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Are violent protests cleansing, like Fanon said?

By Liezille Jacobs and Julian Jacobs

Frantz Fanon, often referred to as the psychiatrist who prescribed violence, would turn in his grave at the condemnation of the student protests because he believed overcoming oppression could be realised through a violent uprising of the masses.

Fanon said the slave thinks of overthrowing his master while being subjected to violence from the master. Thousands of students across South Africa protested non-violently and violently to the oppressive brutality of the university system, a system that is not adequately responding to the needs of its students. Armed with passion and purpose they seemed to have Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth as their handbook.

Looking back at our inaction and failed attempts while we were students at the University of the Western Cape, and the university administrators’ inability to make fees fall during the annual “Hek Toe” marches, this led to the recent #UWCShutDown and #FeesMustFall protests.

Having borne witness to their parents’ unspeakable suffering inflicted by the apartheid government the “born-frees” are eager to show how incredibly temporary their “freedom” is. The university system has been likened to the colonial, apartheid system and as a response the #RhodesMustFall movement earlier this year galvanised everyone around the problem of racism and transformation in our country. Some of the protests turned violent, but we do not know everything there is to know about why protests turn violent.

Social psychologists should very well be on the edge of their seats testing mob psychology hypotheses on why crowds or protests turn violent. The Don Fosters of this world have been trying to find factors that enable and prevent violence for decades. Gustave Le Bon believed that “isolated, a human may be a cultured individual but in a crowd s/he is a barbarian”. Why and when does our behaviour in groups change or degenerate into crowd and mob behaviour?

Crowd behaviour is heavily influenced by the loss of responsibility of the individual, which increases with the size of the crowd. A recent study illustrates that people display a shared identity in protesting crowds, which has an indirect effect on their positive experience and increases the sense of intimacy with other crowd members. This 2015 study compels us to review this data in a way that describes how crowd emotion should be conceptualised. This is important because as a united front, students succeeded to protest against a fee increase for 2016 and are finding new ways to continue the #FeesMustFall campaign until tertiary education is free for all.

In thebook, Positive Psychology on the College Campus, it is argued that young people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play. That protest is not meant to be violent because it is a human right to object to the inequalities of this world. We should be glad that young people care fiercely enough about justice, equality, or other societal issues and their voices are powerful agents to bring about social justice.

And the 2015 book Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change painstakingly outlines the various kinds of protest over the last few decades that speak about waves of protests globally. They further contend that protest occurs in an already convoluted and tension-ridden social reality and is comprised of forces whose politics are themselves complex, fraught with antagonisms and limited by contradictions. Even as protest challenges state power, it is structured by that power and so reveals both political possibilities and political limitations.

The student demonstrations remind us of 1985 when the then banned ANC, through its leader Oliver Tambo, said the people should make South Africa ungovernable. Is this what makes protests violent? Tambo’s instruction led to state-owned properties (hospitals, rent offices, schools) being bombed and burnt. In the last two years protesting communities across South Africa have turned to violence to get noticed by the authorities. Is this what makes violence cleansing?

Service-delivery protests have become a common feature in post–apartheid South Africa and have often led to violence. A mass protest strategy has evolved from the 1980s, which is symptomatic of what Fanon argued in his publications because he believed that eventually one had to turn to violence to rid oneself of being oppressed as a slave or colonised.

Anti-apartheid freedom fighters were often forbidden to read, write or speak freely against the regime, so they sang. Songs were where their dreams took flight, where they expressed faith, love, fear and unimaginable loss. Songs were also how political activists conveyed information like sharing locations for comrades on the run, or directions for a path towards freedom all buried in decoded language of deific lyrics. Freedom fighters sang songs of liberation, if not for their bodies in this world then for their spirits in the next.

Their songs still have a power and strike a chord in all of us. Their songs were songs of hope. Hope that in lifting our voices together we might one day witness our children access better education and better opportunities.

Humming to the tunes of Bruce Springsteen’s How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live? and as the semblance of normality returns and students get back to writing their final exams, we need to reflect on what is yet to come.

Is violence the only solution to the decolonising cleansing process?

Liezille Jacobs is a senior scientist at the SA Medical Research Council’s Violence Injury and Peace Research Unit and a part-time psychology lecturer at the University of the Western Cape. Julian Jacobs is the director of communications and stakeholder relations at the Human Sciences Research Council. They write in their personal capacities.


