Algeria marks its 53rd year of independence from France this month. The bitter struggle for freedom in the late 1950s and early 1960s became a central focus of the global movement against colonialism. It also influenced the evolving forms of repression and resistance in apartheid South Africa.
Independence followed a hard-fought revolutionary war that began in late 1954 and ended six years later. It cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Massacres were common, extending in 1961 to the mass killing of unarmed Algerian civilians in Paris. Torture and rape were routine features of French military operations.
Alongside the revolution in Cuba in 1959, the Algeria war for national liberation inspired struggles against racism and colonialism around the world. After the war, grand figures on the global stage – such as Malcolm X and Che Guevara – made their way to Algeria. Guevara declared Algiers “one of the most heroic capitals of freedom”.
In 1961, Nelson Mandela, in search of military training, was hosted by the Algerian army in exile in Morocco. He went on to spend some time with guerrillas in the mountains of Algeria. He declared the Algerian struggle to be:
… the closest model to our own in that the rebels faced a large white settler community that ruled the indigenous majority.
The apartheid state also sought to learn from the war in Algeria. By 1963, activists in South Africa were being subjected to methods of torture learnt from the French in Algeria.
Fanon’s enduring influence
Today, the most visible legacy of the Algerian war in South Africa is the ubiquity of the name and, arguably, to a lesser extent, ideas of one of the major intellectuals whose thought was forged, in large part, in the crucible of that war.
Frantz Fanon’s name is mobilised in the service of all kinds of political projects, some of which are in obvious contradiction to both the books that he wrote as well as what we know of his biography.
Fanon, born on the Caribbean island of Martinique in 1925, published his first book, Black Skin, White Masks,, in 1952 at the precociously young age of 27. The book deals with the lived experience of racism in the Caribbean and France.
All these years on it remains a foundational text in the growing body of literature in the field of critical race studies. It had an explosive impact on South Africa in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when, along with thinkers like James Cone, Aimé Césaire and Jean-Paul Sartre, Fanon became an important part of the intellectual foundation of the black consciousness movement.
Contemporary readers often continue to experience their first encounter with the book as electric and transformative. In the parts of South African society that retain a colonial character, such as some universities, it remains a book with a real charge. Fanon’s name is frequently invoked in the new student struggles for the decolonisation and deracialisation of the country’s universities.
Fanon’s next two books were written in Tunis where he worked for the Algerian national liberation movement in exile. A Dying Colonialism, published in 1959, is an account of the personal and collective changes that become possible within a mass struggle. The Wretched of the Earth was published in December 1961, shortly after his death from leukaemia at the age of 36. Six months after its publication Algeria finally won independence from France.
The Wretched of the Earth offers a brilliant illumination and critique of colonial society, the struggle against colonialism and the pathologies of postcolony. What is often forgotten is that it also addresses the damage wrought by the violence that structures the colonial situation.
More than 50 years on, it remains an essential text, one often understood in terms of prophecy rather than critique, for understanding both the colonial and post-colonial situation. In 2015 many South African students encountering it for the first time feel that Fanon offers privileged insight into the grim realities of the country under the increasingly predatory regime headed by Jacob Zuma.
Fanon was given a hero’s burial on Algerian soil in a forest just across the border from Tunisia. After Algeria won its independence his name was inscribed into the symbolic order of the new society. The avenue on which the National Library of Algeria sits, a school and a hospital were all named in his honour.
But as Algeria became increasingly authoritarian and distant from Fanon’s vision of “an Algeria open to all, in which every kind of genius can grow”, his evidently resonant critique of the pathologies of postcolony, and his exploration of the lines of continuity between the colony and the postcolony, became increasingly embarrassing to the new order.
Fanon’s name remained in the pantheon of the heroes of the revolution but his ideas were increasingly considered heretical and dismissed as alien.
In October 1988, Josie Fanon, his widow, was watching from the balcony of her flat in Algiers when young men without jobs and homes began burning police cars in the streets. The police responded with the sort of violence that had characterised French colonialism and around 500 people were killed in a few days. A few months later she carefully put her affairs in order and took her own life.
In the wake of the first state massacre to be carried out after apartheid, and as South Africans witness the rapid decline of the African National Congress’s hegemony, many young people encounter Fanon as a window into redemptive possibility of a second struggle against a rotten order that has failed to redeem the promise of the anti-colonial struggle. In that sense, South Africa continues to be entangled with the Algerian revolution.