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EVERY SIP YOU TAKE: How safe is your bottled water?

10 min read. The concept of bottled water being safer than tap water has been ingrained in people’s minds. From being status symbols of sorts, bottled water is now a necessity in many households. But as STELLAR MURUMBA reveals, bottled water is not as safe as we think it is.

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EVERY SIP YOU TAKE: How safe is your bottled water?
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On most of Kenya’s streets and roads, young men and women hawk bottles of water to passing motorists. It is impossible to walk through any urban area without coming across a bottled water vendor. The concept of bottled water being “better” and “safer” than tap water has become ingrained in people’s minds. From being a status symbol of sorts, bottled water is now a basic necessity in many households. And with cholera and other water-borne diseases becoming the norm, it is no wonder that the sale of bottled water has been growing by leaps and bounds over the years.

But just what is in that bottle of water you are taking? What risks are you and your family taking when you opt to drink bottled water rather than tap water?

Medics have raised a red flag over the increased health risks, especially on mental health, posed by high levels of chemicals, such as fluoride, in drinking water.

We went ahead to test samples of bottled water collected from different areas of Nairobi – Eastleigh and BuruBuru estates and the Central Business District. What we found was shocking. At least four out of ten samples of bottled drinking were unfit for human consumption.

The samples of bottled included top brands, such as Coca Cola’s Dasani, Grange Park, Mt. Kenya and Avodale, which were bought from supermarkets in these areas and were analysed at the Government Chemist in April.

Out of the ten samples submitted for chemical analysis to the Government Chemist, four turned out to be unfit for human consumption.

The analysis revealed that the sampled water had high levels of fluoride, in excess of the World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline limits of 0.3 ppm for drinking water.  They also had high levels of iron, and were acidic.

“There is an increased concern posed by fluorosis, for instance, especially on mental health due to stigmatisation,” said Consultant Family Physician at Aga Khan University Hospital, Dr Jacob Shabani in an interview. “Increased use of borehole water and bottled water from underground sources for which adequate chemical composition has not been adhered to is showing increased risk of poor bone health with increased fracture risk and poor teeth.”

Health risks

Out of the ten samples submitted for chemical analysis to the Government Chemist, four turned out to be unfit for human consumption. Dasani bottled water sampled from Buruburu, for instance, was found to have iron levels that exceeded the WHO guideline limits of 0.3 ppm for drinking water. Interestingly, two other samples of the same brand sampled from the Nairobi CBD and Eastleigh were found to be chemically fit for human consumption, pointing to a possible lack of adherence to standards by the manufacturer or a laxity of some sort by the industry regulator, the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS), in doing random testing to ensure standards are maintained across all production cycles.

Dasani botted water

Government Chemist report on chemical analysis of water – Dasani bottled water (Buruburu). Dasani total dissolved solids, residue dried at 180 degrees Celsius is 29.4. The recommendation by Government Chemist: Neutral and soft water that is lowly mineralized. The levels of Iron (0.35) exceed the WHO guideline limits of 0.3 ppm for drinking water. Treatment to lower level of Iron is recommended.

A sample of Grange Park bottled water from Buruburu was also found to have fluoride levels exceeding the WHO maximum guideline value of 1.5ppm for drinking water. Another sample of Mt. Kenya Bottled water from Buruburu was found to have exceeding fluoride levels over the WHO maximum guideline value of 1.5ppm for drinking water.

Grange Park bottled water

Government Chemist report for Grange Park bottled water (Buruburu). Grange Park total dissolved solids, residue dried at 180 degrees is 72.5. The recommendation by Government Chemist: Alkaline and soft water that is lowly mineralized. The fluoride level (2.0) exceeds the WHO maximum guideline value of 1.5 ppm for drinking water. Treatment to lower the fluoride level is therefore recommended.

“Dasani bottled water (sampled from Buruburu) had levels of iron exceeding the WHO guideline limits of 0.3 ppm for drinking water. Treatment to lower the level of iron is recommended,” said the report signed by Senior Principal Chemist at Government Chemist, Anne Nderitu.

“Grange Park bottled water and Mt. Kenya bottled water sampled from Buruburu had their fluoride levels exceed the WHO maximum guideline value of 1.5 ppm for drinking water. Treatment to lower the fluoride level is therefore recommended.”

