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Power Struggles: Unmasking the Thieves behind the KPLC Heist



POWER STRUGGLES: Unmasking the thieves behind the KPLC heist
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In Kenya, corruption conjures up images of a favourite pair of well-worn and spit-polished shoes that one cannot bear to throw out. We roll the word on our tongues and give it pet names, such as scandals, hustling, deals, cat-walking, growing legs, eating and kitu kidogo, to name a few. The word “theft” is rarely used in public because it would entail naming the thieves and allowing ourselves to experience the full extent of the violation, complete with a sense of guilty silence and complicity. The euphemisms we use ensure that we never unmask the perpetrators beyond the frontline scapegoats, who in any case, almost always get off scot-free.

Now, a true story:

An 80-year-old lady sits in her daughter’s living room and asks animatedly, “What did Twitter say today? Eh heh? Oooh, I really want to thank Twitter for helping me. I have been suffering so much that I wished I was back in the days of ukoloni, where things worked, at least. . .” That this old mama can long nostalgically for the good ol’ days of colonialism is indeed a damning indictment on the state of Energy Capture in Kenya today.

This pensioner, who is convinced that Twitter is an actual person, had been faithfully paying her “lifeline consumer” electricity bill – consistent at Sh1,000 every month – for five years until it inexplicably leaped up to an eye-watering Sh62,000, resulting in the summary disconnection of her electricity. Fortunately, and in response to an online alert, an off-grid solar power distributor has since provided a domestic solution for her. Pro bono. However, pro bono solutions – to fill the gap created by fraudulent bills – cannot be the solution for the more than 6.6 million electricity consumers in Kenya today.

The #SwitchOffKPLC campaign

Since January 2018, the Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC) has found itself in the throes of an Alamo-type siege advanced by an organically mobilised and extremely angry battalion of Kenyans from all walks of life in a highly political but absolutely non-partisan, non-class based and non-ethnicised action for Energy Justice.

The #SwitchOffKPLC campaign that started on Twitter and has since spread through wider social media spaces has unleashed an unprecedented and massive outcry against KPLC following nine consecutive months of shocking and fraudulent fleecing of electricity consumers. This campaign has partly been fuelled by KPLC’s “pay-first-ask-questions-later” motto, which left many consumers with inflated bills that they were forced to pay to avoid being disconnected.

With more than a thousand detailed emails sent to the SwitchOff hotline and thousands more shared online, the trends demonstrate how electricity consumers have been pistol-whipped half to death by these rabid cartels that prowl the hallways of Kenya’s energy sector. These cartels hide behind endless technical jargon and are fronted by ruthless “customer care” and field staff. Consumers are more than ever aware of how it is that they are misused and abused victims of an equal opportunity heist that is perfected year in, year out.

With more than a thousand detailed emails sent to the SwitchOff hotline and thousands more complaints shared online, the trends demonstrate how electricity consumers have been pistol-whipped half to death by rabid cartels that prowl the hallways of Kenya’s energy sector.

What is powerful about the #SwitchOffKPLC campaign is the relatability of the theft. When ordinary Kenyans attempt to fathom corruption scandals that are in the millions and billions, the zeroes become far too many to compute but this is not because we are stupid; it is rather because we have been traumatised to the point of absolute numbness. Or cynicism. The theft is therefore rendered abstract and quickly placed aside. What the #SwitchOffKPLC campaign does is that it highlights, in simple terms, the extra tens or hundreds and thousands of shillings that individual Kenyans are forced to part with for no reason other than blatant theft. And what an eye-opener it has been. Consumers are fed up. They are acting.

Unholy trinity

Let us start at the beginning.

The 96-year-old Kenya Power and Lighting Company (which has been rebranded as Kenya Power), is one of the oldest monopolies in Kenya. Kenyans have been born, lived and died paying monthly dues – unquestioningly – to this behemoth of a parastatal that has always been quick to remind them that electricity is a privilege that can be withdrawn at any moment for any number of reasons. With a 50.1 per cent government stake and approximately nine other shareholders owning between 0.0065 and 1.46 per cent of the company, KPLC is de facto controlled by a tightly-knit group of actors, said to include Mama Ngina, the mother of President Uhuru Kenyatta, and some well-known, self-styled tycoons.

