Fanon and the car as a symbol of progress
Dr Alex T. Magaisa
It often ends with the assessment that, although conditions are tough for the majority, things are not really that bad when one considers the latest automobiles gracing the streets of Harare. Observers conclude, on the evidence of that veneer of luxury, that, despite the gloomy picture often portrayed, Zimbabweans are progressing and competing at the highest level.
An article appeared in The Herald newspaper on Saturday 27 January 2007, headlined “Luxurious cars way of celebrating one’s success”, itself appearing to celebrate this demonstration of “success”.
I could not help but think of Frantz Fanon, that great interpreter and prophet who must surely be turning in his grave, at a people who have utterly refused to heed his lessons. Of this celebration of personal luxury amid overwhelming poverty, Fanon would have aptly stated, as he did in The Wretched of the Earth, that, in poor countries, such as Zimbabwe, “the rule is that the greatest wealth is surrounded by the greatest poverty”.
The Wretched of the Earth is a seminal work that ought to feature in the literature syllabi of every African country because while Fanon was writing about things that he observed in Africa of 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.
The lessons that ought to have been learned remain true today; the pitfalls that ought to have been avoided remain visible and evident. The acquisition and flaunting of luxury by what is largely no more than a sophisticated class of privileged gangsters, preying on a dying economy and calling it a celebration of success, coupled by what appears to be a general acceptance that it is just the way things are, must surely be a damning reflection on the state of morals, common decency and values of society.
One might consider that this is an unnecessary and superficial rant against members of Zimbabwean society that are doing exceptionally well, under the harsh circumstances. However, far from it, what is a major concern is that the behaviour demonstrated at the individual level is largely a reflection of the behaviour of the state in relation to development.
Over the course of history in post-independence Africa, there has been evidence of excessive spending on prestige projects – the presidential palaces, mayoral mansions, plush hotels, tall buildings, and numerous other non-productive projects, the purpose of which is to satisfy inflated egos and create an illusion of development and modernity, while productive sectors have been neglected. It is in this context that unsurprisingly, a large amount of money is spent on sprucing up the image of the Heroes Acre where the departed are interred while the hospitals for treatment of the ill are crumbling. Nearby, the construction of the main highway between Harare and Bulawayo remains stagnant and the train journey from Harare to Bulawayo still takes more than 8 hours.
Sadly, for some people, these prestige projects – the tall buildings and flashy automobiles represent development/modernity – even if the roads on which they travel are pot-holed. The pursuit of individual luxury is therefore symptomatic of the greater problem – that of a fascination with superficial, unproductive prestige projects at the national level. Instead of taking luxurious vehicles as symbols of success in a country swamped by such poverty, it should be a cause for worry as a symptom of something that’s gone awry both at the individual and national level.
But what is it that clouds rationale judgment, so that in the midst of naked poverty, otherwise rationale men and women would pursue and define success in such flimsy and superficial terms? What is it that causes men and women to engage in unbridled conspicuous consumption, when resources could be channelled into causes that are more worthy in that they could benefit the common good?
Fanon defined it in part, as the problem of an “under-developed middle class” that is to be found in most independent African states. Instead of harnessing its intellectual and technical capital for the rest of the people, says Fanon, this underdeveloped middle class “disappears with its soul set at peace into shocking ways of a bourgeoisie which is stupidly, contemptibly, cynically bourgeois”.
Instead of ploughing resources to explore, create and develop systems and products to give the country a competitive edge, the under-developed middle class simply pursues the path of negation and decadence, as it tries to compete with the Western middle class. It sees itself, not as part of the country in which it is located but invests every effort to compete with and live according to the middle classes of the developed nations. Now, one might say this is all misdirected, as there is really no longer a middle class in Zimbabwe.
Well, if there isn’t, there is certainly a class that appears to thrive under the current conditions, through genius, opportunism, patronage or a combination of all and more. By and large, it is a class that is only distinguishable from a mob of gangsters because it does not necessarily wield guns and knives in the pursuit of riches. This is because the economy has been reduced to a state in which mostly those with a gangster mentality or are able to align themselves with gangsters, can thrive. It is, one might Christian it, a class of sophisticated gangsters.
