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Violence is a necessary process of decolonisation

By Zinhle Manzini

On February 25 it was reported that two buildings and a car were burnt at the North West University Mafikeng campus, yet this incident is not the only occurrence of violence that has disrupted some of South Africa’s universities. One would recall that a bus was also set alight a week ago at Wits university just outside a residence in Parktown and on February 23 we also heard of the violence that broke out at the University of Free State during a ruby match.

These incidents arguably mark the first violent outbreaks since the beginning of the “Fallist” movements and they have somewhat highlighted the urgency of decolonisation. They also indicate a level of frustration that the Fallists are feeling (if all the violent outbreaks are orchestrated by the Fallists).

While some people have been quick to dismiss these actions as “irrational and thoughtless”, I think that it would be worthwhile to try and understand the Fallists’ reasons as opposed to merely dismissing the actions without thorough engagement. Although I personally don’t condone any act of violence, I don’t find them surprising. In fact I think these incidents should have been anticipated, especially if we consider some of the movement’s ideological stance, as well as South Africa’s political history.

Recall the establishment of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) during the anti-apartheid era. MK was not just established out of thin air, in 1961 Ben Turok stated that “peaceful methods of struggle were over, that one had to now look at alternatives and that the alternative was armed struggle”. This indicates that acts of violence in protest movements follow a similar trajectory: people start peacefully, where the terms are negotiated (recall when Wits had spent hours in conversation with Adam Habib last year). When some of the negotiated terms are not met in due time violence erupts.

Frantz Fanon defined decolonisation as “the replacing of a certain species of men by another species of men” (Fanon, 2001: 27) which constitutes on the first day where the demands of the colonised are heard – it is a phenomena that is met by two forces that are in opposition to one another. The success of decolonisation happens if the entire social structure is changed from the bottom up. Furthermore, what makes the act of decolonisation a violent one is that the very act is demanded, it is called for – it changes the order of the world.


“decolonisation is not automatic […] it is always the result of a struggle, [it is] the result of strenuous efforts, even the most peaceful form of decolonisation is always the result of a rupture”.

Notably, the act of decolonisation is one that is highly embedded in history which therefore makes it a historical process. Aime Césaire (1959, p.125-126) said,

“it cannot be understood, it cannot become intelligible nor clear to itself except in the exact measure that we can discern the movements which give it [a] historical form and content”.

Decolonisation is further inherently violent because it questions the structures that have been legitimised by man and not a supernatural force, so in the performance of decolonisation the very man who legitimised colonialism also becomes a man in a process where everyone is trying to free themselves.

We then can understand why the Fallists find it necessary to deploy violence at this point of their movements. In this light we ought to see violence as a response to a colonial structure that is violent in a structural and subliminal manner, hence the act of decolonisation will also be violent. We should note that violence should not be regarded as irrational but it is indeed necessary, violence becomes the tool towards a new humanism. Morton Schoolman (1979) writes that,

“no matter what new institutions take place of the old, the psychological effects of oppression continue to linger, perhaps for centuries. Even after ‘independence’ is declared, colonialism continues to reside in the minds of the native people”.

It is only after the colonised have reclaimed their identity as man through violently decolonising the colonial state that the oppressed can become a “new man”. Violence arguably becomes the only way that man can reclaim himself. As Gerald E Tucker (1978, p.405 ) states, the colonised is

“unable to issue forth from the womb of a colonial situation without violent pangs. The truly decolonised native knows no peaceful birth”.

When we view violence in this light, it is seen as a way to reclaim the colonised humanity, consequently making it legitimate. We could view this form of violence as self-defence, as well as the removal of an unjust social system, a system like the university. The university has continued to deny black students entrance even though they meet the academic requirements. As a result of poor finances, an injustice is done to students. Yet, violence here does not signify revenge any more than it signifies a natural disposition. The act of violence in a symbolic manner thus becomes a physiological form of release from the effects of servitude from the coloniser to the colonised.

Here I take the university, its management and its structures as the coloniser and the students as the colonised, doing so allows us to understand the contexts of these movements in a better light.