Government Chemist report for Mt. Kenya bottled water (Buruburu). Mt. Kenya total dissolved solids, reside dried at 280 degrees Celsius is 45.2. The recommendation by Government Chemist: Alkaline and soft water that is slowly mineralized. The fluoride level [2.0mg/l (ppm)] exceeds the World Health Organisation (WHO) maximum guideline value of 1.5ppm for drinking water. Treatment to lower the fluoride level is therefore recommended.

Excess fluoride in drinking water can cause dental or skeletal fluorosis. Dental fluorosis is the snow capping (when mild) or browning (when severe) of teeth. It has no cure and damaged teeth cannot be restored. These teeth are prone to tooth decay, are weak and easily chip off.

Skeletal fluorosis, which in its acute stage causes total immobility, develops slowly and can take up to 30 years, leading to bones that develop outgrowths, are deformed and prone to fractures.

Studies in Kenya show that children with dental fluorosis face societal stigma. It makes them self-conscious and uncomfortable, thus denying them a chance to socialise freely. They also face societal stigma, including being shunned as future marriage partners. They have reduced chances of securing employment and are in fact ineligible to join the disciplined forces or to pursue careers that place a premium on appearance.

A Kenya Society for Fluoride Research (KSFR) report shows that over 19 million Kenyans suffer from fluorosis. A 2013 survey by KSFR showed that more than 80 per cent of potential armed forces recruits in Central Kenya were not accepted due to the bad condition of their teeth, which was attributable to fluoride.

“The WHO, however, recommends safe fluoride levels at less than 1.5 milligrams per litre (0.5 mg/litre) as they are protective of the enamel and hence the reason for fluoridation of toothpastes,” said Dr Shabani. “Children are however more susceptible to fluorides and mild dental fluorosis can occur at drinking-water concentrations between 0.9 and 1.2 mg/litre.”

A Kenya Society for Fluoride Research (KSFR) report shows that over 19 million Kenyans suffer from fluorosis. A 2013 survey by KSFR showed that more than 80 per cent of potential armed forces recruits in Central Kenya were not accepted due to the bad condition of their teeth, which was attributable to fluoride.

Besides having excess fluoride and iron, a sample of Avodale bottled water from Eastleigh was found to be acidic and the pH of the water was out of the WHO guideline range of 6.5 to 8.5 for drinking water.

“Avodale bottled water (sampled from Eastleigh) had a pH value out of the WHO guideline of 6.5 – 8.5 for drinking water. Treatment to adjust the pH of water accordingly is therefore recommended. The pH value for this sample was 5.9,” read another Government Chemist report signed by Francis Maina. (pH is a measure of the concentration of hydrogen ions in a diluted solution. It can range from 0 to 14, with 7 denoting a neutral value. Acidic water has a pH below 7; alkaline water, above 7.)

Report on chemical analysis of water - Avodale bottled water (Eastleigh)

Government Chemist report on chemical analysis of water – Avodale bottled water (Eastleigh). Avodale dissolved solids, residue dried at 180 degrees is 84.0. The Government Chemist recommendation: soft and acidic water that is likely mineralized. The pH of the water is out of the WHO guideline range of 6.5 – 8.5 for drinking water. Treatment to adjust the pH of the water accordingly is therefore recommended.

“Alkaline water (high pH) causes damage to the eyes, skin and mucous membranes. WHO warns that extreme pH levels can worsen existing skin conditions,” said Dr Shabani.

According to the Deputy Director at the National Quality Control Laboratory, Dr Pius Wanjala, excess iron in drinking water (also referred to as iron overload) can cause damage to body organs like the liver, heart and pancreas. “It can also cause diabetes and when there is too much iron in drinking water, one can have digestion issues which can also lead to stomach problems, vomiting and nausea among other health issues,” said Dr Wanjala.

Human bodies require iron to function properly, but iron, like many substances, is toxic in high doses. Iron is used as construction material, mainly for drinking-water pipes, pigments in paints and plastics, coagulants in water treatment.

Dr Shabani added that the effect of too much iron in children compared to adults is generally the same except that children will experience harmful effects on smaller doses of iron due to their smaller body weight compared to adults. The average lethal dose of iron is 200 to 250 mg/kg of body weight, “but death has occurred following the ingestion of doses as low as 40 mg/kg of body weight. Lethal exposures have caused sloughing and necrosis of stomach mucosa”, he said.

