At a cybercafé somewhere in Nairobi’s South B estate, stone-faced male clients are glued to their computers. They are youthful, the type that ought to be attending college, or if they are working, should be at their respective work places. It is mid-morning on a weekday, the cybercafé’s computers are all occupied and the young men are not on the Internet doing research for a term paper, collecting data, compiling a literature review, or cleaning up their CVs; they are busy placing bets on football games that are being played thousands of kilometres away, mostly in European cities.
This cybercafé is a replica of the many cybercafés spread all over the city and in suburban areas that have been turned into betting sites. “Cybercafés are no longer the Internet places you knew where people came to download serious stuff, upload a government document or even watch porn,” said Moha, the cybercafé’s owner and himself a former betting addict. “With the introduction of online betting in Kenya, the cybercafé business was transformed and acquired a new model.”
In Rongai town in Kajiado County, 25 kilometres from Nairobi’s city centre, college students and young professionals have turned to cybercafés to gamble in the football betting craze that has left many residents befuddled. “All of them are male and between the ages of 19 and 35 years,” said a cybercafé owner. “A young man who was working for an IT company left his job to bet full time.” In Kikuyu town, Kiambu County, many young men have been sucked into the betting craze. They spend all day holed up in cybercafés, betting on nondescript teams in faraway countries, such as Bulgaria and Ukraine. They pay KSh1,000 upfront to cybercafés daily to satiate their betting addiction.
“Betting has become a full-time occupation for some people,” said Njoroge, one of the young men I found betting at Moha’s cybercafé.
A recovering gambler, Moha was so compulsively addicted to betting that he would bet his cybercafé’s daily proceeds relentlessly and non-stop. Convinced that the following day would be better than the previous one, he would place his bet again and again. Again and again, he would lose: day after day, week after week, month after month. “Just when the business was now about to collapse, I woke up to my senses. I was lucky, I salvaged myself. It could have been worse,” said Moha. At the end of his betting mania, Moha had lost hundreds of thousands of shillings. “That money was never meant to be mine,” he consoled himself.
A full-time occupation
Moha’s cybercafé is decked with a smart 43-inch TV that beams the latest European leagues’ football matches live. I watched as young men worked their bets with the seriousness of college students sitting for an exam. “Betting has become a full-time occupation for some people,” said Njoroge, one of the young men I found betting at Moha’s cybercafé.
Njoroge is your archetypal Kenyan gambler: intelligent, male, young, urbane and computer savvy. He is a recent graduate of Technical University of Kenya. He finished his BSc in IT studies just last year and told me that he was in the process of looking for a job. But as he looks for a job, he said, he is hooked to betting. “I will not lie to you – I cannot stop betting because I have become an addict.” Njoroge has been betting since 2013, when he first entered university as a freshman. “But I will also congratulate myself, I have been able to tame my betting mania to now just once a week,” said Njoroge. “I bet every Friday and I have cupped my betting to no more than KSh3,000. That is the maximum that I can bet.”
I asked Njoroge what was the highest amount he had ever won during his four years of betting. “Twenty-one thousand,” he replied. “I don’t play huge bets. For me to have won the KSh21,000, I had placed a bet of KSh1,000.” Since then, he has been winning small amounts ranging from KSh3,000 to 6,000. Was it out of choice that he was betting small money? I asked him. “Not really. It is because I have never had a huge lump sum. If I did, trust me, I would play in the big league. The bigger the odds, the greater the risk, the higher the reward,” Njoroge reminded me.
“Although I am not able for now to stay away from betting, I consider myself a safe bet,” said Njoroge. “I have been betting at Moha’s cyber for a while now and I know all my fellow gamblers. I do not consider myself a serial gambler.” Njoroge told me of a banker who worked at Kenya Commercial Bank who bet every single day. “His online account always has a floating minimum of KSh10,000 for placing his bets. Many times he has lost huge amounts, but he seems to have a constant supply of money. He does not seem to worry about his losses.” Every morning at 7am, his banker betting friend passes by at the cybercafé and places his bet before leaving for work. In the evenings, before going home, he passes by again and places more bets. “I think betting is like a sickness,” mused Njoroge. “I look at the banking fellow and I cannot believe that he often bets to win only KSh1,000 on top of his minimum KSh10,000.”
