I attended a private high school, Girls’ College, in my teens. It is situated in the leafy suburb of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. We received what was deemed “the best education”, which is to say, distinctly British. We had etiquette lessons in form one, at age thirteen, where we were taught how to talk, how to walk, how to laugh, how to eat, how to pour tea, how to sit. It was a stellar education into the ways of British bourgeois society.
We had to read the Bible during assembly. You had to practise the reading beforehand, in the presence of an English teacher, to make sure you got the pronunciation right. If you mispronounced a word during assembly, the whole room would fall apart in hushed giggles. And yet, pronunciation is a matter of one’s mother tongue, in which case, there are many ways to speak English, particularly seeing as it has become a dominant global language. And yet, because of our multiplicity, it has also come to be possessed by and thus carried by multiple dialects, cultures and ways of being.
The British Englishness we learned at school was a form of education that alienated the black pupils from themselves and fostered in the white pupils their British, albeit colonial, heritage.
During Africa Day, there were readings during assembly in Ndebele, and when the white girls mispronounced Ndebele words, the assembly would, in contrast to when the black girls read English, fall into solemn silence, and afterwards clap their hands enthusiastically for an effort well done.
We did the Cambridge IGCSE examinations for our O, AS and A levels—the crucial exams taken at age sixteen, seventeen and eighteen—and so we learned European history, that is to say, world history from the perspective of Europe. This history encapsulated the partitioning of Africa at the 1884 Berlin Conference, as well as the World Wars I and II. Everything was told from the vantage point of Europe, which, to quote Achille Mbembe in his seminal treatise Decolonising Knowledge and the Question of the Archive, tried “to portray colonialism as a normal form of social relations between human beings rather than a system of exploitation and oppression.” We studied Jayne Eyre and William Shakespeare in our English class. As the forward-looking, cosmopolitan future of tomorrow, we also studied French.
The need to study for the British Cambridge exams instead of the local Zimsec ones was necessitated by the fact that the teaching profession, along with other civil servant professions, had deteriorated along with the economic and political mayhem in Zimbabwe, starting from the early 2000s. The teachers in government schools went for months without pay, and thus went on strike frequently, or simply had to find other means to support themselves. As a result, the education system was in chaos, and students who wrote the Zimsec exams would receive results for subjects they had not taken in school, giving them ground to question the results for the subjects they had really taken and may have, according to the dubious results, failed. A private education, and doing the Cambridge IGCSE exams, became a much sought-after alternative to the local Zimsec exams, one that could guarantee not only a “stellar education”, but also increase one’s chances of gaining entry into reputable universities outside the country. The university system in Zimbabwe—once lauded as one of the best on the continent—had also deteriorated, thanks to the crises crippling the country.
I became “African” in the USA, someone from Africa, not the real Africa, if there can be said to be such an Africa, but the Africa of the Western imagination.
At the time of my high school education, from 2001 to 2007, we were going through what we believed would be a short nightmare, but which has endured for the past two or so decades. The city of Bulawayo, and the whole country, was knotted in never-ending bread, mealie-meal and fuel queues. The city was a hive of energy; we laughed at ourselves and cluck-clucked over this terrible situation, as though refusing to bow to the burden of grief and struggle, and humiliation. There was comfort to be found in this communal suffering; perhaps it took away the sting of it, a little bit.
We did not know it then, and it felt new to us and anguished us greatly, but we, once deemed the bread basket of Africa, had become yet another post-colonial cliché. Zimbabwe is currently involved in a struggle for self-realisation where its denizens refuse to accept as normal the abnormal, tragic conditions of the country, a route which has been taken by the majority of post-colonial societies. Spaces like Nigeria, for instance, where this has been going on for decades, have come to somehow find a logic within and a “normalcy” to their dysfunctionality. Perhaps Zimbabwe has a few more decades to play out its anguished, fighting spirit against the post-colonial condition. Perhaps something new, something other than what has come before, will emerge out of this struggle. Post-colonial societies are nothing if not prime sites of experimentation and struggle to bring about new forms of societal organisation. The planet is dying; capitalism has continued to wreak havoc and exploit the black and brown world; we need a new way of being.
My high school education, including the etiquette classes, felt like a performance. One that had social currency, for Girls’ College is a respected school that is successful both academically and in sports. But outside this artificial school life, I had a home to go back to, a society to traverse, friends and relatives to interact with. One was aware, at once, of inhabiting two worlds, one extremely utilitarian and divorced from one’s society, and yet possessing high currency—the high school setting and its teachings—the other filled with various strands of knowledge which one had access to and partook in but whose utility was not clear in the society. This kind of knowledge was garnered from my grandmothers, for instance, from my aunts, from my Ndebele culture, from the eclectic youth culture of our society, from the adaptation of and application on home soil of a multicultural perspective—a testament to the mobility of knowledge—and the shared hopes and dreams of nationhood (not to be confused with nationalism, which is a form of jingoism that is more divisive than it is consilient).
For me, my life at school and my life in my society demonstrated the difference between education and knowledge. Education is very much a top-down approach that is harnessed by the state to meet its functionary needs (and in many spaces in Africa not even that; the education seems not to be geared towards the needs of the state in service to its denizens, but rather the state as an arm of globalisation, through which the best knowledge and resources flow from the periphery to the centre).
Art is where living occurs; living as a wondrous site of struggle, where life bursts from the dark, wet confines of the womb into the piercing light of existence, where woman exercises that great gift endowed to her by consciousness: freedom.
Knowledge, on the other hand, is fertilised by the communal meeting of shared hopes, dreams, values, cultures, traditions and ways of being. This is what makes up a nation—a group of people who share bonds due to common values and hopes. Artists can be said to be the harbingers, agitators, keepers and illuminators of the spirit of nationhood.
The British Englishness we learned at school was a form of education that alienated the black pupils from themselves and fostered in the white pupils their British, albeit colonial, heritage. But more interesting in this meeting of various cultures, albeit not on equal footing, was the manifestation of the various cultural identities and combative histories that make up the country Zimbabwe.
In contrast, English as it is used in daily life in Zimbabwe, as one more quilt in the fabric of society, is knowledge in action. Such an English becomes, inevitably, diluted into local cultural ways of being, for though it is a form of education that was imposed from without, it becomes a form knowledge through its adaptation in society. Knowledge springs from within a society, since it is utilised within and for that society. It is an organic process that is nevertheless dynamic since it has the power to adapt new ideas for the benefit of the community—the nation—that utilises it to better realise its goals and ideas of self. This is the difference between education and knowledge.
Thus, the dilution of English becomes a joyful assault on colonial modes of being and their accompanying Macaulayan attitudes to non-European languages. Such a dilution is also a testament to our interconnectedness and the curious, inventive human spirit; the idea of exclusivity has always been a myth – all knowledge is made up of diverse strands from multiple cultures. No one civilisation has a right to or a special claim to knowledge.