How safe is the water you are drinking?

“Excess iron in the human body may also cause life-threatening illnesses like liver cirrhosis for those with the genetic disorder haemachromatosis,” said Dr Shabani.

Haemachromatosis is an iron disorder that is hereditary in which the body loads too much iron. When the excess iron is left untreated, it can damage joints, organs, and eventually be fatal.

“Excess iron in the human body may also cause life-threatening illnesses like liver cirrhosis for those with the genetic disorder haemachromatosis,” said Dr Shabani.

In addition to causing Diabetes mellitus, Dr Shabani added that if not diagnosed or left untreated, haemachromatosis can also cause irregular heartbeats or heart attacks, arthritis, cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer, gallbladder disease, depression and even impotence. The disorder can also cause infertility, hypothyroidism and hypogonadism.

A number of emails and calls to the named firms went unanswered, with efforts to reach the Coca Cola Company through their Facebook page leaving this writer with only this promise to get back: “Stellar, we’d like to look into this. Please reply with your telephone and email address so we can follow up with you. Thanks for reaching out.”

And when they finally responded, Coca Cola, the bottlers of Dasani, through its Public Affairs, Communications and Sustainability arm said the quality of their products and safety of their consumers are of paramount importance to them.

“We are committed to the highest quality standards for the products and services we provide and focus on continual improvement every minute of every day. The water we use goes through multi-step filtration processes prior to production further, we consistently and regularly conduct random tests on our products before releasing them to the market. These tests are conducted against the standards set by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KeBS) and other global standards. Samples are also shared with internationally accredited laboratories for independent verification. 

Our families, friends, and community members drink our products. We remember that with every product we manufacture or provide. As such we remain confident about the safety and reliability of Dasani,” – Public Affairs, Communications & Sustainability.

Most of these firms operate from unknown places and get water from unknown sources, with contacts available on the printed bottles not going through. Efforts to find contacts for the manufacturer of Avodale bottled drinking water were futile as there was no information of the same online.

The contradiction

Despite the immense health risks associated with excess chemical components in drinking water, KEBS’ Corporates Communication Manager, Patricia Kimanthi, insisted that all water available in the market is compliant as per the Kenya and East Africa Community minimum and maximum standards. Non-compliant water, she said, has been banned until it conforms to KEBS standards.

Ms Kimanthi said that KEBS tests the quality of water against the two standards available on its website, adding that the WHO standards are “too wide and general”.

“I do not understand why they (Government Chemist) used WHO standards. WHO standards sometimes are so wide and so general. Moreover, international standards are different each year. We [KEBS] test against Kenya standards and EAC standards,” said Ms Kimanthi, adding that the Kenya/EAC standards are more specific.

“We cannot act on results we have not sampled but we have continued market surveillance and all firms which are complying are registered on our website. There’s need, however, to go to the market for further analysis based on these findings and what is available in the market and do the needful.”

However, Mr Maina from the Government Chemist stated: “For Kenya we also have KEBS standards, but us at the Government Chemist we use WHO guidelines which are international because we handle samples from outside Kenya so that we do not look selfish. All standards are developed using WHO guide.”

KEBS listed due to an increase in the number of illegal water bottling firms and traders. As of May 2016, there were about 600 authorised water bottlers in the country. Some 158 firms whose water did not comply with the Kenya/EAC standards were in May this year found to be operating illegally by KEBS and got suspended. Out of the 158 firms, number 15 on the list was Mt Kenya bottled water – Mureru Water Project.

Requirements

According to KEBS, the move to suspend the rogue traders was to ensure that standards are adhered to. The then KEBS Managing Director, Charles Ongwae, singled out the water bottling sector where there has been an upsurge of unscrupulous water bottling firms that are not adhering to the laid down standards and procedures.

In 2016, KEBS listed water as a high risk product in the country due to an increase in the number of illegal water bottling firms and traders. As of May 2016, there were about 600 authorised water bottlers in the country. Some 158 firms whose water did not comply with the Kenya/EAC standards were in May this year found to be operating illegally by KEBS and got suspended.

“There are people in the country who love short cuts and do not adhere to the law. We are announcing 157 water bottling firms that are operating illegally without valid product certification marks and have failed to meet required standards for bottling water,” said Mr Ongwae, appealing to those firms whose names appear in the list of illegally operating companies to formalise their operations with KEBS.

