Frantz Fanon is a key author for anyone interested in development, colonialization or the post-colonial experience. I first came across him during my Masters on Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and bought a copy of The Wretched of the Earth as some not-particularly-light (but very relevant) holiday reading on a trip to the country of the living revolution, Cuba. An opportunity to see Hassane Mezine’s documentary, Fanon: Hier, Aujord’hui (Fanon Yesterday, Today) in the 2019 Africa in Motion Film Festival was an opportunity to learn more about Fanon’s life and philosophy and also to discover the continuing relevance and legacy of his work.
Frantz Fanon was born in 1925 in Martinique. He studied medicine in France, specialising in psychiatry. He was posted to Blida-Joinville in Algeria during the uprising against the French colonial authority. His observations on the psychological consequences of colonialization led him to reflect on the broader implications of imperialism and he became an activist with the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN, the principal national liberation movement in the Algerian War of Independence and the only political party from independence until 1989). He wrote three books on colonialization, racism and revolution including probably his best known, The Wretched of the Earth (Les Damnés de la Terre).
Fanon Yesterday, Today is Mezine’s first documentary and was inspired by the discovery of interview footage of Abdelhamid Mehri, a resistance fighter and elected member of the FLN’s government-in-exile, the GPRA. Mehri died in 2012 and several of the contributors to the film have died since. The poignancy of the passing of a generation is countered by the dedication and commitment of activists interviewed in the second part of the film (the Aujourd’hui/Today section), which investigates the legacy of Fanon in countries as diverse as Algeria, France, Portugal, the US, South Africa and Palestine. Fanon himself did not see Algeria’s independence. He died in 1961 aged only thirty-six.
Watching the film, as protests erupt once again across North Africa and the Middle East, I had a profound sense, not only that the so-called “Arab Spring” (neither only Arab nor in Spring) was far from over, but that, as rapper and activist Flávio Almada (aka LBC Souljah) says in the film, the troubles we see today – be that racism in majority white countries or protests for social justice and democracy in formerly colonised states – is the “continuity of coloniality.” Colonialism is far from over. This passage, from The Wretched of the Earth, could have been written today. We are no longer talking about the “first phase of the national struggle,” but swap “colonialism” for “le pouvoir” in Algeria or “Makhzen” in Morocco and you have a pretty accurate description of what is going on right now as emerging economies are drawn ever-closer into the fold of globalised neoliberal capitalism:
“Today we know that in the first phase of the national struggle colonialism tries to disarm national demands by putting forward economic doctrines. As soon as the first demands are set out, colonialism pretends to consider them, recognising with ostentatious humility that the territory is suffering from serious underdevelopment, which necessitates a great social and economic effort. And, in fact, it so happens that certain spectacular measures (centres of work for the unemployed which are opened here and there, for example) delay the crystallisation of national consciousness for a few years.”
(Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Penguin Classics 2001 edition, p. 167)
But it would be a mistake to think that the post-colonial experience is confined to the formerly colonised states. Interviews in the film with activists in former imperial states brought into sharp perspective the struggles which people of colonial heritage face on a daily basis in Western societies. Fanon argues that revolution is not possible without violence, but that this violence is in response to state-sponsored colonial violence. In this vein, activists today, such as LBC Souljah, argue that violence in minority communities is a reaction to institutional violence and racism. Racism and xenophobia are an obvious form of othering, which involves the designation of others, because of a shared characteristic, as inferior. However, the hatred seldom stops there. If we examine Brexit Britain, the victims of hate are not only those perceived as immigrants or outsiders, but anyone perceived as holding an alternative view, especially women.
Neo-colonialism describes the links of the former colonial powers to the elites of the former colonies. This is seen clearly in the trading relations of former colonial powers, for example the French investment in Morocco’s new TGV-style high-speed train, al-Boraq or French commitments to purchasing Algerian oil and gas. And in Western countries, colonialism has come home, and not just via the presence of people from former colonies. In his 1952 work, Fanon made a clear link between colonialism and capitalism; revolution and socialism: “The basic confrontation which seemed to be colonialism versus anti-colonialism, indeed capitalism versus socialism, is already losing its importance. What matters today, the issue which blocks the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be.” (Black skin, White Masks, ch. 5) As right-wing interests gain influence in the US, UK and across Europe, what we are seeing in Western (so-called) democracies today is a kind of neo-Imperialism by globalised, organised, cross-border capital. The victims are the precariat, regardless of their race or historical or current geographical origin.
As Mezine deftly demonstrated in Fanon Yesterday, Today, Fanon is as relevant today as ever. But the film largely focused on former colonial states whose economies are still emerging. And while one activist quoted in the film spoke of immigrants as “le Sud dans the Nord” (“the South in the North”), today the values for which Fanon stood and which we believed had been cemented in our Western liberal democracies folloing the end of the Colonial era are under threat. And not just in relation to our minorities but to us all. As the discussion following the film asked, What are you doing to decolonise?