“Gamblers never have enough money. They are always begging and borrowing and are trapped in a vicious cycle of living in a make-believe world of delusion where they will wake up the next day and be declared a jackpot winner.”
Anthropologist Natasha Schull says, “For gamblers, it is not always the sense of chance that is attractive, but the predictability of the game that underpins the escapism. Even winning disrupts this state of dissociation.”
Before releasing Njoroge to go back to his computer machine, I asked him whether he was genuinely worried that his addiction would (finally) get the better of him. “That is why I am seriously looking for a job. I am hoping once I get a job, I will quit betting.” It sounded more of a wish than an expectation.
“But once you get a job, won’t you start earning some good pay and that may induce you into placing bigger bets? I mean you will now have the bigger cash you been craving for?” I asked him. “Remember what you told me about the greater the odds, the higher the reward?” He paused, then said, “Let me go back.”
“Betting is a sickness, a sickness that can only be cured by oneself,” said Simon Kinuthia, a recovered gambler, who once lived in East London and came back home in 2008. It is in East London that he first learned how to bet and eventually got hooked. “Betting and gambling joints are all over the city of London. They are like your local neighbourhood kiosks here in Nairobi.” As a restaurant supervisor in East London, Kinuthia would use his break to dash to the nearest betting kiosk to place a bet.” He been back in Kenya for nearly ten years now, and says he would bet even his house rent and would be perpetually broke and always in debt “because you must always borrow to feed your addiction. Gamblers never have enough money. They are always begging and borrowing and are trapped in a vicious cycle of living in a make-believe world of delusion where they will wake up the next day and be declared a jackpot winner.”
With his colleagues, Kinuthia would bet in the morning, at tea break, during the lunch hour, in the evenings and even at night. “When we got our weekly pay, we would all head to gambling joints and bet the whole night. We would lose all our money, possibly only one of us would win his bets,” said Kinuthia. Yet, that did not deter them. “The more you lose, the more you want to place even more bets, erroneously believing it was not your lucky night. It is a paradox.”
Kinuthia, who is an accountant by profession, told me that betting is a business based on the understanding of probabilities. “What is the probability of a gambler winning the jackpot?” posed Kinuthia. “It is one out of 10 million, assuming every day 10 million Kenyans are placing their bets. In other words, your chances of not winning the big money is 99.9 per cent.” Many of these people, Kinuthia said, have little or no understanding of the probability of losses.
Kinuthia has faithfully kept away from betting in Kenya. “I saw people (in the UK) lose jobs, others got into manic depression. Others who could not live with the shame of losing everything they ever owned – after being auctioned – and of having mounting debts, committed suicide. “Betting is like being a drug addict: People begin using drugs as a leisure activity in the false belief that they can quit anytime, if the leisure becomes boring, or if they find something better to do,” said Kinuthia. “But no sooner do you start dabbling in drugs, then you realise you want more and more of the same. It is no longer a leisure activity, but an addiction that has to be fed to keep it going. That is precisely how betting works, even on the most innocent people, who cheat themselves they are doing it for fun, and if not for fun, at least then to win some money. They soon realise they are hooked onto an alluring activity that is intoxicating, that like a drug gives them a kick, or if you, like ‘a shot in the arm.’”
Social anthropologists have long observed that gamblers use their bets to chase losses and often they seek to be in a world where they can forget their problems. I found this to be true of my newspaper vendor friend, who has spawned a business idea from the betting mania: selling photocopied newspaper pages with “hot games” for betting. At KSh20 per page, the vendor mainly sells the information to security guards, casual labourers, matatu drivers and conductors, street vegetable vendors and hawkers, job seekers, as well as jobless Kenyans. All of these people’s dream is to win the jackpot and merrily transform their “miserable” lives by becoming instant millionaires. It is a dream fed daily by the fantastic news that a peasant women from Kakamega County can actually win KSh25 million from placing her bet correctly.
