The Inspector General (IG) Joseph Boinnet’s recent pronouncement that the police had formed a special squad to deal with the Jubilee government’s critics confirmed what many believe to be a plot by the government to clamp down on opposition politics and what it considers to be individual “dissidents” and provocateurs.
The police’s daring move of snatching opposition National Super Alliance (NASA) MPs and supporters on highways and from their homes at the beginning of this year was preceded by the sensational episode when the secret police stalked and ambushed David Ndii late last year. The kidnapping of Ndii, NASA’s economic and strategic advisor, in a hotel lobby in the south coast of Kenya and his “midnight safari” from Mombasa to Nairobi and then straight to the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) at Mazingira House off Kiambu Road – the successor to Nyati House’s operations – is a strategy that the government hopes to continue using to harass the opposition as it seeks to legitimise its contested rule.
Ndii’s abduction and his 500km journey in the dead of the night on December 4, 2017, was a precursor to lawyer Miguna Miguna’s dawn kidnapping from his house in the suburbs of Nairobi and his eventual deportation to Canada.
Nyati House is an oblong-shaped, deathly grey, macabre building that has always been the site of eerie and mysterious police activities. It was a torture chamber reserved for Kenyans who differed with President Daniel arap Moi’s despotic rule. Nyayo House, a sister to Nyati House, also in central Nairobi, was the other torture dungeon. The five-floor, two-part symmetrical building, which is currently undergoing renovations, has always been unkempt and ghostly, with exit doors permanently shut with metal grills.
Ndii’s abduction and his 500km journey in the dead of the night on December 4, 2017, was a precursor to lawyer Miguna Miguna’s dawn kidnapping from his house in the suburbs of Nairobi and his eventual deportation to Canada. The suspension of passports of targeted NASA advisors and supporters that the Jubilee government categorises as consultants and politicians, is yet another tactic the Jubilee government is using to possibly scuttle and disorient a recalcitrant opposition.
The kidnapping and transporting of state opponents by the secret police in the dead of the night is a method that was perfected by the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe and apartheid South Africa.
The night journey
It is some minutes past 7.00pm on December 4, 2017, a breezy, cool Sunday. David Ndii is walking towards the lobby of Leopard Beach Hotel in Diani on Kenya’s south coast. Suddenly, he is accosted by two nondescript fellows who enquire from him whether he is David Ndii. It is evident from their inquiry that they are not sure of his identity. All the same, Ndii answers in the affirmative. They ask him to accompany them. His first instinct is to ask them, “Who has sent you?” To which the police officers answer, “DCI director Ndegwa Muhoro.”
The police officers plead with him to be cooperative and to just allow them to lead him to the unmarked waiting vehicles (in their minds, they are probably praying that he should not cause a scene that will interfere with their mission). Ndii hesitates momentarily – he was walking to the hotel reception with his daughter to pick his feature phone popularly known as mulika mwizi (literally translated as thief catcher) in the Kiswahili language. He turns towards the hotel room where his wife is. The officers follow him, but on second thoughts, he decides he should not let the police near his family and into his room. So he tells his daughter to tell her mum that there are some police officers who want to take him away.
Ndii has been at the south coast for three days. He came down from Nairobi to attend his wife’s nephew’s wedding. After the wedding on December 3, 2017, he decides to stay on with his family – after all, it was the holiday season and they could do with some beach holidaying. In hindsight, Ndii’s muses, “I should just have proceeded to the reception area. That way maybe I’d have made it difficult for the police to take me away.” He was charging his mulika mwizi because his smart phone had fallen into the swimming pool. When it rains…it pours. This was the smart phone that had all his contacts so he could not immediately call his friends to tell them what was happening to him.
Sandwiched between two police officers in the back seat of one of the vehicles, Ndii is calm, but his mind is racing with all manner of thoughts about what they are planning to do with him.
The police take him to two new Subaru Outbacks, and together they drive to Diani Police Station, which is a short drive away. While the two policemen are accosting him, five others are lurking under the cover of darkness at the hotel’s parking bay.
The Subaru Outback, just like its predecessor, the Peugeot 504 station wagon, is today the preferred get-away car of secret police covert operations. It is hardy, fast, powerful and a 4-wheel drive. The Peugeot 504 station wagons used in the 1980s and 1990s were all white in colour. Because the secret police used to be recruited from different police stations and regions, white was the identification code that allowed covert police to easily recognise each other. Other than white Peugeot 504 station wagons, the other covert vehicles the secret police used was white Land Rovers.
In Nairobi’s central business district, according to one police source, one out of every four Subaru Outbacks prowling the streets is a police car. They come in different shades, but the secret police prefer metallic grey and silver colours. At the Central Police Station on Harry Thuku Road, next to the University of Nairobi, you will find some parked there. It is here that the police keep on flipping their registration number plates depending on the nature and state of their undercover missions.
At Diani Police Station, the two police officers who had abducted Ndii from the hotel communicate with some “higher authorities” on what is to be their next move. After mobile phone consultations, they get back into the vehicles and head to Mombasa island. On their way to the Likoni Ferry, they pull aside several times to get instructions. They are constantly on their phones, talking to “higher authorities” who do not seem to have made up their minds what they want the police officers, who are seven in number, to do with Ndii.
Agitated and cursing, the police drive back to Diani Police Station and park outside. After they had driven away to Likoni, a crowd had gathered at the station demanding to know where the police had taken Ndii. The crowd was composed of the Leopard Beach Hotel’s subordinate staff. It occurs to Ndii that while at the hotel, the housekeepers, waiters, stewards and other workers had taken note of his stay at the hotel and had come to the station to support him. His wife was also at the station with opposition leader Raila Odinga’s daughter, Winnie. They demand to see Ndii.
Kandie unleashes a smartphone and proceeds to read from Tuko.co.ke, an online news website. Listening to Kandie read fake news purportedly about him and his “illegal activities” against the state, Ndii – who is visibly amused and aghast that he was tracked all the way to the coast on account of fake stories about him – tells Kandie, “There are four ways in which I communicate and engage with the public. I write a newspaper column, I conduct public speaking, I run a Twitter handle and I engage in TV interviews.”
The Officer Commanding the Police Station (OCS) threatens Mwende, Ndii’s wife, Winnie and the crowd, telling them they are “trespassing a police station”. This ridiculous statement shows that he did not expect a crowd to mill around his station so quickly and openly showing solidarity with a now well-known public figure. This whole rigmarole – of to-ing and fro-ing – takes two hours. Then they set off for Nairobi at about 10.00pm. The same ritual – of the vehicles pulling aside to receive conflicting instructions – commences yet again.
Sandwiched between two police officers in the back seat of one of the vehicles, Ndii is calm, but his mind is racing with all manner of thoughts about what they are planning to do with him. One of the thoughts that crosses his mind is: Could they possibly be planning to execute him, just like they had executed radical sheikhs from Mombasa who had been summarily assassinated a while back? He asks to be allowed to take a toilet break. They refuse.
