Note: This article is a sister piece to the creative submission, Vistas. The two submissions are meant to be viewed in concert.
Writing in 1961, on the eve of both Algeria’s independence and his death, what will become his seminal work, Les damnés de la terre, Frantz Fanon characterizes the colonial world as two zones or compartments opposed to each other in their very nature. He describes that the one zone, is “strongly built…all made of stone and steel. It is a brightly-lit town; the streets are covered with asphalt”. He continues in the same temperament with the added bonus of naming the inhabitants: “The settler’s town is a well-fed town, an easy-going town; its belly is always full of good things. The settlers town is a town of white people, of foreigners.” While on the side zone; that of the negro or native “is a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there…they die there; it matters little not where, nor how. It is…without spaciousness; men live there on top of each other…the native town is a hungry town, starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of light…a crouching village…of niggers and dirty arabs.”
Consistent with Fanon, French-Algerian existentialist, Albert Camus writes in 1953: “Poverty increases insofar as freedom retreats throughout the world and vice versa…The oppressed want to be liberated not only from their hunger but also from their masters.” Fanon’s sheer description of the geopolitical disparities – one of affluent existence and another of desolation, outlines not only colonial structural differences as such, but how the very orchestrations, determine experiential and existential realities. Fanon also notes that these cartographic domiciles produce inequalities, differing subjectivities and are self-cancelatory. The settler looks, from the hills of his well-lit town, with scorn and pomposity at the degenerate plight of the colonized native. The state of the desecrated existence of the colonized gives and sustains the colonizer’s humanity. Which is to say the symbolic weight of the colonizing being is constructed by and through the defilement of the colonized subject. The very well being of the master is the causal connection to both lack of freedom and the hunger that characterizes the colonized subject.
So there is something intrinsically relational between place and being. The common dictum that we are made by our dwellings becomes relatively plausible. The colonial machine produces subjects according to spaces. The designated colonial spatial positions, literary or figuratively, are built with their inhabitants in mind. Frank Wilderson III bolsters this point when he says: “Here the Absence of cartographic Presence resonates in the libidinal economy in the way Black “homeland” (in this case, the Ciskei) replicates the constituent deficiencies of Black “body” or “subject.” The Black “homeland” is a fated place where fated Black bodies are domiciled. It is the nowhere of no one. But it is more—or less—for “homeland” cartography suffers from a double inscription. The “homeland” is an Absence of national Presence drawn on the Absence of continental Presence; a Black “nation” on a Black “continent”; nowhere to the power of two.”
French philosopher Alain Badiou explains that when Marx argues that the proletariat has no being; he means it has no political presence. In the world Fanon diagnosed to have been characterized by “compartments” the logic is the same: “you are rich because are white, and you are white because you are rich.” This differential becomes the ‘dividing line’ as Seyki Otu would call it that separates between political and apolitical subjects. The color of one’s body determines the space and experience one aught to have – one’s access to life itself. This unrepresentability of others doesn’t mean, as Badiou also argues, that these others don’t exist – they do, however paradoxical their form of existence might be. This form of appearance, with all its formal presence as living bodies, “if we consider the world’s rules of appearance, the proletariat does not exist.” If the political subject aught to live in a place of decent living, spacious, secured and brightly lit streets, as a la settlers’ place, the apolitical subject, deserves can be found in nightmarish zones of depressive poverty, unsanitary streets and squalor like townships, shacks and favelas. Thus in this case the relation between place and people, land and native, colony and colonized or ghetto and blacks, is tautological. That is when one sees a black person automatically one sees a tableau vivant of township life.
Wasn’t this the intended mission of the 1913 native land act, to reduce blacks to nonexistent entities by dispossessing them off their land, labour and being? Today we live through the cracks of a legacy of colonial dispossessions. Even though there are no instruction boards designating separate amenities and laws that insist on the humiliation of the blacks, the lingering face of suffering remains unabashedly racialised. Thus the places in which blacks stay in the post 1994 situation remain to bare the already anciently prescribed “zone of nonbeing.” Though there are relative changes in the successive generations of black dwellings, from homeland to city, and the various types of settlements in city life, what has changed is neither the racialised colonial settlement nor its still degrading conditions. However, what has changed is the proximity of these spaces, getting closer and closer to places of employment – white spaces. More than the convenience for the working population to be closer to work, these proximities instead of showing an imaginative rupture from colonialism, force us to still re-read Fanon’s wager. This is because the “line” Fanon spoke about becomes over-emphasized and the two realities, wedged. Or rather the so-called inclusion of the black subject into the democratic plane, shows its fallacious mendacity. The black rather becomes in this arrangement included as excluded. Its inclusion doesn’t rupture with the structural exclusion of the colonial enterprise, but seeks to blur it or render it obsolete and natural.
There are many such spaces where the opulent towns stare in their cold gazes the “yelping noise” of black poverty. This pattern can be argued to repeat itself in the standard official ideological move of ‘reconciliation without justice’ between the oppressed and oppressor. Whereas before bodies were separated not only from entering the same spaces and entrances, but also were barred from meeting physically. In the age of multiracial South Africa the exteriorities of legal sectarianism has vanished but the core problematic which reproduces racially structured inequalities has remained intact. This game of corporeal meeting was at the heart of the 2010 soccer world cup state propaganda. The juxtapositioning of apartheid separation and post 1994 ‘rainbowness’ were used as psychological strategies to create a false consciousness of an imaginary leap into a different moment. That is, it cemented the assumptive idea that a rupture with our colonial past was made. This revelation is merely a superficial gesture of concealment of the rapacious structurally necessary inequalities.
Curators like Okwui Enwezor in the early years after 1994 were quick to pronounce how art could show the lingering binaries – of excluded/included, black/white etc., however one aught to ask whether art actually did this? Or whether the art world was any separate from this ‘compartmentalized’ world? Sport and other cultural activities were and still are hopefully propagated as conduits that will close the dichotomy while the very dichotomizing machine persists in its usual project. The antinomies of post apartheid South Africa still need us to raise the old uncomfortable questions of ‘the system’, the settlers/natives, the land, exploitation, white supremacy and so forth. It is burdensome to talk of freedom while bondage is still the burning reality amongst the oppressed. It remains problematic to talk of the rainbow nation or the biblical phrase of ‘love thy neighbor’ if the architectures of adjacent neighborhood is overdetermined by the persistence of undying legacy of inequality and systemic differentiality. In fact the recent explosions and mass protests, including the scandalous pota pota (shit spilling) riots in Cape Town CBD are indicative of the persevering nature of anti-black racism as a structuring logic. They become not only clues of an either vanishing or nonexistent liberated country, but also rather the safe existence of colonial legacy as a spectral force in a different form. They urge us to ask questions about dignity and security. They ask us to mark some distance from the misleading romanticization of the ghetto and glory that comes with suffering. Most importantly they must encourage us to say “no!” Or as Fanon would say: “There is a zone of nonbeing, an extraordinarily sterile and arid region, an utterly naked declivity where an authentic upheaval can be born.”