Critical psychologist Desmond Painter, writing on the 50th commemoration of Frantz Fanon’s untimely death, says: “Fanon was interested in forging new categories of thought, new subjectivities and new modes of being and becoming. To this end, he challenged European thought [and the cultural and political category of ‘Europe’ as such] with a forceful refusal — at the same time as he portrayed the moment of decolonisation as absolute affirmation: ‘We must leave our dreams and abandon our old beliefs and friendships of the time before life began. Let us waste no time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry. Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe.” “… So, my brothers, how is it that we do not understand that we have better things to do than to follow that same Europe?” “Come, then, comrades, the European game has finally ended; we must find something different.” (The Wretched of the Earth, Clarence Farrington’s 1965 translation, p. 251)

It is fitting that Painter talks about Fanon’s “refusal” here, as long as one simultaneously stresses, as he does, that such refusal is inscribed in a dialectical relationship with “affirmation”. For a refusal without the corresponding affirmation of a different self would leave one powerless to follow through with the refusal, or resistance, to the relevant oppressive powers.

In Fanon’s case it was the colonial powers that had subjected Africa to their exploitative occupation which were his target of refusal; today one might refer to the economic, globalising neo-colonialism of the big corporations as the appropriate power to resist, given the (growing) inequalities between the North and the South, as well as within Northern hemisphere cities, where, unsurprisingly, those suffering economic discrimination are mainly from those nations that used to be “the colonised”.

As an aside, lest anyone should suffer from amnesia regarding the time of colonisation, in addition to the internet as a source of information about that lamentable episode in humanity’s history, one might want to remind oneself of the perspicacious perspective that a great novelist like Joseph Conrad provided on African colonisation in his novella, Heart of Darkness.

I was recently reminded of Conrad’s merciless depiction of the effects that the colonisation of the Congo under Belgian King Leopold II, in his private, corporate capacity (ending in 1908), had on the indigenous African peoples, by a student whose master’s dissertation focuses illuminatingly on this theme.

Appropriately, in her work the indissoluble link between political/military and economic colonisation during the heyday of colonialism is highlighted — appropriately, because people easily forget that the political and the economic cannot be separated: where there is military/political domination (as during 19th-century colonisation of African countries), the economic power of the coloniser is reinforced and expanded by using the colonised as cheap labour and by appropriating the indigenous wealth of the colonized domain, whether it is in the shape of minerals, or of other sources of wealth, such as ivory.

To return to the revolutionary thought of Fanon, Alice Cherki (in Living Fanon: Global Perspectives, ed. Nigel C. Gibson, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011) talks about “Fanon, Fifty Years Later: Resisting the Air of Our Present Time” (pp. 131-138), and points out that (pp. 132-133): “This time is governed by a society of contempt, where the power of money triumphs and is erected as a true ideology inducing fear of the other, regardless of what form it takes, from North to South. This ideology can be characterized by financial capital, corruption, subjection of the impoverished, and a culture of fearing the other, which leads to exclusion … securing an atmosphere for hegemonic, repressive, and violent statements”.

Hence, one should not make the mistake of thinking that today, supposedly “after” decolonisation, the violent subordination of people does not occur any longer, even if they are no longer the “colonised” in the political sense. Before his premature death of leukaemia at age 36 in 1961, Fanon had already warned against “postcolonial nationalism”, where the “same structures of domination and confiscation of wealth” were duplicated by the newly empowered; today, Cherki (p. 133) observes, it happens “closest to us, outsourced factory workers, suppressed and stifled revolts and strikes and all other emerging forms of unexpected resistance qualified as illegal”.

One wonders whether, under present circumstances of economic neo-colonialism — where many of those in “developing countries” are constantly at the receiving end of the always-advancing, innovating production of (especially automotive and electronic) commodities, exported from developed countries — a recurrence of what Fanon (in The Wretched of the Earth; 1965) described as “petrification” on the part of indigenous peoples under colonial rule, perhaps in a different form, may become evident.

Douglas Ficek (in Living Fanon, p. 76), writing on Fanon and petrification, reminds one that, by “petrification”, Fanon meant an excessively strong adherence to tradition in the face of the coloniser’s culture, which brings about a kind of paralysis or “immobility” of the culture of the colonised, more especially so in rural areas. This socio-cultural “petrification” expresses itself as a commitment “to the old ways, to the superstitions and rituals that, however fantastic, offer outlets for their profound anger … they effectively distract themselves from the hard realities of colonialism and this ultimately benefits the colonisers, the architects of petrification”. (Ficek, p. 76)

The benefit that the globalising economic neo-colonisers would derive from such socio-cultural petrification on the part of the neo-colonised is the assurance that, while they are committed to out-dated beliefs in an immobilised cultural tradition, the neo-coloniser would retain economic (and political) power over them.

Needless to point out, the neo-colonizers go out of their way to guarantee that the postcolonial leader(s) benefit handsomely from the neo-colonial economic strategies. But more seriously, there is another side to petrification that Fanon alerts one to, namely the deliberate cultivation of such petrification on the part of the people by the new leader(s), which is designed to prevent criticism of their economically privileged position, and effectively prevents the process of decolonisation from being carried to completion (Ficek, p. 83), in this way ensuring the people’s complacence and lack of criticism of the new, “post-colonial” regime. In Fanon’s words (from The Wretched, quoted in Ficek, p. 83):

“During the struggle for liberation the leader awakened the people and promised them a forward march, heroic and unmitigated. Today he uses every means to put them to sleep.”

Fanon should therefore never be classified as someone whose intellectual work was only relevant for a limited time, and limited to historically terminated cases of colonialism — his work is as relevant today, in the face of new and newly mutated varieties of colonisation, as it ever was.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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