One of the officers is carrying an AK47, which he places under the seat. This time they drive all the way to the ferry’s gangplank. At this time of the night there are few ferries, so they have to wait for one to make its return trip from the other end of the crossing. When they cross the ferry, they head to a Total petrol station in the city centre, where they refuel and check tyre pressure. It dawns on the police officers that they are set for a long journey – which apparently they had not planned or prepared for – because they loudly complain and grumble about it. “Shouldn’t they have forewarned us,” they seem to say.
They had barely passed through the Makupa Causeway when the police inside the vehicle carrying Ndii were already wondering loudly when they would arrive in Nairobi. They estimate that they will arrive in Nairobi around 7 the next morning They abruptly stop somewhere in the bush and tell Ndii that he can now relieve himself. It is pitch dark. They all come out, but Ndii finds this idea of stopping in the middle of nowhere in the dark night spooky and not amusing at all. When they had stopped to refuel at the petrol station he had asked to be allowed to go the toilet and but they had not let him.
Left seated inside the vehicle as the officers oversee the servicing of the vehicles, an eerie thought crosses Ndii’s mind: If only they could allow me to go to the toilet, I could find a way to melt into the street. The city streets of Mombasa are lively at night and there a lots of people milling about. The policeman who was in charge of the AK47 that he had placed under the seat pulls it from there and hands it over to the other policeman guarding Ndii. Instinctively, he asks Ndii: “Do you have a firearm?” “No, I have never owned a gun,” Ndii tells him.
After refuelling, they drive like crazy. Ndii wonders if they are on a suicide mission. “Is this their plan to kill me?” he thinks to himself. “Let me belt up”, he says to one of his captors as they overtake and overlap the multiple 24-wheel trucks plying the busy highway. They are driving like obsessed mad men. They stop at Mariakani to buy snacks for themselves. They ask him whether he wants anything. He declines. It seems that these policemen were plucked from their homes, not having eaten supper, and not fully briefed on the nature of the mission they were supposed to undertake. They were unaware and unprepared for a long journey in the middle of the night.
For the first time since they went for him at the hotel, they engage him in a conversation. “Are you worried?” one of the policemen asks him. “We have no intention of harming you,” he hopes to reassure Ndii. What could they be up to with all this banter? “I don’t know who sent you,” Ndii answers him. The conversation does not go far. They drive dangerously the whole night. When they reach Mombasa Road in Nairobi, they take the northern corridor, which passes the North Airport Road and the Embakasi garrison and that crosses Kangundo Road through Ruai onto Ruiru railway line and then links with the Thika superhighway to connect with the Eastern bypass that starts at the Kiambu-Ruiru Road.
After they had dealt with their agenda of the day, Ruto turned to complaining about Ndii, lamenting how Ndii was feeding NASA luminaries with the political theory of “grabbing power”. His grouse was a regurgitation of the standard Jubilee Party cabal’s conventional thinking on Raila Odinga: “Raila is a ‘good man’, but has been captured by hardliners” – chief among them, one David Ndii.
Caught in the traffic snarl-up, the policemen buy a newspaper from the roving vendors. It is The Standard. On the front page, there is a mugshot of Ndii. They tune into the radio and the news is all about Ndii’s abduction. The police now turn to examine Ndii properly. They obviously did not know who he is. “Who is Ayub Ndii”, one of the policemen asks him. Ayub is actually Ndii’s uncle. In proper Kikuyu parlance, Ayub would be referred to in the English language as “younger father”.
Avoiding the superhighway, the police drive through the back roads behind the sprawling Mathare North slum. They are headed to the Directorate of Criminal Investigations DCI. When they reach there, Ndii is taken straight up the stairs to an office. The first thing he asks is, “Why am I here?” to a junior officer. “Can I have a phone?” The junior officer shrugs off his request – he is possibly as clueless as Ndii about why he has been brought here. “I am here to keep you company,” says the policeman nonchalantly. Another junior cop shows up and joins Ndii in the sparsely furnished office. He offers Ndii tea. Ndii refuses the offer. The two policemen are obviously Akamba because they converse in the Kamba language while keeping Ndii company, pending further instructions. Ndii is kept at the DCI for several hours.
Then the real police honcho shows up. He is the Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), somebody called arap Kandie. The office that Ndii is being kept in is the Serious Crime Office (SCO). Kandie pompously announces that he is the head of SCO. “Am I under arrest?” Ndii immediately asks him. Kandie mumbles some unintelligible answer. He appears not to know why Ndii has been referred to his office. “We need to interrogate your crime,” he tells Ndii. “The last time I was under this kind of situation, it was 30 years ago, I hope we are not going back there?” Ndii tells Kandie.
In 1987, Ndii was a third year economics student at the University of Nairobi’s main campus. It was a time when there was a crackdown on university students. President Daniel arap Moi had unleashed his secret police to hound the students, who he deemed were in cahoots with political dissidents opposed to his dictatorial regime.
Ndii spent two weeks at the Nyayo House bunkers, where he was tortured and thoroughly interrogated. That was the same year that Miguna Miguna was arrested by the same secret police, and later forced into exile, first to Tanzania, where he stayed for three months, then further south to Swaziland, and eventually to Toronto, Canada, after a six-month sojourn in the southern African state.
SSP Kandie grouses over the fact that people like Ndii are “trouble shooters” and their only agenda is to cause “chaos and disaffection” among “peace loving Kenyans.” Why is he constantly attacking the government, he wonders aloud – loud enough to solicit a rebuttal from Ndii. He asks Ndii about the Larry Madowo NTV talk show in which he had participated several days ago. “I will not discuss political theory with you,” Ndii replies to Kandie.
Kandie unleashes a smart phone and proceeds to read from Tuko.co.ke, an online news website. Listening to Kandie read fake news purportedly about him and his “illegal activities” against the state, Ndii – who is visibly amused and aghast that he was tracked all the way to the coast on account of fake stories about him – tells Kandie, “There are four ways in which I communicate and engage with the public. I write a newspaper column, I conduct public speaking, I run a Twitter handle and I engage in TV interviews.”
At that point, Kandie asks his four junior officers – two had tagged along him to join the other two – to leave. Among the officers is a Mr. Cheruiyot and a Kamba deputy SSP. Kandie then produces a statement and asks Ndii to sign it, stating that it is for his own “protective custody”. Ndii declines to sign it. Instead, he writes his own statement, now detailing the four ways he engages with the public and how he goes about making his political pronouncements.
As he engages with Kandie over whether to sign the statement, several of Ndii’s friends and political activists are now gathered at the DCI precincts, demanding for his release. Among them are lawyers James Orengo and Edwin Sifuna. Having not eaten for more than 18 hours, Ndii asks his lawyers to bring him coffee from Java Café. At 2.30pm the police say the charge sheet is ready. So, accompanied by Orengo and Sifuna, and not by the police, Ndii is driven to the Milimani High Court.
