Mea maxima culpa. I have not engaged with the idea of the post-colonial before. Not overtly. I didn’t notice it, you see. And that is the politest way of putting it. But I have heard about it in dribs and drabs, as one hears about people from a distant and fascinating culture that point at the moon before they start a meal. I wondered if I should amplify the retelling of the big stories you know so well: the 1884-5 Berlin Conference, a euphemism for a cynical collusion by the then-powerful nations to launch wars under banners to justify a violent land grab of a continent from its nations and people, the causal reality and root of an epoch that would eventually settle under the label of “post-colonial”. I wanted to understand how to tell post-colonial in a reality where narratives to explain the use of extreme and murderous violence on nations, cultures and peoples are still written without consequences by the same forces responsible for the long war and occupation season now known as the colonial period.
Yet for the most part, today we assert our “post-coloniality” and frolic in its imagined sounds, lyrics and images to the rhythm of assorted independence anthems. But independence from what precisely? What distinguishes colonialities when the existential violence visited on entire peoples and nations remain unexorcised, unquestioned, unnamed? The infrastructure and systems of the aberration in human relationships that is the accepted “colonial experience” have mostly remained intact. For the most part, in African countries, amidst the debris of the uneasy post-coloniality, the ancient and unassailable structures are those that channel Africa’s raw material (not its human) resources to leave nations; the diamonds and dying miners are African, the profits are unquestionably European and American to this day.
What distinguishes colonialities when the existential violence visited on entire peoples and nations remain unexorcised, unquestioned, unnamed?
This is a survey of ruins. It co-opts the ruin (paraphrasing Christopher Woodward) as a realm of “dialogue between an incomplete reality and the imagination of the spectator/observer”. Ruins, created by acts of time and/or violence are, also, arguably, the material equivalent of that most compelling and equalising of human presences, a corpse. There is an oft-quoted sign in Latin installed in the doorway of many morgues: “Here is the place that death rejoices to teach the living.” The forensic pathology processes and options that invite such lessons begin with a word that I have become excessively fond of, and feel should have wider and wilder use: autopsy. Autopsy, means to see for oneself. It invites the human being to a humble inhabiting of a situation in order to speak from a place of experience, observation and encounter. Within “autopsy” are notions of a naked, visceral going deep to witness and access unseen perspectives that reveal another facet of the truth about the human condition.
There. That is my excuse for poking into intangible holes, including the holes of and in memory – to see for myself the unseen “post-colonial” story. To speak post-coloniality is to seek to address a corpse that has somehow managed to perpetuate its existence through an unending drawing out of its juices by assorted and mostly external parties. Those who have to inhabit its being are like those numerous creatures that make a corpse a thriving Cosmopolis. The ruins I explore with you include the embodied ones that pass down generations and cultures looking for a reckoning and acknowledgment—a witnessing. I scour these ruins in the hope of a more complete vocabulary of past, future, present, of me, of us, of other, of Kenya, of Africa, of the Commonwealth, of the world.
We children were privy to our parents’ private conversations of denial and heartbreak; we glimpsed the public happy face, the stiff upper lips, the wounded collective body, the private griefs of so many denials of excellence because someone in authority objected to their creed, their race, their tribe, their way of speaking, their history or their leader.
The prevailing world lexicon is incapable of naming and bearing all our immense nows. We circle each other with old, small and weary words to speak to and about our realities, words that fall short of all our experiencing, our feeling, our hurting, and our hoping. The prevailing lexicon is also subject to ruin- making forces and is incapable of diagnosing its own inadequacies.
Fortunately, there are poets like Warsan Shire among us who point a way:
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered
where does it hurt?
everywhere everywhere everywhere.”
And now an examination of a sliver from the results of an informal post-colonial autopsy session: I was born in post-independence Kenya. I was mostly formed by the season of the phase that Achille Mbembe, in his paper “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive” refers to as the post-colonial “negative moment”. My Kenya story (apart from a bleep of luminosity in the asylum in 2002) is that of an unending cycle of hoping for a glimpse of the proverbial Canaan followed by crushing disillusionment.
In 1969, I was a few months old when my parents had to flee at night from their first post-independence home in Limuru, in what is called the Central Province of Kenya, after all our lives were threatened by a state-sanctioned neo-Mau Mau gang who objected to our family’s ethnic origins following the state-anointed murder of the Minister of Economic Planning, Tom Mboya. My late father would only say very many years later that we were the lucky ones. He did not qualify his statement; it was sufficient to read the terrible bleakness in his eyes.
A baby probably holds the sensations and effects of a dangerous season. The story of my unease with Kenya’s post-colonial experiment started then, with an undercurrent of consciousness that the state could eradicate your family and culture and guarantee your non-belonging for spurious and intangible reasons that play out to this day. I grew up surrounded by the suppressed and whispered disappointments of my parents’ generation; they were the witnesses of the escalating betrayals of independence dreams, the refusal by leaders to lead new citizens to the promised land. Instead these leaders moved in to occupy the deserted palaces, acres, factories and farms that the colonial governorship had held, seizing for themselves mines and beach fronts and using the same forces of violence and alienation to achieve their purpose.
We children were privy to our parents’ private conversations of denial and heartbreak; we glimpsed the public happy face, the stiff upper lips, the wounded collective body, the private griefs of so many denials of excellence because someone in authority objected to their creed, their race, their tribe, their way of speaking, their history or their leader.
Our morally wounded post-colonial elders gingerly tread the silences of the ruins of so many nation-building dreams. There is no space within the fractures to whisper the names of their failures, the shame of betrayals, the rejection by one’s own people, the horrible realisation that the face of the demon that kills, maims, destroys and consumes is ours.
My most abiding experience of the meaning of independence was when as a child, our house help, my sisters and I hid in fear, trembling under the living room sofas as outside, above the skies, Kenya Air Force planes screeched past and army tankers rolled by on roads, the independent state displaying its power and threatening its own citizens after the tortured and brutalised body of yet another luminous minister, J.M. Kariuki, had been found. This home-grown brutalisation of inconvenient bodies and behaviour continues to this day. It now targets the ordinary citizen. A lawyer named Willy Kimani, his taxi driver and his bicycle taxi-owning client walk out of court and turn up bound, gagged and drowned. In the post-colony it is an offence to dare to seek truth, justice and hope. You do not call the overlord’s exposed bum “nakedness”.
So where and when does colonial becomes post-colonial when the inheritors of a state who perform independence are of your race? When those who perpetuate offensive systems and refuse to unmake the violence are of your culture? When the ones who rob other peoples of their land and resources are of your creed? And when those who oppress, marginalise and socially and economically exclude amplify their monopoly of violence to legitimise control, and evolve ethno-chauvinistic supremacy narratives to excuse their plunder are your compatriots? What is the resolution of the story offered to the post-colonial citizen when those who offend and afflict are of her earth and hearth? Is it to make excuses for the disordered state of the nation because the chaos makers are our own?
We, the children of the immediate “post-colonial” have inherited our parents’ delusions and the ceaseless circling of the scene of the crime—this is not a metaphor; this is a metonym for “nation”. The Hobbesian mindscapes post-colonial frontline elders imagined they could conceal from us are ours now.
True, there are those among us who have been invested in to perpetuate the illusions, and are groomed to take over the seats at the lever of the ghastly “ancien régime”. Meanwhile, many more wrestle with and are bruised by the phantoms of our relationships with the imagination of sovereignty, nation, citizen and state. We are called to scream our defence of something that has no faith in us, no loyalty, no interest, and quite frankly, outside of the tourist brochure, no meaning. Our morally wounded post-colonial elders gingerly tread the silences of the ruins of so many nation-building dreams. There is no space within the fractures to whisper the names of their failures, the shame of betrayals, the rejection by one’s own people, the horrible realisation that the face of the demon that kills, maims, destroys and consumes is ours.
Meanwhile, the post-post-colonial, mostly technologically savvy generation – those post-independence parents’ grandchildren – have, for the most part, opted out and stopped believing in God or nation. Weary of waiting for nirvana, many post-post-colonials have fled the crime scene to restart lives elsewhere; and without a sense of irony, that elsewhere is more likely than not the country of the architects and designers of the-colony-that-became-a-nation – Great Britain, France, Belgium, or Canada, Australia, the United States, the lands of eternal alienation and occupation. Many post-post-colonials take steps to obtain a second passport. They know that when anthems have quieted, and fireworks fade, and patriotic noises accompanied by the prerequisite outrage at the numerous badness and madness of “former colonial masters” have been exhausted, more often than not, to be left to confront the reality of what is imagined as home is also to contend with compromise, disappointment and decay, a stasis of order, dreams, ambitions, imagination, future and community.