Some of these violations include companies operating from unknown locations, non-compliance to the requirements of the relevant water standards, such as the code of hygiene, using suspect sources of water and poor or misleading labelling.

Water bottlers are now required to automatise bottle filling and sealing to safeguard hygiene practices.  All old applicants have until November 2018 to have in place an automated bottle filling and sealing mechanism while new applicants are required to have automation before they start business.

In May, KEBS also increased the validity period of Standardisation Mark from one year to three years on condition that the product should have been operating and certified for a period not less than six years, with the manufacturer expected to demonstrate a track record of manufacturing quality products. The permit fees for the three years is to be paid once in advance.

The regulator has so far issued 11,234 permits out of which 671 are for bottled water. “So far there are 426 firms with valid permits in the water sector. Another 49 other firms have applied for permits but have not completed the certification process. We have identified 157 firms that are operating illegally and the should cease operations immediately.”

Dr Shabani said with most Kenyans continue to buy bottled water thinking it is safer than tap water or water they get from water bowsers or boreholes. He urges consumers to be as keen to know about bottled water as they are about water from other water sources.

And since many Nairobi residents are dependent on borehole water, particularly after the county initiated water rationing, Dr Shabani asks the public to also have chemical analyses done for ground and well water before using it for drinking and cooking.

“Chemical impurities are more common in these sources. It is important to read labels of bottled water which are required by industry standards and health authorities to list the composition of these elements in their water,” said Dr Shabani.

The standardisation body also said they are working with the Water Resource Management Authority to test borehole water before issuing a report indicating the quality of water in the market.

Dr Shabani says it is the government’s role to ensure strict regulation of the water industry, especially bottled water, and to ensure that water is prepared free of contamination and that underground bottled water meets WHO’s recommended standards for fluoride and pH. He said that county governments should also have inspectors to conduct chemical analysis of bottled water while industry players should be encouraged to use rust-proof materials for piping and storage.

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Stellar Murumba is the Project Manager of PesaCheck, a member of the Wanadata Network and Lead in Code for Africa's Chokers-counterfeit medicines project.

Politics

Xenophobia in South Africa: A Consequence of the Unfinished Business of Decolonisation in Africa

8 min read. The recent Afrophobic attacks in South Africa are symptoms of a deeper problem that has its roots in the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.

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Xenophobia in South Africa: A Consequence of the Unfinished Business of Decolonisation in Africa
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South Africa has consistently experienced cyclical xenophobic flaring that has dented its image in Africa and in the world. The country continues to receive a high number of both documented and undocumented migrants as it has become a top destination in South-to- South migration. Beyond its geographical proximity to other African states, the current migration patterns have to be understood as a consequence of history and as such the xenophobic flaring has to be read as an unfinished business of decolonisation in Africa.

History created two processes that shaped Africa’s politics and economies, even up to today, creating a complex conundrum for our policy makers. Firstly, the Berlin conference created artificial borders and nations that remain problematic today. These borders were not fashioned to address the political and economic interests of Africans but the imperial powers of Europe. Institutions and infrastructure were created to service the imperial interests, and this remains the status quo despite more than four decades of independence in Africa. Secondly, Cecil John Rhodes’ dream of “Cape to Cairo” became the basis upon which the modern economy was built in Africa. This created what the late Malawian political economist, Guy Mhone, called an enclave economy of prosperity amidst poverty, and resultantly created what Mahmood Mamdani termed the bifurcated state, with citizens and subjects.

A closer look at the African state’s formation history provides insights on the continuities of colonial institutions and continuous marginalisation of Africans as the state was never fashioned to address their political and economic interests from the beginning.

Drawing on classical African political economists, this article argues that, unknowingly, the South African government and in particular, the African National Congress (ANC) leadership, a former liberation movement, have fallen into the trap of the logic of the underlying colonial epistemologies informing migration debates in Africa. The Afrophobic attacks in South Africa fly in the face of Africa’s founding fathers, such as Nkrumah, Nyerere, Machel, Kaunda and Mandela, and of the African Union’s dream of a borderless African economy and society.

In his essay “In Defence of History”, Professor Hobsbawm challenges us to read history in its totality:

However, the new perspectives on history should also return us to that essential, if never quite realisable, objective of those who study the past: “total history”. Not a “history of everything”, but history as an indivisible web in which all human activities are interconnected.