There have been times, during my time in the USA, when I have tried to replicate the intimacy of home. The person reflected back to me here is somebody I struggle to recognise. This is probably an inevitable process of being thrust into a different culture; however, because of the history of Africa as a concept and a group of people who were “owned, “created”, enslaved and appropriated by Western ideology under the banner of colonialism and slavery, the immersion as one from “Africa” into such a culture still carries the hegemonic trauma of such a history.
I became “African” in the USA, someone from Africa, not the real Africa, if there can be said to be such an Africa, but the Africa of the Western imagination, that place where, as Achille Mbembe writes in On the Post Colony,
‘the actual is no longer perceived except through the mirror of perversity that is, in truth, that of the subject uttering this discourse… Picking up rumour and gossip, amplifying them in the telling, it claims to throw light on things that haunt and obsess it, but about which, in truth, it knows absolutely nothing’ (2010: 178-179).
Random people wanted to help me, all because “I was from Africa”. My ability to speak English fascinated them, especially because I was neither a refugee nor an uneducated immigrant. People offered stories about having given relief to Africa with this or that aid organisation. It was a stark, shocking experience of the legacy of that other “Africa”, the one of the 1884 Berlin Conference, when the powerful nations of Western Europe decided to appropriate and enslave the continent and all that was in it. This legacy is inextricable from the Western lexicon; furthermore, “Africa” is what the West knows; “Africa” was once a property of the West; the West ‘knows’ Africa, and nothing made this starker than the confidence with which people would attribute to me experiences of a continent which were not my own and which I did not recognise.
This is where Art becomes important. Art is where living occurs; living as a wondrous site of struggle, where life bursts from the dark, wet confines of the womb into the piercing light of existence, where woman exercises that great gift endowed to her by consciousness: freedom. Art is the exercise and utilisation of knowledge; it is also the manufacturing of education into knowledge. For education to be useful in a society, it needs to be adapted into knowledge, especially in Africa where many of the education systems were inherited with little modification from colonial times and which thus perpetuate the current system where everything that the continent possesses is siphoned by powerful hegemonic forces towards Western spaces.
An example of the adaptation of education into knowledge and its successful utilisation in a society is the application of the dialectic method of critique by the Martinique-born philosopher Frantz Fanon, which is the style of inquiry in his seminal The Wretched of the Earth, and which he innovated from the German philosopher Hegel. The dialectic is a method of philosophical inquiry that is bent on interrogating the nature of reality with the intention of unearthing insights about the human condition, as Fanon managed to do via his interrogation of the colonial situation. Fanon also adapted Marx’s concept of the commodity fetish under capitalism to include the racial fetish under colonialism; Marx himself adapted Hegel’s dialectic method in his interrogation of the workings of capitalism and the commodity fetish. As such, what is important for the continent, particularly in this highly mobile 21st century, is the manufacture and application of knowledge. It does not matter where knowledge comes from; what is important is how it is used. When knowledge is adapted, as Fanon shows, it is able to bring enlightenment to a society about itself.
If Art is the soil where human existence in all its contradictory, impulsive, celebratory, mournful, meaningless, meaningful, meaning-making capacity sprouts, tearing through it with all the existential potential to grow into something essential, if this is what Art is, then knowledge is the fertiliser for that soil.
Art is both a safe and a vulnerable meeting space for all peoples; safe because it involves simulation, and vulnerable—and thus dangerous to the nationalist, jingoist, exclusivist and divisive propagators in our societies—because it breaks down our walls and pierces through our prejudices. This becomes ever more important for the African, who has only recently been seen to have a right to the freedom that is hers by virtue of her consciousness (but who has always had inherent possession of this consciousness and thus this freedom; to recognise something is to come into knowledge of something that has been always there). For the African, who is only in recent decades coming out of an age where she was once someone else’s property, where she was once a slave, where she was once deemed to be not a human being but a “thing: that could be appropriated and utilised like a horse and sold on the market like a mule, this Art, this creative expression of her humanity, this cry, this song, this poem, this story, this dance, this mourn, this groan, becomes ever more important.
Art is both a safe and a vulnerable meeting space for all peoples; safe because it involves simulation, and vulnerable—and thus dangerous to the nationalist, jingoist, exclusivist and divisive propagators in our societies—because it breaks down our walls and pierces through our prejudices.
It is why, in authoritarian spaces, knowledge, because of its dynamic and uncontainable nature and its inevitable fostering of the new, that is, of Art, is all the more threatening to a state, because its outcomes cannot be controlled. It is always prone to creation and experimentation; it picks up different ideas and ways of being wherever it encounters them and patches them up into something innovative, and thus may not necessarily align with the state’s objectives. Its alignment, where it thrives, is first and foremost to humanity, to living, to life, in all its spectacular multiplicity and diversity.
In Art, we see people; and in Art, we may even refuse to see them. This is why it’s such a joy to encounter Darling in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. Darling exists, loves, hopes, dreams and defies at the margins of society; one can almost call her subaltern, in the sense of one who cannot speak or one whose voice would not be heard otherwise. She is, to stretch the metaphor further, a subaltern who has been thrust into conversation with hegemonic spaces, or spaces of privilege, through her international mobility via We Need New Names. Her psychology is a delight to behold; to read her is to come into contact with her knowing—and not her education. For she is not educated in the conventional sense, and this is perhaps why conventional methods of trying to apprehend her find her so slippery. Through the text’s Ndebele-ised English, which is a form of translation of Darling’s Ndebele, we experience her worldview, which, in her ten-year-old rendering, is delightfully unself-conscious and unapologetic. Her narrative speaks from her and also beyond her, so that we come into contact, via the novel, with that double consciousness that is the gift and the curse of the African.
Listen. Listen; when Darling and her friends come across the woman from London who lives in the posh suburb of Budapest, what do they say?
“…you only look fifteen, like a child, Godknows says, looking at the woman now. I am expecting her to reach out and slap him on the mouth but she merely smiles like she has just not been insulted.
Thank you, I just came off the Jesus diet, she says, sounding very pleased.
I look at her like, what is there to thank?”
What we encounter here is the meeting of two cultures in conversation, on equal footing as existential modes of being in the world—for Darling has not learned to question her way of being in the world, and approaches the world confidently through her cultural lens.
Let us eavesdrop a little more on Darling; what does she do to the picture of Jesus that is hanging in the shack of Mother of Bones’ wall?
“He (Jesus) used to have blue eyes but I painted them brown like mine and everybody’s, to make him normal.”
There is something refreshing about Darling’s easy attribution of normativity to her cultural way of comprehending the world; to understand blackness and black people as “normal” is part of what the colonial project sought to destroy, and what post-colonialism has sought to reinstate, albeit at times in painfully self-conscious ways. To be educated against yourself, that is to say, to be taught ways of being that glorify whiteness while concurrently denigrating what one is, be it Ndebele or African or black, is to introduce a painful self-consciousness in the African subject. In We Need New Names, it seems as though Darling was never touched by the self-alienating effects of colonialism. Hence perhaps why she is such a (delightful) anomaly as a “post-colonial” fictional character.
