Nick Malherbe
Nick Malherbe

Fanon and the South African father

While there is an exciting movement, especially within neuropsychological disciplines, to highlight the contemporary value of Sigmund Freud’s notion of the unconscious mind, it is important not to dismiss the archaic Eurocentric societal tenants on which much of his work relies.

However Freud’s psychosexual work need not be entirely derided on grounds of irrelevance. Particular readings of this work give way to meaningful modes of engaging with contemporary social conditions. For example, Frantz Fanon’s interpretation of Freud’s notion of an Oedipus complex provides an interesting framework with which to consider the South African father.

In his seminal book Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon claims that the Oedipus complex does not exist among black people living in the French Antilles. He writes that the disenfranchised black father cannot embody traditional fatherhood (relating to material provision and familial authority) while immersed within a social structure of race-based oppression. By not taking on these roles, he does not represent paternity for his children, and the Oedipus complex vanishes as the child does not recognise a father whom he or she is to supersede.

Fanon’s observation concerning those living in the Antilles more than 60 years ago would appear to haunt present day South African fatherhood. In his latest book political analyst Justice Malala writes that “South Africa remains a country of white haves and black have nots.” The racialised poverty, entrenched gender roles, and fragmented family structure that are a legacy of apartheid have created a neo-colonial setting, whereby a number of oppressive social structures exist that marginalise the paternal capacities of the black South African father.

Research indicates that, in many instances, if children do not have a father who is able to financially support them — or a physically present father — they may feel that they do not have a father at all.

Nevertheless, problematising the absence of an Oedipus complex within South Africa may act to advocate the early twentieth century Eurocentric societal tenets that informed Freud’s work. In yearning for this particular kind of father — who provides materially and embodies heteronormativity as well as uncompromising familial authority — the parental contributions of those who may not be physically present, cis gender, financially secure, or have a biological relation to their children go unappreciated by these children. Such paternal contributions cannot be ignored or cast as irrelevant.

Children’s psychological development does not hinge on their receiving gendered parenting of any kind. In shedding rigid understandings of that what a father should comprise, the mutual, or bi-directional, advantages of positive parent-child relations may be unlocked.

Freud’s Oedipus complex is as outdated as it is sexist and unscientific. Fanon’s interpretation, however, appears to denote the yearning for a very specific paternal presence. With much of Fanon’s work focussing on the irrelevance of psychotherapy within non-Western contexts, his consideration of the Oedipus complex serves as a reminder that “the father” need not look a particular way, and that wholly irrelevant, archaic, and inflexible models of fathering that are persistently and incorrectly presented as the global standard for positive child development, need not continue to carry credence around the world.

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    • Bert Olivier

      Interesting post, Nick. Just one point: Freud’s work should NEVER be thought of as being irrelevant. A little research will show that some of the most important thinkers today constantly refer to Freud in their interpretation of present phenomena – and not only psychological ones, but social ones too. Think of Slavoj Zizek, Bernard Stiegler, Julia Kristeva, Ian Parker, Renate Salecl, to mention only a handful. Only the prejudiced and uninformed would dismiss Freud. Franklin Baumer argued that no other thinker has so thoroughly transformed the way we think about ourselves as Freud has – not even Copernicus or Darwin.