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BAD AID: Sexual abuse in the aid industry and what can be done about it

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In February 2015, residents of Gilgil, a small town halfway between Naivasha and Nakuru in Kenya’s scenic Rift Valley – which was once known for its “Happy Valley” set – were stunned to learn that Simon Harris, a respected middle-aged British charity worker who had been living in the town since the 1990s, had been sentenced to jail for sexually abusing street children. A court in Birmingham in the UK had sentenced Harris to 17 years in prison for indecent sexual assault and for possessing indecent images of children.
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In February 2015, residents of Gilgil, a small town halfway between Naivasha and Nakuru in Kenya’s scenic Rift Valley – which was once known for its “Happy Valley” set – were stunned to learn that Simon Harris, a respected middle-aged British charity worker who had been living in the town since the 1990s, had been sentenced to jail for sexually abusing street children. A court in Birmingham in the UK had sentenced Harris to 17 years in prison for indecent sexual assault and for possessing indecent images of children.

According to an article by Nation reporter Pauline Kairu, few people in Gilgil suspected Harris of being a paedophile because he had gained a reputation as “the kind mzungu social worker who crusaded for the education of the less privileged”. This is also probably why the townspeople did not question his motives when he took street children to his house for “a warm bath” and a “hot meal”.

Two of the street children interviewed by the Nation reporter said that nights in Harris’ house “usually featured naked boys wrapped in towels, smoking bhang, cigarettes and binging on alcoholic beverages.” These binges almost always ended with Harris sexually abusing the boys. “After the bath, he would smell you and tell you ever so cheerfully, ‘You smell so good, I could eat you,” recalled Dom (not his real name). Many of the boys endured the abuse because “not coming to his house meant sleeping in town on a veranda, cold and hungry”. The judge who presided over Harris’ case stated that his victims had been degraded and used and that “the mental scars will almost certainly never heal”.

This shocking case forced the UK government to screen British nationals seeking to work in Kenya and elsewhere, especially in fields that give them easy access to children (such as teaching and charity work), and to prevent those who have been implicated in the sexual abuse of children in the UK from obtaining jobs abroad. (The UK is one of the few governments that has taken active steps to prevent child sexual abuse and exploitation by its nationals living outside the country.)

According to an article by Nation reporter Pauline Kairu, few people in Gilgil suspected Harris of being a paedophile because he had gained a reputation as “the kind mzungu social worker who crusaded for the education of the less privileged”. This is also probably why the townspeople did not question his motives when he took street children to his house for “a warm bath” and a “hot meal”.

Until the rise of the #MeToo movement – spurred by sexual harassment charges against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein – and revelations this year that senior Oxfam staff based in Haiti had sexually exploited local women and girls, the issue of sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation was not taken seriously by the humanitarian/aid industry. Now that the Oxfam scandal has become so huge, other aid organisations have also been forced to address the issue.

However, while international humanitarian NGOs, such as Oxfam, have been forced to examine practices that allow sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation to flourish within their organisations, the United Nations has been reluctant to even admit to such practices. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has reiterated the world body’s “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse, but has not ordered any of the UN’s agencies to conduct reviews on how they handle such cases, nor has he promised to bring the culprits to book.

“Boys will be boys”

The sexual abuse of children and women by UN peacekeepers has been reported in several countries recovering from civil war or natural disaster but hardly any of the perpetrators have been brought to justice either by their own countries or by the UN. Andrew MacLeod, a former UN official who now advocates for stiff penalties for aid workers implicated in the rape of women and children through his organisation Hear Their Cries, estimates that there have been over 60,000 rapes committed by UN personnel, including peacekeepers, in the last decade and that the organisation harbours some 3,000 paedophiles. (These numbers, however, are hard to verify as the UN does not compile such statistics, and even if does come across such cases, it is not likely to make them public.)

A report published by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in 2007 admitted that “the dangerous combination of thousands of relatively well-paid young men posted overseas in environments where the rule of law and other societal constraints are often absent…has allowed the sexual abuse and/or exploitation of local populations”. Tina Tinde, an international aid worker from Norway, told France 24 recently that often cases of rape or sexual exploitation by peacekeepers are overlooked on the pretext that “boys will be boys”.

