East Africa, South Africa and the Pitfalls of National Consciousness

In The Wretched of The Earth, in the third chapter The Pitfalls of National Consciousness Frantz Fanon introduces Karl Marx’s old question whether the state is but a modern committee that functions in the interest of the bourgeoisie. Fanon discusses the fact that once the slogans are no longer chanted and there are no more emotions that drive rebellion, national consciousness falls apart, everything becomes about the bourgeoisie interested in  advancing its own material interests at the expense of the common man. This paper aims to offer a critical assessment of Fanon’s critique of the pitfalls of national consciousness.

Fanon’s most telling theoretical contribution is his insistence on what he terms the “pitfalls of national consciousness”. Nationalism, as Fanon argues in The Wretched of the Earth, often fails at achieving liberation because its aspirations are primarily those of the colonised whose primary interest is to replace the colonisers role of surveillance and dominance over the working-class lumpenproletariat.

Fanon instead suggested that colonialism may only be understood as a complicated network of complicities and internal power imbalances between factions within the broader categories of coloniser and colonised. According to Fanon, nationalist leaders often replicate the systems of coercion and domination that shaped colonial rule.

Fanon blames the failings of nationalism on the “intellectual laziness of the middle class,” the national bourgeoisie who prior to independence were at the forefront of the struggle, spear-heading national consciousness geared towards the attainment of political liberty and national dignity. In this sense, national consciousness is the feeling that all the people in a given state share certain important traits and qualities. If true national consciousness arises, the people will be able to see that they are all in ‘the same boat’ and that their destinies are bound up with one another. Fanon’s critique of the pitfalls of national consciousness, is founded on how after independence is realised, through the use of national consciousness,  broader concerns that once mobilised the masses are side-lined to facilitate the new elite’s interest.

It is important to note that scholars such as Neil Lazarus have critiqued Fanon, holding the view it is impossible on reading Fanon to account for the wholesale of demobilisation and disenfranchisement of the ‘the people’ in the years following independence. For instance in Algeria in 1962 an anti-colonial war  had lasted for 8 years and claimed a million Algerian lives. Lazarus holds that such a development cannot be recognised with Fanon’s evocation of disciplined and progressively unified population coming closer and closer to self-knowledge as the struggle against the French colonial forces intensified.

According to Lazarus, it seems inconceivable that having been decisively and world historically conscientised during the anticolonial struggle, such a population would have permitted itself to be so easily and so quickly neutralised after decolonisation. Although Lazarus may make an interesting point, his claim falls short because The Wretched of the Earth because while Fanon was writing about things that he observed in Africa in the fifties and sixties he also made telling predictions about the behaviour of people in the immediate aftermath of independence. Of great interest are his observations on the behaviour of the state and what he calls the “under-developed middle class”, in relation to the rest of the population which celebrates personal luxury amid overwhelming poverty, as seen particularly in Africa where the gap between the rich and poor is so vast.

Fanon presents the fact that the national middle class which takes power after the declaration of independence is an underdeveloped middle class. According to Fanon the class has no economic power and its productive capacities are inferior to those of the bourgeoisie of the former colonising country which it is attempting to replace. Thus, the incoming elites make deals with the out-going colonialists, allowing them to access the country’s resources, as long as the new African elite get a share of the profits. The national bourgeoisie usually engage in conspicuous consumption to try plaster that they do not hold concrete  economic power. As Fanon states, “large sums are spent on display: on cars, country houses, and on all those which have been justly described by economists as characterising an underdeveloped bourgeoisie”. I am in agreement with Fanon, nationalists are not the bourgeoisie, they do not have capital like the traditional bourgeoisie. They do not create wealth they are usually a dependent elite that lives off the existing assets which they played no role in creating.

East Africa


This underdeveloped bourgeoisie was clearly illustrated by a new group that emerged mainly in East African countries after independence in the 1960s called the WaBenzi. WaBenzi is a term East Africans cynically used to refer to rich politicians, businessmen and officials who drove expensive cars and engaged in conspicuous consumption. This new group  held political power and proudly showed-off their superiority, totally forgetting the people who gave so much for independence, who are then demobilised and told to go back to their caves and are excluded from sharing in the country’s wealth.