And what about after the NGO trucks have come and gone, and the children have gotten their gifts from the NGO people and are running after the truck and waving goodbye, what does Darling say?
“…we take off and run after it; we have got what we wanted and we don’t care how they want us to do.” (Emphasis added.)
Any African or non-white person who has had to straddle the “formal” or reified world, which is still indelibly white, with its Macaulayan teachings and its self-glorification, and her own world, where she is in sync with her familial and cultural ways of being, is familiar with simulation, the acting that one slips into when one is in the white world—such as I used to slip into at my high school Girls’ College with its distinctly British education—and the other version of one which one slips into when one is in one’s home or cultural setting.
Thus, we can appreciate Darling’s double consciousness with regards to the NGO people, which she herself seems unconscious of, probably because she is a child and has not yet learned how to be self-conscious in the world, which is the painful condition of being a post-colonial subject in a neo-colonial globe.
And what does Darling say of home, when she is overseas in America?
“No matter how green the maize looks in America, it is not real. They call it corn here, and it comes out all wrong, like small, sweet, too soft. I don’t even bother with it anymore because eating it is a really disappointing thing, it feels like I’m just insulting my teeth.”
“In America, the fatness is not the fatness I was used to at home. Over there, the fatness was of bigness, just ordinary fatness you could understand because it meant the person ate well, fatness you could even envy. It was fatness that did not interfere with the body…But this American fatness takes it to a whole other level: the body is turned into something else.”
What is endearing about Darling’s uncanny, if a little biting, criticism is her absolute lack of infatuation with and reification of America, which is the all too common trope of the immigrant story; that is to say, Darling privileges an understanding of the world from her own cultural lens, inadvertently becoming, in the process, the “ungrateful immigrant”. Her ability to give herself and her way of being free reign in her consciousness is refreshing to behold; it’s a way of apprehending the world against which the African is educated and which, in her polemic against a hegemonic white world, she strives to attain but cannot due to the fact that she already possesses a double-consciousness. What is born from such an existential struggle is the creation of novel ways of being that cannot be anticipated, which is how all new things are born, becoming, inevitably, larger than the sum of their parts.
Darling as a consciousness, a semi-subaltern consciousness, if one may say so, is an example of the value of Art to the African. The question the post-colonial African seeks to answer is, Who am I in the World? The answer being that I am a human being. Humanity is not contingent on circumstance; its very recognition is what leads to its ability to express itself materially in the world; the inability to recognise it, and the brute force used to deny it its realisation, as was done to the African under colonialism and as is being done under neo-colonialism, does not mean it ceases to exist.
To be educated against yourself, that is to say, to be taught ways of being that glorify whiteness while concurrently denigrating what one is, be it Ndebele or African or black, is to introduce a painful self-consciousness in the African subject.
As such, Art, because it’s an expression of womankind and her dynamism and multiplicity, traffics, inevitably, in knowledge, and knowledge traffics in Art. Knowledge in and of itself is a multi-purpose tool, and who is using it and to what ends is more the point than its intended purpose; in “educating the native” so as to control colonised societies, the coloniser never dreamed that the native would one day take this education and use it against him. But she did!
Thus, the African, in answering the question, Who am I in the World?, through being, living, celebrating, crying, mourning, dying, striving, dreaming, hoping, thinking, loving, expressing is, like all humans, a trafficker in multiple knowledges, and, in claiming her place in the world, has the right to utilise all forms of knowledge towards her self-realisation. That is to say, she has access to everything that has ever been discovered and created by womankind, of whom she is not only an inheritor, but a builder and partaker.
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The Evolving Language of Corruption in Kenya
A cabal of politicos has appropriated the everyday language of hardworking Kenyans to camouflage their intentions to perpetuate corruption and state capture.
Andrew Ngumba had a curious way of explaining away institutionalized corruption every time he was accused of engaging in it. “In the days gone by, before the village elders arbitrated any pressing or thorny issue, they would be offered libation just before the deliberations and then thanked with a goat thereafter, as an appreciation for a job well done.”
Those who are old enough will remember Ngumba, who died in 1997, as the mayor of Nairobi from 1977–1980. He later became the MP for Mathare constituency, renamed Kasarani, from 1983–1986. Ngumba estate, off Thika highway, next to East African Breweries, is named after the canny entrepreneur-politician, who founded Rural Urban Credit Finance Limited, dubbed the “ghetto bank”. The finance house collapsed in 1984 and Ngumba sought political refuge in Sweden.
Just like your archetypal politician, the wily Ngumba would with characteristic panache then ask, “Was the libation and the goat a form of saying ‘thank you for your time’ to the elders, or was it just plain corruption?” His cheekiness aside, which Kenyan society was Ngumba describing? Pre-colonial, before the advent of British settlers and missionaries? Or was he referring to a pre-urban, rural-setting Kenya, before it was contaminated by colonialism, modern capitalism and corruption?
We can imagine what his answer to his own rhetorical question was. Of greater interest, is the way he chose to re-tell the socio-cultural anecdote, with the obvious intention of exonerating himself and like-minded politicians, when caught engaging in bribery and institutional corruption: he implicitly gave a nod to the nefarious activity by normalizing bribery, a vice previously unknown and unexperienced in the very society he was describing.
“Political elites [also] appropriate moral language and social norms to ‘conventionalise’ corruption, fashioning a vocabulary that takes the moral sting from opprobrium, corruption and its various forms,” says Wachira Maina in his report, State Capture – Inside Kenya’s Inability to Fight Corruption. “Corruption is ‘traditionalised’ and reframed as gift-giving or as a form of socially recognizable reciprocity. Corrupt practices are then expressed in the language of moral obligation. No moral wrong is involved when an official or politician from one’s village violates conflict of interest rules or other laws to provide some ‘token benefit’.”
But when is a gift a bribe and a bribe a gift? Let us take the example of the chief – village or otherwise. Until very recently, up to the late 1990s, the chief was a powerful creature bestowed with the powers of “life and death” over his subjects. Until just before the December 1997 general elections, the statutory powers of the chief were many times greater than those of any elected official that you can think of. With the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) reforms, some of their powers were supposedly clipped.
Picture this: Two parties are squabbling over a land boundary. They must go to the chief for arbitration. On the eve of the arbitration, one of the parties, most probably the one who has encroached on his neighbour’s land, gets a brainwave and pays the chief a visit in advance, ostensibly to remind him of their big day. Because of the unwritten law that it is “culturally rude” to visit a chief “empty-handed”, the visiting party decides to “gift” the chief with whatever, as has happened from time immemorial. One can, without too much effort, imagine the possible outcome of the land tussle the following day.
Chiefs were not only very powerful, they happened to be some of the richest people wherever they reigned. Should we wonder why chiefs as public officials, for example, own some of the biggest chunks of land in their area of jurisdiction? At the grassroots level, a socio-cultural norm was deliberately subverted to allow open bribery and the establishment of institutionalized corruption.