Cheruiyot is the designated case officer and so accompanies Ndii to court. The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Keriako Tobiko – who has since been appointed the Cabinet Secretary for Environment – is not ready to charge Ndii until the police present his office with what he is being charged with. The lawyers are frantic; if they do not move with haste, the police may find an excuse to lock Ndii in for the night because it is already past 4.00pm and there is no charge preferred against him. They then all head to Pangani Police Station to get a police bond. The case officer asks Ndii how much he wants to pay for his bond. The lawyers give an arbitrary figure of Ksh10,000 and Cheruiyot says KSh10,000 it is. Ndii is escorted by a convoy of ten vehicles and just before 5.00pm he gets his bond. The bond says that he should report to DCI on December 11, 2017.
The derisive characterisation of Raila as a “good man” by Jubilee Party carpetbaggers is a well-oiled narrative, deliberately and systematically propagated by the architects of the theory that forming a coalition government is one way of assuaging Raila’s electoral losses, fully knowing that these losses were politically engineered through electoral malpractices.
Ndii reports to the DCI on December 11 and rewrites his statement. The police in their characteristic prevarication and procrastination claim that they are still not done with their investigations, therefore the DPP cannot commence any prosecution against Ndii. He is again asked to report to DCI on December 28, 2017. No word on his presumed “illegal state activities”, or any clue as to when the police investigations will be complete. He again reports to DCI soon after new year’s day in January. “No instructions still from the DPP”. Days later, the DPP is moved from his job. “This thing has become a circus,” Ndii concludes, and from then henceforth, he will wait to hear from the new DPP on his case.
“A good man”
Ndii realises that the plan to fix him was well-orchestrated, but poorly executed. From the officers who abducted him, to the interrogating officers, it appeared to be a combined Kalenjin-Kikuyu affair, apart from the Kamba rookie officers who were asked to keep him company. The ethnicisation of the harassment of key opposition figures has now been taken to the apolitical police force: the police officers who are now sent to pick up and intimidate opposition figures are carefully selected to convey a deliberate ethnic supremacy of brutal and naked force as a counter-measure to an equally and deliberate ethnicisation of the opposition politics by the government.
A couple of weeks before Ndii was trailed all the way to the south coast and picked from the supposedly safe confines of a five-star beach hotel, a Jubilee Party politician allegedly had a meeting with Deputy President William Samoei Ruto. After they had dealt with their agenda of the day, Ruto turned to complaining about Ndii, lamenting how Ndii was feeding NASA luminaries with the political theory of “grabbing power”. His grouse was a regurgitation of the standard Jubilee Party cabal’s conventional thinking on Raila Odinga: “Raila is a ‘good man’, but has been captured by hardliners” – chief among them, one David Ndii.
The derisive characterisation of Raila as a “good man” by Jubilee Party carpetbaggers is a well-oiled narrative, deliberately and systematically propagated by the architects of the theory that forming a coalition government is one way of assuaging Raila’s electoral losses, fully knowing that these losses were politically engineered through electoral malpractices.
Contrary to what the Jubilee Party elites would like Kenyans to believe, the talk of forming another coalition government has always been the ruling party’s idea. This idea is today being pushed publicly by one Peter Karanja, the Secretary General of the National Christian Council of Kenya (NCCK), the umbrella body that groups together Protestant churches. Karanja’s argument, which is the base logic of Jubilee Party hawks, is that if the post of Prime Minister is created by amending the constitution or otherwise, Raila will calm down, and this will in effect also calm down his supporters and all shall live happily ever after.
The Jubilee Party fraternity’s characterisation of Raila as a “good man” masks their real intentions. After the successful signing of the Peace Accord, which was reached after the post-elective violence (PEV) of December 2007/8 on February 28, 2008, I sat down with an influential Central Kenya politician in an exclusive Nairobi golf club to review the new political arrangement. “Let me tell you, we (Kikuyu political cabal) found the perfect formula for dealing with these Luos. Invite them to join the government by creating for them a pompous office, provide some chase cars and security detail (which you can always withdraw and return at will), as you keep a tight leash on them. Give them some budget to entertain themselves. In the process, they will soon be caught up in the corruption dragnet. This will disarm them, so every time they raise their voice on state scandals, you quietly remind them of the ‘living in a glass house’ aphorism.”
The Jubilee Party barons also cynically refer to Raila as a “good man” because they believe he is “tamable”. When in 2008 he agreed to form a coalition government with Mwai Kibaki, the Kikuyu political elite sighed with great relief, but later boasted among themselves of how they were the masters of political chicanery. “We outsmarted our chief political nemesis. I suspect we are going to rule this country for a very long, long time,” said the bragging politician.
In this era of social media and smartphones, the police can no longer handle “government dissidents” the way they did twenty years ago. Add to this a progressive constitution and you have a government that is groping in the dark and resorting to knee-jerk reactions
So, early on when Ndii was identified as a “hardliner” by the Jubilee Party mandarins, they sought to isolate Raila from him, or if you may, Ndii from Raila – a scheme that does not seem to be working. Alongside, Ndii, they also sought to profile lawyer Norman Magaya, another NASA advisor and presumed “hardliner”. Convinced that the much-taunted swearing-in of Raila Odinga was going to take place on December 12, 2017, on Jamhuri (Independence) Day, the Jubilee Party elites began toying with the idea of scuttling the move by taming Ndii days before the event took place. That is why, when the police bonded him on December 5, 2017, they asked him to report to DCI on December 11, the eve of the swearing-in ceremony, in the belief that they would be disorganising and handicapping the arrangement.
The crux of the matter is that for the first time the government is having to play catch-up with an increasingly cheeky and unpredictable opposition. The speed and turn of political events have ensured that the government cannot second-guess what the opposition is really up to. Yes, the Jubilee Party “won” the election on October 26, 2017, but four months later, the government, even after having announced the cabinet, does not seem to have found its gravitas. Its best laid plans seem not to have taken root and those plans seem to be getting continuously disrupted.
In this era of social media and smartphones, the police can no longer handle “government dissidents” the way they did twenty years ago. Add to this a progressive constitution and you have a government that is groping in the dark and resorting to knee-jerk reactions, not really knowing what to do. It is patently clear, the “arrest” of Ndii and the deportation of Miguna Miguna were not well-thought out moves. The first priority of totalitarian regimes all over the world is complete control of the flow of information – when they realise this is a futile exercise, they resort to intimidation and underhand tactics.
Fred Matiang’i, the Cabinet Secretary for Internal Security, sounded ridiculous when he sought to explain to a section of the media that the government had not ordered a media shutdown, and why some TV stations had been closed. He said that the government had exposed a scheme by the opposition to cause a bloodbath in the guise of swearing-in Raila Odinga, “The People’s President”, at Uhuru Park. The well-attended ceremony – better attended than President Uhuru’s swearing at Moi International Sports Centre on November 28, 2017 – comprised a great multitude of people from all walks of life. Hence, the switching off of the NTV and KTN TV stations’ signals for ten days and Citizen TV for even longer, was an attempt at foreclosure by the government, a move that was reminiscent of the dark days of President Moi’s tyrannical rule.
Ndii’s “midnight safari” is, therefore, a metaphor for a dark state and a regime that is desperately looking for legitimacy.