The behaviour exhibited is typical of the conduct of gangsters after making a "score". They have no interest whatsoever in developing anything beyond their personal luxuries. In typical gangster fashion, the economic spaces are subject to “smash and grab” tactics, with those in the most advantageous positions using them to maximum personal benefit. But then again one might say, this is an unfortunate reaction to a formal economy that has been weakened by ill-conceived policies and strategies of the state.
The behaviour exhibited is partly a manifestation of the effects of the historical marginalisation during colonialism, so that when independence arrived, those who got opportunities were only intent on replacing the former masters and living their lifestyle, even if it meant perpetuating the same system that they fought in the first place. But the sophisticated gangster class has even outdone the former colonial masters, especially in the area of conspicuous consumption and arrogant display of luxury.
There is nothing inherently amiss in this, except that the sophisticated gangster class has skipped the stages that the Western middle class underwent during the course of history. Thus, Fanon says of the under-developed middle class, “It is already senile before it has come to know the petulance, the fearlessness or the will to succeed of youth”. Its ambitions are therefore limited only to the superficial glitter of luxury that the world has to offer.
There is no reinvestment of profits, most of which result not from any real production but activities of the intermediary type, which are all too common in today’s Zimbabwe – where the parallel market thrives alongside the diminishing formal economy. What is worse, the sophisticated gangster class has the temerity to feed off the formal economy in building the parallel-market activities, from which the profits are drawn. But this is hardly surprising for it is basically a gangster economy, in which the dominant activities producing the large volumes of profits are dominated by strongmen, whose interest is limited to the acquisition of superficial luxury, not the real production in the fields and factories.
Of the love of luxury, Fanon says that “the good for nothing (class) … tries to hide [its] mediocrity by buildings which have prestige value at the individual level, by chromium plating on big American cars … and weekends in neon-lit night clubs”. Fanon was writing in the sixties but he may as well have been writing about today’s Zimbabwe with reference to its sophisticated gangster class.
But what is happening in Zimbabwe is not entirely new or unique, for it has happened before in Africa. As Martin Meredith states in The State of Africa, “The wealth of the new elite acquired was ostentatiously displayed in grand houses, luxury cars and lavish lifestyles”.
Apparently, in Abidjan, they called it the “Platinum Life”. The sophisticated gangster class is oblivious of its surrounding poverty. Even if its takes notice, it does not really care, considering it to be the natural state of things where winners and losers emerge in constant competition. Fanon says this class is “incapable of understanding that it would be in its interest to draw a veil, even if only of the flimsiest kind exploitation” and circumstances of luxury.
Instead, the dominant urge and practice is to show-off this luxury, as a demonstration of what is deemed “success”. They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing from the experiences of fellow African brothers and sisters who have been there before. It is difficult to understand quite how one can honestly measure the success of a country by the number, sizes and quality of cars on pot-holed streets. Perhaps there is a whole new challenge of understanding the meaning of the concept of success.
It is a damning illustration of the times in which people live today in Zimbabwe, that we celebrate the automobile as a symbol of success. What makes is more painful though, is that it appears to be a commonly held view so that those watching from the outside do so with envy and if they had the same opportunities and resources, they would also spent them on luxuries.
Perhaps Satre’ was right, when he wrote the introduction to The Wretched of the Earth, and stated that “the condition of native is a nervous condition”. Perhaps it is true, that colonialism did something far more drastic than physical subjugation; that it did something to the mind – it’s a psychological battle; we are trying to break out, but we continue to build the shell surrounding us.
Forgive me, dear reader, if this sounds pessimistic, but some stories just drain the little hope there is. I hope though, that time will come when the reality dawns, that the ostentatious automobile is not an indicator of success or progress, especially when the surrounding circumstances demonstrate otherwise. Prestige projects, both at the individual and national level are nothing but a diversion of resources from otherwise productive areas that would benefit the common good.
Dr Magaisa can be contacted at email@example.com
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