“It is true that we don’t know that men are equal. We are saying that they might be. This is our opinion, and we are trying, along with those who think as we do, to verify it. But we know that this might is the very thing that makes a society of humans possible.”

-Jacques Rancière

The quote above is from South Africa’s Insurgent Citizens by Julian Brown, which I’ve just finished reading for review in a week or so. The book’s primary concern is trying to think through the ways in which people excluded from participation in post-apartheid South Africa are asserting themselves – from the thousands of less-public ‘service delivery protests’ to major events in modern South African political theatre, like the Marikana massacre and the Treatment Action Campaign’s fight with the government over antiretroviral treatment.

The increasing instability of the current political order, and trying to understand how politics ‘is done’ in South Africa has become an increasingly popular area of conversation for the intellectual classes. And of these conversations – at least those happening in the (for lack of a better term) ‘postcolonial left’ of South African intelligentsia – much of the thinking about protest and politics tends to revolve around trying to explain recent events through the work of Frantz Fanon. popularly takes one of two forms. The first being that of explaining the form of the current South African state in terms of Fanon’s scenario in which the struggle for freedom ends up with an elite simply occupying the offices of their former colonisers. The second, an appeal to a version of Fanon’s writing on violence as a necessary response to oppression for those who experience the force of the state on a daily basis.

In extremis, this also creates an intellectual danger of then proceeding to actually design political protest/programs using one chapter of one Fanon work as a template.

What I found most immediately interesting in reading Insurgent Citizens, then, was on Brown’s refreshing decision to use the ideas of Jacque Rancière as a way of interpreting the politics of South Africa’s citizens, rather than the popular Fanonian point of view.

To be sure, I love Fanon as much as the next person, but if you follow the South African commentariat, and the recently-graduated leftists of places like Rhodes (and increasingly Wits and UCT), you could be forgiven that thinking that Fanon and some formulation of ‘the slave’s redemption through violence’ was the be-all and end-all of thinking about South African politics.

Fanon is important. Yes. Obviously. But when intellectual discussion of ways of doing emancipatory politics in South Africa becomes limited to Wretched of the Earth and its response-literature, there is a danger of only seeing politics through a Fanonian lens. In extremis, this also creates an intellectual danger of then proceeding to actually design political protest/programs using one chapter of one Fanon work as a template. – forgetting that it’s a lens through which to try and understand how certain processes unfold, rather than a prescription for a best-practice revolution.

In that light, Brown’s focus on Rancière is refreshing. Specifically, he is interested in Rancière’s idea that ‘politics’ happens when people who are ‘barbarians’ (i.e. perceived as incapable of participating in politics, or of being intelligible as political actors) arrive and begin behaving as though they were equals. Which then causes an upset in the system (so to speak), in that it is forced to decide whether to redesign itself to accommodate these  new people, find a way of co-opting them, or outright repressing their assertion of equality. He walks through some excellent examples of these kinds of tactical moments in recent South African politics, that you will need to wait for my actual review to see, but I found it exciting to re-think much of the known recent protest history in SA through a lens of ‘these are moments where people excluded from political personhood have asserted their equal status as citizens and thereby caused a fuss.”

Rancière’s ideas here are not necessarily incompatible with Fanon, and it would be interesting to see what would result if you tried to think through politics in South Africa with both theorists in your head.

Rancière’s ideas here are not necessarily incompatible with Fanon, and it would be interesting to see what would result if you tried to think through politics in South Africa with both theorists in your head. More controversially for the everything-is-Fanon-and-violent-resistance-of-domination camp, Brown’s use of Rancière’s ideas leaves me with an optimism for insurgent politics in South Africa that Fanon – I realise – hadn’t.

My impression of how Fanon gets articulated in South Africa’s public sphere (read: ‘middle class’ South Africans with Twitter access and an acute sensitivity to what goes on there) is that its appeal lies in a kind of cathartic revenge being possible against The Oppressor (Penny Sparrow, White Monopoly Capital, whatever). Which, although emotionally satisfying, doesn’t offer an especially inspiring blueprint for a future community of emancipated equals. Which was something that Fanon had concerns about himself, as I recall: the question of how, once violence becomes an acceptable tactic, you will eventually bottle that genie in order to create something better.

Put differently, the limited version of Fanonian thinking that’s often expressed in South Africa sees violence as being necessary to meaningful political change – all else is simply ‘working within the system’. Rancière, though, makes a compelling case that politics happens in more moments than simply the violent ones. In fact, on Rancière’s account, it’s easily possible to have violence, protest, and ‘official’ opposition that’s really nothing more than managed performances of the status quo.

In so doing, Rancière seems to offer a more hopeful program, in that as progress towards an equal society doesn’t require violence. This idea of politics being about undermining the existing order through presenting yourself as equal and demanding that this be accommodated without you needing to adapt, feels like an optimistic one, even where that future may well still contain violence.

There’s a lot more nuance in Insurgent Citizens than I am really capturing here, because I need to have something to write in review. The point, though, is that Brown has me fairly convinced that thinking through politics in South Africa really needs to move past its Fanonian obsession and pay more serious attention to what theorists like Rancière can offer.

Have you come across this book, or read it? I’d love to know what you thought.

Categories: Thinking

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