The KPLC trinity is completed by the Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) and the Kenya Electricity Transmission Company (KETRACO). KenGen, KETRACO and KPLC are responsible, respectively, for the generation, transmission and distribution/sale of geothermal, hydro, wind, fuel oil, biomass and gas turbine electricity in Kenya. Other collaborators include the Geothermal Development Company (GDC), the Kenya Nuclear Electricity Board (KNEB) and the Rural Electrification Authority (REA). The Electricity Regulatory Commission (ERC) is responsible for establishing and adjusting a dizzying array of fixed and variable tariffs that form the pricing for pre- and post-paid electricity uptake in Kenya. These bodies fall under the Ministry of Energy and Petroleum (MoEP) that has executive oversight over all operations related to electricity generation in Kenya. Alongside the trinity and regulator are the Independent Power Producers (IPPs) that produce diesel-powered thermal and wind energy for sale to KPLC (the sole distributor) under Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs).

Notwithstanding periodic recommendations and gaps analyses, Kenya’s electricity outlook appears bright, with a 2020 projected on-grid capacity of 5,040MW up from 2,295MW in 2015. At least that’s what glossy annual reports, technical assessments and public relations jamborees say. With all the right sounds being made about renewable and sustainable energy – including the non-renewal of [unsustainable] diesel thermal IPP contracts (which mean nothing because some of the IPP contracts run through 2032), “Last Mile” connectivity, rural electrification and affordable off-grid solutions – one might wonder why electricity consumers are up in arms.

Enter the murky and less rosy side of electricity generation that has for decades relied on the ignorance of consumers to play around with tariffs that correlate with the type of power being generated. Despite on-paper and even infrastructurally tangible and renewable energy projects, IPPs that run diesel-powered thermal stations, as well as the recently signed Sh200 billion Lamu Coal Power Station, enjoy disproportionate PPA preferential treatment by KPLC. This means that wind, hydro and geothermal electricity remain unused or underutilised with “capacity charges” that accrue to consumers regardless.

Notwithstanding periodic recommendations and gaps analyses, Kenya’s electricity outlook appears bright, with a 2020 projected on-grid capacity of 5,040MW up from 2,295MW in 2015. At least that’s what glossy annual reports, technical assessments and public relations jamborees say.

Lake Turkana Wind Power is one such example where Sh75 billion has been spent to construct the largest wind farm in Africa covering 40,000 acres and set to produce 310MW, with possible corporate profits of up to Sh136 billion over the next 20 years. Although this is an ostensibly clean and renewable energy venture, the fact remains that this project was undertaken without due consideration of and consultation with the local communities of Laisamis constituency in Marsabit County, which resulted in a 2016 law suit filed against the investors and the Marsabit County Government. The judges threw out the case in April 2018 on “technical grounds”, showing once again that big bucks trump local communities. All the time. Which makes us wonder whether our quest for justice isn’t, after all, quixotic.

Through deliberately poor diligence on the part of the MoEP and the National Land Commission (NLC), the 428km-long power line from Loiyangalani to Suswa is yet to be completed by KETRACO, with disastrous penalties for consumers who have so far paid Sh5.7 billion in “deemed energy” fines, with a further monthly fine of Sh1 billion starting in July 2018 until the power line is complete. If we study the ministry’s role in the signing of contracts with the now bankrupt Spanish company, Isolux, and the subsequent awarding of a new Sh9.6 billion contract to a Chinese firm – paid for by yours truly – you will suffer many sleepless nights and begin to be filled with a belly-rumbling rage. Might I add that since 2015, some Chinese investors have also been eyeing the expansion of wind power ventures in Marsabit. Be very, very afraid.

The shocking disregard for local communities, be it in terms of consultation, socio-environmental impact or the right to draw down from the profitability of energy/extractive ventures, is evidenced right across the board in places like Turkana (where oil has further complicated matters) and the god-awful Lamu Coal Power Station, which threatens (for the sake of the greed of a few investors) a pristine ecosystem, a globally recognised World Heritage location and the livelihoods of some of the oldest East African coastal communities.

If we study the ministry’s role in the signing of contracts with the now bankrupt Spanish company, Isolux, and the subsequent awarding of a new Sh9.6 billion contract to a Chinese firm – paid for by yours truly – you will suffer many sleepless nights and begin to be filled with a belly-rumbling rage.

Oh, and we haven’t even begun to engage with the hare-brained scheme that is the Kenya Nuclear Electricity Board. The investors (who we will tackle very soon) include a mishmash of Kenyan companies, bilateral partners, international corporations and multilateral financial institutions – all of who come with glib development and partnership-speak and a feigned concern for the people of Kenya.