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Solidarity Means More Than Words
Although the South African government is one of the most vocal supporters of the Palestinian cause, its actions tell a different story.
On October 15 South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, decked in a black and white keffiyeh, pledged his solidarity with the people of Palestine. He was surrounded by colleagues in the same attire holding Palestine flags. This was a week after Israel began its bombardment of the Gaza strip. The situation in Gaza is an even worse nightmare than usual, with the death toll from Israeli strikes now exceeding 11,000 civilians, half of whom are children. Much of the open-air prison housing more than two million people has been reduced to rubble. South Africa’s already critical rhetoric on Israel has become significantly harsher, but the question being asked is, when will this translate into action?
Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has stood unfailingly with Palestine, beginning with the close friendship and camaraderie between former president Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) at the time of Mandela’s release from prison in 1990. South Africa was one of the first countries to refer to Israel as an apartheid state, a progressive stance at the state level, even in Africa.
Yet the current government’s bravery, even in diplomacy, is questionable. The pro-Palestine public and civil society are demanding answers to basic questions, such as why Israeli citizens can travel to South Africa visa-free, while Palestinians cannot. And although South Africa recalled its ambassador to Israel in 2018, downgrading the embassy to a liaison office, it has yet to take the step to expel the Israeli ambassador to South Africa.
But things are shifting. Israel has acted with such violence that South Africa’s language has grown stronger to the point that the Cabinet called Israel’s bombardment of Gaza not just a genocide but a “holocaust on the Palestinians.” After a month of civil society and public pressure on the government to expel Eliav Belotsercovsky, Israel’s Ambassador to South Africa, Ramaphosa recalled South African diplomats in Tel Aviv for “consultations,” and Naledi Pandor, the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, has called for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to arrest and try Netanyahu and his Cabinet for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Notwithstanding these diplomatic maneuvers, the expulsion of Belotserkovsky is still in discussion at the parliamentary level, and in practice, the relationship between Israel and South Africa is in contradiction. South Africa is Israel’s biggest trade partner on the African continent. In 2021, South Africa exported $225 million worth of goods to Israel, mostly in the form of capital goods (tangible assets or resources used in the production of consumer goods), machinery and electrical products, and chemicals; it paid $60 million for imports, mostly intermediate goods (goods used to finalize partially finished consumer goods), and food products by far, making a total in trade of $285 million. This is one-third of Israel’s total trade with sub-Saharan Africa of $760 million.
In 2012, the government announced that products made in the West Bank need to be labeled as originating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as opposed to a “Product of Israel,” which led to an outcry from Zionist groups and the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, calling the move discriminatory and divisive. But several Checkers and Spar branches still stock items labeled “Product of Israel,” with no repercussions.
Zionist entities have for decades been openly committing crimes under South African law. South African nationals have traveled to Israel to fight in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), and some are there currently. This is illegal under the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act which is very clear about citizens fighting under other flags. A South African citizen may not provide military assistance to a foreign army unless they have made an application to the Minister of Defence and received their approval. When the issue was raised at a recent parliamentary hearing, Minister in the Presidency, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, admitted that the State Security Agency is aware of this phenomenon, and would provide the identities of these soldiers to the National Prosecuting Authority, as they are a threat to the State. Yet the fact that South Africans have been fighting in the Israeli army is no secret. Recently, a video emerged of a soldier leading other soldiers in South Africa’s national anthem. Another question being asked yet again is, why has it taken this long for any prosecutions to take place or even be suggested?
In July a group of Israeli water experts and state officials visited South Africa to pitch their technology to the South African government, a trip organized by the Jewish National Fund of South Africa and the South African Zionist Federation. The Jewish National Fund is notorious for planting forests on former Palestinian villages demolished by the Israeli army. Israel and South Africa are also connected in the agriculture sphere and South Africa is not alone in this. Israel had been using agriculture and military training to carve an increasingly wider economic path to make its way through Africa, and in 2021 Israel nearly obtained observer status at the African Union, a proposal suspended by South Africa and Algeria’s protests.
The Paramount Group, an arms manufacturer with offices and factories in Cape Town and Johannesburg, is strongly connected to the Israeli army, providing armored vehicles to Haifa-based Elbit Systems, who in turn supplies Israel with 85% of its land-based and drone equipment. The founder, Ivor Ichikowitz, is an outspoken Zionist whose family foundation has been known to raise funds to support the IDF and Paramount’s Vice President for Europe, Shane Cohen, was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Israeli Army. Ichikowitz has been allied with prominent South African politicians for many years. In 2009 the Mail and Guardian reported that Ichikowitz had flown Jacob Zuma to Lebanon and Kazakhstan for free on his personal jet. He was also, bizarrely, a broker in a peace mission by African heads of state, including Ramaphosa, to Ukraine in June this year. By allowing for these sales to Elbit, South Africa is violating its own commitment to the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty of 2014, which, as a signatory, has agreed to cease the provision of weaponry when there is a reasonable expectation that such arms might be employed in severe breaches of international human rights or humanitarian law.
The South African government has been quietly allowing its own laws to be flouted by Israeli and Zionist interests. But pressure is mounting on the government’s need to convert its narrative into action. Minister Pandor has called for an immediate imposition of an arms embargo on Israel. Does this mean the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) will prohibit Paramount sales to Elbit? The country’s National Prosecuting Authority has been instructed to prosecute South Africans serving in the IDF. Will this actually happen? Will the DTI stop stores from selling products incorrectly labeled and will South Africa cut trade ties with Israel and impose Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS)?
Momentum has grown, and people are raging against the machine. The South African government is in the spotlight. It will be forced to show where its red lines are drawn and where its allegiance really lies. The people are watching.
Coffee Act 2023: Government Grip Over Sector a Perilous Policy Decision
The government has not the resources necessary to revive the ailing coffee sector. The proposed Coffee Act 2023 should make room for the private sector as it has both the capacity and the experience to play a significant role in the revival of the moribund sector.
The proposed Coffee Act 2023 has serious limitations and the reforms it recommends may fail to halt the rapid decline of a crucial sector that is in dire need of an urgent rescue agenda to restore it to its former glory.
The Bill currently before parliament does not sufficiently address the question of how it will tackle the twin challenges facing the coffee sector – an opaque marketing system that has over the years been accused of defrauding smallholder farmers who largely sell their coffee beans through the Nairobi Coffee Exchange (NCE) auction, and decline in production and productivity as farmers struggle to buy costly farm inputs in the face of dwindling returns, or abandon coffee farming altogether to pursue more lucrative ventures.
Strangely, the proposed Bill – first mooted by the previous regime of President Uhuru Kenyatta – is also seeking to isolate coffee from a legal regime that has been governing the production, processing and marketing of scheduled commercial crops since 2013. The Crop Act was enacted in 2013 after agriculture was devolved under the 2010 constitution to enable the consolidation or repeal of various statutes related to specific crops and create the conditions necessary for the development of these crops.