Many post-colonials leave “home” to seek and find the unrealised ideal of belonging. The home left behind can then becomes rosier, better, softer and prettier the further one is from it. You see, away, there are no genocidal bogeymen. Leaving is liberation from unrequited yearning for a country called home. Those of us who still stay do so with the knowledge that we breathe uneasy in the national wounds daily anaesthetised by a debilitating hope for a nation. Yet in our lunatic faith, we are made co-conspirators in a collective existential traumatic drama. We listen, paralysed, to puerile and stupid conversations that are painted with a nationalistic hue.
An example. A few months ago, in a narrative that was amplified during the last election season, this lot now entrusted with keeping Kenya’s national dreams alive occupied their private-school educated minds with contemplating how much more a man was rendered more male and more virile – and, therefore, properly anointed by God – for leadership by virtue of the existence or lack thereof of a foreskin. This mulling was done in a public arena and explored with immense emotion in both traditional and social media across generations. Is it a wonder that post-colonial women such as I must now wonder how and where to situate ourselves in a realm of such erudite musings? Moreover, who knew that when the Union Jack was lowered in Nairobi in 1963, almost sixty years later, the great post-independence Kenyan imagination would be exercised by a public contemplation of the state of men’s willies?
How many of our post-independence belongings here are forged by similar roilings?
I have no memory of halcyon days. Halcyon moments, yes: like reading Anne of Green Gables or reciting Wole Soyinka’s Telephone Conversation in Nairobi’s July cold. But I do not recall halcyon days. The undercurrent of unease and barely suppressed impending violence is the theme song of my post-colonial being. So where exactly is the line of delineation between colonial and post-colonial? It was certainly not drawn at that midnight point when the Union Jack was lowered and another flag was hoisted under fire-lit skies.
In Kenya, I suspect that our post-colonial discomforts are caused not only by unresolved antagonisms and competing myths about who has the right to rule a horribly incompetent but brutal deep state that evolved out of the cynical manipulation of post-independence hopes, but also by a most uninspiring emotion: ennui.
In Kenya recently, the post-colonial project was placed under a microscope. On Saturday, March 26, 2016, a columnist’s heading pronounced: “Kenya is a Cruel Marriage; It’s Time We Talk Divorce.” Public intellectual and economist Dr. David Ndii’s type of questioning is taking place elsewhere in so many forms. The post-colonial hot soup in a world wounded by the omnipotence of global corporations and the rise of demagogues like Le Pen and Donald Trump, where the very odd Nigel Farage proclaims Brexit Day as Britain’s Independence Day. As an aside, it was in England that I was informed that to say “post-colonial” was to refer to the rest of us, not to Britain. It was in 2000 that I suggested, a bit mischievously, that Britain was a post-colonial state suffering from the pangs of having had, loved and lost its colonies/conquered states.
In Kenya, I suspect that our post-colonial discomforts are caused not only by unresolved antagonisms and competing myths about who has the right to rule a horribly incompetent but brutal deep state that evolved out of the cynical manipulation of post-independence hopes, but also by a most uninspiring emotion: ennui. The citizens’ riot for rights thing? Storming the Bastille? Done. Devolving power? Done. Democracy through ballot magic? Done. With new technology, the process is so hackable that the winner of the next election can be programmed in the year of a present election cycle. A revised, celestial constitution to save us from ourselves? Enshrined. Yet the threat of extreme violence and election-related deaths, like unholy ritual sacrifices, persists. The idea of nation and state in Kenya has turned into an albatross. And this, the previously unimaginable idea, has emerged. Ndii’s article offers us a consideration of the end of Project Kenya, as the historian Professor Ogot had previously suggested. Ndii uses this Gikuyu phrase: Reke tumwano: Let us divorce. In other words: let us unplug ourselves from this thing already.
The public reaction has been mostly that of catatonic shock, screeching, but also a sort of resignation. Ndii’s article is still being referenced in so many forums— including this one. Yet in that proposition, there is a hint of grief, the reality of having to abort the stillborn dreams of a nation. To be invited to contemplate the loss of the national project is terrifying. We have grown accustomed to the fiction of its life and prefer to confuse the frenzy of movement within it with progress.
Visiting Britain does not necessarily clarify post-coloniality: in its dazzling capacity for amnesia or re-patterning of memory, the mnemonics of the histories of our encounters and attempt to dialogue with it must fall away. The preferred conversations, if they happen, tend to be from within the lexicon of the fig leaf of “development”, “Third World” and “participatory paradigms” on the one hand, and the character of corruption or AIDS in “Africa”, on the other. For the ex-premier David Cameron, to be able to ingenuously tut-tut about Afghanistan’s and Nigeria’s corruption is case enough for a desperate requirement for the UK to undertake what Catholics would call “an examination of conscience”.
Few blink at the fact of a world that has turned human suffering into a complex economy. Instead we accept euphemisms: “Guantanamo Bay”, not American concentration camp crafted to incorporate elements from Auschwitz, including medical experiments on humans; “collateral damage”, not the wholesale slaughter of innocent people; “military contractors”, not predatory war scavengers.
Serendipitously, I came across a short article that is worth reading in full, in which Neil MacGregor, the former head of the British Museum now helping to create a German equivalent in Berlin, interviewed by the Guardian’s Tim Adams, spoke of memory, atrocity, history and remembering. He noted other important things, and I quote:
“The thing I find striking is that in the centre of Berlin you keep coming across monuments to national shame. I think that is unique in the world. … There is still no appetite to look hard at British behaviour in Ireland. What I find so painfully admirable about the German experience is that they are determined to find the historical truth and acknowledge it, however painful it is. You can’t be an informed adult – or an artist – in Germany without doing that.”
On drawing our attention to the deeds of Islamic State today and its connection with the habits of nations, he observes: “At one level, the IS destruction has been about just shocking the world and terror. But part of it has been the deliberate reordering of history that is common to all wars.”
I suggest that the real First World War did not occur in 1914, but in 1884-5 after the so-called Berlin Conference whose amphitheatres were the countries and peoples of the world upon whom war was declared under the guise of the export of civilisation and values — I think it is called the export of democracy these days— to independent peoples, the majority of whom fought back hard and were then defeated, occupied, and restructured. The lexicon of the reasons the National Socialists used to wage war on and conquer Europe is not dissimilar to that used to justify the war on nations facilitated by the Berlin conference; and is not dissimilar to the phrases and words that are used today to justify invasions of sovereign states: regime change, democracy, collateral damage, sharing our values, removal of dictators, saving the people, mission accomplished.
Given the blood and shadows among our nations that remain unacknowledged, the clattering of the bones of shared ghosts, it remains a puzzle how the architects of the trials in Nuremberg that put Germany and its World War II conscience on trial, are still unable to delve within and memorialise the horrid dimensions of their own engagement with the world.
The post-colonial state, for the most part, has merely systematised and perpetuated the long arc of violence on peoples, resources and nations. The habit of hagiography and whitewashing of grubby deeds by the state is entrenched in many of the nations represented here: concentration camps, detaining opponents, extra-judicial murders, arbitrary slaughters, mass displacement of peoples, cultural and religious impositions, disappearances. Does the post-colonial creature admit to being infused by a specific wounding linked to the character of the nation? Would the post-colonial confess to inheriting relationships with absences, loss, the missing, the unspoken, the defeated, and the dead? Given this, is to be post-colonial to live the fall-outs from century-old wars that have never really been acknowledged or called off?
Today, we humans are living in a season of frenzy for the control of diminishing resources in a progressively overheating world; we are witnessing the rise and rise of opaque and abhorrent transnationals who roam the world unfettered, like Satans looking for anything to devour. We are in a world that demands the diminution and commodification of humanity. We know the games of bloodthirsty gods of war turning our landscapes into infernos, all offered in slick messaging that shows how cool it is that humanity can destroy itself. We tolerate asymmetric wars and war-vulture enterprises — the idea that one set of humans justify the destruction of civilisations for the purposes of growing their home economies by, among other things, securing reconstruction contracts, is a scene that comes straight out of hell.
To misquote my new compatriots, “We live in interesting times.” But think about it; maybe in most of Africa, to be post-colonial is to be Chinese.
Few blink at the fact of a world that has turned human suffering into a complex economy. Instead we accept euphemisms: “Guantanamo Bay”, not American concentration camp crafted to incorporate elements from Auschwitz, including medical experiments on humans; “collateral damage”, not the wholesale slaughter of innocent people; “military contractors”, not predatory war scavengers. We are co-opted by media outlets who frame narratives to excuse intentional evil, like the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya, and then squirm in silence at the abhorrent murders of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi under the banners of justice and democracy.