This paradox – of losing hard-earned cash in a betting game and instead of quitting, you immerse yourself even further in the quagmire is something I found prevalent among university students. To understand how the betting mania has caught on among Kenyan youth, I went to the University of Nairobi’s Chiromo campus, where science and medical students are housed. It is a campus for “serious students” who are not even supposed to have time to socialise. But with the onset of online betting in Kenya, Chiromo campus students have not been spared the craze.
Victor Rago, who is studying chemistry, admitted to me that the betting mania has afflicted his campus and is driving many students crazy. “Today students spend more time betting than they do in their academics. If only they spent half the time they did in analysing football matches so as to place the correct bets, we would have very many first class honours.” Rago told me about his roommate, who in their second year in 2017, placed his bet one Saturday afternoon with Ksh200. As luck would have it, by the evening his roomie was worth KSh250,000 sent to his smart phone. “I knew he had ‘struck gold’, because when he came to the room, he said he wanted us to go into town and eat some real food at some real restaurant. He excitedly told me he had won 250K and it was proper for him to take some time and enjoy life. For a whole semester he did not show up in the lecture theatre.”
Rago said students were now spending all their energies dreaming every single day about betting and winning bigtime money. It has become a full-time occupation for them. Studies have become secondary. “Here at Chiromo, there are betting groups, just like there are tutorial groups, but the betting groups are superseding the tutorial groups by the day,” said Rago. I asked him why many of these betting groups are mostly composed of male students. “Male students are ardent football followers, which they have done for a long period, so they have a knack for better and greater analysis and I also suspect they are not averse to risks.”
But that does mean female students do not bet, said Rago. “They do, but they are not in the forefront. And, because they are not as adept analysts like their male counterparts, they rely on ‘seasoned analysts’ to predict for them.” Many of the so-called seasoned analysts run online advisory chats on Telegram applications. “They are also WhatsApp advisory chats, but many gamblers prefer the Telegram app,” said Rago. He said the Telegram app is preferred because your contact details are not exposed to everyone. Unlike WhatsApp, where, if you have to belong to a chat group, you must share your mobile phone number, the Telegram app is created such that it is controlled by a sole administrator and he or she does not need to know your telephone number to chat with his or her clients.
“One of the biggest of these Telegram app online ‘professional predictors’ is called Binti Foota,” said Rago. Ostensibly targeted at females who do not have the time to analyse or follow football matches religiously, it has an accumulated a following of nearly 19,000 gamblers. “What the betting craze has done is to spawn another industry, which is feeding into the gambler’s addiction,” said Rago. “So, for KSh530 a fortnight, Binti Foota can help you predict the outcome of football games. If you pay her KSh1,030, the site can predict for you for 34 days.” Rago said many of the female students who bet make the bulk of Binti Foota chat followers. “Binti Foota’s identity is not known, neither does she have to know the identity of her clients. So, if you are dissatisfied with her analyses, what you can do is migrate to another prediction site, or bad mouth her on a different site,” said Rago.
Social anthropologists say that the social costs of gambling are huge, and include bankruptcy, homelessness, suicide and domestic violence.
The student told me these online “professional predictors” had been infiltrated by online scammers, who have been conning people of their money in the guise of helping them place winning bets. “Many of the so-called online analysts and professional predictors are just scammers preying on the gambler’s addiction.” Scammers from as far as Nigeria have opened Telegram chat groups that pronounce how they have helped people win hundreds of millions of shillings. And because people are predisposed to greed, they fall prey to such scams,” said Rago.
He added that because of the obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) behaviour displayed by the student gamblers, most of these students tend to neglect their studies and suffer from pendulum-like mood swings that are unpredictable. Rago told me of the Kenyatta University second-year student who committed suicide last year. “The student bet all his tuition fees – KSh80,000. What he did was to place two bets: KSh40,000 each. The odds were high, but he took the risk, convinced he would at least win one gamble. When he lost both bets, his world came crumbling down.”
Social anthropologists say that the social costs of gambling are huge, and include bankruptcy, homelessness, suicide and domestic violence.