Also enacted in 2013, the Agriculture and Food Authority Act that created the Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) defines the authority’s regulatory and operational functions in implementing the Crop Act 2013 and makes provisions for the respective roles of the national and county governments in crop production, processing and marketing. The new AFA Act collapsed several institutions into AFA directorates and repealed the statutes that had created them. The major casualties of the laws that were repealed included the Coffee Act of 2001 that had been revised in 2012, the Sugar Act of 2001, the Tea Act (Cap 343) and the Cotton Act, among 13 other Acts.
Although the other crops have also failed to achieve the results envisaged by the Crop Act 2013 for various reasons, coffee has been of particular interest both politically and economically at the national government level and at the level of the county governments in regions that produce it, especially Mt. Kenya, a vote-rich region whose voting pattern could easily be swayed by the prevailing economic situation during an election period. Despite the numerous challenges facing the coffee sector, thousands of smallholder farmers still hold on to the crop, optimistic that every successive government will turn it around.
Production has declined significantly over the years and a crop that once yielded over 130,000 tons annually in the late ‘80s, earning smallholder farmers huge fortunes, only managed a paltry 34,512 tons of clean coffee in 2021 and just over 53,000 tons last year. The poor farm gate prices that accrue to those farmers – largely smallholder ones – auctioning coffee through cooperatives at the NCE have provoked debate among politicians, farmers and other affected industry actors. There have been claims of cartel-like dealings along the marketing value chain, with corrupt government officials looking the other way as dealers at the auction profit from dubious deals unchallenged, making the sector reforms a Herculean task for any establishment.
One of the leading problems associated with these unfair practices is the role of the marketing agents, who are accused of colluding with the millers and buyers to manipulate prices to the disadvantage of smallholder farmers. They are appointed by officials of cooperative societies to look after smallholder farmers’ interests at the auction, where 25,126 of the 34,512 tons of coffee produced in 2021 were sold. The election of cooperative officials is itself marred with malpractices and a lot of external interference.
Before the current Bill was drafted, there was an attempt by Moses Kuria, the then Gatundu Member of Parliament, to change the Crop Act in 2019 to allow only the export of processed coffee. According to Kuria, by disallowing the export of raw coffee from the country, the proposed amendment would ensure a favourable balance of trade and payment.
“Clause 2 of the Bill seeks to amend section 40 of the Crop Act 2013 to compel the Cabinet Secretary in consultations with the AFA and County Governments while making regulations, to ensure the coffee is exported only in processed form having been roasted, milled, parked and branded and clearly labelled ’a made in Kenya’ inscription,” Kuria’s memorandum read.
However, the proposed Bill now before parliament deviates from this intention. It instead allows only roasters and small businesses to buy coffee from the NCE for processing to promote local consumption. The Bill does not address the main challenge facing coffee marketing. It does not insulate farmers from the unfair practices that industry stakeholders have raised in the past. A buyer, a roaster, a grower miller, or a broker appointed by the grower will continue to be allowed to trade at the Exchange where the coffee will continue to be sold in its raw form.
Sceptics argue that without dismantling the cartels running the coffee sector, which requires the political goodwill that has been lacking, the ongoing reform efforts in the coffee sector will fail. Addressing a coffee reform forum convened in Meru recently by Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, Embu Governor Cecily Mbarire named three companies that she claimed control Kenya’s coffee marketing. She accused the three companies of buying coffee at the Exchange through different company subsidiaries whose directors work closely to manipulate prices in collusion with corrupt government officials. Agriculture CS Mithika Linturi’s threat to revoke the licences of all those involved in the corrupt practices within a week came to nothing.
The problem starts with how the marketing agents are appointed. This is done by the officials of cooperative societies who are elected periodically by members. The elections have in the past been cited as citadels of corruption that have been infiltrated by actors in the coffee value chain who influence the choice of officials to maintain the status quo.
In 2021, former Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya, who led the first phase of the coffee reforms, spoke about mismanagement in the coffee sector cooperative societies, saying that farmers lose their earnings through a flawed management of the chain of production and marketing. The proposed Bill recommends democratising the process of selecting millers and marketing agents by farmers through the holding of factory meetings where several bidders pitch their services. However, this process will require strong goodwill and is not fully insulated from manipulation by well-coordinated cartels.
Agriculture CS Mithika Linturi’s threat to revoke the licences of all those involved in the corrupt practices within a week came to nothing.
If the Bill does not address the need for the cooperatives to have independent marketing agents at the auction who will serve the farmers’ interests and not those of buyers and millers, the fortunes of the farmers will remain unchanged. The success of the proposal that millers make all the necessary disclosures to enable farmers to arrive at an informed decision – disclosure on milling costs, handling and storage charges and other fees and milling losses that the Bill caps at US$40 per ton – will depend on who serves as the marketing agents, how they will be appointed and their inclinations. Although the Bill requires a commercial miller to ensure that the grower or grower’s representative is given reasonable notice to be present during the milling, this will not enhance accountability if the process of appointing the marketing agents is not transparent from the outset.
Direct sales will not offer any reprieve since the Bill requires the prices to be favourable to those at the NCE. The Bill also requires that a commercial miller or a broker appointed in consultation with a commercial miller prepare a sales catalogue for all coffee in licensed warehouses in consultation with the Exchange and the growers. Cases where marketing agents have downgraded coffee to depress prices and offered reserve prices that are too high – and that can easily be leaked in a cartel-like marketing regime, making the coffee unsalable at the first auction and resulting in the downward scaling of prices at subsequent auctions – have in the past been cited as some of the ways by which farmers are exploited.
However, other provisions address administrative issues such as settling the proceeds of the auction in a direct system operated by the Capital Markets Authority (CMA), thus prohibiting a broker or an agent appointed by a grower and other service providers from receiving the proceeds on behalf of the growers and holding them for other commercial activities not related to the coffee sector. Currently, marketing agents trade with farmers’ money through forex conversion, fixed deposit earnings and by making loan advances to unsuspecting farmers at prohibitive interest rates with the connivance of the societies.
A past report of a task force led by Prof. Joseph Kieyah, Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on the Coffee Sub-sector, recommended prompt payment to farmers for coffee delivered to coffee mills, the opening up of the Exchange for farmers to directly trade at the auction, and the creation of a coffee production subsidy. The report also called for reforms in the coffee cooperatives to strengthen them and to enable farmers to hold them to account, and proposed such measures as capping administrative expenses at 15 per cent and penalties for entities that fail to comply with the law.
The industry now seeks a multi-pronged approach to be included in the proposed reforms, which includes the processing and promotion of specialty coffee from Kenya to global markets as is the case in Ethiopia, which has won trademarks for three of its specialty coffees. Coffee is Ethiopia’s main export commodity, contributing to the livelihoods of more than 15 million smallholder farmers and other actors in the sector.
According to the Ethiopia Coffee and Tea Authority (ECTA) report, Ethiopia’s six-month coffee export revenue grew by US$274 million in the first half of the 2021/22 fiscal year. The country also has an impressive local consumption of coffee, with an estimated 42 per cent of the coffee produced going to the domestic market, of which around 5 per cent is smuggled in cross-border trade and traded on the black market. The rest is traded and exported through the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX), which sells around 80 to 85 per cent of the exported coffee.
