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EUGENICS: The resurgence of race-based science as a tool for economic exploitation

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“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”—Toni Morrison

 

When Britain and the West in general face economic crises, eugenics crops up as a seemingly innocuous topic for general academic discussion. However, the recent revelation that University College London has secretly hosted conferences at which race science has been on the agenda is cause for genuine concern.

While European eugenics focused on natural traits thought to be inherent in “class”, American and colonial eugenics were based on perceived racial differences. Eugenics, race-based science and “genetic behaviourism” are one and the same thing – a justification for economic exclusion that could easily gain traction in a globalised economy.

In the 21st century, competition for land has given rise to land-grabbing as Northern countries attempt to ensure future food security for their citizens. Actual ownership of the means of food production would enable importers of food to side-step the problems of commodities price volatility, such as the hike in food prices that occurred in 2007-8.

Activists monitoring the phenomenon state that a significant proportion of Africa’s arable land is now owned by foreign governments or transnational companies. The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that 20 million hectares were appropriated in this manner between 2007 and 2009 alone. The goals of white settler colonial states are now being achieved by the global North and the more developed countries in the global South through the grabbing of land from the poor in sovereign countries – land that is handed over to them by these countries’ elitist leaders. A lack of food security after the First World War was what drove scientific racism in Kenya and other colonies.

It is important to know and understand the nature and history of eugenics because of its impact on the course of modern history and its potential impact on the future. Mercurial in nature, eugenics comes disguised as science. But even as it is derided as a pseudo-science, it continues to be studied by members of the most respected educational institutions (Cornell University, Harvard and Stanford[1] and Cambridge[2] in the 1920s and University College London from at least 2014). Early studies were funded by oligarch-owned philanthropic organisations, such as the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1920s, and the findings were applied to the entire spectrum of government policy, including education, population control and immigration.

Activists monitoring the phenomenon state that a significant proportion of Africa’s arable land is now owned by foreign governments or transnational companies. The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that 20 million hectares were appropriated in this manner between 2007 and 2009 alone.

The connection between the Carnegie Institution’s work through the Eugenics Record Office in New York, which the Carnegie Institution funded between 1910 and 1939, and the Holocaust is often missed: the director of the Eugenics Record Office received an honorary degree for his work in “racial cleansing” from a German university.

It is important to remember that the Nazis used eugenics to justify their extermination of Jews, homosexuals, disabled people, gypsies and others they viewed as “genetically unfit”. Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution” addressed a problem perceived and defined by the eugenics movement – what to do with the poor, the disabled and the non-Caucasian. The vigilant will recall that the Holocaust, among the worst excesses of eugenics, was preceded by the stigmatisation of non-Caucasian, unhealthy and poor people in the United States and elsewhere.

For these reasons, Africans must monitor the ebb and flow of the eugenics movement. The first line of defence is to be able to recognise eugenics policies in whatever disguise they appear and regardless of the prestige of their sponsors.

Race science in colonial Kenya

Throughout the colonial period, Britain attempted to address its food security challenges (Britain produced less than 10% of its own food) by encouraging immigration to Canada, Australia and the colonies. To do so they had to offer sweeteners, such as free or cheap land and labour.

Eugenics took root in British colonies, notably Kenya, during the Great Depression. In those days, racism was perfectly acceptable; the Colonial Secretary, Leo Amery, was a known eugenicist.

The report of a study tour of five East and Central African territories by the East Africa Commission was tabled in parliament during the annual Colonial Office debate of 1925. The Commission was staffed by officials from the three British political parties and drew up a strategy for the Empire in Africa.

The Commission answered policy questions, the most pressing and persistent being about land ownership. It was finally decided that Africans in Kenya and Rhodesia could not legally own land. Much of the land was sold, leased or given away to British economic migrants by the colonial government. Over 2,000 British ex-servicemen were given free smallholdings in Kenya as a reward for service, and more were given land in what is now Zimbabwe. In Southern Rhodesia, the remaining land belonged to a charter company while in Kenya the land was deemed Crown Land.