As currently constituted in the country, chiefs are an invention of British colonial rule. They are part of the indirect rule that the colonial government imposed on Kenyans. When Kenya gained independence from the British in 1963, the post-independent government inherited the colonial indirect system of government — the whole kit and caboodle. With their “illegitimacy” and corruption networks carried over and sanctioned by the new African government, chiefs entrenched themselves even further by extending their corrupt patronage networks within the government bureaucratic structures.
During their “reign of terror”, which continues today, chiefs interpreted bribes as “gifts” that had to be given by “force of law”; any person with matters arising at the chief’s court knew that a “gift” had to be carried along. So, even though this form of corruption was covert and not dangerous to the existence of the state, it impoverished and terrorized the poor peasants.
Chiefs were not only very powerful, they happened to be some of the richest people wherever they reigned.
Corruption, as an evolving concept, was introduced into Kenya society by the British colonial government and, the civil service has been known to be the home of institutionalized state corruption since pre-independence Kenya. Think about it, the word corruption does not exist in the lexicons of Kenya’s ethnic communities. In the Kikuyu community, for instance, there is a specific lexicon that describes a thief and theft, but there is no word for corruption per se, because in African societies, corruption, a Western concept (and as defined today), was unknown in many African traditional societies.
Indeed, as Wachira observes in his report released in 2019, “corruption has been a persistent problem in Kenya since before independence, but it has flourished and put down robust roots since the country’s return to multiparty politics in 1992.”
What is corruption? For the longest time, corruption has been defined in the binary fashion of either petty or grand corruption. Political scientists have variously described corruption as an act in which the power of public office is used for personal gain. In other words, the misuse of public resources by state officials for private gain. Corruption has also been described as behaviour that deviates from the formal rules of conduct governing the actions of someone in a position of public authority or trust.
The benefits of corruption are either economic — when an exchange of cash occurs — or social, in the case of favouritism or nepotism. Hence, grand corruption, sometimes referred to as political corruption, involves top government officials and political decision makers who engage in exchanges of large sums of illegally acquired money. Petty corruption involves mid- or low-level state officials, who are often underpaid and who interact with the public on a daily basis.
In his concise report, Wachira notes that “a generation of reforms has not dented the corruption edifice or undone its rhizome-like penetration into the body politic of Kenya.” Why? “Part of the problem is conceptual: How we name corruption and how we understand its character,” points out the constitutional lawyer.
These simple but loaded terms of “petty” and “grand” corruption present a false dichotomy, says Wachira. “Petty” suggests that the corruption is merely an irritant, something people do to speed up things or evade a long queue — a way of “lubricating the system. “The term suggests an expedient with trivial effect, considered case by case. In fact, that characterization is deeply mistaken. . . . Most important, it becomes a fee, because it guarantees that what was initially a free service is no longer so. From a macro-economic perspective, its distortionary effect could be as at least as impactful as grand corruption,” writes Wachira.
That is why petty corruption in Kenya has long been baptized chai, meaning tea, or kitu kidogo, which means something small. It is daily language that is used to camouflage an illegal act by likening it to one of Kenya’s best-known pastimes — drinking tea. Civil servants demand chai from the public in order, they argue, to grease the bureaucratic wheel, which oftentimes revolves very, very slowly and needs to be lubricated for it to move. Chai and Kitu Kidogo have become interchangeable, because “something small” also connotes a kind of “lubricant” that “hastens” service delivery.
The police, especially traffic cops, who are synonymous with petty corruption, have perfected the language of chai-taking more than any other state official such that when Kenyans conjure bribe giving, the first person who immediately comes to mind is the policeman.
The State Capture report says, “Indeed language is in a parlous condition when the bribe a judge takes to free a dangerous criminal is named chai, like a nice ‘cuppa’ tea between intimates.”
During their “reign of terror”, which continues today, chiefs interpreted bribes as “gifts” that had to be given by “force of law”.
The report further states that, “the term ‘grand’ on the other hand can also be misleading if grand suggests debilitating to the state. Implicit in the term is the notion of a corrupt deal of significant size, involving senior officials and high-ranking politicians. Such corruption involves large-scale stealing of state resources and, the theory goes, it erodes confidence in government, undermines the rule of law and spawns economic instability.”
In Kenya, grand corruption has involved such mindboggling money schemes as the Goldenberg and Anglo-Leasing scandals and more recently, the Eurobond scandal. These mega-scams are a result of collusion between state officials and politicians, who over time have formed powerful corruption cartels that have proved inextinguishable.
Why does this corruption on a massive scale not cause moral outrage or shock in the public? Why is it not obvious to all? “There are cases in which the term ‘grand’ corruption fails to communicate the moral shock and magnitude that seems implicit. ‘Grand’ then becomes merely an audit term that simply describes financial scale,” says Wachira. “If that conclusion is right, it would then explain the frequent lack of moral outrage about widespread theft in government, with the result that there will be cases in which characterising corruption as petty or grand implies nothing about its impact or the social and political levers one can push to eliminate it.”
“Grand corruption” in Kenya today has evidently surpassed the current nomenclature; the staggering sums of money stolen have numbed the people’s sensibilities to shock and have refused to register in their psyche. How, for example, can the president have the audacity of treating Kenyans to shock therapy by telling them that KSh2 billion is stolen from the state coffers every 24 hours? That kind of pillage can no longer be termed as corruption, let alone grand corruption. A more appropriate language has to be found; and there can be no other word for it other than theft.
The State Capture report problematizes the matter of the naming of state plunder and discusses at length what could be the problem with language that seeks to explain the massive haemorrhage of state resources orchestrated by unscrupulous individuals. The report notes that corruption in Kenya has been described as a malignant tumour that hampers the government from governing properly “The problem of naming [corruption] is then compounded by medical or sociological language that pathologises corruption. . . . Therein lies the problem: Anti-corruption programmes ‘pathologise’ the relationship between corruption and the state, deploying medical terms like ‘cancer on the body politic,’ ‘a disease that we must cure’ or ‘a pervasive ill’ potentially responsive to curative interventions.
Even when the language used is sociological rather medical, the pathological dimension stays. Corruption is ‘a perverse culture’ or ‘negative norm’. Both the medical and the sociological language mobilise a deep-seated ‘conviction that there is something pathological – an illness – within [Kenya] politics and culture’. This suggests that what the reformers must do is ‘to identify this pathology’ and formulate a diagnosis that examines the Kenyan society and brings to the surface the ‘fissures and contradictions’ that explain the graft.
In his report, Wachira goes on to say, “The medical perspective that implies that the state has gone awry and can be put to rights with an appropriate intervention is pervasive. Implicit in the diagnosis and the proposed cure is the thought that the state is constructed for some legitimate — or benign — purpose that has been perverted by corruption.”