The price of coffee in Ethiopia has continued to rise. The ECTA introduced “Vertical Integration” into the sector, a scheme that was approved in 2021. The new regulation allows exporters to bypass the ECX and buy coffee directly from aggregators or small washing stations.
With the liberalisation of the coffee market, farmers can decide where to deliver their berries based on the price offered. Moreover, demand has continued to rise and local cooperatives such as washing stations are benefiting from higher competition among buyers.
On 28 January 2020, in collaboration with the National Bank of Ethiopia, the ECTA issued a directive called the “Export Coffee Contract Administration” that fixes a minimum coffee export price based on the global weighted average price attributed to the different grades of coffee from various regions. Exporters submit their contracts to the NBE at the end of each day. They are submitted to another team that compares the prices with international and local coffee prices and uses an average weighted method to calculate a new minimum price upon which coffee exporters base their contract prices the following day.
With the liberalization of the coffee market, farmers can decide where to deliver their berries based on the price offered.
The Bill currently before the Kenyan parliament has introduced a very strong regulatory regime at both the county and the national level. It has failed to allocate any significant roles to the private sector in reviving the sector in areas such as production. Industry stakeholders cite resource constraints facing both the county and national governments and the underfunding of the agriculture sector as issues of major concern. Coffee dealers argue that the correct prescriptive policy would have been for the government to create a conducive environment to allow the private sector players room to grow the sector.
Two agricultural sectors stand as an example of why the immense and ambitious roles that the Bill allocates to both the national and county governments at the expense of the private sector could be a dangerous policy decision.
Let us start with the cashew nuts sector. Despite policy deficiency, the sector showed promising signs when local private processors (through Kenya Nuts Processors Association – NutPAK – which had pushed hard for a ban of raw nut exports) teamed up with growers’ associations, researchers at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI; now renamed Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation – KALRO), and the coast provincial administration to revitalise the cashew nut sector. This was after President William Ruto, then Agriculture Minister, banned the export of raw nuts in 2009 following a report by a task force that had collected views from industry stakeholders and recommended such a move to enable processors who have created more capacity to obtain enough raw materials.
The revitalisation team agreed, as a first measure, on a minimum farm gate price every harvest season, the establishment of collection centres to rid the industry of middlemen, and increased production and productivity by replacing ageing and unproductive trees with high-yielding, fast-maturing varieties to be developed by KARI and supplied through nurseries managed by farmers.
The efforts kicked off well in the two years preceding devolution. However, when the agriculture function was devolved and the provincial administration – which was championing the revival efforts – was restructured, the initiative failed to transition into the new governance order. While the county governments in the cashew-growing regions have spoken about the importance of the cashew sector over the years since devolution, they have failed to develop policies and plans for the revival of the sector and have allocated very few resources to agriculture and to the cashew nut sector in particular, leading to a significant drop in production.
Coffee dealers argue that the correct prescriptive policy would have been for the government to create a conducive environment to allow the private sector players room to grow the sector.
Although drought was blamed for the decline in production in 2021, in reality, the cashew nut sector has been in free-fall since 2013. The 2022 AFA Year Book of Statistics reports that production in the coast region during the year under review decreased from 12,668 tons in 2020 to 9,121 tons in 2021.
Once a top earner for the coast region, the value of the cashew nut produced decreased from KSh587.25 million in 2020 to KSh457.4 million in 2021, with less than 20 per cent of the processed crop destined for export. The rest was processed through cottage industries and consumed locally, a strange turn of events for a crop whose harvest could attain over 40,000 metric tons in its heyday. The low volumes have kept the big players out of the scene, with the newly created processing plants struggling to obtain the raw material to keep their production lines running.
The other crop that illustrates the danger presented by the proposed increased control over the coffee value chain is macadamia, which is, coincidentally, largely produced in the Mt. Kenya region where coffee is also popular. Although a Bill to regulate the nut sector has been tabled at the national level, the sector has grown in the last decade largely due to the immense support of a competing private sector seeking to increase production to utilise their installed capacity. However, since 2021, several factors have conspired to threaten it: the emergence of more macadamia-producing countries in the world including China, and a decline in the quality of nuts harvested due to poor and uncontrolled harvesting techniques, a regulatory issue that can only be tackled by both the county and national governments.
Despite the significant growth of the sector, the county governments in macadamia-growing regions have failed to consolidate the gains of the previous decade. Today, farmers receive not more than KSh30 per kilo of nuts at the farm gate, down from the KSh200 they received in the pre-COVID-19 period. The sector now faces collapse due to the emergence of other competing cash crops.
The proposed Coffee Bill 2023 seeks to revive and restructure the defunct CBK but fails to assign production and marketing roles to traders despite their huge investments; millers, processors, marketing agents and other dealers do not see any goodwill in the revival efforts. According to Pius Ngugi, who has operated Thika Coffee Mill for many years and is one of the biggest indigenous coffee processors in the country, this is likely to affect the proposed reforms to be undertaken by the revived CBK and the county governments.
Although drought was blamed for the decline in production in 2021, in reality, the cashew nut sector has been in free-fall since 2013.
The stated objectives of the 2013 Cash Crop Act that the current Bill appears to reverse were the need to circumvent regulatory bureaucracy in the crop subsectors and remove unnecessary regulations and levies, and the reduction of overlap and duplication of roles to promote the competitiveness of the crops, and more importantly, attract and promote private investment in agricultural crops.
Even at the CBK board level, traders do not have representation. The proposed members include a chairman, the Principal Secretary in charge of trade, the Principal Secretary in charge of cooperatives, two smallholder farmers, two coffee estate farmers, a nominee from the proposed Coffee Research Institute (CRI), one person from an association of farmers and the Chief Executive Officer, who will also double as the Board’s secretary.
The previous Coffee Act, which was repealed when the sector was placed under the AFA as a Coffee Directorate, provided room for the inclusion of players from the private sector and gave the minister in charge of agriculture the opportunity to appoint board members based on their interests and expertise in the coffee industry. The composition of the CBK board would have borrowed a leaf from Oils and Nuts Development Bill 2023, also in parliament, which suggests a similar board with the inclusion of a processor with ten years’ experience to grow nuts the sector. The proposed CBK board also contrasts with the provisions of the proposed Nuts and Oil Crops Development Bill 2023, which seeks to play a similar role as the CBK that proposes the inclusion of a processor with at least ten years of experience in its board.
The government, through the CBK and the county governments, has a crucial regulatory role to play to protect all the industry stakeholders. This regulatory role should create room to allow various investors in the sector to fill the investment gaps that affect the production, processing and marketing of coffee. For instance, the proposed Bill requires the county governments to offer extension services in the areas of sustainable production, primary processing of coffee and climate-smart agriculture, all of which are resource-intensive activities that it is doubtful they will fund satisfactorily.