Cartels and robber barons

To understand how the ordinary Kenyan is being used to finance these get-rich-quick schemes, it is important to note that under the 2018 Medium Term Budget Policy Statement (BPS) and under Uhuru Kenyatta’s “Big Four” plan, taxpayers will fund an annual amount of Sh100 billion over a period of 25 years (a total of Sh2.14 trillion) to 20 private power projects contrary to the law and without regard for electricity consumers and taxpayers’ rights. These and other mind boggling amounts are stealthily conveyanced through the Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS) that has deliberately designed loopholes perfect for such disbursements. Therefore, it becomes clear – despite the clean energy jargon – that there will have to be a sustained and systematic sabotage of the generation and transmission of cheaper, cleaner electricity for sale to consumers in order to justify the Sh2.4 trillion. We are already experiencing this because even in the face of heavy rains and resultant increase in hydro power capacity, our electricity bills continue to rise. The voracious diesel-driven appetites of the IPPs must be fed. Profits must be made.

When we consider that Kenya is one of the top seven most expensive power producers in Africa, which in addition to burdening consumers, is a serious impediment to the growth of local industry and a deterrent to foreign investment, it is not rocket science to compute how our real economic potential will never be fully realised, as it has already been sacrificed on the altars of numerous cartels.

Is your skin crawling yet?

Dig a little deeper and the pus of collusion, subterfuge and theft will begin to ooze freely, wafting its putrid stench across the landscape of consumers already heavily burdened by a rapidly encroaching recession and incredibly high costs of living. Meanwhile, the Energy Regulatory Commission, rather than providing ethical checks and balances, appears to be colluding with the MoEP, IPPs and KPLC to ensure the highest possible electricity tariffs, which are further inflated at the point of billing and enforced in an illogical yet draconian manner on frustrated and desperate consumers. The collusion exposes an intricate network of IPPs and KPLC contractors whose true owners are hidden behind layers of front-end companies whose trails often terminate abroad. Despite the seemingly iron-clad wall of secrecy, inside informers continue to share details with well-placed whistleblowers who are dedicated to alerting consumers, the media and relevant arms of government.

When we consider that Kenya is one of the top seven most expensive power producers in Africa, which in addition to burdening consumers, is a serious impediment to the growth of local industry and a deterrent to foreign investment, it is not rocket science to compute how our real economic potential will never be fully realised, as it has already been sacrificed on the altars of numerous cartels.

The integrity questions worth asking are: 1) Who are the real owners and beneficiaries of the IPPs and KPLC contractors? and 2) Where do the conflicts and interests lie when it comes to MoEP and KPLC (the trinity) operations? It can be safely assumed that the latter will be easier to uncover than the former, as seen in the April 2018 KPLC internal audit report that highlighted an impressive array of mid-level staff caught in a dragnet of illegal tendering manoeuvres amounting to a “few” billion shillings. In a threadbare public relations move, these junior heads will surely roll as the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) initiates a criminal investigation into the matter. The former will – in fine Kenyan tradition – remain obfuscated and the untold hundreds of billions will disappear into nameless, faceless black hole-type accounts.

Then came the “big gaffe” by KPLC in its Annual Report of June 2017, where Sh10.1 billion was conveniently tucked away in the books as an asset or something like that when in fact it should have been registered as a loss. It has been speculated that KPLC (the historical cash cow for ad hoc government needs, including election campaigns) approved the siphoning of these funds.

An alternative theory is that the then incumbent government demanded an artificial lowering of the fuel tariffs as one of its campaign strategies or lies, depending on your perspective. In either case, the Sh 10.1 billion had to be recovered before the shareholders caught wind of the scam. It is important to add that the culture of theft of monies from KPLC started decades ago where successive regimes had managing directors and cronies who shamelessly and systematically looted the parastatal — but that is a story for another day.

The class action suit

Between September and December 2017, KPLC recovered an initial Sh2 billion through an ill-concealed overbilling and double billing system that affected pre- and post-paid consumers, throwing household budgets into complete disarray. The Kenya National Bureau of Standards (KNBS) reported that electricity prices hit a five-year high in 2017.

In January 2018, KPLC admitted to a four-month overbilling spree and claimed that the bills were linked to backdated fuel costs incurred due to the persistent drought, resulting in lowered hydro power capacity and an over-reliance on fuel-generated electricity, as well as the introduction of new meters and billing systems that suffered from teething glitches and erroneous billing. The few of us who ignited this campaign in January 2018 were initially driven by our anger regarding our individual domestic bills. We saw that fixed and variable tariffs did not add up. That successive months were billed based on “estimates”. That we received multiple bills in a single month. That our pre-paid token values were as erratic as a drunk driver. That these spikes in our pre-/post-paid bills suspiciously coincided with the end of the [first] electioneering period of 2017.