Joseph G. Kibe, a Permanent Secretary in six different ministries in the 1970s, was once interviewed about his experience working as a top government bureaucrat, many years after his retirement in 1979. Said Kibe, “In those days, I could see some kind of low-level corruption starting to creep in, especially involving clerks. For instance, in the Lands Office, they would remove one file and hide it away from where the index shows it is and wait until the owners of the land wanted to conduct a transaction at which point they would ask for a bribe.”
The same low-level corruption has been rampant in the corridors of justice. The low-paid court clerk in the magistrate’s court “disappears” a case file so that he can solicit a bribe to enable the miraculous re-appearance of the “lost” file.
“A generation of reforms has not dented the corruption edifice or undone its rhizome-like penetration into the body politic of Kenya.”
The former PS, who went on to work for Transparency International (TI) Kenya Chapter, said in 2004, “Corruption had crept into ministries, departments and government corporations and was likely to entrench itself unless it was stopped. With corruption you give up development because all resources you have, only a little will do good. A lot will be taken away for personal use.”
Because the patronage networks created by the civil service and the political class have ensured that corruption is profitable and has high returns, it has become extremely difficult to fight the vice. “The difficulties of fighting corruption lie in the union of corruption and politics; a union in which, at least since Goldenberg scandal, a power elite has captured the state, especially the Presidency and the Treasury and repurposed the machinery of the government into a ‘temporary zone for personalised appropriation’” says Wachira.
State capture is a term that was popularized in South Africa, a country that since its independence 27 years ago, has witnessed some of the biggest state scandals since the end of Apartheid. “What is at play in Kenya [today] is ‘state capture’ defined as a political project in which a well-organised elite network constructs a symbiotic relationship between the constitutional state and a parallel shadow state for its own benefit”, explains the State Capture report.
The success of the state capture rests on the ability of a small group of powerful and rich operatives to take over and pervert the institutions of democracy, while keeping the façade of a functioning democracy. Thus, oversight institutions are weakened; law enforcement is partisan and in the pockets of the politicians; civic space is asphyxiated; free elections are frustrated and are typically won by the most violent or the most corrupt, or those who are both violent and corrupt. Arrest and indictments are often the precursor of inaction, not proof of official will to fight corruption.
“Corruption eats at the moral fabric of the nation,” once said Harris Mule, one of the finest PSs to have served at Kenya’s Ministry of Finance. “Positive norms and traditions, once appropriated by the corrupt, instantly transform themselves into curses. Take the uniquely Kenyan institution of Harambee, as an example. It has been changed from what was once a positive manifestation of the culture of philanthropy and community service, into a political tool that fails to deliver what it promises.”
Mule further said, “Corruption causes poverty by promoting unfair distribution of [the] national income and inefficient use of resources. Poverty and inequality in turn breed discontent and can cause national instability. The political implications of sharp economic inequalities are potent.” The former PS was clear in his mind that corruption was the art of “transferring state assets into private hands at the expense of the public interest and purse.”
Harambee, which means, “pulling together”, was a noble idea that tapped into the egalitarian and altruistic nature of African society, that of pooling their meagre resources together for the public good. It was very popular throughout the 1970s and 1980s and to a lesser extent in the 1990s. When Mwai Kibaki came to power in 2003, his government instituted a probe into the now much-maligned popular group effort. Wachira explains that,
As the report of the Task Force on Public Collections or Harambees showed clearly, politicians are the largest donors to ‘charitable’ causes — churches, schools, higher education and funerals are firm favourites — to which they give fortunes that are many times more that their own legitimate incomes. Such charity is, in truth, a bait and switch ploy: once moral institutions buckle to the lure of corruption money, the corrupt buy absolution and are free to dip deeper into the public coffers.
Both the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi regimes misused the Harambee spirit for self-aggrandizement. Mzee Kenyatta, who hardly gave any money towards any Harambee effort and if he did, it was a symbolic sum, expected Kenyans to contribute to his Harambee causes, which were baptized all manner of noteworthy names. The monies were not accounted for and nobody would dare ask how the funds raised were spent, whether they were spent on the causes for which they had been contributed. In many instances, the money collected went to line the pockets of Mzee’s friends.
During Moi’s time, Harambee was used by civil servants, especially chiefs, to solicit bribes and favours from people calling into government offices for services that are meant to be free. A citizen visiting a chief’s office to obtain a personal identification document would be presented with a card for a Harambee by the chief and his subordinates. If you wanted to be served at the Ministry of Lands for example, you would be presented with a Harambee card by a junior officer acting on behalf of his boss. Yours was not to question the authenticity of the card, why a public office was presenting a Harambee card to and all sundry, or why it was “mandatory” to contribute before being served in a public office. If you did, you would be called an “enemy of development” and labelled anti-Nyayo.
Why does this corruption on a massive scale not cause moral outrage or shock in the public?
Just after the Narc party was swept into power in 2003, the country witnessed a “citizen’s jury” at work: it exposed and sometimes went as far as making citizens’ arrests of errant police officers caught engaging in bribery. But what happened to citizens’ arrests? It was just a matter of time before the citizens themselves caved in and returned to offering the same bribes to the very same police officers. Why? Because they realized belatedly that to fight institutionalized corruption in Kenya, there must be goodwill and concerted effort from the government: the fish rots from the head and the fight against corruption must begin at the top.
Since 2013, corruption seems to have acquired a new word to camouflage it – hustler. Under the Jubilee government, “hustler” has come to describe tenderpreneurs masquerading as the toiling masses. It is the new lexicon that has been adopted by a cabal of people intent on raiding government coffers, a cabal that has appropriated the everyday language of Kenyans who eke out a living the hard way. It is the latest socio-cultural jargon that has been unleashed on the political landscape by a network of politicos intent on acquiring state power so that, in their turn, they can perpetuate state capture.
Pan-Africanism in a Time of Pandemic
Solidarity conferences have been replaced by aid conferences called by “donors”. What we need is a Pan-African conference organised by movements and individuals committed to human development.
There was a time, in the last century, when the under-privileged of the world shared a common understanding of the causes of their condition. Today the causes manifest in vaccine Apartheid. That the COVID-19 pandemic should find most African countries with less than one doctor and less than ten beds per a thousand of their population shows the failure of the development efforts of the past 60 or so years. The same countries all struggle with unsustainable debt, which is still being paid during the pandemic and has been increased by the COVID debt. When the global emergency was declared in January 2021, development partners began to hoard personal protective equipment. When vaccines became available a year later, there was insufficient production capacity to meet world needs. The same development partners rejected the option of allowing African countries to manufacture the vaccines on the continent. They hoarded their supplies until they were nearly expired before donating them to African countries.
In the 1950s, there would have been a different reaction. By then, African and Asian countries were moving inexorably towards independence. Organised by Indonesia, Myanmar (now Burma), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), India, and Pakistan, African countries attended the Bandung Conference of 1955 with economic and social development in mind. Then as now, China and the United States were on opposite sides of the Cold War and each sought to influence Africa while Africa sought non-alignment in order to freely pursue her development goals.