Regime Change is good, we tell ourselves and comfort ourselves with the assurance that the International Criminal Court is reserved for only brown, black and Eastern European villains. Even after the Chilcot report, it is unlikely that Tony Blair will be tried for extreme crimes against humanity. From there it is a small step to demonising migrants escaping wars created to feed flailing world economies. We now outsource murder to machines to appease putrid conscience. No one is responsible for the desecrated corpses of a hundred million nameless, mostly black- and brown-hued peoples stranded on far-away beaches. Our oppression of nature persists; the weather has changed and the large tuskers are facing extinction. We know that our human moral infrastructure is gutted, but treat those who demand a new ethical imagination as fruitcake heretics. As old certainties die, nobody seems to know what to say or do. Our lexicon is shattered by the weight of what we have become. But frankly, before the terrible witness of this epoch, silence is probably the most informed position.
A secondary character has now entered our post-colonial fray. The “Better Africa Future” set pieces are now being constructed in or by China. Given this reality, and I suspect the situation is not too dissimilar in other places of the world, the more accepted greeting is “Ni hao.” Please do not read me the wrong way; I am an awestruck admirer of China and the vision it has realised for itself. My concern is that a manual for becoming Sino-African has not yet been developed. Should we form a club where we can exchange confidences in Mandarin? Despite the reality of 1.5 million new influential African citizens of Chinese origin, which we are all still rather shy to talk about, if the future of Africa is written in Beijing skies what does this mean for the life of the Commonwealth in Africa? There is no point protesting: the bastion has been breached. No shots were fired.
China built the African Union headquarters. All they did was hand over the keys to our erstwhile kings. It is impressive, this Chinese phallic symbol piercing African skies. To misquote my new compatriots, “We live in interesting times.” But think about it; maybe in most of Africa, to be post-colonial is to be Chinese.
Unacknowledged evil perpetuates itself and extends its diabolic presence, sometimes in seemingly innocuous ways; ways that are not and would never have been accommodated if the desecrated, wounded and broken bodies had not been black.
A brief ode to Commonwealth-ness, especially after Brexit: I am from Nairobi. We do clubs. I am not an uninfluenced observer. We love clubs. The more Great Britain-connected, the better. Clubs are a community-creating process for us. We understand the indispensability of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. tea. Being Commonwealth is a secure space to soothe the occasional sweet anguish of nostalgia for might-have-been pasts and could-have-been futures. With the Commonwealth we can pretend that we are important to the world and our admonitions cause a pause in the flow of world history. We even observe other people’s elections draped in our Commonwealth mantles of dignified neutrality. To be Commonwealth is to set apart our Englishes from those of the United States of America. There we adjust to the how-now-brown-cow English variety in order to bewilder them. It amuses us when they ask us to translate “dustbin” or “pavement”. When they ask, as they invariably will, why you speak English as you do, it is the single time one admits with a touch of vanity that “we were colonised by the English”.
I know Boris Johnson had some illusion that by leaving the European Union, the Commonwealth glory may reassert itself, and those nations who call themselves Commonwealth shall bask in its restored gaze. Even though the old house is hollow and decaying, it is, however, a remarkable wreck. Old and new skeletons clutter its numerous sealed vaults, rusted pipes leak, some not-of-English-imperial-origin nations have been allowed in, the Booker Prize has been pawned to the rest of the world, the velvet is thin and frayed, and some members would like their crown jewels back, cobwebs gather amidst the bat dung and the butlers have not been paid their wages. Visits to the mother country are no longer free, and few in the world know why we exist.
I spoke earlier of crime scenes; our Commonwealth has not yet conversed with its ghosts, has it? At some point we will have to stand face to face and inhale each others’ fetid breaths and tolerate the stench and not flinch at our mutual suffering. At some point we will try again to hold each others’ gaze and struggle together to retrieve the human being from the debris of wars fought and lost, of unsigned armistices. We need to talk, really talk, about the things we need to talk about in a world failing with such violence to make sense of itself.
Here are the ruins of the post-colonial states scattered abroad – so many unwanted and destitute bodies, exports of the pathology of nations exposed for all to see. They are not far from the Mediterranean gravesite of many freely offered dark-skinned bodies that neither the Commonwealth nor the post-colonial African Union have bothered to mention, mourn or note, as if relieved that at least these have done themselves in.
Perhaps, then, to be post-colonial is also to adhere to the notion of “place as palimpsest”, we are occupants of “multiple realities in one moment”. Ruins. These are palimpsests, matrices for imagining and re-imagining realities, I think.
I will start easy. From Kinshasa, DRC. Two people meet. Heads touch.
“Mbote,” They might say.
The history of this gesture comes from a legacy of ruins by the world’s most foremost genocidaire and architect of atrocities, with his sidekick Henry Morton Stanley, whose atrocities have not been recorded in our world. No memorials to a catastrophe. No literature by and of doomed descendants. No descriptions of how a great and beloved kingdom was turned into a demonic abyss by a man and his nation who went on to industrialise human exploitation, murder, horror, anguish and suffering in the quest for matter.
The German scholar Patrick Hoenig noted, in a conversation I shared with him, how the abiding monument to the apocalypse that became the Congo are systems built to lead outward; everything of the infinitely wealthy Congo is up for grabs and the infrastructure to send these out, come war or high water, remain intact. I suggested to a journalist in a fit of pique that the refusal of the world to respond with abhorrence and outrage to the witness of human evil that was Leopold’s and Belgium’s Congo, despite photographic evidence of such abhorrent and unrepeated evil, helped sow the seeds of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Unacknowledged evil perpetuates itself and extends its diabolic presence, sometimes in seemingly innocuous ways; ways that are not and would never have been accommodated if the desecrated, wounded and broken bodies had not been black.
The Antwerpse handjes (biscuits or chocolates made in the shape of a hand) are the only un-ironic memorials to thirty million still-nameless citizens of the Kongo Kingdom who were murdered, chopped, incinerated, petrified. Only these chocolate frivolities speak to what evil befell our humanity through them. Otherwise there is nothing else. Not even a placard in the DRC. I am not an academic, so forgive my question if it is foolish, but what is the point of knowledge sought and acquired if it cannot infuse transformation at the site of its engagement? The so-called plantation concessions from Leopold’s era are in the hands of multinationals like Canada’s Feronia. The attitudes and behaviour of the new landowners, we are informed, are a continuation of the past and remain, again, uninterrogated. I ask: Is this where one will find the line that demarcates the colonial from the post-colonial?
A final ruin. On March 2015, I was part of a group of residents of the Rockerfeller Centre in Bellagio, Northern Italy, who had taken a day out in the very wealthy city of Como. In the piazza, amidst the contented citizens and goggly-eyed tourists, were post-colonials from Pakistan selling shirts, post-colonials from India selling selfie sticks, post-colonials from Nigeria being pimped by UNICEF to hawk images of African children with flies in their eyes, and post-colonials from Senegal offering Hare Krishna pamphlets on one side and Jehovah Witness materials on another. There was a post-colonial from Ghana selling food in a stall and five other post-colonial brothers from West Africa begging—the only beggars in Como. As a fishmonger muttered to one in our group: “Before the Africans, no beggars.”
Here are the ruins of the post-colonial states scattered abroad – so many unwanted and destitute bodies, exports of the pathology of nations exposed for all to see. They are not far from the Mediterranean gravesite of many freely offered dark-skinned bodies that neither the Commonwealth nor the post-colonial African Union have bothered to mention, mourn or note, as if relieved that at least these have done themselves in. Or maybe it is far too soul-shattering to have to confront the question of why the liberated African citizens would rather endure the seventy per cent chance of death than go through another day living under the glow of an enlightened post-colonial leadership. It would lead to far too many uncomfortable acknowledgments, wouldn’t it? To be post-colonial is to fake it, no?
There are scattered pieces of a story that beg to be seen and gathered in order to offer us a word that can shelter our unseen, unstated, unnamed experiences. There are stories beneath the stories we have heard and assumed to be true even though they sit oddly with reality and truth. There are stories in and of the in-between.