Between September and December 2017, KPLC recovered an initial Sh2 billion through an ill-concealed overbilling and double billing system that affected pre- and post-paid consumers, throwing household budgets into complete disarray. The Kenya National Bureau of Standards (KNBS) reported that electricity prices hit a five-year high in 2017.

In my case, between September 2017 and May 2018, I have had to fork out a whopping Sh167,722 to KPLC for post-paid bills that ranged between Sh11,000 and Sh37,400. For simple domestic consumption! With three months of “estimates” billed at Sh 51,000 and random “credits” worth Sh 9,500, and Sh41,500 of that gross amount dedicated to fuel tariffs, I can only wonder at the suffering faced by millions of Kenyans who live under the pay-first-questions-later motto of KPLC.

What piqued our attention, however, were the inconsistent but ever-increasing fuel tariffs, which allowed us to understand the steady collusion between diesel-powered IPPs and KPLC’s constant untruths about low hydro power capacities, hitches with geo thermal production, and of course, the slower than molasses power line construction from Loiyangalani to Suswa. Ultimately, we realised that this battle could never be fought or won individually. Many consumers, armed with their collective horror stories, outrage and the law, were determined to #SwitchOffKPLC.

When Apollo Mboya (surely a courageous lawyer of our times) saw through this mischief, he filed a two-pronged class action suit on behalf of consumers against KPLC. The first was to obtain an injunction that would halt further “recovery” of the Sh10.1 billion and seek restitution for all consumers who had been fraudulently overbilled. Court orders to that effect were issued on 12 January, 2018. The second is strategically focused on the KPLC monopoly and shady dealings with IPPs that violate Constitutional provisions in Article 201, paragraph 8 (e) of the Fourth Schedule that distributes functions between the national and county governments. Also explored are contraventions related to the Energy Act, the Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Act, the Public Finance Management Act, the National Government Loan Guarantee Act, the Consumer Protection Act and the 2018 Budget Policy Statement.

Many Kenyans following the court case and wider campaign have understood the importance of what Mr. Mboya is doing on behalf of consumers. He steadfastly carries on, supported by the Electricity Consumers Society of Kenya and concerned citizens in the face of attacks by the Consumers Federation of Kenya (COFEK), social media trolls and, of course, the hopelessly inept KPLC spin doctors. It is evident that the quest for justice will become ever more dangerous as Mr. Mboya inches closer to the real faces behind the theft.

Five months on and not surprisingly, KPLC has yet to comply with the court order to desist and cease the overbilling of consumers, opting instead for weak public relations stunts replete with apologies and broken promises. Customer Care remains catatonic and equipment continues to malfunction. It is business as usual at KPLC. Or is it?

The consumer-focused questions worth asking are: 1) By how much has KPLC defrauded its consumers to date? 2) Which consumers have been defrauded? and 3) When will consumers receive a refund/credit? KPLC remains mum and will likely do so until the legal determination of the matter. Meanwhile, consumers continue to receive erratic and inordinately high bills. (It has since been exposed that KPLC deliberately tampered with the Integrated Consumer Management System (ICMS )that facilitated the illegal inflation of consumer bills.)

Five months on and not surprisingly, KPLC has yet to comply with the court order to desist and cease the overbilling of consumers, opting instead for weak public relations stunts replete with apologies and broken promises.

The KPLC heist may not be as sizeable as South Africa’s ESKOM that is still reeling from the effects of the #guptafiles that exposed the theft of billions of rands by specific families and cartels but we are definitely hot on the heels of what could be a continental scandal. The KPLC heist looms significantly over the lives and times of millions of Kenyans who have come together in their thousands under the #SwitchOffKPLC campaign on behalf of others. These men and women have activated a revolution and are daring to imagine a different Kenya. We are collectively determined to cut off the heads of the Medusa-like snakes that have held us hostage since 1922.

In straight-speak, we are going after the energy sector thieves and we will unmask them. And then, we are coming after you.

To be continued. . .

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Jerotich Seii is a humanitarian and development consultant with more than 20 years of experience in sub-Saharan Africa.


The Repression of Palestine Solidarity in Kenya

Kenya is one of Israel’s closest allies in Africa. But the Ruto-led government isn’t alone in silencing pro-Palestinian speech.



