Frantz Fanon’s powerful and enduring legacy has deeply inspired contemporary social movements organized by the poor in post-Apartheid South Africa. Fanon summed his relentless criticism of hierarchies, even within anticolonial movements, in the phrase “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” This is a phrase that has informed the political philosophy and organizational mandates of Abahlali base Mjondolo (AbM)—a contemporary movement of marginalized and impoverished shack dwellers who articulate their right to live and work against their increasingly violent exclusion from the space and politics of Durban and other South African cities.
In this article, Nigel Gibson illuminates the AbM’s ideas about organization, intellectual leadership, and politics. The group’s concepts, which Fanon inspired, are rooted in directly democratic, decentralized, and horizontal relationships. They begin with their everyday experiences and evolve practices of social change—what the AbM calls a “living politics”—arising from a shared analysis of how their lives, their activities, and their thinking are affected by postapartheid government policies. Gibson writes that the group regards structural transformation of post-apartheid society as necessary to satisfy needs of housing and dignity.
The group’s concept of a “living politics” analyzes post-Apartheid reality with and from the perspective of the poor: those who suffer its gravest consequences. While they welcome others to help them construct concepts that aid their organizational goals, they are wary of how outsider allies use power and knowledge to contain or control their activities.
It is for this reason that AbM remains autonomous from established political parties, whose influence might serve to stifle their radical demands, as well as from intellectuals, who might seek to maintain power over them by discounting their intelligence. Both represent groups who, in their words, “come to the poor and pretend to be the experts on our struggles without ever talking to us about our lives, our struggles, what we really want, what we can really do, and how we can really do it. We always felt that this way of doing politics is just another way for another elite to keep us in our place” (AbM 2010b).
For Gibson, this offers a “challenge to committed intellectuals and activists [similar to what] Fanon mapped out” (66). Though its historical connections, the AbM’s reinvention of anticolonialism contains powerful lessons to those today, for example, who are interested in the worldwide Occupy movements, which are similarly searching for dignity, social justice in everyday life, and structural transformation at a societal level.
Nigel C. Gibson. 2012. “What Happened to the ‘Promised Land’? A Fanonian Perspective on Post-Apartheid South Africa.” Antipode 44(1): 51–73.
This column, a new regular contribution to Anthropology Now, will highlight emerging anthropological research that has the potential to reshape contemporary social and political debates. A series of short reviews will be coauthored and edited each issue by a diverse student collective from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, which has historically supported publicly engaged anthropology. The members of the collective would like to thank Katherine McCaffrey, Ida Susser, and the rest of the editorial board for this opportunity and their continued support.
In addition, the members express their appreciation to the “Discoveries” student collective of the sociological journal Contexts for generously advising on process and approach.