Anyway, as we traversed the cobbled streets of Como, my armpits were wet, my head lowered as if at any point I might be asked to explain Africa, our people, or why our most beautiful men were crouched in European corners playing the monkey to get a few coins. I wanted to assert, I am Kenyan. We don’t leave home. We don’t do exile. As I crossed the city in my special little group made up of an Indian artist, four white American professionals, a South Africa-based German scholar, also white, I happened upon another able-bodied African male – dark, tall, dreadlocked and with the face and large, dark eyes of a tragic Bob Marley, accosting people on the street, begging with aggression. I hastened my feet to speed away faster than the others, my eyes averted. Until from behind me he howled: “Sister from Africa, look at me. Please. Sister, look at me. Sister from Africa, see me!”
What do you want me to say? That I stopped?
That I looked back and saw a man? I didn’t.
I hurried on.
I did glance at shop displays, the back of my neck burning. He annoyed me. I needed his cry to be for someone else, not me.
None of our group mentioned that moment or man again. Yet, as you can see now, the man and his voice remain unforgotten.
The ghosts pursued me back to the continent where his voice was born. His words remain fresh, a public witness-bearing, in spite of my refusal to acknowledge the vision of my post-colonial woundedness revealed in a European public square. In his cry is a harsh invitation to dare to see for oneself, to look beyond the surface performance, name the unnameable, find the human being. So here is a slide without words for him. It is in the colour (brown, I think), that dreams choose when they fall apart.
There are still far too many fragments in the telling of our being, gaps in the soul and in the reading of our lives. There is an excess of ideas received without re-interrogations. There are scattered pieces of a story that beg to be seen and gathered in order to offer us a word that can shelter our unseen, unstated, unnamed experiences. There are stories beneath the stories we have heard and assumed to be true even though they sit oddly with reality and truth. There are stories in and of the in-between.
In reading ruins in imitation of those who look into stars and entrails for prognostications, I strain to see these for myself — these small autopsies — so that I might hear the memory of a past releasing its real name to the present and in the sound, the echo that speaks forth a future that suggests the best of us.
Amidst these figurative ruins, “there be corpses that rejoice to teach the living”. “See me!” – that invitation from a man, a body, on a far-off street – is a good enough place for me to look in a way that I could not before.
This essay is adapted from a speech by the author at the 17th Triennial Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) Conference held in Stollenbosch, South Africa, in July 2016.
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John Magufuli: The Death of a Denier-in-Chief
Late president John Magafuli never was the anti-corruption saviour international media claimed.
Tanzania, a country that produced Julius Nyerere, is a country tottering on the precipice of a pandemic catastrophe. The philosopher-president ruled for 23 years and put the nation on the international map as a frontline state that stood up to Apartheid South Africa and helped liberate modern Uganda by ridding it of Idi Amin.
With the abrupt death of its populist president John Magufuli on March 17, 2021, ostensibly from a COVID-19 related ailment, Tanzania finds itself at a crossroads, insofar as tackling the devasting disease is concerned. Magufuli who was the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, became the denier-in-chief of COVID-19. The disease has decimated scores of Tanzanians, including top government officials.
Magufuli was hailed as a tough anti-corruption crusader, as he entered state house in 2015. Ordinary Tanzanians initially saw him as their saviour in the fight against institutionalised state corruption. The international media also saw him as a man keen on tackling state corruption, “but Magufuli was all about optics,” said a Tanzanian journalist. “He wasn’t fighting state corruption pers se, what he was doing was to get rid of Jakaya Kikwete’s (immediate former president) networks in the government and replace with his own. So, it was just a matter of time before Tanzanians and the world realised Magufuli was just interested in musical chairs.”
Magufuli was re-elected on October 28, 2020 in one of the most controversial post-Nyerere’s Tanzania elections with a whopping 84 percent. His “true colours” revealed themselves after Benjamin Mkapa’s death in July 2020. After mourning the ex-president, Magufuli turned his attention to the business of crippling the opposition.
Magufuli was a protégé of Mkapa who served as president between 1995–2005. It was Mkapa, who in 2015, prevailed on the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM, ‘Party of the Revolution’) national executive council (NEC) to pick newcomer Magufuli as its flagbearer for what was to be a hotly contested general election in October 2015. Magufuli was then primed to run against Edward Lowassa, a CCM stalwart, who had bolted to Chama Cha Democrasia na Maendeleo (CHADEMA), after not clinching the CCM ticket, in which he was touted as one of the hot favourites.
The “true colours” was the ruthlessness with which Magufuli pursued the opposition in the lead-up to the presidential elections. That massive victory came in the backdrop of President Magufuli’s continuous campaigns since being inaugurated as the fifth president in 2015. “Magufuli never stopped campaigning,” said a Tanzanian journalist: “He rode on the wave of populism – dishing out money and favours to select supporters and well-choreographed individuals wherever he went.”
The 2020 Magufuli campaigns were a mirror-image of his mentor’s similar campaigns in 2000. Just like Mkapa’s mission was to presumably pulverize the nascent opposition, Magufuli’s mission 20 years later was similarly to ensure that the “irritating” opposition is no more and is, literary ran out of town. Mkapa in the October 2000 elections unleashed so much violence on the opposition that many of its supporters sought exile in neighbouring Kenya, after the elections.
Mkapa’s use of unmitigated force by Jeshi la Polisi (Tanzania has a police force, as opposed to a police service) and Field Force Unit (FFU), a paramilitary outfit much like Kenya’s dreaded General Service Unit (GSU) was unprecedented in Tanzanian politics. Just like Magufuli, it seems Mkapa’s “true colours” were revealed only after his mentor’s death the previous year on October 14, 1999. Mkapa was a protégé of the founding father Julius Kambarage Nyerere.
It was Nyerere who held Mkapa’s hand in 1995, after influencing his nomination by CCM, and single-handedly campaigned for him throughout the country. Tanzania held its first multiparty general elections in 1995, pitting CCM against a disparate opposition for the first time since its formation in 1977.
He dished out money and favours to select supporters.
Revisiting this unparalleled violence orchestrated on fellow Tanzanians, Mkapa, the former journalist-turned-diplomat-turned-president in his memoirs: My Life, My Purpose – A Tanzanian President Remembers published in January 2019, regretted the 2000 election ordeal. To some Tanzanian journalists and political analysts, Mkapa and Magufuli are today referred to as the chief advocates and perpetrators of state violence in post-independent Tanzania.
Both the presidential elections of 2000 and 2020 happened under a cloud of America’s own election problems: In 2000, it was the “Florida fiasco.” Florida was then governed by the Republican’s presidential candidate, George Bush’s brother, Jeb Bush. Bush was running against the Democratic Party’s Al Gore. Jeb was allegedly accused of rigging on behalf of his elder brother.
Like the Americans say, the electoral college vote was too close to call: the vote was not only going to determine who was going to be the winner of the states’s 25 votes, but the next president after Bill Clinton. A recount was called by the Democrats and for a brief moment, the democrats believed they had taken it, only for the Republicans to also ask for their own recount. Bush won with a razor thin win vote. The democrats were not persuaded. To cut a long story short, the sunshine state’s case found itself in the supreme court, where the republican-led court declared George Bush the eventual winner.
In 2020, with both the Tanzania and US elections being held days apart, America once again came under the world spotlight after the “Pennsylvania problem”, in which President Donald Trump claimed his votes had been tampered with and paid for a recount. The MAGA Republican Party candidate was defending his seat against “sleepy Joe” a derogatory tag given by Trump to Joe Biden.
The citing of both examples here is to emphasise that America in 2000 and 2020 could not claim a moral compass to the Tanzania government’s excesses in its elections. Covering the 2000 elections, I remember in Dar es Salaam, a CCM top official telling us journalists that America could not lecture Tanzania on matters election – “they should first deal with their own election rigging in Florida, before accusing us of unleashing violence and rigging the islands’ results.”
Nyerere had always been opposed to the twin islands of Pemba and Zanzibar’s divorce with the mainland Tanganyika – a sticking sore thump between the mainland and the islands, since the republic turned to plural politics. But he never advocated state violence, instead, he sued for dialogue and persuasion.
Magufuli was determined to put the opposition in its place this time round: In a parliament of 261 members, the opposition only won seven. “By the time I’m through with Tanzania, there’ll be no opposition in the country,” said the deceased in one of his campaign rallies.
There is not a doubt that he loathed the opposition, so much so that he warned the regional commissioners and election officials, “I don’t pay you so that you can allow opposition to win.” Tume la Uchaguzi (National Election Commission) flatly refused any presidential debates and told the opposition it could debate among itself if it so wished.