Eugenics took root in British colonies, notably Kenya, during the Great Depression. In those days, racism was perfectly acceptable; the Colonial Secretary, Leo Amery, was a known eugenicist.

It was hoped that the white settler population would multiply and grow agricultural produce for export as well as provide a market for British goods. Africans were relegated to areas designated as “native reserves”. Within a generation, as predicted by MPs such as J. Wedgwood Benn, the population of the reserves was too large to sustain subsistence farming for all.

Landless Africans were forced to become labourers and squatters on British plantations and “houseboys” in the settlers’ homes. When gold was discovered in the Kakamega reserve, prospectors were allowed to invade the area from as far away as Australia and the United States while Kenyans could not get licences to participate in mining.

Those in the reserves who were able to grow crops were banned by Ordinance from growing coffee and maize, lucrative exportable crops on which the settlers depended for their income.

To ensure people turned up for work, those Africans who were unable to show that they had put in between two and six months labour on British farms were brought before magistrates who sentenced them to a number of lashes. So determined were some Afrcians to farm their own plots that they would volunteer immediately for the lashing, and having done with it, would return to their plots in the reserves. This was the case even where compulsory labour on the railway was being enforced:

“It is a matter of common knowledge and every day practice in the Colony that the native, given the choice of going before a magistrate or accepting a thrashing from his master, will choose the latter. That sort of thing, and a matter of £6 a year wages, is not going to produce cotton in Kenya to justify this railway. The native will not work for £6 a year or the alternative presented to him of either a thrashing or going before a magistrate.” (Hope Simpson, Colonial Services debate, 3 March 1924.)

To rationalise their exploitation and abuse of African people, the Imperial government resorted to pseudo-medicine backed by a species of law. Beginning with the law, the East Africa Commission relied on the principle of trusteeship. The Imperial government, it was said, held the resources of the colonial empire in trust for Africans, British settlers in Africa and for mankind in general. The trusteeship was necessary, in the Commission’s analysis, because Africans were unable to govern themselves or husband their resources even though there were stable communities that had existed at least as long as Britain.

To ensure people turned up for work, those Africans who were unable to show that they had put in between two and six months labour on British farms were brought before magistrates who sentenced them to a number of lashes.

This brings us to the pseudo-medical science. Eugenics attributed (perceived) economic “backwardness” to inherited “feeblemindedness”. Roadblocks to African economic development imposed by the Imperial government and all the indignities visited on them notwithstanding, the key to the African “problem” was said to be an inherited incapacity to thrive economically or socially.

Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, William Ormsby-Gore, stated in his introduction to the report that he had the following on the authority of the European settlers he met on his tour:

“During our tour of East Africa we were frequently told by Europeans, officials and unofficials alike, that the African native is a ‘child’. Without questioning the truth of such a generalisation, it at any rate suggests that the position of the European race ruling in Africa is that of a guardian to a ward, and that our duty is to protect the interests of someone less capable of safeguarding his or her own interests, and to educate a less developed and less efficiently equipped people to become better equipped and more efficient (emphasis added).

“It is difficult to realise without seeing Africa what a tremendous impact is involved in the juxtaposition of white civilisation, with its command over material force, and its comparatively high and diversified social system, on the primitive people of Eastern Africa.

“The African native is confronted with a whole range of facts entirely beyond his present comprehension and he finds himself caught in a maelstrom of economic and cultural progress which in the majority of cases baffles him completely.” (The East Africa Commission Report, 1925, p.21.)

Ormsby-Gore’s remarks should not lead to the conclusion that the Under-Secretary was naïve; he was not. He prefaced his remarks by saying that claims of African backwardness are a generalisation – but then he went on to build a policy based on that generalisation, characterising Africans as bewildered by the social changes going on around them. His use of the word efficient is a code used by eugenicists to describe everything the purported lesser races and classes are said not to be — intelligent, conscientiousness, capable of impulse control and, therefore, able to be productive workers.