Even though the acts of violence are a response to the colonial system, violence is used as a method to shift the balances of power. Having said that, one could ask what happens once these violent tactics are not responded to in the manner that the Fallists hope, and when the government and its universities do not respond?

Zinhle Manzini is currently reading towards her master’s degree in philosophy at Wits as a 2016 Mandela Rhodes Scholar. She is a proud coconut from the townships of Kagiso and is always trying to navigate between the spaces of being an academic and a girl from kasi. A feminist, a reader and a writer whose sitting on an unpublished manuscript; she is also a director of Ward66 (a concept store in Kagiso) who loves baking and making smoothies. Instagram @conflictedblackwoman or Tweet @ZinhleManzini

Césaire, A, 1959. “The man of culture and his responsibilities”, Presence Africaine. Presence Africaine: Paris.
Fanon, F, 2001. The Wretched of the Earth. (Trans.) Farrington, C., Penguin Group: London.
Schoolman, M, 1979. “The colonial overlay and the African response”, in Potholm. C. P., (ed.) The theory and practice of African politics. Prentice Hall: New Jersey.
Tucker, G E, 1978. “Machiavelli and Fanon: Ethics, Violence, and Action”, The Journal of Modern African Studies. Vol. 16, No. 3, pp. 397-415.


  • Mandela Rhodes Scholars who feature on this page are all recipients of The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, awarded by The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, and are members of The Mandela Rhodes Community. The Mandela Rhodes Community was started by recipients of the scholarship, and is a growing network of young African leaders in different sectors. The Mandela Rhodes Community is comprised of students and professionals from various backgrounds, fields of study and areas of interest. Their commonality is the set of guiding principles instilled through The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship program: education, leadership, reconciliation, and social entrepreneurship. All members of The Mandela Rhodes Community have displayed some form of involvement in each of these domains. The Community has the purpose of mobilising its members and partners to collaborate in establishing a growing network of engaged and active leaders through dialogue and project support [The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship is open to all African students and allows for postgraduate studies at any institution in South Africa. See The Mandela Rhodes Foundation for further details.]


  1. John Chimhanzi John Chimhanzi 2 March 2016

    Lots of thoughts from Fanon about violence and the need to break and destroy. However it is ludicrous to say this sets Africans free, and our only freedom can be created in terms of destruction, violence and mayhem. This thinking is the freedom of the infantile mind, the juvenile iconoclast, which sees the destruction of established entities as some form of triumph. It is not unique to Africa – it is the thinking of revolutionary movements worldwide that seek explanations for their failure in eternal grievance against the successful, regardless of race or creed. It is also lazy, as it places no responsibility on the liberated to build anything – only to break. Those African countries who have succeeded – and there are many – know that work sets one free. Building a house for one’s family is a liberating act. Growing crops, not just burning ones neighbours harvest. Building and growing are the acts of an adult, of a mature person. Those who can only destroy remain – as Fanon himself often pointed out – prisoners of their own juvenile and self-limiting fantasies.

  2. michael michael 2 March 2016

    John, thanks for touching the core of the issue.

  3. Louise Vanderbilt Louise Vanderbilt 2 March 2016

    Could you possibly give us some ides of what your ideal post-colonial society would look like?


  4. Suntosh Pillay Suntosh Pillay 3 March 2016

    Thank you for adding to the debate Zinhle.

    I completely get why people and students inflict violence on violent systems; and I’m sure there is a lot of discursive rationalization that goes on to justify to it.

    As useful as Fanon’s work is, I do feel there is now a romanticisation of Fanonian violence recently by (young) “radicals” (extremists?) who still feel like the wretched of the earth. Understandable.

    But, context creates meaning.

    Fanon’s context and his own psychology and personality and history led to particular conceptualizations of what counted as legitimate modes of struggle. As you know, he never lived to see a liberated Algeria; and the African context he knew, and was writing out of, is not the postcolonial states we find ourselves in now. There are similarities, but they’re not the same.