For one week in Bandung, Indonesia, twenty-nine African and Asian heads of state and other leaders discussed the formation of an alliance based on five principles: political self-determination, mutual respect for sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, and equality. The ten-points in the communiqué released after the conference became the governing principles of the non-aligned movement and they included self-determination, protection of human rights, the promotion of economic and cultural cooperation, and a call for an end to racial discrimination wherever it occurred. The alliance began to disintegrate when India and Yugoslavia shunned the radical stand against Western imperialism, leading to the organisation of a rival non-aligned conference in 1965. The 1965 conference was postponed.
While there was no follow-up to Bandung, the ideals it stood for were being espoused by other formations. On the African continent, the Casablanca Group—the precursor to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU)—had a membership of five African states: Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Libya, and Morocco. The All-African Peoples’ Conference (AAPC) took place in Cairo in 1958 after the founder, Uganda’s John Kale, was inspired by his attendance at the Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Conference the previous year. It was a meeting representing peoples and movements and not just states. The conference demanded the immediate and unconditional independence of all the African peoples, and the total evacuation of the foreign forces of aggression and oppression stationed in Africa.
The All-African People’s Conference recommended African co-operation in the interest of all the Africans, denounced racial discrimination in South, East and Central Africa, and demanded the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, the suppression of the Federation of Nyasaland (Malawi) and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and independence for the two countries.
The Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organisation (AAPSO) organised a conference in Cuba in 1957. The 500 delegates to the AAPSO conference represented national liberation movements as well as states and after a number of such gatherings, AAPSO resolved to include Cuba and Latin America in its membership. Thus was the organisation of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL) born.
The activities of OSPAAAL included financial support for the anti-colonial struggle in Palestine and for South Africa’s Africa National Congress (ANC). American aggression towards Cuba and its blockade of Vietnam were denounced and global solidarity was shown to political activists under threat of arrest. The movement solidified in the 1966 Tricontinental Conference in Havana, Cuba. The Solidarity movement established a think tank, the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research which produced educational materials in the form of newsletters, articles and the now iconic revolutionary art. This work continues to this day.
For the next decade, Cuba provided support to the armed struggle for independence in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and Equatorial Guinea, and to South Africa’s ANC. Fidel Castro was a familiar face on the diplomatic circuit and received Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, and other leaders, in Havana.
The United States government was caught between the expectations of its allies, the former colonial powers and those of the soon-to-be independent countries whose alliance it sought. The civil rights movement in the United States was a thorn in its side as it appealed to Africans in the Independence movement. America chose her traditional allies and neo-colonialism put down roots.
Regardless of that, leaders of African and American movements interacted, learning from each other; Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, and a number of other leaders of the day met Kwame Nkrumah at Ghana’s independence celebrations in 1957. Martin Luther King was also there. Reflecting on the cost of freedom and mentioning Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia and Kenya, King later wrote, “Ghana reminds us that freedom never comes on a silver platter. It’s never easy. . . . Ghana reminds us of that. You better get ready to go to prison.” Following a visit to Nigeria in 1960, King reported,
I just returned from Africa a little more than a month ago and I had the opportunity to talk to most of the major leaders of the new independent countries of Africa and also leaders of countries that are moving toward independence [. . .] they are saying in no uncertain terms that racism and colonialism must go for they see the two are as based on the same principle, a sort of contempt for life, and a contempt for human personality.
Today Dr King would probably have added predatory debt to that list.
Malcolm X visited Egypt and Ghana in 1959 and met Gamal Abdel Nasser and Kwame Nkrumah. In 1964, he spoke at the OAU conference in Egypt. He went to Tanzania and to Kenya where he met Oginga Odinga and Jomo Kenyatta. Back in New York Malcolm X related his experience: “As long as we think—as one of my good brothers mentioned out of the side of his mouth here a couple of Sundays ago—that we should get Mississippi straightened out before we worry about the Congo, you’ll never get Mississippi straightened out.” Prophetic words. Just this month the President of the United States warned against a “Jim Crow assault” on the voting rights of people of colour and the under-privileged that were won in 1965 after a long and hard civil rights struggle.
By the time the Bandung Conference was taking place, Frantz Fanon had already published Black Skin, White Masks and was to follow it up with A Dying Colonialism and The Wretched of the Earth. Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa would appear in 1972. There was an explosion of global awareness of Africa. Musicians like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Letta Mbulu, and Caiphus Semenya and others became known in Europe and America as they raised awareness about apartheid. African fashion became the signature of the civil rights movement. On the African continent, the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (Festac77) was held in Lagos, attracting 59 countries. Exhibits ranged from David Aradeon’s African architectural technology to work by the Chicago Africobra arts collective. The welcome given to the American diaspora contingent at the venue is testament to the sense of oneness that prevailed at the time.
Yet here we are in the new millennium facing identical existential crises. Palestine has lost over half the territory it had in 1966. The televised ethnic cleansing taking place in the country is openly supported by American aid. The Republic of South Africa has found that the end of apartheid may only have been the beginning of the struggle for human development. The country is just emerging from three days of looting and burning by impoverished citizens. Cuba is still under a US embargo and there was even an attempt to blockade medical supplies being shipped to Cuba for the fight against COVID.
Cold War tensions between China and the West have been revived with the United State’s growing opposition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China has remained faithful to the non-interference principle, to the extent of transacting business with African leaders without regard to that other principle, the observance of human rights.
While most African countries are nominally independent, this has not brought development as they had envisaged it. Now, as in 1966, the main economic activity is the export of raw commodities. Africa’s Asian partners in the Bandung Communiqué have long since moved out of the realm of what used to be called “The Third World”. Malaysia, at number 62 out of 189 countries listed on the Human Development Index, is ranked as a Very High Human Development Country. Indonesia, the host of the Bandung Conference, is in the High Human Development category, with a ranking of 107. India, which abandoned the spirit of Bandung, is a medium human development country (ranked 131) while Yugoslavia ceased to exist. Only eight African countries are highly developed, while 30 fall in the Low Human Development category. Within that category, Uganda slipped down one place in 1997 and is ranked 159.
Solidarity conferences have been replaced by aid conferences called by “donors”. They are no longer organised by activists like the Moroccan Mehdi Ben Barka who, together with Chu Tzu-chi of the People’s Republic of China, organized the Tricontinental Conference (Ben Barka was abducted and “disappeared” in 1965 before the conference took place.) or John Kale. Recent conferences have been organised by European heads of state or United Nations bodies. India and China organise their own conferences for Africa, having transitioned to the ranks of developed countries. Attending delegates are the residual wretched.
The India–Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) inaugurated in 2008 is scheduled to be held once every three years. The France-Africa Finance Summit is an initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron whose various remarks about Africa on his tour of the continent were perceived as racist and disparaging.
At the Forum on China-African Cooperation (FOCAC) in Johannesburg in 2015, China offered US$60 billion in development assistance, US$5 billion in the form of grants and the rest in loans. Attendance by African heads of state was higher than for the most recent African Union Conference; only six did not turn up (but were represented).