“In Tanzania, CCM ni tasisi,” a local journalist reiterated to me. Literary it means the ruling party CCM is an institution. Figuratively it means, CCM is Tanzania and Tanzania is CCM. Anybody going against the “wishes of the party” would be crushed. The CCM’s propaganda machinery against the leading opposition figure Tundu Lissu of CHADEMA was geared to pulverize all his efforts of running a successful campaign. “He was being hunted down like a wild animal,” said the journalist.
Magufuli claimed Lissu was a supporter of LGBTQ and that he was a tool of the West being used to campaign for mashoga, homosexuals’ rights. Several African presidents during their re-election campaigns have turned the hot-button issue of LGBTQ, their favourite bogeyman: In the terribly conservative African societies, nothing evokes emotions of antipathy like suggesting gay-ism could be mainstreamed. Yoweri Museveni has done it, John Magufuli did it, just like Robert Mugabe did it before him.
CCM being Tanzania and Tanzania being CCM, not even the bravest of private media would dare report on the opposition or against Magufuli and CCM. “There was total blackout on the opposition by the media. All what Tanzanians could read and listen to, on politics, was on the ‘indefatigable Magu’ and his infrastructural developments,” said my Tanzanian journalist friend. Hence, Tanzania media did not report on politics – it reported on Magufuli, the person.
By the time I’m through with Tanzania, there’ll be no opposition in the country
Being heavy users of social media, Tanzanians turned to VPN – virtual private network. Found as an app in many smart phones, it protects one’s communication from snoopers like government agencies and hackers. What VPN does when activated is to bypass the conventional internet service providers (ISP) when connecting to the internet. In the case of Tanzania’s government shutting down its ISP, tech savvy Tanzanians resorted to VPN to access facebook and especially Twitter, to fend off the states’s eavesdropping.
This is the reason why Magufuli ordered all social media outlets shut, said the journalist. All what the Tanzania Communication Authority needed was a nod from Magufuli. A consumer of foreign news outlets, Tanzanians also resorted to BBC, Deutsche Welle (Sauti ya Ujerumani) and VOA, to stay informed on their country’s politics. “This is how many of them were informed and kept tabs on Lissu’s campaigns,” said the journalist.
Even after being sworn-in for the second term, President Magufuli pursued the browbeaten opposition. Chief opposition figure Lissu had to escape the country a second time. “Run or be run over, these people are not joking,” Lissu was ostensibly warned by his intelligence team. In September 2017, Lissu had survived an assassination attempt in Dodoma, that saw his vehicle sprayed with bullets by “unknown” assailants, as he left parliament for his house for lunch. On November 7, 10 days after the elections were over, he hid at the German embassy, then onwards to Brussels, where he had been recuperating for three years after treatment in Nairobi.
The former MP for Arusha Urban Godbless Lema also skipped the country and sought refuge in Kenya after claiming government people were after him. Lema, with his family was granted asylum in Canada.
Nyerere’s CCM may have operated in the one-party era during the cold war, but many Tanzanians of the post-independent generation remember those days with nostalgia. “The party was more democratic and free, unlike today,” said a former CCM mkereketwa (party diehard).
Magufuli’s populism was laced with autocratic tendencies. He told fellow Tanzanians msinijaribu mimi ni jiwe (don’t try me, I’m as tough as a rock), meaning he prided himself in being tough-headed.
“Magufuli’s CCM in the era of multiparty brooks no dissent, is dictatorial and dangerous, while Nyerere’s CCM preferred a palaver type of democracy where party issues were discussed until it arrived at a consensus,” said a University of Dar es Salaam don.
South Africa: A New Politics From the Left?
Assuming today’s socioeconomic crisis benefits the Left is folly. That will only happen if we have the political vision to make class the fault line of social polarisation, and for that we need to face the challenge of constructing a new party.
Over the last decade, the Left in a number of Western countries has undergone a historic transition from “protest to politics,” to borrow the words of the late Canadian Marxist Leo Panitch and his frequent co-author Sam Gindin. From Podemos in Spain to Sanders in the United States, a new wave of parties and electoral coalitions have emerged and made rapid gains. Despite setbacks and defeats, Panitch and Gindin’s indispensable analysis of these events in The Socialist Challenge Today, casts them in an unambiguously positive light. None of the examples they study offer formulas for resolving the vexing dilemmas facing the socialist movement in our globalised present.
But in their determination to take state power seriously they constitute an unmistakable step forward, after decades in which the Left’s confinement to episodic instances of mobilisation left the electoral field wide open to the parties of business. Part of this “new new” Left’s success stems from a willingness to shake free of its own past. Building a viable socialism of the 21st century, they argue, requires dispensing with the outmoded parts of the Leninist model, like its wager on insurrection, while retaining that which still holds value, like its internationalist spirit.
These developments hold important lessons for us on the South African Left. Just under a decade ago it seemed that we were on the verge of effecting a similar transition “from protest to politics.” During the first decade and a half of democracy, a socialist opposition had found a locus in the so-called “new” social movements—like the Anti-Privatisation Forum—which grew in reaction to various parts of the ruling African National Congress’ neoliberal agenda.
These waged a number of important defensive struggles and scored a few key victories but fundamentally did nothing to loosen capital’s grip on policymaking. By the end of the 2000s most were a spent force. It became clear to a growing segment of the Left that lasting gains would not be achieved unless social agitation were more effectively linked with efforts to seise governing power. The ability to think these more ambitious terms received a major boost when the National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (NUMSA), the nation’s largest manufacturing union, appeared to redraw the political map of the country by breaking from the ANC, amidst a wave of working class militancy.
Of course for the “official” left which NUMSA represented there had never been any turn away from politics as such. But decades of compromise had bred a form of politics that had become completely unmoored from the guiding thread of class antagonism. NUMSA’s move thus constituted a kind of mirror image transition—from a back-room corporatism to a politics more grounded in the methods and spirit of “protest”. This is what imbued the “NUMSA moment” with such hope—it promised to re-connect the two sides of South Africa’s bifurcated Left, and supply the strategic elements that had been missing from each. By matching the militancy and class-independence of the social movement Left with structural and organisational might of the “official” Left, it seemed possible that a mass socialist movement could be rapidly brought into being.
That was not to be. From today’s vantage it’s impossible to regard the NUMSA moment as anything but an abject failure. The political party which eventually issued from it is the farthest cry from the unifying force that so many had hoped for. While the international left has been able to advance by breaking with its shibboleths, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) has fallen back on a slavish appropriation of Bolshevik ideology, almost comical in its extremes.
Despite enormous resources, a large part supplied by a US-based billionaire, the party ran a dismal general election campaign in 2019 where it failed to get even a tenth of NUMSA’s own membership to vote for it (it ultimately only amassed 25 000 votes nationally, below the threshold to obtain one seat in Parliament). It’s since never recovered, joining a host of other failed socialist parties on the margins of political life. Marginality seems in turn to have degraded the internal culture of the party, which now resembles closely the Stalinism of the ANC-aligned South African Communist Party in all its worst aspects.
The floundering of the NUMSA moment is a terrible blow. But the setback inflicted on us will far greater if we fail to draw the correct lessons from it. Perhaps the most worrying outcome is that it precipitates a slide back into movementism, and shuts the window that we’ve had to execute the transition from “protest to politics.” Party politics acquired a bad name during the era of “protest” in South Africa, and many on the Left already feel that the SRWP’s example vindicated their worst suspicions.
But what the SRWP actually reveals to us is are not flaws inherent in the party-form as such, so much as the limits of a certain kind of party, one founded on a hidebound Leninism. If the Left were to abandon party building altogether there would, quite simply, be no socialist future. All visions of radical change that eschew parties and an active takeover of the state suffer from a principal defect in that they misconceive the nature of class formation—the process by which individuals become aware of their class position and begin to articulate their politics through it. This is presented as a quasi-automatic effect of the capitalist class structure.
But history offers no support for such a view. Class is impactful because it frames the options we have over so many major decisions in our lives—but not so narrowly as to make resistance to one’s employer, or the system behind him, inevitable. Indeed, the extreme vulnerability of workers under capitalism means that individualised modes of coping tend to be more commonplace than collective action. That’s why socialist consciousness has been the exception rather than the norm in the global history of capitalism, and exceedingly rare in the absence of a well-organised party. As Panitch argued with the force of a life’s work—parties make classes as much as they are made by them.
Thankfully, an outright repudiation of the party-form is not really where we are at in South Africa. The variant of movementism which took hold here, and which has revived in the aftermath of the NUMSA moment, was not really this more extreme kind, which denies the ultimate need for a party. Rather what it advocates is a downgrading of the role of party building or its deferral to some indefinite future.