It is when we read history in its totality that we are able to make connections about the relations between the past, present and future. Looked at closely, the current xeno/Afro-phobia insurrections engulfing South Africa have to be read within the totality of history. Therefore, this piece argues that the xeno/Afro-phobia flarings that have been gripping South Africa ever since 2008, and which have cast South Africa it in bad light within the African continent, are contrary to the ethos of Pan-Africanism and are largely a product of the history of the scramble and partition of Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.

Whose borders? Remembering the Ghosts of Berlin

By the beginning of the 1870s, European nations were in search of natural resources to grow their industries and at the same expand markets for their products. This prompted strong conflict amongst European superpowers and in late 1884, Otto von Bismarck, the then German Chancellor, called for a meeting in Berlin of various representatives of European nations. The objective was to agree on “common policy for colonisation and trade in Africa and the drawing of colonial state boundaries in the official partition of Africa”.

The xenophobic/Afrophobic attacks in South Africa fly in the face of Africa’s founding fathers, such as Nkrumah, Nyerere, Machel, Kaunda and Mandela, and of the African Union’s dream of a borderless African economy and society.

At the end of the Berlin Conference, the “European powers had neatly divided Africa up amongst themselves, drawing the boundaries of Africa much as we know them today”. It was at this conference that European superpowers set in motion a process that set boundaries that have continued to shape present-day Africa. Remember that there was no King Shaka, Lobengula, Munhumutapa, Queen Nzinga, Emperor Haile Selassie, Litunga of Barotseland among many other rulers of Africa at this conference. There was Otto von Bismarck, King Leopold II and their fellow European rulers who sat down and determined borders governing Africa today.

This is the epistemological base upon which current “othering” within citizenship and migration policies are hinged. This colonial legacy has its roots in the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, where major European powers partitioned Africa amongst themselves and formalised it with the current borders that have largely remained intact and the basis of the modern state in post-colonial Africa. Therefore, policies on identity, citizenship and migration in Africa have been largely informed by modern nation-state forms of territoriality drawn from remnants of colonial policies. These have tended to favour the elites and modernised (privileged, intelligentsia, government officials and business) at the expense of the underclass in Africa, who form the majority.

Most of the institutions and policies characterising the post-colonial African state are bequeathed by legacies of colonialism, hence the need for African states to listen to the wisdom of Samir Amin and “delink from the past” or bridge Thabo Mbeki’s “two nations” thesis and create a decolonised Africa where Africans will be no strangers.

Africa’s citizenship and migration policies remain unreformed and informed by colonial epistemology and logics. The partitioning of Africa into various territories for European powers at the Berlin Conference means most of the present-day nation-states and boundaries in Africa are a product of the resultant imperialist agreement. The boundaries were an outside imposition and split many communities with linguistic, cultural and economic ties together. The nation-state in Africa became subjugated by colonial powers (exogenous forces) rather than natural processes of endogenous force contestations and nation-state formation, as was the case with Europe.

Stoking the flames

African communities are burning from Afrophobia/xenophobia, and at times this is sparked by Africa’s elites who make reckless statements based on the logics of the Berlin Conference. Africa’s poor or the underclass are the most affected, as these xeno-insurrections manifest physically and violently amongst poor communities. Among elite communities, it manifests mostly in subtle psychological forms.

South African leaders continue to be oblivious to the crisis at hand and fail to understand that the solution to the economic crisis and depravity facing the South African citizenry can’t easily be addressed by kicking out foreigners. In 2014, prominent Zulu King Goodwill Zwelthini had this to say and the whole country was caught up in flames:

Most government leaders do not want to speak out on this matter because they are scared of losing votes. As the king of the Zulu nation, I cannot tolerate a situation where we are being led by leaders with no views whatsoever…We are requesting those who come from outside to please go back to their countries…The fact that there were countries that played a role in the country’s struggle for liberation should not be used as an excuse to create a situation where foreigners are allowed to inconvenience locals.

After a public outrage he claimed to have been misquoted and the South African Human Rights Council became complicit when it absolved him.

Towards the South African 2019 elections, President Cyril Ramaphosa also jumped onto the blame-the-foreigner bandwagon by stoking xenophobic flames when he said that “everybody just comes into our country…” Not to be outdone, Johannesburg Mayor, Herman Mashaba, has been on the blaze, blaming foreigners for the rise in crime and overcrowded service delivery.

