constitute the majority of Algeria’s population. The extent of popular mobilisation has not been seen since 1962, when Algerians went to the streets to celebrate their hard-won independence from France.
The popular classes have affirmed their role as agents in their own destiny. We can use Fanon’s exact words to describe this phenomenon: ‘The thesis that men change at the same time that they change the world has never been as manifest as it is now in Algeria. This trial of strength not only remodels the consciousness that man has of himself, and of his former dominators or of the world, at last within his reach. The struggle at different levels renews the symbols, the myths, the beliefs, the emotional responsiveness of the people. We witness in Algeria man’s reassertion of his capacity to progress.’
The Hirak succeeded in unravelling the webs of deceit that were deployed by the ruling class and its propaganda machine. Moreover, the evolution of its slogans, chants, and forms of resistance, is demonstrative of processes of politicisation and popular education. The re-appropriation of public spaces created a kind of an agora where people discuss, debate, exchange views, talk strategy and perspectives, criticize each other or simply express themselves in many ways including through art and music. This has opened new horizons for resisting and building together.
Cultural production also took on another meaning because it was associated with liberation and seen as a form of political action and solidarity. Far from the folkloric and sterile productions under the suffocating patronage of authoritarian elites, we have seen instead a culture that speaks to the people and advances their resistance and struggles through poetry, music, theatre, cartoons, and street-art. Again, we see Fanon’s insights in his theorisation of culture as a form of political action: ‘A national culture is not a folklore, nor an abstract populism that believes it can discover the people’s true nature. It is not made up of the inert dregs of gratuitous actions, that is to say actions which are less and less attached to the ever-present reality of the people.’
The struggle of decolonisation continues
Leaving aside largely semantic arguments around whether it is a movement, uprising, revolt or a revolution, one can say for certain that what is taking place in Algeria today is a transformative process, pregnant with emancipatory potential. The evolution of the movement and its demands specifically around ‘independence’, ‘sovereignty’ and ‘an end to the pillage of the country’s resources’ are fertile ground for anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and even ecological ideas.
Algerians are making a direct link between their current struggle and the anti-French colonial resistance in the 1950s, seeing their efforts as the continuation of decolonisation. When chanting ‘Generals to the dustbin and Algeria will be independent’, they are laying bare the vacuous official narrative around the glorious revolution and revealing that it has been shamelessly used to pursue personal enrichment. We see a second Fanonian moment where people expose the neo-colonial situation and emphasise one unique characteristic of their uprising: its rootedness in the anti-colonial struggle against the French.
Slogans and chants have captured this desire and made references to anti-colonial war veterans such as Ali La Pointe, Amirouche, Ben Mhidi and Abane: ‘Oh Ali [la pointe] your descendants will never stop until they wrench their freedom!’ and ‘We are the descendants of Amirouche and we will never go back!’
The struggle of decolonisation is being given a new lease of life as Algerians lay claim to the popular and economic sovereignty that was denied to them when formal independence was achieved in 1962. In Fanon’s prophetic words: ‘The people who at the beginning of the struggle had adopted the primitive Manichaeism of the settler – Blacks and Whites, Arabs and Christians – realise as they go along that it sometimes happens that you get Blacks who are whiter than the whites and the hope of an independent nation does not always tempt certain strata of the populations to give up their interests or privileges.’
This two-part long read is an extract from a chapter in a forthcoming book Fanon Today: The Revolt and Reason of the Wretched of the Earth (edited by Nigel Gibson, Daraja Press 2021).
This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy Journal.
South Africa: Why an Amnesty for Grand Corruption Is a Bad Idea
A full confession can bring amnesty and immunity from prosecution or civil procedures for the crimes committed. Therein lies the central irony. As people give more and more evidence of the things they have done they get closer and closer to amnesty and it gets more and more intolerable that these people should be given amnesty.
South Africa’s former Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, provoked a political storm recently when she suggested that public servants implicated in grand corruption should be given the chance to apply for amnesty.
Many South Africans, weary of rampant, unchecked and unaccountable corruption, could be forgiven for asking: what on earth was she thinking?
Madonsela won the admiration of many South Africans because of her steely resolve in the face of malfeasance and breaches of the rules of integrity in public office. Her proposal suggested she might be going soft on corruption.
To be effective as the Public Protector Madonsela required many attributes, as I set out in my 2013 book, The Zuma Years. These included independence of mind, a very thick skin and a certain contrarian eccentricity that rendered her far less susceptible to the numerous attempts to intimidate her as she took on then president Jacob Zuma and his state capture network.
Her amnesty idea displays all of these characteristics.