The UN says it does not have the mandate to arrest or prosecute errant peacekeepers and that such cases should be referred to the countries that provide the peacekeepers. But even this principle is not adhered to. One of the most disturbing cases to emerge recently was that of Anders Kompass, the director of field operations at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who in 2014 was suspended after he informed the French government about the sexual abuse of children by French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. Kompass endured months of frustration and eventually resigned from the UN, “disappointed and full of sadness” as the UN’s senior managers continued to blame him for tarnishing the organisation’s reputation, instead of addressing the issue and providing the victims with assistance. Narrating his experience to IRIN News, Kompass said that he had seen a lot of horror and brutality during his career at the UN but reading about “an eight-year-old boy describing in detail his sexual abuse by the peacekeepers meant to protect him is the kind of account I wish I’d never had to read.” He said that his experience had strengthened his conviction that UN staffers who act ethically will inevitably suffer negative consequences.

Andrew MacLeod, a former UN official who now advocates for stiff penalties for aid workers implicated in the rape of women and children, estimates that there have been over 60,000 rapes committed by UN personnel in the last decade and that the organisation harbours some 3,000 paedophiles.

Lori Handrahan, who once served as a gender expert at the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, says that when she reported a “food-for-sex” scandal at a refugee camp on the Chad-Darfur border, she was told by a senior UNHCR official to shut up. When she refused to do so, and especially after her story about how female refugees in the camp were being sexually exploited was published, she was warned that she would never work for UNHCR again.

In most countries where there are UN peacekeeping missions, the vast majority of the refugee or internally displaced populations comprise women and children – the most vulnerable group in any society. These are the people who are most likely to be sexually abused or exploited. The internally displaced boys in the Central African Republic who were sexually abused by the French peacekeepers were often given food or money in exchange for sexual favours. These kinds of “transactional” sexual relationships thrive in impoverished or war-torn regions. A Save the Children report on Liberia, for instance, showed that many Liberian girls believed that they had to have sex with UN or NGO staff before they could be given food. Naomi Tulay-Solanke, who runs an NGO in Liberia called Community Healthcare Initiative, says she is not surprised by revelations of sexual abuse and exploitation by aid workers. “Aid workers have been in my country for decades. This kind of thing happens everyday,” she told Bright magazine.

People working for aid/humanitarian organisations sexually exploit people because they can. The Oxfam director in Haiti, Roland van Hauwermeiren, used his privileged position to procure sex from women whose lives had been devastated by the January 2010 earthquake. Women and children in poor countries destroyed by war or other disasters are vulnerable to sexual abuse or exploitation because they are more likely than men to have direct contact with humanitarian organisations – they are usually the ones who stand in line for rations and other types of aid during a crisis and who are often targeted for medical and other interventions aimed at women and children. For this reason, as Macleod points out, humanitarian organisations attract a disproportionate number of “predatory paedophiles” or opportunistic rapists.

A culture of misogyny and racism

In an email interview, Handrahan, who is also the author of Epidemic: America’s Trade in Child Rape, a book that looks at the impact of child abuse and pornography, told me that sexual abuse and exploitation of vulnerable populations by UN officials and aid workers continues because “the humanitarian sector, as whole, has cultivated a culture of misogyny and racism against employees and beneficiary populations” and “is still, largely, about white men enjoying power”. She says that white men in powerful positions within humanitarian organisations view sexual exploitation as their “right” or a “perk” that comes with working in hardship areas. She believes that this culture will only change if more women are hired in senior positions within these organisations.

Of course, not all aid workers implicated in sexual abuse or exploitation have been white men; an Associated Press investigation in Haiti found that the majority of UN peacekeepers involved in a child sex ring were from Sri Lanka. And many of the perpetrators of rape and child abuse in other troubled parts of the world have been from the so-called developing world. The thing to remember is who holds the power in the donor-recipient or peacekeeper-affected population relationship – and who holds the guns.

In an email interview, Handrahan, who is also the author of Epidemic: America’s Trade in Child Rape, told me that sexual abuse and exploitation of vulnerable populations by UN officials and aid workers continues because “the humanitarian sector, as whole, has cultivated a culture of misogyny and racism against employees and beneficiary populations” and “is still, largely, about white men enjoying power”.