What seems to be the common premise for this position is that party building can only succeed when perfectly timed to the right “objective conditions” —conditions which are only likely to form in the wake of a rupture moment defined by intensified street-level mobilisation. Only the transformation of mass consciousness brought about by such an episode of struggle can furnish the base for a party. Moreover, efforts to “impose” a party on the working class before this are liable to be rejected by its most conscious and active layers. Cut off from nourishing energy of grassroots movements, they are likely to grow in authoritarian directions. The task of socialists in the present, therefore, is devote ourselves to strengthening movements, and hope that a party may gestate from within them in some future context.
Related but distinguishable from this, is an ingrained hostility on the South African Left towards electoral politics. This view tends to draw a sharp line between the electoral arena and movements. While movements unlock popular power by sensitising their participants to their potential for collective action, elections offer no such platform for consciousness-raising. Instead, they tend to reproduce the atomisation of liberal democracy, and to fortify the myth that progress is possible within it. Moreover, movements which take the electoral road subject themselves to debilitating pressures. The logic of getting the vote tends to conflict with the logic of grassroot mobilisation, and all too often to overwhelm it.
Movementist positions contain many insights. It is wise, for example, to be attuned to the importance of ruptural breaks—the likelihood that we will ever get to a mass party simply through a molecular accretion of our ranks is slim. But the contention that movement building alone is the best way to prepare for such a rupture fails to take seriously the inherent weaknesses of social movements.
Of the numerous movements which sustained the first era of “protest” in post-Apartheid South Africa virtually none remain (barring one major exception). New ones have of course cropped up, and a tide of less organised community protests has continued unabated across the country. But these show equally little likelihood of autonomously cohering into anything bigger or more resilient.
It’s now very hard to avoid the conclusion that their failures resulted from internal rather than external factors. The model underpinning them rested on localised mobilisation around immediate demands, while actively eschewing efforts to politicise a leadership layer. Some of their more excitable proponents portrayed them as crucibles of anti-capitalism, in which the mere experience of collective decision making offered a form of political education beyond what traditional forms of Left organisation could hope to match.
But in doing so they exhibited the same fallacious thinking about class formation that informs all ventures aimed at “changing the world without taking power.” Much less a break with capitalism, it’s not clear that social movements even succeeded in getting most of their members to question their loyalty to the ANC. That left them prone to demobilisation and disorganisation when circumstances changed, when defeats where incurred or when key individuals drifted off or were co-opted.
One strategic upshot of this critique is that the trade-off between movement and party building posited by movementists is a false one. It’s likely that there is no winning formula for transforming single issue mobilisations into lasting, mass organisations without NGOifying them. But what we can do is to ensure that the small advances made by movements each time they arise are not dissipated. After all—the notion that struggle develops consciousness is not a false, what movementists get wrong is overstating the extent to which it does so organically. Virtually every movement throws up militant leaders, who stand to become tribunes for socialist politics if they can be identified, recruited and supported appropriately. This is work that a party is best suited to undertake.
But facing up to the limits of social movements should lead us to even stronger conclusions than this. It should lead us to question the overwhelming strategic significance that they have been accorded in the politics of the “independent left.” If movements are tough to sustain and to politicise, they may not be the vehicles best suited to bringing about a political rupture or ensuring that it outcome favors the Left.
Of course this was a strategic orientation that was largely foisted on us by circumstance. The stranglehold that the Tripartite Alliance (whose third member is the Congress of South African Trade Unions) exercised on organised labour and mass politics generally left little room for an alternative. But the situation has changed. The factionalisation of the ANC, the split in COSATU and the emergence of its rival, the South African Federation of Trade Unions, have created an opening for a more militant socialism to regain a foothold in organised labour. This ought to be the clear priority of socialists.
For all its infirmities, the union movement still presents a much more promising site for grounding socialist politics in a mass base. Although this may not hold for much longer, unions remain mass membership organisations with considerable resources. Most importantly, and most differently from social movements, they have access to structural power (i.e, the power to withdraw labour and shut down the economy). Here is one insight of Leninism which time has not invalidated– that our project will most likely fail unless that structural power is at its center.
If organised labour is once again to become our strategic focal point, this strengthens the case for not consigning the party to an intangible future. The synergies between party-building and organisation building are arguably stronger in the case of unions than social movements. At a fairly abstract level, one reason for this is that union building (or revitalisation) typically relies on a few individuals being prepared to take bold action out of moral conviction. Marxists have often argued something very different—that shopfloors collectivise as soon as workers wake up to their material interests. But narrow self-interest is unlikely to ever motivate someone to take the first steps towards organising their co-workers, since doing so incurs enormous risks but yields no extra benefit—the essence of the “free-rider” problem.
Thus, it’s not a coincidence that so often in history, socialists of various stripes have been significantly overrepresented among the “militant minority.” The values that draw people to the banner of socialism are often the same as those that move them to action against workplace injustices. It’s also not a coincidence that a militant minority is more likely to take shape when socialist ideas are more prominent in the public realm.
Arresting the decline of South African unions, and returning them to their proud history of worker control and grassroots democracy will require a herculean organising effort. At the simplest level this is why we need an organisational vehicle that at least broadly resembles a party. Without one we have no real means of translating strategic debates into action—of coordinating our energies towards the tasks most likely to yield long-term gains.
There’s therefore a case for not delaying in building a fighting organisation, that tries to cohere leading militants from workplace and community struggles around a socialist program. But such an organisation should do more. As soon as it has the numbers needed, it should seek to involve itself in elections. In all likelihood it would have to start at the local level, and logic would dictate that it seeks out community and social movement partners in doing so. But as quickly as possible is should seek to graduate to the national stage. South Africa’s unusually proportional representation electoral system (which was in fact designed to provide space for smaller parties), makes this a reasonable short-term goal.
Arresting the decline of South African unions, and returning them to their proud history of worker control and grassroots democracy will require a herculean organising effort. At the simplest level this is why we need an organisational vehicle that at least broadly resembles a party.
The first thing that sceptics of this strategy tend to get wrong is that they overstate, or misunderstand, the legitimacy problem facing formal political institutions. The SRWP seems to think that any worker with lingering attachments to electoral politics is suffering from “false consciousness.” But in our current circumstances, there is nothing the least bit irrational about remaining invested in the electoral arena, even while recognising the severity of its class bias. The simple reason for that, is that there is no existing social force capable of challenging state power while remaining entirely outside its institutions, nor does one show any prospect of coming into being in any foreseeable horison. Worker organisations in SA are locked a desperate defensive struggle—not preparing to set up a parallel state.
It’s not a failure of dialectical imagination that causes people to conflate politics with elections, but an appraisal of our situation that is more accurate than the one provided by the apostles of imminent revolution.
It’s thus not surprising that despite the tremendous alienation produced by decades of neoliberalism, electoral movements in the West have been able to engineer a political realignment that was much deeper than what post-2008 movements were able to achieve on their own. Their location within the domain of mainstream politics provided both visibility but also a kind of credibility—they promised to take over the institutions in front of us, rather than replace them with ones we can’t see and can’t yet imagine. Several of these examples stood the movementist model on its head. Rather than an electoral breakthrough growing out of a period of intensified movement activity, it was the electoral arena itself that has delivered the rupture moment, the energy from which can then be filtered down to social and labour struggles.
In the process they challenged another fallacy of movementism—that the electoral arena is entirely inimical to a politics of struggle. Sanders, Corbyn, and others imbued their campaigns with a spirit of insurgency that succeeded in appealing to many otherwise turned off by politics, particularly among younger generations. Rather than sucking energy from the streets, these examples provided a renewed model of “class struggle elections” —not their own invention but one that had faded from the Left’s repertoire during the era of movementism.
Class struggle elections seek to deliberately leverage electoral campaigns, and political office itself, to bolster movements. They use every platform available to raise awareness of, and encourage solidarity with, labour and social struggles. In doing so they try to inculcate the understanding that radical policies can only be won with an inside-outside strategy, in which legislators are supported and pushed forward by powerful movements. At the same time they use campaigns as tools of organisation building.
They recruit and deploy a mass of activist to spread a socialist message, and simultaneously try to develop those activists by building political education into their activities. Done properly, this can bridge the gaps that supposedly separate movement from electoral organising, infusing the latter with a powerful sense of collectivity. That’s why so many thousands of young Americans (to pick a recent example), were politically activated through their involvement in the Sanders campaign, which became a gateway to organising in their workplaces, campuses and communities.