The Repression of Palestine Solidarity in Kenya
Photo: Image courtesy of Kenyans4Palestine © 2023.
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Israel has been committing genocide against the people of Occupied Palestine for 75 years and this has intensified over the last 30 days with the merciless carpet bombing of Gaza, along with raids and state-sanctioned settler violence in the West Bank. In the last month of this intensified genocide, the Kenyan government has pledged its solidarity to Israel, even as the African Union released a statement in support of Palestinian liberation. While peaceful marches have been successfully held in Kisumu and Mombasa, in Nairobi, Palestine solidarity organizers were forced to cancel a peaceful march that was to be held at the US Embassy on October 22. Police threatened that if they saw groups of more than two people outside the Embassy, they would arrest them. The march was moved to a private compound, Cheche Bookshop, where police still illegally arrested three people, one for draping the Palestinian flag around his shoulders. Signs held by children were snatched by these same officers.

When Boniface Mwangi took to Twitter denouncing the arrest, the response by Kenyans spoke of the success of years of propaganda by Israel through Kenyan churches. To the Kenyan populous, Palestine and Palestinians are synonymous with terrorism and Israel’s occupation of Palestine is its right. However, this Islamophobia and xenophobia from Kenyans did not spring from the eternal waters of nowhere. They are part of the larger US/Israel sponsored and greedy politician-backed campaign to ensure Kenyans do not start connecting the dots on Israel’s occupation of Palestine with the extra-judicial killings by Kenyan police, the current occupation of indigenous people’s land by the British, the cost-of-living crisis and the IMF debts citizens are paying to fund politician’s lavish lifestyles.

Kenya’s repression of Palestine organizing reflects Kenya’s long-standing allyship with Israel. The Kenyan Government has been one of Israel’s A-star pupils of repression and is considered to be Israel’s “gateway” to Africa. Kenya has received military funding and training from Israel since the 60s, and our illegal military occupation of Somalia has been funded and fueled by Israel along with Britain and the US. Repression, like violence, is not one dimensional; repression does not just destabilize and scatter organizers, it aims to break the spirit and replace it instead with apathy, or worse, a deep-seated belief in the rightness of oppression. In Israel’s architecture of oppression through repression, the Apartheid state has created agents of repression across many facets of Kenyan life, enacting propaganda, violence, race, and religion as tools of repression of Palestine solidarity organizing.

When I meet with Naomi Barasa, the Chair of the Kenya Palestine Solidarity Movement, she begins by placing Kenya’s repression of Palestine solidarity organizing in the context of Kenya as a capitalist state. “Imperialism is surrounded and buffered by capitalistic interest,” she states, then lists on her fingers the economic connections Israel has created with Kenya in the name of “technical cooperation.” These are in agriculture, security, business, and health; the list is alarming. It reminds me of my first memory of Israel (after the nonsense of the promised land that is)—about how Israel was a leader in agricultural and irrigation technologies. A dessert that flowed with milk and honey.

Here we see how propaganda represses, even before the idea of descent is born: Kenyans born in the 1990s grew up with an image of a benign, prosperous, and generous Christian Israel that just so happened to be unfortunate enough to be surrounded by Muslim states. Israel’s PR machine has spent 60 years convincing Kenyan Christians of the legitimacy of the nation-state of Israel, drawing false equivalences between Christianity and Zionism. This Janus-faced ideology was expounded upon by Israel’s ambassador to Kenya, Michel Lotem, when he said “Religiously, Kenyans are attached to Israel … Israel is the holy land and they feel close to Israel.” The cog dizzy of it all is that Kenyan Christians, fresh from colonialism, are now Africa’s foremost supporters of colonialism and Apartheid in Israel. Never mind the irony that in 1902, Kenya was the first territory the British floated as a potential site for the resettlement of Jewish people fleeing the pogroms in Europe. This fact has retreated from public memory and public knowledge. Today, churches in Kenya facilitate pilgrimages to the holy land and wield Islamophobia as a weapon against any Christian who questions the inhumanity of Israel’s 75-year Occupation and ongoing genocide.

Another instrument of repression of pro-Palestine organizing in Kenya is the pressure put on Western government-funded event spaces to decline hosting pro-Palestine events. Zahid Rajan, a cultural practitioner and organizer, tells me of his experiences trying to find spaces to host events dedicated to educating Kenyans on the Palestinian liberation struggle. He recalls the first event he organized at Alliance Français, Nairobi in 2011. Alliance Français is one of Nairobi’s cultural hubs and regularly hosts art and cultural events at the space. When Zahid first approached Alliance to host a film festival for Palestinian films, they told him that they could not host this event as they already had (to this day) an Israeli film week. Eventually, they agreed to host the event with many restrictions on what could be discussed and showcased. Unsurprisingly they refused to host the event again. The Goethe Institute, another cultural hub in Kenya that offers its large hall for free for cultural events, has refused to host the Palestinian film festival or any other pro-Palestine event. Both Alliance and Goethe are funded by their parent countries, France and Germany respectively (which both have pro-Israel governments). There are other spaces and businesses that Zahid has reached out to host pro-Palestine education events that have, in the end, backtracked on their agreement to do so. Here, we see the evolution of state-sponsored repression to the private sphere—a public-private partnership on repression, if you will.

