Anthony Balcomb
6 minute read
27 Apr 2021

Twenty-seven years later, still not free

Anthony Balcomb

A woman’s video of the image of a white man crushing the life out of a black man by pushing his knee on the black man’s neck for the now infamous nine minutes and 29 seconds, went viral, reignited the Black Lives Matter movement and made everyone inv

A woman’s video of the image of a white man crushing the life out of a black man by pushing his knee on the black man’s neck for the now infamous nine minutes and 29 seconds, went viral, reignited the Black Lives Matter movement and made everyone involved in the incident famous, including the woman who took the video.

The last words of that black man: “I can’t breathe”, have become the rallying cry of the movement. “We can’t breathe,” boomed the Reverend Al Sharpton, the diminutive human rights activist, speaking for all African Americans.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 20: An image honoring Georg
WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 20: An image honoring George Floyd is shown on the scoreboard after a game between the St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on April 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Nationals defeated the Cardinals 3-2.

But these words, almost exactly, were uttered, prophetically, by another black man about 70 years ago. Algerian psychiatrist, activist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon said them in his iconic book Black Skin, White Masks. “I must free myself from my strangler”, he said, “because I cannot breathe”.

The strangler was the French coloniser, and Fanon had in mind another story while dictating this book that has become extraordinarily relevant in the light of the George Floyd killing — Georg Hegel’s image of the master and slave.

Hegel’s fable of the master/slave relationship is his most famous and has been used by countless philosophers to illustrate the historical emergence of identity, self-realisation, self-recognition or simply, self-consciousness. The story is simple, stark and compelling. Two people meet for the first time and immediately begin to fight for recognition.

A statue in Stone Town, Zanzibar dipicting and mou
A statue in Stone Town, Zanzibar dipicting and mourning the African slave trade. Taken with a Nikon D40X using a 18-55 mm lens

One wins, one loses. Then, ironically, the loser emerges as the winner. The story has played out throughout human history, more especially through the history of colonialism. But Hegel’s reason for telling it is not simply to recount history. It is to put forward, for the first time in history, that selves are made not by thinking, as Descartes proposed, but by interacting with other selves.

“Without interpersonal interaction”, said Robert Solomon, “and the mutual demand for recognition there is no self and no self-consciousness”.

The self, Hegel theorised, is driven by the desire to become certain of one’s own self as the primary and essential being in the world. In order to achieve this the self has to subjugate the other and make them into an object that serves the needs of the master, especially the desire for recognition. To preserve their own life the slave succumbs to the master but, classically, eventually turns the tables on the master by realising they can control the master through their labour. In this way they achieve their subjectivity and personhood. But such an outcome, although common in history, is not the desired outcome, which is one of mutual recognition, a state of intersubjectivity where each knows themself to be recognised by the free counterpart, and knows this insofar as they recognise the other and know them to be free. Hegel called this the “we that is I and the I that is we”, the “unity of opposite self-consciousnesses”, or “being with oneself in others”. It is the state of knowing that you are recognised by the other. Of realising that you are present in the consciousness of the other in such a way that your humanity is acknowledged and affirmed. That your wellbeing is represented in the other, as their’s is in you. That you desire their wellbeing as you desire your own and that they know this. This is the happy state of affairs of any healthy relationship at any level — marriage, family, community, citizen, state.

SOUTH AFRICA - MAY 2: A crowd holding a poster wit
SOUTH AFRICA – MAY 2: A crowd holding a poster with Mandela for President written on it on May 2, 1994 in South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Avusa / Andrew Brown)

Fanon, however, argued that this is impossible under colonialism. To be free in the Hegelian sense you need to realise that the master needs you not only for your labour but for bolstering their own sense of self. Having realised this you can use your influence over them to free yourself from objectification and gain your personhood.

Fanon argued that the colonised cannot do this because they never get beyond a relationship in which they are not psychologically subjugated by the coloniser because the colonised never gets over trying to be like the coloniser.

The colonised mind, in this sense, is far worse than the colonised body because minds are far more difficult to free than bodies. The slave continues to mimic the master even after gaining so-called independence which was given to them by the master in the first place. And freedom can not be given by a master, it has to be achieved by mental and political self-liberation.

In the dehumanisation department apartheid was even worse than colonialism because dehumanisation was not only in the structures of the mind of the oppressor but in the structures of society.

As a black person your very identity started with a nullity, a nothing, a negative, as in “non-European”, or, even more tellingly in Afrikaans, “nie blankes”. You were forced to see this everywhere you went, every where you looked, any where you worked. What is more, the law had it that those who attempted to treat you as a human were punished and those who treated you as less than human were rewarded.

THEUNISSEN, SOUTH AFRICA – APRIL 20: Residents clash with police during a protest action on April 20, 2021 in Theunissen, South Africa. It is reported that the residents have joined the residents in Winburg who are protesting after learning that the Freedom Day commemorations will be held in Botshabelo. (Photo by Gallo Images/Volksblad/Mlungisi Louw)

It really could hardly have got worse, other than engaging in a kind of Holocaust-like genocide. So has anything changed 20 years later? In the governance stakes, obviously, in the racism stakes, hardly.

Neither in the U.S., nor South Africa. When it comes to racism it is not the structures of society or who is in control that are important it is the structures of the mind that are important.

Twenty years of mismanagement and corruption in a black-led South African government (voted in because blacks will never trust whites again to do anything but dehumanise them) has done nothing to help whites become less racist.

On the contrary, it has probably converted white liberals into racists and made racists into worse racists. And if Hegel and Fanon teach us anything with their theories of the self, then we can be sure that racist attitudes can never be justified and will always make things worse, not better.

The happy state of mutual recognition that both Hegel and Fanon envisaged as a possibility and without which the social contract or, in William Yeats’ term, the centre, cannot hold, remains an illusion, but not an impossibility.

Until then — aluta continua.

• Professor Tony Balcomb is a senior research associate at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and lives at Munster on the South Coast.