We must also accept that the aid creates dependency, which distorts the donor-recipient or saviour-victim relationship. As Firoze Manji wrote in the January 2015 edition of the New African, “for saviours to exist, there must be those in need of saving – saviours require victims – and turning other humans into victims is therefore a fundamental requirement of the saviour complex.” Saviours, he says, “cannot thrive where people retake control of their destinies, assert their dignity and humanity, create the structures for self-determination, organise to make collective decisions, take pride in their own countries, and seek neither aid nor charity.”

Many proponents of aid argue that by highlighting cases of sexual exploitation and abuse within the aid industry, it becomes much more difficult for humanitarian organisations to carry out their work because these revelations undermine the important work they do in alleviating human suffering.

On the other hand, those who question the benefits of aid argue that it is just another form of colonialism that is instrumental in perpetuating poverty and underdevelopment, especially in Africa. As Maina Mwangi, a Kenyan investment banker put it, aid, by its very nature, is a “blunt instrument” as it removes responsibility for wealth creation and development from Africa’s leadership to donors, which enables the African political class to “eat” with impunity. Similarly, the Tanzanian scholar Issa Shivji has referred to aid a form of neocolonialism that wrests power and responsibility from African states and their leaders and into the hands of NGOs and foreign donors. Indeed, even the British diplomat Robert Cooper admitted once that Western aid is “soft power” – an essential component of extending Europe’s influence in countries it once colonised, or “a new kind of imperialism, one acceptable to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan values”. Donor agencies and the charities and humanitarian organisations that they fund are the instruments through which such “soft power” is exerted.

Like colonialism, foreign aid has the net effect of disempowering and infantilising “the natives” and their leaders. Nowhere is this more evident than in the international emergency relief and humanitarian sectors, which usually gain prominence during famines and other disasters. When an international humanitarian organisation flies in to distribute food to starving people or to provide tents to people fleeing a civil war, it allows these people’s governments to abdicate their responsibility towards their own citizens. As Alex de Waal notes, “The process of internationalisation is the key to the appropriation of power by international institutions and the retreat from domestic accountability.”

The “internationalisation” of famine relief started in earnest during the Biafran famine in Nigeria in 1968. International relief agencies began mushrooming then and by 1984, when the musician Bob Geldof initiated his Band Aid, famine relief had virtually become an industry. Today famine relief is a big industry. The UN’s appeal for donations during the 2011 famine in Somalia, for example, managed to raise $1.4 billion within just one month of the appeal. A lot of this money went right back to where it came from. Much of the food aid for Somalia was purchased from the United States and was transported on US-flagged ships. (A large proportion of this food was alleged to have been stolen by local militias, a claim that was refuted the UN’s World Food Programme, but which suggested that there was a thriving aid-based black market economy in Somalia.)

What needs to be done

Thanks to the #MeToo movement and the Times newspaper’s revelations about Oxfam staff members’ peccadillos in Haiti, there is now greater interest in addressing the issues of sexual harassment within aid organisations and sexual abuse and exploitation by aid workers. The UK’s international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, has threatened to withdraw funding from aid organisations that do not take sexual harassment or abuse seriously. The UK is also among those countries whose police and anti-crime authorities actively pursue and prosecute UK citizens who sexually abuse children abroad, as was in the Harris case.

Like colonialism, foreign aid has the net effect of disempowering and infantilising “the natives” and their leaders. Nowhere is this more evident than in the international emergency relief and humanitarian sectors, which usually gain prominence during famines and other disasters.

However, such harassment, exploitation and abuse is likely to continue at that bastion of impunity, the United Nations. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has promised to look into the matter and has even instituted a “confidential helpline” for victims of sexual harassment. However, I can confidently say from personal experience that this policy is unlikely to yield results, especially if the person being accused of harassment or other types of wrongdoing is a senior UN official. Any UN staff member who reports the misconduct of a senior UN official usually faces swift retaliation.

More importantly, as long as UN officials enjoy immunity from prosecution and as long as the UN’s internal justice system continues to fail whistleblowers, such abuse is likely to continue. (The UN Charter accords UN officials immunity from prosecution – a privilege that is not even accorded to ambassadors, who can be tried in their own countries, if not in the country where they are stationed, if they are implicated in illegal or criminal activities. Guterres’ office recently tweeted that UN staff members’ immunity would be waived in child abuse cases, but we are yet to see if this will materialise.)