Kenya’s members of parliament took to heckling and mocking as a tool of repression when MP Farah Maalim wore an “Arafat” to Parliament on October 25. The Speaker asked him to take it off stating that it depicted “the colors of a particular country.” When Maalim stood to speak he asked: “Tell me which republic,” and an MP in the background could be heard shouting “Hamas” and heckling Maalim, such that he was unable to speak on the current genocide in Gaza. This event, seen in the context of Ambassador Michael Lotem’s charm offensive at the county and constituency level, is chilling. His most recent documented visit was to the MP of Kiharu, Ndindi Nyoro, on November 2. The Israeli propaganda machine has understood the importance of County Governors and MPs in consolidating power in Kenya.

Yet, in the face of this repression, we have seen what Naomi Barasa describes as “many pockets of ad hoc solidarity,” as well as organized solidarity with the Palestinian cause. We have seen Muslim communities gather for many years to march for Palestine, we have seen student movements such as the Nairobi University Student Caucus release statements for Palestine, and we have seen social justice centers such as Mathare Social Justice Centre host education and screening events on Palestinian liberation. Even as state repression of Palestine solidarity organizing has intensified in line with the deepening of state relations with Apartheid Israel, more Kenyans are beginning to connect the dots and see the reality that, as Mandela told us all those years ago, “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week.

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Only Connect: Human Beings Must Connect to Survive

We must fight to remain human, to make connections across borders, race, religion, class, gender, and all the false divisions that exist in our world. We must show solidarity with one another, and believe we can construct another kind of world.



UK-Rwanda Asylum Pact: Colonial Era Deportations are Back in Vogue
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24 November 2021. We wake to the news that 27 migrants have drowned in the English Channel.

“Stop the boats!” cry the Tories. It’s the hill British Prime Minister Sunak has chosen to die on. But there is no political will to stop the wider crisis of global migration, driven by conflict, poverty, persecution, repressive regimes, famine, climate change, and the rest. Moreover, there is zero understanding that the West is behind many of the reasons why people flee their homes in the first place. Take Afghanistan, a useless Allied war that went nowhere. It left the Taliban more powerful than ever. Afghans who worked for the British army, betrayed when our forces pulled out. Now they make up the majority of cross-Channel migrants.

Not for them the welcome we gave Ukrainians. Wrong skin colour, maybe? Wrong religion? Surely not.

Some right-wingers rejoice at news of these deaths. “Drown ’em all!” they cry on social media. “Bomb the dinghies!” There are invariably photos of cute cats and dogs in their profiles. Have you noticed how much racists and fascists love pets? Lots of ex-servicemen among them, who fail to see the link between the failed wars they fought, and the migration crisis these spawned. The normalisation of a false reality is plain to see. Politicians and the media tell folk that black is white, often in meaningless three-word slogans, and the masses believe it. Migrants, especially those who arrive in small boats, are routinely labelled criminals, murderers, rapists, invaders, Muslims intent on imposing Islam on the UK, and “young men of fighting age”, which implies that they are a standing army.

If you bother to look beyond the stereotypes, the reality is very different.

One couple’s story

Riding those same waves, a year or so later, are two Iranian Kurds. A young couple. Let’s call them Majid and Sayran. They have sadly decided not to have children, in 12 years of marriage, because they believe Iran is no place to bring up children. Activists who oppose the regime, they were forced to flee after receiving direct threats. They ran an environmental NGO, and held Kurdish cultural events that are banned in Iran.

The husband, Majid, a writer, first fled to Iraq in 2021. He and his wife were parted for 18 months. She eventually joined him in a Kurdish area of Iraq. They were forced to flee again, when the Iranian regime bombed the homes and offices of political dissidents in Iraq, killing and wounding many of their friends. They decided their only hope was to head for Britain via Turkey, Italy and France. They paid people smugglers around USD30,000 in total. They eventually ended up in a hotel in my home town. Their story continues below.