The Bill also gives the CRI the responsibility – in collaboration with the county governments – of disseminating coffee production and processing technologies, propagating coffee planting materials, supervising nursery operations, issuing seeds, mapping out areas suitable for coffee production in Kenya, and capacity building, all costly undertakings that the private sector has a proven record of successfully performing. These roles can be played by the private sector with much ease and innovation based on their growing needs and market knowledge.
Despite the significant growth of the sector, the county governments in macadamia-growing regions have failed to consolidate the gains of the previous decade.
A good example of this will suffice to illustrate the point. A KSh240 million cashew nut production revival project has successfully been undertaken in a partnership that includes the European Union and the Visegrád Group of countries (V4) – Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – and Tensenses Ltd, now Grow Fairly. Close to 1 million new high-yielding cashew nut trees have been planted at the coast from a nursery that was created five years ago when the project commenced. The 15,000 farmers registered to grow organic cashew nuts were provided with materials and other support while the coast county governments subsidised the purchase of seedlings from the nursery. Early this year, the company opened a new factory that will process 2,400 tons of cashew nuts per year once the new crop is fully established.
Under the repealed Coffee Act, commercial millers could give farmers credit in the form of money and farm inputs to be recovered from the proceeds of coffee sales. The proposed Bill has thrown this out of the window and barred millers and marketing agents from providing loans or advances to coffee farmers at an interest. This, according to the thinking of the drafters of the Bill, will encourage the farmers to access berry advances at a rate of 3 per cent.
In effect, in October 2023 the government approved a KSh4 billion advance for coffee farmers that is expected to boost their earnings. However, agriculture ministers from coffee-growing counties have decried the low uptake of the KSh3 billion berry advance that the previous government had provided over the previous four years.
In December last year, Kiplimo Lagat, the Nandi County Executive Committee (CEC) member in charge of Agriculture and Co-operative Development argued that, from its inception, the fund was poorly crafted and thus failed to attract farmers who were wary of its unclear objectives and fearful of its outcomes.
“There is a need for the government to rethink the concept under which the fund was established to make it more attractive to the farmers. Perhaps the fund is suffering from structural challenges thus scaring away farmers,” he said.
The fund was established in early 2019 to help coffee farmers across the country resolve the problem of delays in the coffee payment cycle. According to the top management of New Kenya Planters Cooperative, by December last year, only KSh401 million had been advanced to farmers in the coffee-growing counties since the inception of the fund. James Wachihi, Nyeri CEC member in charge of agriculture, could see no clear reasons for the low uptake of the fund.
According to Ngugi of Thika Coffee Mills, the government should confine itself to ensuring a conducive environment for increased production and promote marketing. The private sector has enough resources, he observed, adding that the government should encourage millers and other industry stakeholders to get involved in increasing coffee production through estates or by contracting farmers and providing them with farm inputs and other services via the cooperative societies to which they belong.
The existing environment does not leave room for such an arrangement since there is no guarantee of securing the raw material from the farmers once the support has been provided. Production has been in decline due to lack of resources and high poverty levels among the smallholder farmers, the high costs of farm inputs, and the lack of a supportive framework that would include the provision of extension services.
Under the repealed Coffee Act, commercial millers could give farmers credit in the form of money and farm inputs to be recovered from the proceeds of coffee sales.
Farmers have also divested from coffee to go into other lucrative ventures. Coffee is now grown in 33 counties, the major coffee-growing counties being Kiambu, Kirinyaga, Nyeri, Murang’a, Kericho and Bungoma. In 2020/21, the coffee sub-sector recorded a 6.4 per cent decline in production, down from 36,873 tons to 34,512 tons of clean coffee – particularly in the high-production counties. Kiambu, the biggest coffee-producing county, saw estate farms record a decline in acreage from 12,627 hectares in 2019 to 10,520 in 2021, with cooperatives recording a drop from 11,724 hectares to 8,585 hectares during the same period, according to AFA numbers. In much of the land lost, coffee ceded ground to real estate.
The KSh4 billion fund may have political connotations. It comes at a time when the sector is undergoing political turmoil, with the current efforts by Deputy President Gachagua, who is spearheading reforms in the sector, receiving divided views from various actors. The fund was created after President Ruto offered the six government-owned sugar millers in western Kenya a KSh117 billion lifeline. Mathioya Member of Parliament Edwin Mugo and Kiambu Women Representative Gathoni Wamuchomba decried the move publicly.
Buyers and traders have also kept away from the Exchange due to the confusion reigning in the licensing regime. In August this year, auctions dropped by over 95 per cent, reaching only 192 tons compared to over 4300 tons in the same month last year.
A significant amount of political goodwill is needed to revive the coffee sector. The county governments, which will implement national government policy on agriculture as prescribed in the constitution, must create synergies and integrate all stakeholders in implementing multi-pronged measures in order to put back cash into the farmers’ pockets. Given the resource constraints at both the national and county government levels, the focus should be on creating a conducive environment for the private sector to drive the ongoing efforts to revive the coffee sector.
South Africa: Entrenched Divisions over Gaza-Israel Conflict
While the two main political parties tiptoe around the Gaza-Israel conflict, smaller parties and religious groups are taking hard positions and the general population’s views are split along racial lines.
South Africa’s two main political parties recently took to parliament to set out their official positions on Gaza-Israel conflict and, bar differences in tone and delivery, they seem, on the face of it, to be on the same page, broadly speaking.
On behalf of the ANC, International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor said her party believes Israel has a right to exist as a state alongside a state of Palestine and that this has been the long-standing view of the ANC.
The International Relations and Cooperation spokesperson for the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) said the DA stood in solidarity with both Palestinians and Israelis who seek a two-state solution and rejects any sentiment that seeks to annihilate either Israel or Palestine.
That said, DA leader John Steenhuisen, who infamously travelled to Ukraine in May 2022 on what he called a “fact-finding mission” and returned pledging South Africa’s support for that country and vowing that he would not stop putting pressure on the ANC government to change its stance on its conflict with Russia, recently fired a member of the shadow cabinet for tweeting in support of the Palestinians.
Steenhuisen dropped his erstwhile Public Enterprises shadow spokesperson Ghalib Cachalia over a statement on X that read, “I will not be silenced. Israel is committing Genocide. Full BLOODY stop.”
Cachalia, who is the son of anti-Apartheid activists Amina and Yusuf Cachalia and a relative of a former ANC MP Ismail Mahomed Cachalia, was axed for stepping out of line following a DA national caucus meeting in October at which party members were told that they should abstain from making public statements that could divide or inflame the Gaza-Israel conflict further.
The DA is visibly tiptoeing around the situation in the Middle East and this approach is most certainly linked to next year’s election in which the DA hopes to lead an opposition coalition including parties that are already divided on the Gaza-Israel conflict. Even the normally obstreperous former party leader, now chair of the DA Federal Council, Helen Zille, has opted to stay mum.
More importantly, the DA has a large following in the Western Cape, the only opposition-controlled province of the nine provinces that make up South Africa. The Western Cape is the only one of South Africa’s nine provinces that is controlled by the main opposition DA, which has its roots in the white parliamentary opposition to the apartheid-era National Party before democracy in 1994.