On the other hand, Minister Bheki Cele continues to be in denial as he adamantly characterises the current attack on foreigners as acts of criminality and not xenophobia. Almost across the political divide there is consensus that foreigners are a problem in South Africa. However, the exception has been the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) that has been steadfastly condemning the black-on-black attacks and has characterised them as self-hate.

Whither the Pan-African dream?

In his founding speech for Ghana’s independence, Kwame Nkrumah said, “We again rededicate ourselves in the struggle to emancipate other countries in Africa; for our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent.”

This speech by President Nkrumah set the basis upon which Ghana and some of the other independent African states sought to ensure the liberation of colonised African states. They never considered themselves free until other Africans were freed from colonialism and apartheid. Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere had this to say:

I reject the glorification of the nation-state [that] we inherited from colonialism, and the artificial nations we are trying to forge from that inheritance. We are all Africans trying very hard to be Ghanaians or Tanzanians. Fortunately for Africa, we have not been completely successful. The outside world hardly recognises our Ghanaian-ness or Tanzanian-ness. What the outside world recognises about us is our African-ness.

It is against this background that countries like Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa benefitted from the solidarity of their African brothers as they waged wars of liberation. Umkhonto weSizwe, the African National Congress’ armed wing, fought alongside the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army to dislodge white supremacist in Southern Rhodesia. And Nigeria set up the Southern Africa Relief Fund that raised $10 million that benefitted South Africans fighting against the apartheid regime. The African National Congress was housed in neighbouring African countries, the so-called frontline states of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Tanzania. In some cases, these countries had to endure bombings and raids by the apartheid regime.

African communities are burning from Afrophobia/xenophobia, and at times this is sparked by Africa’s elites who make reckless statements based on the logics of the Berlin Conference.

The attacks on foreign nationals who are mostly African and black by black South Africans and the denial by South African government officials that the attacks are not xenophobic but criminal are attempts to duck a glaring problem that needs urgent attention. It is this denialism from authorities that casts aspersions on the Pan-African dream of a One Africa.

Glimmers of hope

All hope is not lost, as there are still voices of reason in South Africa that understand that the problem is a complex and economic one. The EFF has also managed to show deep understanding that the problem of depravity and underdevelopment of Black South Africans is not caused by fellow Africans but by the skewed economic system. Its leader, Julius Malema, tweeted amidst the flaring of the September 2019 xenophobia storm:

Our anger is directed at wrong people. Like all of us, our African brothers and sisters are selling their cheap labour for survival. The owners of our wealth is white monopoly capital; they are refusing to share it with us and the ruling party #ANC protects them. #OneAfricaIsPossible.

Yet, if policy authorities and South Africa’s elites would dare to revisit the Pan-African dream as articulated by the EFF Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema, they may be able to exorcise the Ghosts of Berlin.

Signs of integration are appearing, albeit slowly. East African countries have opened their borders to each other and allow free movement of people without the need for a visa. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has even gone further to allow people from Tanzania and Uganda to work and live in Kenya without the need for a visa. In addition, Rwanda and Tanzania have abolished work permit fees for any national of the East African Community. Slowly, the Ghosts of Berlin are disappearing, but more work still needs to be done to hasten the process. The launch of the African Union passport and African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) offers further hope of dismantling the borders of the Berlin Conference. South African authorities need to look seriously into East Africa and see how they can re-imagine their economy.

Towards the South African 2019 elections, President Cyril Ramaphosa also jumped onto the blame-the-foreigner bandwagon by stoking xenophobic flames when he said that “everybody just comes into our country…”

The continuous flow of African migrants into South Africa is no accident but a matter of an economic history question. Blaming the foreigner, who is an easy target, becomes a simple solution to a complex problem, and in this case Amilcar Cabral’s advice “Claim no easy victories” is instructive. There is the need re-imagine a new development paradigm in South Africa and Southern Africa in general to address questions of structural inequalities and underdevelopment, if the tide of migration to Egoli (City of Gold) – read South Africa- is to be tamed. The butchering of Africans without addressing the enclavity of the African economy will remain palliative and temporary. The current modes of development at the Southern African level favour the growth of South African corporates and thus perpetuate the discourse of enclavity, consequently reinforcing colonial and apartheid labour migration patterns.