    Violence begets violence, always. There is no empirical evidence that it works; only a nostalgic longing for the limited tactics of an idealized father-figure.

  5. sue townsend sue townsend 3 March 2016

    A quick question, what happens once the universities have been destroyed?

  6. Zinhle Manzini Zinhle Manzini 3 March 2016

    Dear John

    The assumption had is that once we can destroy all that legitimizes the oppression of another we can then build something new from an empty surface. Whether this is attainable, I don’t know but this is what some of the literature in post-colonial studies suggests. Building a house for ones family would be liberating if we all could do it under the same conditions and no one is oppressed in the process of that

  7. Zinhle Manzini Zinhle Manzini 3 March 2016

    Dear Louise

    I honestly don’t know what it will look like, let me do some thinking about that and perhaps I will write something on that. I do know that the basic tenants of that society (what ever it looks like) should not glorify any system that has been oppressive; a space where everyone is free (understanding tat freedom is limited). Let me think about it.

  8. DavyH DavyH 3 March 2016

    An incredibly perceptive comment; destructive revolution is the mark of the terminally inept wishing to drag people down to their own level as opposed to elevating themselves. Once the destruction begins, the dregs of society crawl out of their holes to join in the fun.
    Anyone attempting to rationalise this behaviour has learned nothing from the failures of the past.

  9. Walter Köppe Walter Köppe 3 March 2016

    Fees must fall – unquestionably. Everyone qualified must have access to higher education. The question is a question of funding and of who’s responsibility that would be. All the citizens of this country ought to feel responsible for this and be actively involved in contributing by way of taxes paid to the government. The government in turn funds all education from basic to higher. No-one in this country should ever have been deprived of the opportunity to become educated. This issue is so fundamental that funding education should by default be the first priority of any government especially where gross inequalities of the past needed to be addressed urgently. Unfortunately, this money was diverted into buying arms and to balloon government structures which are swallowing up funds urgently needed in education and health infrastructure. We have, it seems, by now reached a level of general public frustration which is not unsympathetic to violent reactions. Violence on the scale of civil war as it is experienced by millions in middle Easter countries, does not only not change anything for the better, but add to human suffering and the total waste of any money available for education and health.
    Within this context the decolonisation dialogue is of historical and academic interest but does bring nothing to the solution of governments’s misuse of public funds. If you must bring in decolonisation you would have to refresh the very meaning of the term in our time. Decolonisation in our times could then among others mean the colonisation of state structures by the enemy of the people. What would Frantz Fanon have had to say to that?

  10. Iain Botha Iain Botha 3 March 2016

    I have asked many people who are demanding for decolonisation of universities, public spaces, et al. in real & tangible terms what they exactly mean, and to date I’ve never gotten a response other then more rhetoric.

  11. Philip Cole Philip Cole 3 March 2016

    ‘It is only after the colonised have reclaimed their identity as man through violently decolonising the colonial state that the oppressed can become a “new man”. Violence arguably becomes the only way that man can reclaim himself’.
    Please read that sentence back to yourself and really think about it. In Europe we’ve heard these sort of ideas before through communism, which tried to do exactly what you are suggesting here. They tried to create the ‘new man’ out of a violence that completely smashed old unequal and unjust structures. The problem was that violence become an end in itself and created some of the most vicious dictatorships that history has seen.
    You make some valid points about the structural violence of the current system. But please don’t try to kid yourself that a revolution based on violence would do anything else but eat itself and its children.

  12. Rory Short Rory Short 3 March 2016

    John you are right. You achieve something useful if you seek to express your humanity at its best not at its worst.

  13. Rory Short Rory Short 3 March 2016

    The government has taken the path of building houses for people rather than focusing on enabling them to build houses for themselves. The liberation government has unfortunately continued the dis-empowerments of Apartheid.

  14. Rory Short Rory Short 3 March 2016

    Absolutely. It is an empty power that come from destroying the apparent symbols of another’s power.

  15. Rory Short Rory Short 3 March 2016

    The solution is quite simple but unfortunately very hard for most people to undertake. It is self motivated self development using what ever resources are available to you wherever you are. Attacking other people is perhaps a nice diversion but a complete waste of your time.