The party is seen as being mainly white and middle class, with members drawn from all races, but in the demographically unique Western Cape, coloured voters form the majority and, since the 2009 election at least, the DA’s main support.
The Western Cape also happens to have a large and influential Muslim population and it would not do their electoral chances any good to upset that constituency so close to such a crucial election.
Cape Town’s Muslim population is South Africa’s largest, and it has a long history, being there for as long as the city has existed. The city’s core Muslim population is made up of people who can trace their roots to south-east Asia, and a racial group known as the Cape Malays, who were originally brought to South Africa from Dutch colonies in Malaysia and Indonesia as enslaved labourers. The Cape Malay community in turn forms part of the coloured community in Cape Town and the province.
Other members of the Cape’s Muslim community include individuals of Indian or Pakistani descent, a large number of Somali nationals and refugees from African and Asian countries.
However, away from mainstream politicians and politics, South Africans seem split along the usual racial lines, with many white South Africans supporting Israel and blacks supporting Palestinians.
Smaller parliamentary parties have also taken position, including the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) who said they were taking Palestine’s side in the issue. During the parliamentary debate, EFF MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi said his party stood with the oppressed and condemned Israel as a “murderous apartheid regime engaged in the systematic extermination of Palestinians”.
The right-wing Freedom Front Plus (FF Plus) party, which was founded in 1994 by members of the white settler Afrikaner community but which now has significant support among the Western Cape’s Coloured community, took the opposite stance.
FF Plus MP and chief International Relations spokesperson Corné Mulder has taken issue with what he calls “the ANC government’s open anti-Israel sentiments” and said the FF Plus emphasised its support for the state of Israel and recognised Israel’s right to defend itself and its citizens with all means at its disposal.
The divisions highlighted by political parties can also be seen in South Africa’s civil society where there are even splits in the Jewish community.
The South African Jewish community traces its origins to the early decades of the 19th century, when small numbers of Jewish immigrants, mainly from the United Kingdom and Germany, began settling in what are today South Africa’s Western Cape and Eastern Cape provinces.
The divisions highlighted by political parties can also be seen in South Africa’s civil society where there are even splits in the Jewish community.
According to the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the umbrella representative spokesbody and civil rights lobby of the South African Jewish community, the country’s Jewish population reached a peak of 118,200 in 1970. Thereafter, mainly as a result of political unrest, the community began decreasing, and today it numbers around 75,000 people.
South African Jewry remains by far the largest Jewish community on the African continent. Most Jews today live in Johannesburg and Cape Town. South African Jews are overwhelmingly affiliated to Orthodox congregations, comprising some 88 per cent of the total, while the Progressive movement accounts for most of the remaining affiliated Jews, with a small Conservative congregation in Johannesburg.
So you have organisations such as the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF), the umbrella body of all Zionist and pro-Israel organisations in South Africa, which has mounted an aggressive campaign to shore up support outside the community amongst journalists and other opinion shapers.
At the same time, there are groups such as South African Jews for a Free Palestine (SAJFP) who have been calling out the Israeli government and urging an immediate ceasefire and decolonisation.
South African Jewry remains by far the largest Jewish community on the African continent.
In a recent statement, the SAJFP said the Israeli government had escalated a fundamentally immoral and criminal offensive against the population of Gaza, that there was no justification for Israel’s atrocities in Gaza, and that what is going on there was nothing less than collective punishment, ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Meanwhile, when the South African government recalled its ambassador to Israel this week, SAZF national chairperson Rowan Polovin described the action as the ANC government withdrawing unilaterally from brokering peace in the Middle East, choosing to side with Hamas militants responsible for abducting South African hostages.
The situation has also awoken voices from South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle such as Dr Allan Boesak who at the start of November questioned the country’s co-hosting of the recent United States of America’s African Growth and Opportunity Forum for 2023.
Boesak said co-hosting the meeting would mean playing host to representatives of US President Joe Biden amid the intensifying genocidal war on the people of Gaza and on all Palestinians. He pointed out that it was an incomprehensible situation that raised fundamental questions for South Africans who profess a “special relationship” with the Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom, dignity, and the right to return of the land, and to the land.
Another of the issues Boesak raised was the fact that South Africa retains diplomatic ties with Israel despite the ANC’s stance on the general Palestinian question and the Gaza issue in particular.
Back in June this year a story unfolded that would foreshadow some of the divisions in South African politics and society on the Israeli Palestinian issue.
The way the incident unfolded, and the positions of political parties and civil society, including religious groups, was almost like a dry run for how various political parties, religious groups and civil society would position themselves following the October 7 events and their aftermath in Gaza and Israel.
It emerged that around a fifth of school leavers from Herzlia High School, a Jewish community school in Cape Town, go to Israel in the year after their final exams to join the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).
The story of the Herzlia High School students joining the IDF was brought into the public domain by Khalid Sayed, a Muslim ANC Member of the Provincial Legislature (MPL) and that party’s provincial education spokesperson. The story surfaced following the broadcast of an interview at the end of May with ILTV Israel News, an Israeli TV news channel, during which the authorities at the school disclosed that a number of their students had joined the IDF.
In the legislature Sayed posed a question to the province’s education MEC (equivalent of a provincial minister) David Maynier in which he wanted to know whether learners at Herzlia High School underwent some form of indoctrination to ensure their support and loyalty to the Israeli regime.
A fifth of school leavers from Herzlia High School, a Jewish community school in Cape Town, go to Israel in the year after their final exams to join the Israel Defence Forces.
Sayed argued that an educational institution meant to foster critical thinking, empathy, and a commitment to justice, was instead being associated with support for Israel’s regime and military which is involved in inflicting injustice on the Palestinian people. He said that by maintaining ties with Israel, the school had become complicit in the occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people.
In response, Maynier claimed Sayed had asked the question to deflect attention from the South African government’s entanglements with Russia, and made an issue of the fact that just a short while before, Sayed had posted pictures of himself on social media posing with the Russian Consul General in Cape Town.
At this point in the debate in the provincial legislature, EEF’s Aisha Cassiem took up the cudgels and called for Herzlia High School to be deregistered. Cassiem said it was insulting for the DA provincial government to condemn the war in Ukraine but do nothing with regard to this school which she said was clearly aligned to the state of Israel and encouraging learners to partake in apartheid.
Maynier stood firm and said the DA-run provincial government would not deregister Herzlia High School and accused the ANC and the EFF of playing politics. In this he was supported by a DA political ally, the ACDP (African Christian Democratic Party) whose MPL’s contribution to the debate was to point out that the ACDP supports Israel and its “right to defend itself”.
At the same time, ChristianView Network, a vocal Christian lobby group based in the Western Cape, said in a statement at the time that the debate was the climax of “a string of unwarranted Muslim anti-Israel verbal attacks harassing and threatening Cape Town Jewish institutions and leaders on the allegation of association with Israel”.
Fast forward to the last few weeks since the flare up between the Hamas-controlled Gaza and Israel and the positions on Israel reflect similar divisions, only even more entrenched.
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