  • PsySSA, the Psychological Society of South Africa, is the national professional body for psychology. Committed to transforming and developing psychological theory and practice in South Africa, PsySSA strives to serve the needs and interests of a post-apartheid country by advancing psychology as a science, profession and as a means of promoting human well-being. This blog hopes to engage psychologists and citizens in debating issues, from mental health to the socio-political. Visit


  1. Aragorn Eloff Aragorn Eloff 7 November 2015

    You’re using the word violence an awful lot, but you haven’t adequately defined it. The examples you cite in relation to #FeesMustFall etc. are all better understood as property damage, which is not violence unless you’re operating with a definition so broad as to be meaningless.

    Can you elaborate on what you mean by the term, especially when you use it in reference to the recent waves of student protests? The only violence I saw in those protests was that enacted against the protesters by the police, along with the structural violence (what Fanon termed ‘peaceful violence’) that is, of course, meted out daily to many of those protesting.

    Your reading of Fanon as a simple advocate of violence – as opposed to seeing it as necessary in contexts where all other options are foreclosed while still recognising its considerable dangers – feels overly-simplified to me and I suspect it is at odds with what he says about the specific situation we find ourselves in today in SA, which he discusses in terms of the problems and limitations of national identity/consciousness in post-colonial regimes ( ).

    I’m also reminded of what Fanon says in that chapter about those invoking non-violence: “At the decisive moment, the colonialist bourgeoisie, which up till then has remained inactive, comes into the field. It introduces that new idea which is in proper parlance a creation of the colonial situation: non-violence. In its simplest form this non-violence signifies to the intellectual and economic elite of the colonized country that the bourgeoisie has the same interests as they and that it is therefore urgent and indispensable to come to terms for the public good. Non-violence is an attempt to settle the colonial problem around a green baize table, before any regrettable act has been performed or irreparable gesture made, before any blood has been shed. But if the masses, without, waiting for the chairs to be arranged around me baize table, listen to their own voice and begin committing outrages and setting fire to buildings, the elite and the nationalist bourgeois parties will be seen rushing to the colonialists to exclaim, “This is very serious! We do not know how it will end; we must find a solution–some sort of compromise.””

  2. Rory Short Rory Short 7 November 2015

    The ends are justified by the means not the other way round. There is no such thing as cleansing violence the two words are in direct opposition to one and other. Violence corrupts rather than uplifts those that resort to it. How can a better society be built by those who practice violence? What the proponents of violence have to offer cannot be attractive to the whole of society but only to those who feel that they will gain from its practice therefore the societal gains from its practice, if any, will only be partial. Non-violent protest and action is the only way to bring about positive social change because the proponents of change are prepared to accept onto themselves any suffering perpetrated by those who are resistant to the change.

  3. Rory Short Rory Short 8 November 2015

    In social matters the means are the ends.

    A surgical incision cannot be equated to a violent uprising because a surgical incision is in a sense a highly controlled violent action of last resort intended to heal the recipient whereas a a violent uprising is a totally uncontrolled action intended to hurt unspecified others. Thus to talk of cleansing violence when referring to social violence is a contradiction in terms.

    It is human nature to resist social change. For non-destructive social change the change promoters must be prepared to act non-violently at all times even if the inevitable resistance turns violent.

  4. Suntosh Pillay Suntosh Pillay 9 November 2015

    Writing in the context of Algeria colonized by France, Fanon died before seeing Algeria gain its formal independence. This historical fact is perhaps important.

    To answer the question, we need to clarify lots of things:

    – As Aaragon already asks, what definitions of violence are we using, and what definitions of ‘cleansing’ are we using?

    – Violence might be cathartic, but then what?

    – Is there any evidence worldwide of violent revolutions working? And if so, at what costs and for what benefits?

    – Let’s not forget that Fanon has been subjected to lots of feminist critique, and my guess is that a theory of social change, written by a medic and foot soldier of the 50s and 60s, will favour masculine-oriented, physically destructive means towards imagined ends (no different from the methods of used by their very oppressors!)
    Fanon should be required reading for everyone, for sure, along with Biko; however, we should also challenge ourselves to imagine new vocabularies of social thought and social action, that inspire new forms of psychological and material realities.

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