  16. Alan Dean Foster Alan Dean Foster 3 March 2016

    “Having said that, one could ask what happens once these violent tactics are not responded to in the manner that the Fallists hope, and when the government and its universities do not respond?”

    I can answer that. Anarchy, ignorance, greater poverty, and increased despair.

    Maybe try another method, to wit (pun intended); negotiation, reason, mutual respect, general concern for the future.

  17. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 4 March 2016

    Cleansing the world … ridding it of oppression .. violence the means to Utopia .. If only people studied history instead of the history of ideas.

  18. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 4 March 2016

    The ‘new man’, the ‘reclaiming of identity’, ‘decolonisation’, ‘transformation’ – all of it well-worn jargon with no meaning except it is fashionable – or, worse, that it has any meaning anyone cares to attach to it. The words seem profound, exciting, as violence is exciting, and the notion violence can end all troubles at a blow has a simplicity irresistible to the young. So here’s a bigger problem even than that of funding education which, as you say, should be a top priority. What are we educating for? Is it to learn that Fanon (or anyone else) spoke the ‘truth’? That he is only one voice among many different voices seems not to occur to those who regularly wheel him out as their authority today. Shouldn’t an education also be teaching where any man was not right, but wrong?

  19. Paul S Paul S 5 March 2016

    Zinhle, have you considered the stark irony of what you have written and appear to support, versus the fact that you are deriving a privileged and advanced education as a Mandela Rhodes scholar ? Think what your world would look like if all traces of colonialisn were violently removed – a process which if it was to be fair would have to include establishments like the Rhodes Trust. You can’t cherry pick the appealing bits if it comes to making a stand against this colonial monster. Either it stays or it goes, and if it goes you need to make it on your own in every respect.

  20. Peter Leyland Peter Leyland 5 March 2016

    I fully agree. Imagine if instead of RDP houses shoddily built by crooked tender recipients we had enabled people to build their own houses of their own design choice, by providing materials, plus teaching building skills. The recipients should also receive the title deeds and thus have an asset which could be used as security. The houses would be bigger and better, the owners would have title, the owners would have acquired a new skills set, and have pride in their property, built by themselves.

  21. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 5 March 2016

    MK was formed because they believed that there was no other way to make their voices heard. They did not have the ability to VOTE for what they wanted. Equating apartheid with our current constitutional democracy, is farcical. We are either a country of warlords, where the most vicious wins, or we are a democracy, where the will of the people is reflected at the ballot box.

  22. Pieter Barendse Botha Pieter Barendse Botha 5 March 2016

    Please educate me !!! How do a person gain anything by destruction of his/her inheritance out of colonization that brought it about !!

  23. TheRealMidnite TheRealMidnite 6 March 2016

    Violence is a strategy that must only be used if such a strategy will result in victory. “Symbolic” violence, by comparison, is a fart in a hurricane.

  24. TheRealMidnite TheRealMidnite 6 March 2016

    Perhaps. But only those who work for themselves can be liberated by “work”. I don’t see much of that going on around here.

  25. Barry Saayman Barry Saayman 7 March 2016

    “Although I personally don’t condone any act of violence, I don’t find them surprising. In fact I think these incidents should have been anticipated, especially if we consider some of the movement’s ideological stance, as well as South Africa’s political history.” – Ms Zinhle Manzini

    Manzini fails to condemn violence in no uncertain terms. She in my opinion endorses violence with elaborate and far-fetched reasoning without considering or mentioning negative factors. That is unacceptable.

    Fact is that violence cannot be turned on and off like a tap and both the perpetrators and victims of violence are traumatized. The way I understand it post-traumatic stress disorder is a destructive force in the lives of thousands of South Africans that destabilize society and families in more than one way.