Stressing the need for British trusteeship, Ormsby-Gore added that it would be necessary only until Africans had been educated to fend for themselves – as though a hereditary disease of the mind is curable by education. Ormsby-Gore was a consummate opportunist – he used scientific racism as a justification for theft and exploitation. Given that the Colonial Secretary, Leo Amery, belonged to the eugenics movement, Ormsby-Gore, his Under-Secretary for five years and then his successor, can be assumed to have held similar views.

To rationalise their exploitation and abuse of African people, the Imperial government resorted to pseudo-medicine backed by a species of law.

The Europeans who met with the East African Commission would have been settlers and colonial officials with a financial interest in the matter. They may have included some of the sixty individuals who joined the Kenyan Society for the Study of Race Improvement (KSSRI) founded in 1933.[3] There was the influential Nellie Grant, a prominent eugenicist and philanthropist in Kenya. Ormsby-Gore may also have met Dr. Grant, Chief Medical Officer (in the colonial administration), who received a grant from the Carnegie Institution to study African innate backwardness and who unsuccessfully lobbied the British Parliament for a grant to continue his research.

H.L. Gordon, a medical doctor resident in Kenya, was a representative of the British Medical Association and the author of several papers on eugenics published in scientific journals. He argued that any investment in the education of Africans without improving their genetic stock would be a waste. These principles were applied to European immigration as well – some with mental illnesses were forcibly sterilised and immigration was controlled to admit elite classes. (Chloe Campbell in Race and Empire: Eugenics in colonial Kenya).[4]

The research involved measuring the skulls of living Africans and European settlers and weighing the brains of the deceased in mortuaries for comparison. The choice of this method was odd given that a founding father of eugenics, Karl Pearson, had done similar experiments at the beginning of the 20th century and found no correlation between skull/brain size and mental capacity. In a paper delivered to the Cambridge Philosophical Society in 1902, he stated, “So far then as our Cambridge results go, they thoroughly confirm Dr. Lee’s investigation as to the capacity of the skull. There is no marked correlation between ability and the shape or size of the head.”[5]

Grant, however, arrived at the conclusion by extrapolation that all African “backwardness” was actually a medical condition that he called bradyphysis, a disease defined by eugenicists and never recognised outside that field. He advised that any attempt to educate Africans had to take account of this condition. To fail to do so, he further argued, caused schizophrenia in Africans, whose frontal lobes are incapable of assimilating so much complex new information. It was no coincidence that such a large potential financial saving should come to light at a time when resources were scarce and all resources were required to bring Britain out of the post-war Depression.

The East African Commission Report had envisioned making education available to Africans only “in the widest possible sense”. Shortly after it was debated in parliament, the nationwide education systems set up and run by Christian missionaries partnering with indigenous leaders in Uganda was taken over by the colonial government for “reorganisation”.

There was significant opposition over the years to academic education for Africans and Makerere University, in particular – Africans were to be trained only for labour and service. However, there were individual British MPs who were willing to blow the whistle on such exploitative policies:

“I agree, and every sane Member of this House agrees, with the desirability of doing all that can be done to educate the natives, but I have a very shrewd suspicion that the motive behind the suggestion contained in this [Ainsworth] circular is not altogether the benefit of the native, but in order that the native may become a better wealth-producing machine.” (Ben Spoor, Colonial Office Debate, 29 April 1920.)

An early scheme for colonial development was debated in parliament in 1929. Major Archibald Church, the Labour MP, a eugenicist recently returned from touring Kenya, proposed research in alleged African backwardness. With reference to colonial development research, Church said, “We are in the first instance reclaiming human material, much of which is waste human material at the present time; and, in the second place, we are developing the natural resource of territories which are otherwise going to waste.”[6]

The treatment of colonised people in Kenya provides some insight into the consequences of allowing the state (limited or otherwise) to determine the standards to which the citizenry should aspire. In Kenya, in particular, the Imperial government issued numerous ordinances to force the indigenous population to abandon subsistence farming in favour of wage labour. It introduced a poll tax, a hut tax (European settlers were not required to pay income tax, which served as an incentive to attract new immigrants), forced labour and child labour.