Note that this is completely different to the SRWP’s narrowly propagandistic approach to elections which didn’t promote social struggles so much as fantasies of revolution, whilst denouncing ‘bourgeois democracy’ as a sham and doing nothing to actually win. After a predictably disastrous outcome, the party chose to compound the embarrassment, and feed into a profoundly dangerous trend by denouncing South Africa’s independent election management body and claiming the result was rigged.
It’s not a failure of dialectical imagination that causes people to conflate politics with elections, but an appraisal of our situation that is more accurate than the one provided by the apostles of imminent revolution.
Contrast its subsequent marginalisation with the early trajectory with the Economic Freedom Fighters (now South Africa’s third-largest party), which leveraged the electoral know-how of its ex-ANCYL cadre and Malema’s media savvy to run an enormously successful first campaign. It then built on the success, steadily expanding its vote share each cycle, while using parliamentary office to bolster its national profile. Sadly it drifted off the orbit of the Left along the way. But the two diverging cases provide an obvious lesson: if elections are to be useful to us, we have to show that we are capable of succeeding in them. If we can’t, how on earth will we convince anyone that we’re capable of transforming society from its roots up?
None of this is to suggest that the concerns movementists raise about electoral politics are meritless. Its unquestionably true that electoral competition imposes its own logic, which can be ruinous if it totally subsumes the party’s strategic purview. We can trace the decline of many a worker’s party, at least proximately, to misguided efforts to capture middle-class votes by abandoning a politics of class antagonism. But all socialist strategising in our dismal conjuncture is the consideration of perilous alternatives. Far better for us to confront the dangers of succumbing to a narrow electoralism than the near certitude of permanent marginalisation should we choose to abstain from mainstream politics altogether.
The NUMSA moment may have come and gone. But the many elements of the broader conjuncture which produced it, and which seemed to augur a new direction for socialist politics, persist. The Alliance coalition is in the doldrums. Expecting its inevitable demise is of course a pastime of which we “independent leftists” should now be wary. But the material facts this time really are different. The state faces a fiscal crisis that President Cyril Ramaphosa has neither the wherewithal nor the institutional tools to escape from. His factional opponents preach a “radical economic transformation” that offers nothing whatsoever to workers.
Social strains look set to keep accumulating. But assuming that any crisis they produce will automatically redound to the Left’s benefit would be folly. That will only happen if we have the political vision and the organisational capacity to ensure that class becomes the fault line of social polarisation. And for that we need to face up to the challenge of constructing a new party.
Is a Plutocratic America in Terminal Decline?
We may not be aware of it yet, because of the hold the nation has on global media, but America’s decline appears to be terminal.
As President Joe Biden begins to get comfortable in the White House, there are those who might say that America, under a democratic system of government, has once again allowed the voice of her people to be heard, and that they have elected a new leader into office. Some might go so far as to say that the world’s most affluent democracy has once again proved that government of the people, by the people, for the people is alive and well.
But just below the surface, there are questions deserving of a deeper examination. One is how narrow the margins of victory were. For while it is true that President Biden won the highest number of votes in American electoral history, it is also true that President Trump won the second-highest number of votes in American electoral history; 10 million more people voted for President Trump in 2020 than did so in 2016. Mr Biden’s margin of victory in Georgia was 0.48 per cent, while that in Arizona was 0.63 per cent. Further, even as the Democrats belatedly won a majority in the Senate, again by the finest of margins, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives actually narrowed. Why, if the choice was so clear, were margins so narrow?
The regrettable truth is that the US is not a democracy – not merely because true democracy has never existed, but because even that imperfect form of democracy that characterises modern politics long perished in America. The United States today is in fact a corporatocracy; mega-corporations rule the country, a polite way of saying that that nation is now a plutocracy. This development is not really new – wealth has always, eventually, determined leadership, in America and elsewhere.
This article attempts – colossally log-in-eye, and at a distance of thousands of miles, admittedly – to furnish proof of the existence of this plutocracy; to demonstrate the effects of this plutocracy on American life and politics; and to establish whether there is any way out of the present morass.
That America is a plutocracy
A total of US$14 billion (KSh1.4 trillion) was spent on campaigns in the US this year, twice as much as in 2016. Where is this money coming from?
In 2010, the US Supreme Court handed down a decision called Citizens United that allowed unions, corporations and associations to spend unlimited amounts in elections provided they would not coordinate their efforts with a candidate. As a result, political action committees (or PACs – private organisations established to raise money in support of a candidate or an issue) morphed into Super PACs that could receive unlimited amounts of money for campaign purposes. The effect was immediate: in 2012 non-party outside spending tripled 2008’s total and topped US$1 billion for the first time. Of that amount, Super PACs spent more than US$840 million.
The regrettable truth is that the US is not a democracy.
Yet the amounts spent in 2012 pale in comparison with spending during the 2020 campaign; in October 2020 alone, outside spending by super PACs and other big-money groups totalled nearly US$1.2 billion. President Joe Biden alone raised US$1.6 billion. President Trump raised US$596 million, itself a significant haul. Given the closely fought nature of the presidential election, it would not be wrong to conclude that money helped tip the scales in favour of the new president. Nor was this true only of the presidential race; it was true across the ballot. Eighty-nine per cent of House races and 71 per cent of Senate races were won by the better financed candidate. The conclusion is clear: money – corporate money – wins American elections.
The effects of the plutocracy on American life
It is all very well and good to conclude that corporate money runs and wins American elections. The issue is what the effect of all this money is on American life. If corporate hegemony is harmless – even beneficial – arguments can be made that it should be left alone. If it is not, however, then that fact should be exposed, and reform commenced.
The American mega-corporation has achieved a number of victories (from a corporate standpoint) that have constituted assaults on the wellbeing of the American people and populace. For example, these corporations have been allowed to outsource American manufacturing jobs to China and other nations. The iPhone, signature product of America’s second largest company by market valuation (Apple), is assembled in Shenzhen. Nike began outsourcing manufacturing in the 1970s; today it has plants in Vietnam and South Korea as well as China. IBM now has more workers in India than in the US. As of April 2012, Walmart’s supply chain included some 30,000 Chinese factories, producing an estimated 70 per cent of all of the goods it sells. This trend has gone on so long that there now exists a portion of the northeastern US, formerly known as the Manufacturing/Steel/Factory Belt, that is now known as the Rust Belt, owing to industrial and economic decline occasioned by outsourcing and the automation of jobs.
Meanwhile, for those jobs that have escaped being shipped overseas, the average wage has been stagnant for 40 years. A generation has now arisen in America that will be the first in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents. To make up for stagnant incomes, American citizens are drowning in private debt (US$14 trillion worth) including mortgages (US$9.44 trillion) and student loans (US$1.5 trillion). Indeed, absolute US household debt was higher in November 2019 than prior to/during the great recession, although the debt-to-income levels during the great recession were higher than the 2019 levels (83 per cent to 73 per cent). High house prices, supported as they are by mortgage lending, coupled with student loans, together mean that new graduates are experiencing “failure to launch”, i.e. the inability to leave one’s parents’ home and start one’s own family.
(We should pause here to note, parenthetically, that the level of any nation’s private debt, and America’s in particular, is a very important metric. The level of private debt was the key indicator that enabled Professor Steve Keen, one of the Bezemer 12, to predict the North Atlantic financial crisis of 2007-8, a prediction mainstream/neoclassical economics, quite criminally, failed to make.)
The US$14 trillion of private debt that American citizens owe is owed to the very same mega-corporation class whose wage stagnation has necessitated the need for lending (since the early 1970s, the hourly inflation-adjusted wages received by the typical worker have barely risen, growing only 0.2 per cent per year). Most unfortunately, this wage stagnation is not uniform: the ratio of CEO-to-worker earnings has soared from 21-to-1 in 1965 to 320-to-1 in 2019.
A generation has now arisen in America that will be the first in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents.
Has the American mega-corporation been censured by the political class for these excesses? Hardly. In fact, the large American corporation, while using American infrastructure, using some degree of American labour and selling to Americans, is allowed to pretend that it operates outside America, by invoicing from nations with low tax rates, such as Ireland, thereby avoiding paying federal taxes on its income. From 2009-2018, for example, Amazon paid an effective federal tax rate of 3 per cent on profits totalling US$26.5 billion. In 2018 alone, the company received a tax relief of US$129 million dollars on profits of US$11.2 billion. Such is the scale of tax avoidance by American corporations that by 2016 a staggering US$2 trillion in untaxed corporate profits was stashed outside the US, according to the New York Times. (What makes this doubly lamentable is that the Internal Revenue Service tells the American citizen in unambiguous terms that “Your worldwide income is subject to U.S. income tax, regardless of where you reside.”)