Attending delegates are the residual wretched.
The following year FOCAC was held in Beijing. On the first day, members of the American Congress issued a statement condemning China’s predatory lending to African and Asian countries. They argued that the recipient countries eventually wound up needing to be bailed out by the IMF, mostly with American money, thereby transferring American capital to China. For his part, the beleaguered president of economically battered Zimbabwe received the offer of another US$60 billion with fulsome gratitude, saying President Xi Jinping was doing what “we expected those who colonised us yesterday to do.”
The International Development Association for Africa: Heads of State Summit held on 15 July 2021 was a World Bank exercise. The agenda, according to their website, was “to highlight the importance of an ambitious and robust 20th replenishment of the International Development Association.” In other words, it was about increasing members’ debt. These days “cooperation” means aid – with strings attached – not solidarity. This year there will also be a virtual African Economic Conference (AEC) to discuss “Financing Africa’s post COVID-19 Development”. It is organised by the United Nations Development Programme, the African Development Bank and the Economic Commission for Africa.
Of the original anti-colonial activist countries of the 1960s, most Asian countries are in a position to offer solutions to economic questions; they compete in the global arena manufacturing pharmaceuticals and agricultural technology. China has mastered all of the foregoing as well as dominating foreign infrastructural development investment. The African bloc stands alone in not being organised enough to participate in the global discourse except as receivers of aid.
It is true that together with Latin American countries, resource-wealthy African countries have endured Western-engineered coups d’état and other debilitating interference but the dynamism of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah and Amilcar Cabral is missing. In its place is the renewed use of the once hated colonial public order laws to quell dissent against corruption and repression.
These days “cooperation” means aid – with strings attached – not solidarity.
Two decades after Lumumba’s assassination, the less wealthy Burkina Faso lit the path to self-sufficiency before the country’s radical president, Captain Thomas Sankara, was assassinated with French connivance. Three months earlier, Sankara had called for the repudiation of debt at an Organisation of African Unity Conference. The delegates were stunned as can be seen from the expression on the late Kenneth Kaunda’s face.
The last African-Asian Conference organised by Africa may or may not be more of a memorial than the birth (re-birth?) of the solidarity movement. On the 50th anniversary of the original Bandung Conference, in 2005, Asian and African leaders met in Jakarta and Bandung to launch the New Asian-African Strategic Partnership (NAASP). They pledged to promote political, economic, and cultural cooperation between the two continents. An interesting outcome was their communiqué to the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council concerning the development of Palestine. On the cultural front, there is talk of a third Festac.
Then there is Cuba, host of the 1966 Tricontinental Conference. Cuba ranks as a high human development country and has the highest doctor-patient ratio in the world—more than double the concentration in the US—and the most hospital beds per 10,000, nearly double what is available in the US. Cuba also has the highest pupil-teacher ratio in the world. Out of necessity due to the economic embargo imposed on it, and being unable to import fertilisers, Cuba pioneered vermiculture, a technique now in use globally. The country manufactures 80 per cent of its vaccines and has five COVID-19 vaccine candidates (two are being used under emergency licence like AstraZeneca, J&J and the other Western products). While Western pharmaceutical manufacturers took an early decision to bar Africa from manufacturing its vaccines on intellectual property grounds, Cuba is willing to transfer its technology to countries that need it. Funds should have been no object as the African continent is awash with COVID Emergency Response funds borrowed from the World Bank and the IMF. This is the kind of development that has been sought for the last sixty-plus years.
The dynamism of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah and Amilcar Cabral is missing.
But Africa is not talking to Cuba about developing vaccine capacity. African leaders are waiting for UNICEF, appointed by the World Bank, to procure Western-made vaccines for them with funds they shall have to repay. In Uganda, delivery is expected in six months. Meanwhile, Norway and others are donating small amounts of vaccine, hardly enough to cover the twenty-nine million Ugandans that will give us immunity. The Indian-manufactured brand, AstraZeneca, is not recognised in Europe and will prevent recipients travelling there.
The Conscious Era began to wind down with the accession of leaders of independent African states more interested in the instant gratification of cash inflows than in the principles of the past. Yoweri Museveni had the opportunity to learn from the Cuban model when he met Castro in the early months of his rule. As it turned out, he was only wasting El Comandante’s time. Despite condemning his predecessors’ SDR177,500,000 debt to the IMF during the Bush War, Museveni’s SDR49,800,000 structural adjustment facility was signed on 15 Jun 1987—he had been in power for just eighteen months. Since then he has extended his credit to SDR1,606,275 (US$2,285,199.26) from the IMF alone. New debt to the World Bank (contracted since 2020) amounts to US$468,360,000.00. A separate COVID Debt owed to the World Bank amounts to US$300 million so far while over US$31 million is owed to the African Development Bank. These funds have not been used to purchase vaccines.
The Black Lives Matter movement has echoes of the Black Power movement of the 1960s. The movement is strong on showing solidarity with persecuted activists and victims of racism through online campaigns. BLM chapters are in solidarity with Ghanaian activists. Like the Tricontinental Institute, BLM has made attempts to educate, for example via the Pan-African Activist Sunday School. What is needed is another Pan-African conference organised by movements and individuals committed to human development.
Protests, Chaos and Uprisings: Lessons from South Africa’s Past
The recent riots are an attempt to force change after years of neglect by a state that has remained aloof and uninterested in the economic and social dispossession of the African majority.
The current upheavals across South Africa are ostensibly in response to former President Jacob Zuma’s arrest (or surrender) on 8 July 2021. But contrary to the misinformation in circulation, Zuma was not arrested on charges of corruption, racketeering and for diverting state assets and resources to a circle of cronies including the Gupta family. His reluctance to appear before the Zondo Commission led Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, the Chair, to issue a warrant for Zuma’s arrest for contempt of court.
Protest politics in South Africa have a long history and protests have been deployed differently at different historical moments. Whereas protests were an important vehicle during the fight against apartheid, their resurgence and propulsion to the centre of the struggles in post-apartheid South Africa has come as a surprise to many. These so-called “service delivery protests” are said to be caused by community dissatisfaction with municipal service delivery and to lack of communication between councils and councillors on the one hand, and citizens on the other.
The African National Congress-led (ANC) government has been facing growing protests associated with economic contraction, and the dual pressures of a recessionary environment and rising unemployment. But while their grievances may be valid, citizens’ protests have been perceived as having a negative impact on government programmes, businesses, investor confidence and jobs. Indeed, the ongoing service delivery protests could be regarded as a self-defeating strategy in those areas that are more susceptible to them, mostly the municipalities located in the peri-urban areas.
Historians and experts argue that these types of riots are not merely random acts of violence or people taking advantage of dire circumstances to steal and destroy property. They are, instead, a serious attempt to force change after years of neglect by politicians, media, and the general public.
This article takes a historical view of South Africa’s current upheaval and suggests that this moment has been a long time coming.