The treatment of colonised people in Kenya provides some insight into the consequences of allowing the state (limited or otherwise) to determine the standards to which the citizenry should aspire.

It is immediately clear that the vested interests of those controlling the state shaped the decisions regarding the lifestyle of the rest. Africans were required to provide the labour without which settler plantations could not function. In addition, their wages were the source of income with which to buy British goods manufactured from the very commodities the Africans produced. Parliamentary debates of the 1920s through to the 1940s show that the Africans in Kenya and Uganda were unwilling to abandon their homes to labour for cash and to accumulate manufactured possessions, and preferred self-employment, which was a constant source of frustration to the ruling class.

“[…] We do not want to force anybody to work who is able to support himself and his family without doing more than he cares to do. It is all very well to talk about teaching men the dignity of labour, but, when that lesson is taught by the people who are going to benefit from that labour, I think we want to look at it very closely before we allow ourselves to be carried away by that sort of argument.” (Wedgwood Benn, HC Deb 30 July 1919.)

Naturally, there was resistance to this kind of exploitation even as Africans were being stigmatised as being lazy.

The resurgence of eugenics

Race-based science was thought dead by the 1960s, mortally wounded by universal revulsion at the extreme measures applied by Nazi eugenics and the fall of the British Empire in the 1960s. However, the announcement of its demise was premature. One Philippe Rushton[7], a Canadian psychology professor at Ontario’s North Western University, put eugenics on the agenda again in 1988. He too did a lot of measuring and tabulating and found, among other things, that the length of a male’s penis is inversely proportional to the size of his brain. He then concluded that there is an inverse relationship between intelligence and sexuality: non-whites – blacks, in particular – are highly sexual. And less intelligent than whites.

Then followed a long nationwide series of demonstrations by students against Rushton, not because of his absurd findings, but because he undertook his study without informing his subjects about what he was doing (the work of eugenicists is so often shrouded in secrecy). He was reprimanded for that, although he was not required to resign. He went on to advocate for the preservation of Canadian society by erecting barriers to Arab and African immigration.

Coming to the present day, in 2018, Toby Young, a British public servant, resigned voluntarily from the board of the Office for Students for some Twitter-related offences. During parliamentary questions regarding his conduct, his interest in eugenics came to the fore. It was interesting to learn that he had attended one of the secret conferences on eugenics hosted by University College London and his support for the movement was known at the time of his appointment. (These conferences are currently suspended pending an investigation into the abuse of venue booking procedures.)

In his essay “The Fall of the Meritocracy”, Young asserts that he is not an egalitarian and that social differences are inevitable. These differences come about, he argues, because of genetically-inherited traits like IQ, conscientiousness, impulse control and a willingness to delay gratification (presumably as when training to be a white collar professional). His markers for success are the attendance of elite schools and employment in what are considered elite professions. Young then says that for the state to attempt to obtain these benefits for all would only lead to coercion and loss of liberty, as evidenced by the failure of the “socialist utopia”.

Young’s ultimate goal is to maintain minimal state intervention in governance: “If you think a free society is preferable to one dominated by the state, and the unequal distribution of wealth is an inevitable consequence of reining in state power, then you should embrace the principle of meritocracy for making limited government sustainable.”

The basic weakness of his thesis is that he assumes that everyone has identical values and aspirations in life. He defines success as “wealth and prestige” and white collar jobs (“high-paying firms and rarefied social environments”) as the most desirable employment. Meritocracy is his roadmap for providing everybody with the opportunity to attain those goals while accepting not all will reach them.

He too did a lot of measuring and tabulating and found, among other things, that the length of a male’s penis is inversely proportional to the size of his brain. He then concluded that there was an inverse relationship between intelligence and sexuality: non-whites – blacks, in particular – are highly sexual.

It would be interesting to see a study of the types of lifestyle people actually aspire to (for example, does everyone want a white collar job?) Many professionals desire a simpler, uncomplicated life, possibly involving growing their own vegetables. Many farmers enjoy being farmers, potters want to be potters and bakers, bakers. Their choices should not be seen as a lack of ambition or success.