Corporations, therefore, enjoy egregious advantages. It is in order to keep them that they are so willing to fund political campaigns. In other words, corporations will do everything to avoid paying the taxes that would improve American infrastructure and healthcare (to their own benefit) but spend billions on political campaigns to inoculate themselves from losing the unfair advantages they have carved out for themselves.
The effect of the plutocracy on American politics
The shock election of President Donald Trump in 2016 can be seen as a response to the deleterious effects of corporate hegemony on the American political and economic life. Candidate Trump campaigned as an outsider, promising to “drain the swamp”, even though, ironically, he was himself a self-styled billionaire who shipped jobs to China and paid very little in taxes. America was suffering economically. He claimed that the blame for this could be placed squarely on the shoulders of China and immigrants. In an illuminating two-part, three-and-a-half hour 2019 interview with PBS, key Trump campaign advisor Steve Bannon (who was arrested for fraud and then pardoned by President Trump on his last full day in office) stated that the cost of the 2008-09 bailout was loaded onto the American middle class, and that American gig economy millennials are nothing but 19th-century Russian serfs. Many may disagree with Mr Bannon’s political views, but his statement had its finger on the pulse of post-bank-bailout America. The genius of the Trump campaign was its ability to identify these pain points; to incorrectly but convincingly blame foreigners – locally (immigrants) and abroad (China) – for what were and continue to be the excesses of the plutocracy; to identify the existence of a swamp in Washington and characterise Hillary Clinton as the personification of these ills; and to ride that wave all the way to the White House. The lesson – a lesson seemingly yet unlearned by mainstream politics – is that it actually worked.
Candidates however, campaign in poetry; rulers, on the other hand, govern in prose. During Trump’s presidency Faustian bargains, in Steve Bannon’s words, were made; here again the power of the corporatocracy made itself felt. One of the early indicators of the direction and tenor a presidency will take is a president’s cabinet picks; Steven Mnuchin, yet another ex-Wall Street executive, was placed in charge of the Treasury. While President Trump did not drag the US into another war – in spite of the assassination of Iranian Major-General Qassim Soleimani – his presidency did not up-end Washington in ways meaningful to the nation’s citizenry. Readers may recall the US$2 trillion of untaxed corporate profits mentioned earlier; President Trump’s signature legislative achievement was to open new windows for tax rebates for major corporations, reducing taxes on the wealthy. This legislation resulted in the repatriation of US$777 billion in 2018, but the Federal Reserve noted that “the strongest effect of repatriation was on share buybacks” by corporate America. This particular episode is a textbook example of the plutocracy at work.
Trump does not greatly differ in this way from the way in which Candidate Obama contrasts with President Obama. Candidate Obama campaigned on Change We Can Believe In. Yet, once elected, he bailed out the banks (the abiding question on this, some wonder, is why citizens did not retain their houses if the banks’ losses were made good). Obamacare, a very significant advance in the fight for decent healthcare for Americans, did not include a public option although it could have. Nor did President Obama succeed in extricating himself from American warmongering abroad: in a particularly sad and tragic episode he helped end the Libya Gaddaffi had created. Libya under Gaddaffi was a nation that had free university education, free healthcare, no external debt and reserves of US$150 billion – all ideals that America, ironically, declares it wants but has yet to achieve despite its claim to being the richest nation in history. Allied “intervention” replaced that Libya with today’s bombed-out nation, in which incessant internecine strife went on for a decade. This in Africa, the land of Obama’s fathers. Only two years previously, at a location just two hours from Benghazi by air, the new President had given his “A New Beginning” speech in Cairo, which speech contributed to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize later that year.
In these two presidencies, we see, microcosmically, the effects of the plutocracy at work: the lofty ideals of the campaigning candidate and the searing needs of the masses, once office is assumed, are replaced by a kind of neutered, ineffective pragmatism, as far as the wellbeing of American citizens is concerned, and a sly and insidious effectiveness where corporate welfare is concerned.
The 2020 campaign
Perhaps the defining characteristic of the 2020 campaign is that it took place against the backdrop of a global pandemic. The cost of this pandemic – in the gruesome currency of American lives – has been more than 500,000 dead Americans and counting, nearly 10 times the number of US soldiers who died in the Vietnam War, and more than the number of American lives lost in World War II.
Uniquely among developed nations, the structure of America’s healthcare system is such that very often one only has healthcare if one is employed. So that when 44 million Americans filed for unemployment during the pandemic, they lost their medical cover at precisely the time they most needed it. The pandemic therefore threw into sharp focus the critical importance of having a healthcare system that is not based upon employment.
(Nor is the state of health insurance all that is wrong with American healthcare – in several tragic articles it has been reported that American diabetics have been driving to Canada in caravans to buy insulin – some driving up to 5 hours one way. Price-gouging by pharmaceutical companies means that the drug is ten times cheaper in Canada than it is in America.)
The bipartisan response to the pandemic was to pass the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that – while it gave individuals with less than US$99,000 a year annual income a check of US$1,200 a month – also gave further tax cuts to the wealthy. According to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, just 43,000 individual tax filers covered by one of the Act’s provisions would see their tax liability fall by a combined US$70.3 billion in 2020 (or about US$1.7 million each). This is the America that corporatism has created.
And yet, mid-pandemic, was healthcare on the national ballot? How, when pharmaceutical and health product industries have spent a total of US$4.7 billion on lobbying the federal government, US$877 million on state candidates and committees, and US$414 million in the 20 years to 2018? Indeed, by the time he won the nomination, Joe Biden had already said he would veto a Medicare for All bill if it landed on his desk (a colossal if, it must be said), proposing a public option instead.
So what was on the ballot? Democrats, choosing to characterise Trump’s presidency as the problem, instead of seeing it as the natural consequence of the decades of wage stagnation, high healthcare costs, inordinately high levels of private debt, etc., campaigned on the platform of “restoring the soul of America”. The president’s narrow margins of victory perhaps find an explanation here: the problems Americans face were not really on the ballot. And they were not on the ballot because the corporations that stump up the money to fund electoral campaigns benefit from providing privatised solutions to the problems Americans face.
Is there hope?
There is an American constituency that is in broad agreement on the issues raised above: a Fox News exit poll, for example, showed that 72 per cent of Americans were at least somewhat in favour of changing to a government-run healthcare plan. Florida, a state President Trump won, voted to increase the state’s minimum wage to US$15 an hour.
However, it is unlikely that this broad constituency will be allowed to unite under the current political system. The reality is that the US is a de facto one-party state. If that party were to be honestly named, it might be named the Megacorp Party, or, slightly more genteelly, the Corporatist/Establishment Party. It has two wings: a supposedly left-leaning Democratic wing and a supposedly conservative Republican wing. Under the framework of Citizens United these two wings will continue to swap power ad infinitum. Yet, even as the presidency bounces from party to party, a president from one party will bomb Iraq; the next president, from the other party, will campaign on the platform that he never voted to go to war in Iraq, only to subsequently bomb Libya. These tragic contradictions find their resolution in the fact that this war activity happens at the behest of the military-industrial complex.
Political consultants will keep finding new, misleading ways of “framing the political argument,” creating false choices and developing narratives such as restoring the soul of the nation. Meanwhile, the money that pays them will continue to fortify itself against the needs of the people; the rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer and power will remain with the wealthy.
As long as this continues, we can expect two outcomes. The first is that the issues that Americans need solved will not be solved. (We are now reading, for example, that the US$15 dollars/hour minimum wage President Biden promised (during a presidential debate), is unlikely be included in the US$1.9 trillion-dollar stimulus package President Biden intends to bring to Congress.) The second is that, as a result of the failure to resolve these issues, America will, in the words of Robert Reich, continue to produce candidatures like Donald Trump’s as far as the eye can see. The American political system does not contain within itself the mechanism to correct the current malaise. As a result, money will continue to win out: it will continue to select which issues are on the ballot, and it will continue to choose which candidates win. America’s long decline, therefore, is likely to continue.
The corporations that stump up the money to fund electoral campaigns benefit from providing privatised solutions to the problems Americans face.
We may not be aware of it yet, because of the hold the nation has on global media (the concentration of media ownership in America is yet another triumph of the plutocracy), but America’s decline appears to be terminal.
I return to the beginning – this article is written colossally log-in-eye. As a Kenyan I know we have major, pressing domestic issues to resolve. If or as we make a detour to examine the American political situation, let our contemplation resemble our use of a mirror, and let our aims be those of helping us to avoid the problems others have experienced, in order to more wisely and speedily resolve our own.
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