Feeling powerless

Meanwhile, there I am sitting at home in the UK, getting more and more enraged about my government’s attitude and policies on immigration. I feel powerless. I think about refugees living in an asylum hotel in my town. I’m told many of them are Muslim, now trying to celebrate Ramadan. I picture them breaking their fasts on hotel food, which relies heavily on chips and other cheap junk. I meet some of them in the queue at the town’s so-called community fridge, where I used to volunteer. I chat a little to Majid, who can speak some English. I try to find out why they are there. The “fridge” gives out food donated by supermarkets to anyone in need. The food would otherwise be thrown away because it’s about to reach its sell-by date. The refugees go there, they tell me, to get fresh stuff because the hotel food is so awful. I can sense the growing resentment from locals in the queue, who want to put “Britain first”.

Thinking, thinking. Then I berate myself. I should take action, however small. Get down to the supermarket, buy food for, say, six families. I can’t feed everyone, but let’s start somewhere. Food that people from the Middle East (the majority of the hotel residents) will like. Hummus, flatbreads, dates, olives, nuts, rice. Divide it into six bags. I don’t know how I will be received (I feel rather nervous), but let’s give it a go.

I can sense the growing resentment from locals in the queue, who want to put “Britain first”.

The hotel manager is cagey. (I am later banned. He and his female head of security are rude and hostile, but that’s still to come.) For now, he lets me in to distribute the food. Luckily, I spot Majid, just the person I’m looking for. I recognise him from the “fridge” queue. He can translate for the others, who quickly gather in the lobby. The food is snatched within minutes, people are delighted with it. (It turns out Majid and his wife are atheists. But they get some food too.)

I didn’t do this for the thanks. But I’m glad I made that first move. Taking it further, I invite them both round for a meal. I spend hours making Persian rice, it’s a big hit. My new friends fall on the spread like ravening wolves. One thing leads to another. We start to meet regularly. It helps that they have some English, which greatly improves as the weeks pass and they go to classes. They are thrilled by everyday things – walks in the country, pizza, a local fair, being taken to see the film Oppenheimer. (“We were amazed to see so many British people go to the movies!”) They tell me they are delighted simply to make contact, to see how ordinary people live, to be invited into my, and my friends’ homes. I tell them I have plenty to learn from them, too. We get a bit tearful. I say hi to Sayran’s mum on the phone in Iran. We also laugh a lot. Majid has a black sense of humour.

At first, I don’t ask about their experience of crossing the Channel. All I know is that the entire journey, from Iran to Britain, was deeply traumatic. Until now, months later, when I ask Majid to describe what happened.

Majid picks up the story of their journey in Turkey: “The most bitter memories of my life were witnessing my wife’s tiredness, fear and anxiety as we walked for nine hours to reach Istanbul. I saw my wife cry from exhaustion and fear many times, and I myself cried inside. In a foreign country without a passport, our only hope was luck, and our only way was to accept hardship because we had no way back. The most bitter thing in this or any refugee journey is that no one gives any help or support to his fellow traveller.  The smallest issue turns into a big tension.”

To reach the sea, where they would take a boat to Italy, they walked through dense pine forests. “There were about 30 of us in this group and none of us knew each other. We passed through the forest with extreme anxiety and fear of being arrested by the ruthless Turkish police. We were all afraid that some babies who were tied tightly on their father’s shoulders would cry and the police would find us. But as soon as we stepped into the forest, all the children became silent due to their instinct and sense of danger.  They didn’t make a single sound all the way. We were in the forest for about 12 hours, and reached the beach by 8 a.m. Here we were joined by several other groups of refugees; by now we were more than 100 people.”

The week-long journey to Italy in a 12-meter “pleasure” boat carrying 55 people was terrifying. “As the boat moved towards the deep parts of the sea, fear and anxiety took over everyone. The fear of the endless sea, and worse, the fear of being caught by Turkish patrols, weighed heavily on everyone’s mind. The boat moved at the highest speed at night, and this speed added to the intensity of the waves hitting the hull of the boat.  Waves, waves, waves have always been a part of the pulse of travellers.  As the big waves moved the boat up and down, the sound of screams and shouts would merge with the Arabic words of prayers of old, religious passengers. I can say that there is no scene in hell more horrific than this journey.  It was near sunset when several passengers shouted: ‘Land! Land!’”

On the way to France, they somehow lost their backpacks. All their possessions gone. Moving fast forward, they found themselves in yet another forest, this time close to the French coast.

“For the first time, I felt that the whole idea I had about Europe and especially the French was a lie. Nowhere in the underdeveloped and insecure countries of the Middle East would a couple be driven to the wrong address at night, in the cold, without proper clothing.  But what can be done when you illegally enter a country whose language you do not know? It was almost 2 o’clock in the morning. The sound of the wind and the trees reminded us of horror scenes in the movies. It was hard to believe that we were so helpless in a European country on that dark, cold and rainy night.” He collected grass and tree leaves to make a “warm and soft nest.  I felt like we were two migratory birds that had just arrived in this forest.” Eventually they found what they were looking for – a refugee camp. The next step was to try and cross the Channel.