Young’s proposes a scheme for enabling the less intelligent – and according to him, the less affluent/successful – to produce offspring more intelligent and better equipped than their parents (assuming they want to join the war for accumulation of wealth). It is what he calls progressive eugenics. This emergent area of study seeks to develop technology with which poor couples with low IQs would be able to screen their embryos for IQ to enable them to choose the ones with the highest IQs for implanting and birth. The higher IQ offspring would then avoid being trapped in a cycle of “poverty, teenage pregnancy, welfare dependency, criminality and drug abuse.” Wow.

The scheme is envisaged as completely voluntary. In the beginning it may be voluntary, but successive modifications could lead to coercion by barring the offspring of people not practising “racial hygiene” from access to health and education services. The “genetically unclean” could be easily stigmatised and excluded, for example, by requiring an individual’s embryonic registration number to be included on birth certificates and/or other official documentation.

What this tells us is that it is too easy to concoct scientific-sounding covers for greed. Judging from his paper, what Young’s real fear is the old-fashioned concept of sharing that made society possible in the first place, a vision of society as a community to which all are able to make an important contribution. Eugenicists are reluctant to allow a greater share of the common good to go to the less affluent who also happen to be the world’s primary producers and service providers. However, he does admit that redistributive taxation has its place. Thus the rationale for new eugenics is simply built on multiple deceits.

The myth about IQ and success

IQ (intelligence quotient) testing has been controversial from its inception, a bit like lie-detector testing, a fact that is not widely acknowledged. IQs develop as a child grows, so environment would have more to do with it than eugenicists may be willing to admit. There has been work done showing that the more an infant is stimulated by rocking and the environment, the more dendrites (interconnecting transmitters) develop in her brain and, therefore, the more complexities the infant can grasp.[8] Therefore, IQ is not quite like the lottery in blue eyes.

Eugenicists are reluctant to allow a greater share of the common good to go to the less affluent who also happen to be the world’s primary producers and service providers.

Eugenicists believe that IQ influences the financial decisions people make and that those who are intelligent invariably make good decisions while the unintelligent make poor decisions, resulting in generational poverty or wealth. Young puts it this way, “Cognitive ability and other characteristics that lead to success, such as conscientiousness, impulse control and a willingness to defer gratification, are between 40 per cent and 80 per cent heritable.”

This argument does not take into account existing evidence that the tendency for the poor to gamble on lotteries is strongly influenced by “peer-play” and self-perceived social deprivation as well as educational attainment.[9] These findings suggest that risky behaviour, whether it be gambling, poor academic performance, drug use, promiscuity, impulsivity, low self-control or violent crime (what the eugenicist calls inefficiency), increases to the degree that the actor perceives a gap between his current state and his desired goals/state. Addressing this need by providing access to health care, education, employment or other opportunities reduces the risk-taking behaviour (gambling, in this case).

Myths about the poor and non-Caucasians

Of course, anyone on the earnings spectrum could perceive themselves as being deprived and could engage in destructive behaviour. After all, undesirable characteristics perceived in the poor by eugenicists have been found to be present in the affluent too. A good example would be the relentless pursuit of profit by vulture-funds, stockbrokers and bankers that contribute to the collapse of entire economies. These people are driven by the perception that they are not doing as well as their peers and must act in increasingly extreme ways to close the gap. Much of the profits they make are not connected to any type of productive activity but are purely gambling profits. Their losses tend to be equally dramatic.

A University of St. Gallen study of stockbrokers indicated a tendency among them to be so highly competitive that they were motivated not only to outperform their peers in accumulating wealth, but also to destroy the achievements of their competitors. On tests, their performance showed higher levels of recklessness and manipulative behaviour than a control group of psychopaths.[10] Aside from engaging in activities that should ideally be construed as immoral or unethical, it has been shown that stockbrokers can be as illogical as poor gamblers in the decisions they make. Therefore, the link between IQ, decision-making and wealth is not as linear as eugenicists insist.