Zimbabwe and Nigeria

Eventually, the people realise that there is no economic  development, and that the ruling party uses the legacy colonialism to hide its own flaws. Fanon explains how the national bourgeoisie attempts to prevent this from happening; the national bourgeoisie will pacify the people putting them to sleep through bringing up the injustices of the past. A clear example of this process was former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s time in office. He often reminded Zimbabweans how Britain once controlled Zimbabwe, and the importance of ensuring this never happened again. In a speech he delivered in 2002, he said: “The white man is not indigenous to Africa. Africa is for Africans. Zimbabwe is for Zimbabweans”. Mugabe’s use of such provocative  language served to provide cover for the failures of his government in providing basic socio-economic rights and to armour activities which Zimbabwean government officials, Mugabe included, have been accused off such as the misappropriation of funds and money laundering. The elites create an idea of culture, and present themselves as the protectors of that culture in order to hide from their wrong-doings which embody a lack of ethics and moral bankruptcy..


Fanon’s critique of the pitfalls of national consciousness can also be realised in the Nigerian context where majority of the Nigerian bourgeoisie collaborated with foreign monopoly capitalistic interests in Nigeria. Nigeria is confronted with dearth of many of the necessary factors required to move a country forward. Many people believe that the present condition of the Nigerian state can be partly related to the country’s history of colonialism. Whilst many may feel that it has a lot to do with the amalgam and process of the knowledge. I am of the view that it has largely been caused by elites taking the roles of the colonial masters instead of working for the sincere development of the country at large.

South Africa

South Africa is not exempt from the pitfalls of national consciousness, Moeletsi Mbeki in Architects of Poverty  eloquently addresses how South Africa fell into the pitfall. Post-1994, former President Thabo Mbeki who had not embraced Fanon with vigour before, sought solace in his writings. During his presidential term, President Thabo Mbeki wanted to deviate from the process  Fanon had outlined in his book and wanted the bourgeoisie to have genuine power and genuine wealth. However, contrary to Thabo Mbeki’s aim to not feed into Fanon’s writing; Moeletsi Mbeki’s book engages with how he and his administration fell right into Fanon’s assertions and predictions. Moeletsi Mbeki highlights Fanon’s thoughts that true government does not rule top-down, but bottom-up. It engages itself with the people.

A short-fall of the South African government during President Thabo Mbeki’s time in office, and a critique which has generally followed the South African government is its technocratic and top-down tendency, in relation to public policy. In this, Moeletsi Mbeki is not far off from reality. As has been observed in recent times, the proletariat is often unhappy with the failure of the ruling party in delivering the promises it makes during the struggle and the tendency that it must think on its behalf. Often making decisions on issues concerning it without consulting with it as the people affected.

An example of this would be how the state is keenly working on a deal that can potentially grant a Dubai property developer access and rights to build a Zulu theme park, in isizwe saseMacambini, in Northern KwaZulu-Natal. The success of the deal would mean the R44 billion project would be built on 16 500 ha; displacing an approximatly 10 000 families.Many people from Macambini are opposed to the project as it losing land of great ancestral significance. Although people in and around Macambini have been staunch about not welcoming this ‘development’, they feel unheard, purposely ignored and disregarded by those in power. In the past year the government put forward thoughts to dissolve the Ingonyama Trust, a trust in which members are the custodians of rural land in KwaZulu-Natal and representatives of the Zulu king, Isilo Sabandla, King Goodwill Zwelithini.

This dissolution would serve to allow for government to be the only institution to govern matters relating to rural land in KwaZulu-Natal, this has generally been observed by the people in Macambini as merely a way for the government to grant rights to the property developer, to use Macambini’s land. Discussions regarding the status of this project have quietened, leaving many residents of Macambini feeling nervous about what this silence means.

In concluding, freedom from the colonialist’s power has not necessary meant full political and economic independence from the colonial power, especially if the government is not fully committed to bringing about real development, but is rather interested in its personal gain, as most newly attained and elected governments were. In doing so they merely assumed the positions of dominance of the colonisers. Therefore, Fanon calls for a second struggle where people mobilise against the ruling party which often uses the past to encourage people to obey and placates them. The ruling party will often play on the race, ‘tribe’ or class people belong to. Consciousness therefore tends to elude people because in “young and independent nations, the nation is passed over for the race, and the tribe is preferred to the state.” Fanon is calling, then, for a sort of patriotism. He is calling for a consciousness in which people understand they are part of something bigger than their own small race, ‘tribe’ or class.

By Nonzuzo Mbokazi