“I can say that there is no scene in hell more horrific than this journey.”

“We reached the beach. The sky was overcast and it was almost sunset. A strange fear and deadly apprehension gripped all the poor refugees in that space between the sky, the earth and the sea.” A smugglers’ car brought a dinghy and dumped it on the beach before quickly driving away. It was no better than a rubber tube. The refugees filled it with air, and attached a small engine. “They stuck 55 people in that tube.” The dinghy went round in circles and ended up on another part of the French coast. Many people decided to disembark at this point, leaving 18 passengers.

“Women and children were wailing and crying. The children looked at the sea dumbfounded.  Men argued with each other and sometimes arguments turned into fights.  The boat was not balanced. I was writhing in pain from headaches, while my wife’s face was yellow and pale because of the torment.”

At last a ship approached, shining bright floodlights at the dinghy. It belonged to the British coast guard.  “When they threw the life rope towards our plastic boat, we were relieved that we were saved from death.”

Hotel life

My friends tell me about conditions at the hotel. Grim. Food that is often inedible, especially for vegetarians like them. They send me photos of soya chunks and chips. Residents are banned from cooking in their rooms, or even having a fridge. Majid and Sayran have sneaked in a rice steamer and something to fry eggs on. (They have to hide them when the cleaners come round.)  Kids have no toys and nowhere to play except in the narrow corridors. Everyone is depressed and bored, waiting for months, sometimes years, to hear the result of their asylum claims.

Majid takes up the story: “Due to the lack of toys and entertainment, the boys gather around the security guards and help them in doing many small tasks. The image of refugee children going to school on cold and rainy mornings is the most painful image of refugees in this developed country.  In schools, language problems make refugee children isolated and depressed in the first few years.  What can be the situation of a pregnant woman, or a woman whose baby has just been born, with an unemployed husband, and poor nutrition, in a very small room in this hotel? Imagine yourself.  Many elderly people here suffer from illnesses such as rheumatism, knee swelling, and high blood sugar.  But many times when they ask for a change in the food situation or request to transfer somewhere else, they are ridiculed by the hotel staff.  One day, a widow who had no food left for her and was given frozen food, went to the hotel management office with her daughter to protest. But one of the security guards took the food container from this woman’s hand and threw it on the office floor in front of her child.  Now that little girl is afraid and hates all the security.”

“When they threw the life rope towards our plastic boat, we were relieved that we were saved from death.”

Yet racists rant about migrants living it up in five-star hotels costing the taxpayer £8 million a day. They don’t think or care about how we got here: the Tories let the asylum backlog soar, by failing to process asylum claims in a timely fashion. Some of us cynically wonder if this was deliberate. The number of people awaiting an initial decision is now 165,411. This compares to 27,048 asylum applications, including dependents, between January and September 2015, before the UK left the European Union.

I’ve done what I can. Lobbied the Home office to improve the food and conditions. I eventually got a reply, both from them and the catering contractor. Wrote to my MP, local councillors, inter-agency bodies that monitor conditions in hotels, migrant organisations, the press. We have had some success. There is a lot more to do.

I ask my friends if the threat of being deported to Rwanda (a key plank of the UK’s asylum policy) might have deterred them from coming. Or if anything would have stopped them. Majid replies: “Not at all! Because everywhere in this world is better than Iran for life. Especially for me, I have a deep problem with the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. They threatened me with death over the phone.”

Making sense of the world

World news has become unbearable to read, watch or listen to. Once a news junkie, I increasingly find myself switching off. I’m equally appalled by the widespread apathy, even among friends who were once politically engaged. Then there is all the dog whistling our government does, in language that echoes that of the far right. Ministers and MPs have shamelessly whipped up suspicion, hatred, and fear of the Other. “Cruella” Braverman was one of the worst offenders, but at least she is no longer Home Secretary. Her “dream” of deporting refugees to Rwanda (her words) has become a nightmare for Sunak. Both are of East African Asian heritage.

Ministers and MPs have shamelessly whipped up suspicion, hatred, and fear of the Other.

This may sound trite, but we must struggle to remain human, and make connections where we can – across borders, race, religion, class, gender, all the false divisions that exist in our world. We have to keep lobbying those in power, and going on protest marches. We must show solidarity with one another. We have to believe we can construct another kind of world, pole pole, from the bottom up. A kinder world would help, for starters. It can begin in very small ways.

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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.



Photo via the African National Congress on X.
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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.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week.

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