Service delivery in historical context
The pre-1994 era was prone to mass protests and defiance campaigns, some sporadic but most coordinated by social movements. They include the two defiance campaigns of 1952 and 1989, in Gauteng, the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) defiance campaigns that led to the Sharpeville and Langa massacres in 1960 and, of course, the 1976 Soweto student uprisings. These coordinated mass protests had a clear aim — the abolition of the apartheid laws which were central to racial segregation, white supremacy and the oppression of the majority black population.
The violent service delivery protests, which are mostly prevalent at the local government level, have been associated with the results of apartheid: marginalisation of the majority black population with regard to basic needs, including housing, clean drinking water, proper sanitation, electricity, and access to healthcare and to infrastructure. After the end of apartheid, the new democratic government led by the ANC inherited an unequal society and was confronted with protests against lack of basic services and systemic corruption at local government level. Some scholars and analysts have suggested that such unrest epitomises the dispossession of African people, precluding them from complete liberation in their own land and subjecting them to continued subjugation by their white counterparts.
The ongoing service delivery protests could be regarded as a self-defeating strategy in those areas that are more susceptible to them.
Various communities throughout the country have resorted to violent riots, destroying schools, libraries and the houses of underperforming local government councillors. One opinion is that service delivery protests are exacerbated in the informal settlements where poverty and unemployment are high, and where there is a lack of technical and managerial skills within municipalities beset by corruption, poor financial management, and a lack of accountability on the part of local councillors and municipal officials.
Public protests did not feature as prominently during the initial part of the Mandela administration (1994–1999). The relative lull in public protests following the inauguration of the Mandela presidency in 1994 might have been a result of three key factors. One aspect is the negotiated settlement that gave rise to what is often characterised as a democratic dispensation, popularly and quite falsely described as a new era for South African people but which rapidly descended into mass frustration. In the neo-liberal euphoria of the “new democratic South Africa”, the strategic power of mass protest action that had helped to remove the apartheid regime struggled to find a new footing. Protests were suddenly viewed as acts against the state and were vigorously discouraged by an ANC government that was increasingly detached from the broader population. The ANC-led administration preferred to mobilise mass movements as cheerleaders of government programmes and as a result, when protests did take place, they were often state-managed to be peaceful, media-friendly events.
Another factor is that militant apartheid-era civic society formations were demobilised, which effectively weakened opposition to unpopular government policies and even brought newer NGOS into sharp disagreement with the government. Finally, the adoption of the pro-poor Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), which was aimed at redistributing wealth, was well received as a pacifying measure. However, in 1996, less than 24 months after the introduction of the RDP, the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) macro-economic policy was adopted, signalling a shift to neoliberalism that prioritised the interests of big business over those of poor citizens. The adoption of GEAR led to the immediate loss of the few economic benefits citizens had received under the apartheid system.
Various social formations including the labour movement and civil society organisations accused the government of “selling out the people’s mandate”. Cost recovery was an essential part of GEAR, and this soon pitted indigent citizens against the government. While the shift to GEAR marked a radical change in how the government approached delivery of services and generated criticism from various quarters, it did not immediately trigger mass protest action mainly because the organisations championing workers’ and ordinary citizens’ rights were in alliance with the ANC. But the grounds were laid for future public protests.
In the neo-liberal euphoria of the “new democratic South Africa”, the strategic power of mass protest action that had helped to remove the apartheid regime struggled to find a new footing.
Some point to the FIFA World Cup (June–July 2010) as a tipping point. The country’s working poor came out in protest, angered by the commercialisation of municipal services and escalating poverty. Other factors that have been the cause of the so-called service delivery protests include the rising costs of basic services (clean drinking water, sanitation and electricity) as a result of the implementation of orthodox market policies, forced demolitions of informal settlements, disparities between luxury stadia and impoverished neighbourhoods and the gentrification brought on by the World Cup which has made inner-cities inaccessible to low-income informal traders.
This contradictory socio-economic policy framework has produced a highly fragmented regulatory structure, which has further compounded the socio-spatial unevenness of contemporary South Africa. The protracted low growth after the 2014 crash of commodity prices and various political scandals undermined the credibility of the ANC leadership. The national difficulties reverberated at the local level; after ruling Johannesburg for over two decades, the ANC lost the city to a coalition of opposition parties in 2016. The new mayor, Herman Mashaba, a self-styled libertarian entrepreneur, announced his commitment to “pro-poor” investments and to ending the arm’s length approach of municipal service providers.
Analysing the rationale behind the provision of basic services may help to clarify the uneasy categorisation of South African social policies and political discourse with respect to the neoliberal paradigm.
The current situation
In the first quarter of 2021, amidst the social and economic devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the South African Treasury announced, and subsequently defended, its decision not to increase the country’s extensive social grant payments — that now reach 18 million impoverished citizens — above inflation. Treasury officials have argued that a bigger increase in social welfare protection is simply not currently feasible given the country’s rapidly rising public debt — which has now breached the 80 per cent of debt-to-GDP ratio threshold — and investor demands for fiscal consolidation. This type of fiscal restraint is unfolding in a context of heightened wealth inequality and an official unemployment rate now above 30 per cent.
And, as is often the case — whether they have been peaceful, organised, or not — protesters have been largely viewed as looters, rioters and thugs. Feelings of righteous anger following a year of lockdown, precarious livelihoods, escalating state aggression, and hostile and often deadly policing are bound to have been co-opted by thuggish elements. But the dangerous shades of ethno-nationalism that originally seemed to fuel the riots cannot be left unexamined as they have an impact on how we think about the protests, just as terms like “uprising” and “upheaval” offer ways to think about the unrest as indications of a far deeper social, economic and political rupture.
The adoption of GEAR led to the immediate loss of the few economic benefits citizens had received under the apartheid system.
Reducing the unrest to a “looting spree” also averts attention from a state that has for 27 years been aloof and not interested in recalibrating the economic and social dispossession of the African majority. While President Ramaphosa seems lethargic and tone-deaf, he is no different from his predecessors in insisting on market-led policies, foreign-investor largesse and failed non-distributive economic policies. Add to this the small matter of the “missing” R500 billion. In April 2020, a stimulus package of 500 billion rand was announced. The money was meant to augment the existing social safety net that provides 11.3 million South Africans with monthly assistance for food and other social services. The Auditor-General has described the expenditure as irregular, noting the wrongful diversion of some of the funds to state employees through contracts. To date, the hectoring tone adopted by most public officials regarding this matter shows no sense of irony or self-awareness that their own hands are dirty.
Many analysts and observers inside and outside South Africa have predicted this moment for over fifteen years, evoking the Arab Spring as a cautionary tale. South Africa is not the only country going through a seismic shift. Haiti, Cuba, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Mozambique and Hong Kong are all facing profound upheavals. But while South Africa elicits deep sentiments across the world, it is not immune to the complexities of state formation, fractured class interests and a leadership vested in maintaining the status quo.
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