It should be taken seriously, if only to affirm the merit of a diametrically opposed position.
It’s an inherently bad idea.
Madonsela’s timing is especially unfortunate. It is only in very recent times that the Hawks, the priority crimes investigating police unit, and other agencies of the criminal justice system appear to have recovered the institutional capacity to begin prosecuting those responsible for the deep-lying state capture project.
Recent developments have begun to suggest that the net is finally tightening around the bigger fish that are the true architects of systematic corruption in the country.
This has been widely welcomed. Accountability, at last.
Against the grain of this public view, Madonsela, a law professor, entered the fray to suggest that instead of being tough on the perpetrators, an olive branch should be extended.
This is an example of the “independent-mindedness” for which Madonsela was rightly acclaimed during her seven-year term as Public Protector from 2009-2016.
It is also not only contrarian, but also eccentric in that it makes so little sense.
To be fair to her, she tried to clarify later that she did not mean amnesty for every perpetrator, and certainly not the big fish. Her idea is targeted at those whose “status”, she says, “in the food chain is quite junior”.
But the first of a series of fatal flaws in her idea is about where to draw the line: on what basis should one distinguish the smaller from the bigger fish?
Those who had played a “minor but critical” role was how she framed her idea. There is already a problem here: is it possible for something to be both “critical” to a (criminal) enterprise and yet still “minor”?
I think not.
Madonsela confirmed that amnesty should be available on a legal rather than a moral basis. Yet, in a radio interview after she’d floated the idea, and drawn a lot of flak, she added to the confusion.
At first Madonsela spoke of people who may have “bent the rules” unwittingly, in which case, they may well have a legal defence to criminal conduct. Later, she clarified that she intended to cover individuals with “agency”, even to the extent that their palms have been “greased with money” (which, she argued, they would have to pay back in return for amnesty).
If the right to amnesty was indeed to be a legal entitlement, then the terms on which entitlement to amnesty applies have to be very clearly and carefully drawn. This much has been revealed in Constitutional Court decisions concerning the legal rationality of presidential amnesties or pardons in the case of women convicts and perpetrators of apartheid era offences.
Madonsela’s public policy rationale appears to be that without an inducement, the smaller cogs in the bigger wheels of state corruption may seek to hide and avoid prosecution when what is required is that they should come forward with information about the bigger fish.
Perhaps, then, an offer of amnesty – in effect, a legal right to indemnity from prosecution – deserves to be given serious consideration. This, especially if it is the case that the National Prosecuting Authority is struggling to pull together the evidence to bring strong prosecutions against the most powerful perpetrators of state capture corruption.
But there is no evidence that this is the situation. And, moreover, there are major downsides to be weighed in the balance.
The case against amnesty
First of all: deterrence.
The fact that amnesty has been granted in the past may encourage future corrupt actors to take the risk. The corollary is that the successful prosecution of corrupt officials is likely to discourage repetition.
Secondly, the arguments put forward by Madonsela would, in my view, provide grounds for mitigation in sentencing – not for amnesty. One example would be “small fish” cooperating with the investigative authority and providing evidence about the bigger fish. Another example would be if someone could show that they were bullied into bending procurement rules by a superior and more powerful individual in the system.
Another possible avenue – common practice in criminal justice systems around the world – is the use of a “plea bargain”. Here an accused person trades information in return for facing a less serious charge.
Amnesty would, in effect, deprive them of this opportunity and could thereby undermine the integrity of the whole criminal justice system.
The other major consideration is perception – both in the eyes of key stakeholders, such as the investment community and, secondly, the general public.
Investors are especially eager to see if South Africa has the capacity to hold to account those who contaminated the democratic state and so undermined fair competition by enabling a rent-seekers’ paradise. It is about the strength of the rule of law. Investors want to feel confident that this is one destination where the rule of law holds and where, because of state capture prosecutions, there is less risk of a repeat.
And surely, above all else, the public will feel cheated if perpetrators of state capture corruption, however “minor”, get away scot-free. This, more than anything, would encourage a lawless society, steeped in a culture of impunity rather than accountability.
A dangerous path to tread
Attempts to trade amnesty for information about state corruption have caused conflict as well as controversy in other countries. One notable example was in Tunisia in 2017.
But the biggest danger is that it simply sends the wrong message. This was aptly spelt out by esteemed South African artist William Kentridge reflecting on a previous attempt at taking the amnesty road in South Africa through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process.
Admittedly, Madonsela has a different purpose in mind than the national reconciliation ambition of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process. But, no, Advocate Madonsela, a blanket amnesty would send the wrong message at the worst possible time.
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