The UN has to overhaul its internal justice system and put in place external, independent mechanisms that are more transparent and accountable – and which do not victimise whistleblowers. As Peter Gallo, a former investigator at the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, says, nothing will change until there is real accountability at the UN “and that will never happen unless and until there is a truly independent and separate agency established that is not part of the UN secretariat but reports directly – and separately – to member states.”

Current and former female UN employees have reported a flawed internal justice and grievance system that is stacked against the victims. One of these women told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that she was raped by a senior UN staff member while working in a remote location but did not obtain justice despite medical evidence and witness testimonies.

More importantly, as long as UN officials enjoy immunity from prosecution and as long as the UN’s internal justice system continues to fail whistleblowers, such abuse is likely to continue.

When in 2005 the UN established an Ethics Office, UN staff members believed that they could report criminal or unethical behaviour confidentially without being punished. However, the UN Ethics Office has proved to be a channel through which wrongdoing is covered up. Very few UN staff members who have approached this office for help have obtained justice; on the contrary, many have been forced to resign or have been fired.

Meanwhile, the perpetrators are given unlimited freedom to do as they please. In 2015, a UN official who was accused of sexual harassment was even allowed to interview the woman who made the compliant against him. (This happened to me as well when I worked at the UN’s city agency, UN-Habitat. The panel selected to interview me consisted almost entirely of proxies of people I had accused of wrongdoing. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.) As Handrahan asks: “How can the UN end suffering of vulnerable populations when female employees navigate hostile environments just by showing up for work, let alone when they attempt to raise issues of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN staff?”

The UN’s highly hierarchical, male-dominated and secretive environment also makes it difficult for women to report sexual harassment or other kinds of wrongdoing. One internal survey at UNAIDS found that about 40 women had experienced sexual harassment but only two had reported it. The fear of losing their jobs or enduring other forms of retaliation prevent women from coming forward, especially if the accused is a senior official, and particularly if he has the authority to renew – or not renew – their contracts. Meanwhile, few, if any, of these sexual predators lose their jobs or are demoted or reprimanded for their actions.

Furthermore, those who are tasked with reporting sexual abuse and other kinds of wrongdoing do not do so because they believe that their reports will reflect badly on their careers and impact their upward mobility within the organisation. Craig Sanders, the UNHCR official who told Handrahan to keep quiet, feared that exposure of the “food-for-sex” scandal could “ruin his career”. (It didn’t; Sanders is now the Deputy Director in the Division of Programme Support and Management at UNHCR’s headquarters in Geneva.)

A disgruntled American aid worker in Kosovo told David Reiff, the author of A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, that UN officials believe that a critical report on the UN or on its activities will jeopardise their careers. “And that’s much more unlikely if your reports to UN headquarters say everything is fine than if they are critical. It may not be fine; in fact, it may all be going to hell in a handbasket. But if you value your career chances, you’d better have an awfully good reason to ring the alarm, and above all be damn sure the bad news isn’t going to piss off…major donors, and in turn make your bosses furious with you,” she explained.

The UN’s highly hierarchical, male-dominated and secretive environment also makes it difficult for women to report sexual harassment or other kinds of wrongdoing. One internal survey at UNAIDS found that about 40 women had experienced sexual harassment but only two had reported it.

Thanks to the Oxfam scandal, more mainstream media organisations have started to take aid agencies, including the UN, to task, which was not so before, probably because critics of the aid industry are usually associated with conservative right-wing groups. Even the so-called liberal media have realised that sexual abuse of vulnerable populations by aid workers is an offence that they can no longer ignore, and that this kind of abuse actually undermines the good work that many of these organisations claim to be doing. More exposure in the mainstream media of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN employees and aid workers might just force these agencies to take the issue more seriously.

Many proposals have been made to curb these crimes, including stiffer penalties for the perpetrators and stronger screening systems to prevent paedophiles from getting jobs in the aid sector. But given the stifling bureaucracy at the UN and at most international aid organisations – and their propensity to cover up scandals that make them look bad – perhaps the most effective strategy would be for donors to withdraw funding from any organisation where sexual harassment, exploitation or abuse has been reported and has not been dealt with adequately. There is no bigger incentive in the aid industry to change things than the threat of dwindling resources due to donor disgust.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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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