The bigger the odds, the greater the risk, the higher the rewards is a principle many gamblers abide by, hoping to cash in on the odds they have placed. Many times, the risk is not worth it, “but then”, said Rago, “gambling is a compulsive behaviour disorder that overtime grips gamblers, who like alcoholics, to cure their alcoholism, must first accept they are suffering from an alcohol problem. Gamblers must also come to terms with their odd behaviour that drives them to bet compulsively.”
A consultant periodontist described to me how self-destructive compulsive behaviour disorder can be. A part-time lecturer, he narrated to me how one of his best students pulled out of class in his third year. “Aaah daktari, this course is taking too long: my peers are making money out there and here I am slogging through an unending degree course,” the student replied when he asked him why he had decided to pull out of medical school. “To my consternation, I did not know he had been betting on the side,” the consultant said. “I was told that his friends were boasting to him that by the time he is finished with his medical degree, they would be owners of real estate and funky vehicles.” His friends apparently were full-time gamblers and some had shown him their bank slips.
The consultant said he should not have been overly surprised: some of the young doctors known as registrars have become master gamblers. “In between their clinical rounds in the hospitals, the physicians are glued to their smart phones busy betting, so much so that one would be inclined to think that betting is one of their examinable units.” But the most shocking revelation came when he learned that some parents were encouraging their children to bet, oblivious of the dangers they are getting their children into.
I met a senior-level manager at one of the better known sports gaming companies for a chat in their posh offices in Nairobi. If a company’s employees is an indication of who its clientele might be, this sports gaming company told it all: The employees I saw were young – hardly more than 33 years-old with a look that declared: “We are here, we have arrived”. “It is not true sports gaming companies are impacting negatively on the Kenyan society, much less its youth,” he ventured to tell me. “This is a wrong notion that is being perpetrated by the mainstream media. It has become all hype and no substance. What I want are facts and figures, not emotional lurid stories.” He reeled off from his head the statistics from a recent poll conducted last November to find out how Kenyan youth are spending their money. “The survey, GeoPoll, showed that 26 per cent of the youth spend their money on saving and expenditure and only five per cent spent their money on betting. Which youth is this that is being destroyed by betting? The Kenyan media is obsessed with sensational reporting,” said the manager.
Implications of Sports Betting in Kenya – a study conducted by Amani Mwadime and submitted to the Chandaria School of Business at the United States International University in Nairobi in 2017, estimates that 2 million people in Nairobi alone participate in online betting.
The manager, who is not authorised to talk to the media, described betting as an entertainment and said people are entitled to some fun, some leisure, albeit in a controlled environment. “We operate under the rules and obligations of the Betting Control Licensing Board. We are therefore legitimate. What is destroying the youth is not sport gaming companies – on the contrary – it is the so-called amusement machines that are now found all the over the place, including villages in some far-off counties. Those machines are the problem: they are illegal, unregulated and accessed by all and sundry. Of course, most of them are used by pupils and students alike, who are yet to be of the adult age, that is above 18 years. That is what the government and the media should be concerned with and not licensed, legal betting companies,” pointed out the manager. The government should clamp down on these machines, not ask sports gaming companies to part with astronomical taxes – “it just does not make sense. We are a business, not a philanthropic company. The government is being unreasonable when it says sports gaming companies are making so much money, so they have to pay taxes that are pegged to their turnover. It never happens anywhere in the world.”
Implications of Sports Betting in Kenya – a study conducted by Amani Mwadime and submitted to the Chandaria School of Business at the United States International University in Nairobi in 2017, estimates that 2 million people in Nairobi alone participate in online betting.
The manager said his company has a cap on the amount one can bet in a day: KSh20,000. “I should let you know, we are not reckless. We also do not want people to overstretch their enjoyment.” Sports gaming companies and casinos consider gambling a “victimless” recreation, and therefore, a matter of moral indifference.
The sports gaming companies are up in arms because the government has asked them to pay 35 per cent on their monthly turnover in taxes. “And do not forget we still have to pay the annual 30 per cent corporate tax. Some people are misadvising the government,” said the manager. This “misadvising” began last April, 2017, when Henry Rotich, the Treasury Cabinet Secretary, proposed a 50 per cent tax on sports gaming companies when he presented the national budget. He also came up with the Finance Bill, which President Uhuru Kenyatta refused to sign, insisting sports gaming companies ought to pay the 50 per cent tax.