On this basis, environmental factors imposed by an economic system that relies on some existing in poverty traps in order for others to live lives of privilege need to be considered as drivers of persistent poverty. An example would be the sub-prime mortgage scam that lead to the global financial crisis of 2008.

The angst driving the current resurgence of interest in eugenics seems to stem from the experience of the global financial crisis of 2008/9, the shock and awe of Brexit and the banking crisis predicted for the near future.

Finally, the link between race and crime was found not to have been proven when Rushton’s data was re-examined.[11] When it comes to drug abuse, for example, this is an addiction that knows no social boundaries. And white collar crime is just as much a menace to society as crimes committed by inner-city or poor people. In the UK and USA, fraud by bankers and shady government bail-outs with taxpayers’ money are as damaging to the common good as drug-smuggling. Corruption in public office and predatory trade practices by multinational corporations literally cause the deaths of millions in the developing world.

Interest in eugenics has marched hand-in-hand with Britain’s economic fortunes from the colonial era. The fear of not having enough has always led some to scramble to justify their instinct to acquire as much as possible for themselves at the expense of others. They blame the less acquisitive for their lack of aggression and make plans to assault them — physically, if necessary — to achieve economic ends.

The angst driving the current resurgent interest in eugenics seems to stem from the experience of the global financial crisis of 2008/9, the shock and awe of Brexit and the banking crisis predicted for the near future. This renewed interest in race-based science is an effort to stigmatise and exclude some sections of the global community and to justify the exploitation of those deemed to be racially inferior.

 

References

[1] https://harvardmagazine.com/2016/03/harvards-eugenics-era accessed on 22 January 2018.

[2] https://wellcomelibrary.org/item/b16238114#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=0 accessed on 22 January 2018.

[3] Professor Barbara Bush, review of Race and Empire: Eugenics in Colonial Kenya, (review no. 632) http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/632 Date accessed: 17 January, 2018.

[4] Cited by https://sites.google.com/site/colonyofkenyaeducation/home/eugenics-in-kenya accessed on 16 January 2018.

[5] Cited by Dr Stephen Courtney, History and Philosophy of Science at https://anthropometryincontext.com/2017/05/01/blog-post-title/#_edn37 accessed on 17 January 2018.

[6] COLONIAL DEVELOPMENT BILL. House of Commons debate 17 July 1929

[7] For an account of the controversy see The Race Science of J. Philippe Rushton: Professors, Protesters and the Press by James Philip Grey, B.A., Simon Fraser University, 1989. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/56367875.pdf accessed on 22 January 2018.

[8] Ardiel EL, Rankin CH. The importance of touch in development. Paediatrics & Child Health. 2010;15(3):153-156.

[9]Beckert, Jens, and Mark Lutter. 2013. “Why the Poor Play the Lottery: Sociological Approaches to   Explaining Class-based Lottery Play.” Sociology 47:1152-1170. DOI: 10.1177/0038038512457854 http://www.mpifg.de/people/lm/downloads/Why-lottery_SOC_JULY2012_print_preview.pdf accessed on 20 January 2018

[10] SPIEGEL ONLINE 2011 http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/going-rogue-share-traders-more-reckless-than-psychopaths-study-shows-a-788462.html accessed on 19 January 2018.

[11] Cernovsky, Zach. “Re-Analyses of J.P. Rushton’s Crime Data”. Canadian Journal of Criminology. 35 (1): 31–36.

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Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan essayist, graduated in Law from King's College, London, and attained an Msc in Intelligent Management Systems from the Southbank. Her work in civil service reform in East Africa lead to an interest in the nature of public service in Africa and the political influences under which it is delivered.

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Politics

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.

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The Evolving Language of Corruption in Kenya
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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.

Wachira says,

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.

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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.

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Pan-Africanism in a Time of Pandemic
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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.

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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.

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Protests, Chaos and Uprisings: Lessons from South Africa’s Past
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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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