    Responsible South Africans in my view know that we cannot afford violence in any form because the means employed negatively impact on the quality of the new society the revolutionaries seek to create with criminal behaviour and violence:-

    “With all these arguments in favor of this type of violence, I still think there are good grounds to reject it. It seems to me, from the little we know about such matters, that a new society rises out of the actions that are taken to form it, and the institutions and the ideology it develops are not independent of those actions; in fact, they’re heavily colored by them, they’re shaped by them in many ways. And one can expect that actions that are cynical and vicious, whatever their intent, will inevitably condition and deface the quality of the ends that are achieved. Now, again, in part this is just a matter of faith. But I think there’s at least some evidence that better results follow from better means.” – Prof Noam Chomsky

    This in my view explains why current day South Africa is an extremely sick violent society rightfully described by some as the murder and rape capital of the world.

  26. Waxfoot Waxfoot 9 March 2016

    Spot on.

  27. Bert Olivier Bert Olivier 9 March 2016

    Zinhle – The problem, in my view, is that the protests and redundant destruction of educational resources are misdirected. The protestors should ask themselves what the source of neocolonialism is, today. It should be obvious. It is not the university system as such (although it is intertwined with it), nor is it ‘whiteness’ (although it is interbraided with this in an ideological sense too). Just ask what the force is that structures power relations globally today, and it should be clear what it is that people should question, if not rebel against.

  28. T B T B 20 March 2016

    As a feminist, why hasn’t the author pointed out the innate sexism contained all the historical quotations used by her? Also, as an academic, I would have thought she’d be advocating for the use of words, not violence, in this article. The piece struck me as the cherry picking of quotes to support a pre-held opinion, not a thorough exploration of what SA needs to effect change. Still searching for an authoritative article on this topic. Less idealism, more pragmatism is my cautious conclusion… Does anyone have a real answer?

  29. PierreAyc PierreAyc 25 March 2016

    What you are higlighting here is the failure of the proponents of violence to grasp Fanon’s complex and multifaceted thought in its entirety. For Fanon warned that the colonised who turns to blind violence against the coloniser, or against those who look like the coloniser, is trapped in the same racist structure as the coloniser himself. And he also stated as clearly as possible that liberation comes not from what the colonised can destroy, nor from what the coloniser can give or award to compensate. It comes from the [ride of constructing and creating by oneself and for oneself. Unfortunately, the liberation ideology that is at work today is polluted by to evils: unreasoned violence, and the idea that the former coloniser needs to give and compensate. Whatever acceptable justifications can support those two ideas, they cannot bring liberation.

  30. PierreAyc PierreAyc 25 March 2016

    The problem is whether destruction will leave the means to reconstruct. In Fanon’s view, violence liberates, yes, but the process of violent liberation is not one of destruction of what the colonised can use. And true liberation comes from what one constructs for oneself, not from what one destroys. Violence is only the necessary step to acquire the right to construct for oneself.

  31. PierreAyc PierreAyc 25 March 2016

    Beyond romanticisation, there is a bias in what parts of Fanon’s work are picked as sources. Fanon is very clear on the fact that violence allows liberation, but that violence is not liberation. Liberation comes from the pride of building for oneself. Constructing a new social structure, free of the principles of liberation, is the purpose, and this purpose is not achieved through violence. Violence only serves to gain the right to construct for oneself.

  32. PierreAyc PierreAyc 25 March 2016

    What you point out for communism was mostly the central point of all fascisms. Fascism is originally a revolutionary idea meant at creating a new man through social and physical violence. Only Soviet-style communism, or Korean-style, shared this fascist view.

  33. PierreAyc PierreAyc 25 March 2016

    Globally and nationally. Colour-based discourse is used by the new SA elites to hide themselves from the dominated, and to perpetuate the domination system you point out to their advantage.

  34. Waxfoot Waxfoot 30 March 2016

    In a word, “No”.
    Hence the childish and misdirected “symbolic breaking of things”.

    I think Bert Olivier (post above) hits the nail on the head: educational structures, “whiteness”, and other race-blinded discourse are all figments or phantoms of the real neocolonisation monster.

    We have a long tradition of misdirected, self-righteous senseless violence in RSA, and most of it directed at women.

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