Social scientists agree that gambling blurs the distinction between well-earned and ill-gotten wealth.
When the matter was taken up by Parliament, it was shot down; parliamentarians rejected the 50 per cent tax idea and said that the tax should remain at 7.5 per cent. “Now we don’t know where this 35 per cent is coming from. There is a misconception about sport gaming companies in this country: That we make abnormal and humongous profits. The most profitable company in Kenya is Safaricom. I have not heard the government say, since Safaricom makes billions of shillings, they should pay higher taxes than what they are paying currently, because they happen to be making tonnes of money.”
I told the manager that my preliminary inquiries on the betting mania, especially among the youth, is that it is distracting them from productive activities, be it studies or work. I also told him that betting is unwittingly creating among the most productive cadre of Kenyans a false notion that gambling can be considered an economic activity.
“Kenya is not a theocracy and gambling has existed in independent Kenya for the last 50 years,” shot back the manager. “Where is all this hullabaloo about sports gaming companies coming from suddenly? I sense business envy here from some (powerful) quarters. Could be it that some people are sore because they cannot believe they missed an opportunity to make money?” The manager told me that a tycoon close to the powers that be fought one of the sports gaming companies when it started its operations, arguing that these companies were corrupting the morals of the youth. There are currently 25 sports gaming companies in Kenya, according to latest Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) statistics, which were compiled last year in June.
“The argument about morals is both laughable and superfluous,” said the manager. “What then should we say of alcohol? Shouldn’t the government then shut down all the bars and drinking dens to curb alcoholism? What about beer and liquor manufacturing companies? Shouldn’t the government tax them an arm and a leg because they encourage our youth to drink? Alcohol is not only harmful to their health, but also leads to anti-social behaviour.” The morality argument falls flat on its face, said the manager. “That is the province of the purveyors of heavenly realm. I have not heard them say betting will take the youth to hell or that they are engaged in a sinful activity. ”
The manager dispelled the notion that betting and gambling are reckless behaviour. “Life is about gambling. Did you know prayer is a gamble? Everyday people are offering prayers to God, which are not fulfilled. Yet, they continue praying and they will not stop. At least we fulfil part of our bargain by paying people for their gambles. I can tell you this without a shadow of a doubt, we are going to create millionaires like no industry has done in modern Kenya.”
Anecdotal evidence shows that online betting is impoverishing poor people and reducing their levels of productivity. Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi, the Director General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), recently observed: “:….you are seeing sports gambling in Kenya today, but nobody is telling the gambling firms not to accept money from poor gamblers. It is the poor who must be told that they will live with the consequences of dreaming that gambling is an investment.” It is a fact that gamblers are drawn disproportionately from the poor and the low-income classes, who can ill afford to gamble: they are susceptible to the lure of quick imagined riches. This class of people are in financial doldrums and other societal tribulations that make them vulnerable to fantastic dreams of sudden wealth.
A tax expert who did not want his name revealed said, “One of the sports gaming company’s act of sponsorship withdrawal can be interpreted as an act of industry intimidation. The company is taking advantage of the fact that there is no direct evidence attributing societal problems to its activities.” Sportpesa, one of the better known gaming companies, withdrew its sponsorship of 10 sporting entities in Kenya that it was supporting after the government asked all sports gaming companies to pay an upgraded tax of 35 percent.
The tax consultant pointed out that Chapter 12 of the Kenyan Constitution on public finance management requires the creation of a tax system that promotes an equitable society. “Translation: Sports gaming companies such as Sportpesa are obliged to engage in good management practices by not holding the country to ransom, and using scaremongering tactics and threats such as job losses, withdrawing to another country or jurisdiction.”
Social scientists agree that gambling blurs the distinction between well-earned and ill-gotten wealth. I thought of the young man Njoroge – smart and forward-looking – yet, gambling, a debased form of speculation, had reduced him to lusting for sudden wealth that is not linked to the process that produces goods or services. Through gambling he hopes to grow wealth without actually working for it.
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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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