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Politics

Gambling Against the Kenyan State

7 min read. After spending several months with gamblers in Kenya, Mario Schmidt finds that many see their activity as a legitimate and transparent attempt to make ends meet in an economy that does not offer them any other stable employment or income.

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Gambling Against the Kenyan State
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In the period from June to August this year Kenyan gamblers were hit by a wave of shocking news. Only a couple of weeks after Henry Rotich, Kenya’s National Cabinet Secretary, proposed a 10% excise duty on any amount staked in betting in order ‘to curtail the negative effects arising from betting activities’, the Kenyan government decided to shut down several betting companies’ virtual mobile money wallet systems because of alleged tax evasion. As a consequence, gamblers could no longer deposit or withdraw any money. This double attack on the blossoming betting industry has a background both in Kenya as well as elsewhere. Centered around the capitalist conundrum to realign the moral value of hard work and the systemic necessity to make profit, states tend to combine moral attacks on gambling (see the case of Uganda) with attempts to raise revenues. The vice of gambling turns into a virtue as soon that it raises revenue for the state.

It is also gambling’s allegedly nasty character which made the term a prime metaphor for the excesses of finance capitalism as well as for the pitiful status of the economies of neoliberal Africa characterized by rampant inequalities. Social scientists, politicians as well as journalists portray financial capitalism as a place where, in the words of George Paul Meiu, ‘gambling-like speculation and entrepreneurialism replace labour’ and the ‘magical allure of making money from nothing’, as Jean and John Comaroff have written, has seized the imagination of a vast majority of the population. Faced with a dazzling amount of wealth showcased by religious, economic and political leaders alike, young and unemployed men increasingly put their hopes on gambling. Trying to imitate what they perceive as a magical shortcut to unimaginable wealth, so the story goes, they become foolish puppets of a global capitalist system that they often know little about and have to face the dire consequences of their foolish behaviour.

After spending several months with gamblers both in rural as well as urban Kenya, I can only conclude that this story fails to portray reality in its complexity (see Schmidt 2019). While it is undeniable that some gamblers attempt to imitate the acquisition of a form of wealth that they perceive as resulting from a quick-to-riches scheme, a considerable number of Kenyan gamblers do not. In contrast, they portray and enact gambling as a legitimate and transparent attempt to make ends meet in an economy that does not offer them any other stable employment or income.

Narratives about betting leading to poverty, suicide and alcoholism neglect the fact that the majority of young Kenyan gamblers had already been poor, stressed and under extreme economic pressure before they started gambling, or, as a friend of mine phrased it succinctly: ‘If I don’t bet, I go to bed without food every second night, if betting does not go well, I might sleep without food two days in a row. Where’s the difference?’ Gambler’s betting activities therefore cannot be analyzed as a result of a miserable economic situation alone. Such a perspective clearly mutes the actors’ own view of their practices. They see betting as a form of work they can engage in without being connected to the national political or economic middle class or elite, i.e. without trying to enter into opaque relationships characterized by inequality. In other words, I interpret gambling as directed against what gamblers perceive as a nepotistic and kleptocratic state capitalism, i.e. an economy in which wealth is not based upon merit but upon social relations and where profit and losses are distributed in a non-transparent way through corruption, inheritance and theft.

Before I substantiate this assumption, let me briefly offer some background information on the boom of sports betting in Kenya which can only be understood if one takes into account the rise of mobile money. The mobile money transfer service Mpesa was introduced in 2007 and has since changed the lives of millions of Kenyans. Accessible with any mobile phone, customers can use it to store and withdraw money from Mpesa agents all over the country, send money to friends and family members as well as pay for goods and services. A whole industry of lending and saving apps and sports betting companies has evolved around this new financial infrastructure. It allows Kenyans to bet on sports events wherever they are located as long as they possess a mobile phone to transfer money to a betting company’s virtual wallet.

Gamblers can either bet on single games or combine bets on different games to increase the potential winning (a so-called ‘multi-bet’). Many, and especially young, male Kenyans, bet regularly. According to a survey I conducted last November around a rural Western Kenyan market centre 55% of the men and 20% of the women have bet in the past or are currently betting with peaks in the age group between 18 and 35. This resonates with a survey done by Geopoll estimating that over 70% of the Kenyan youth place or have placed bets on sport events.

Both journalistic and academic work that understand these activities as irresponsible and addictive had previously primed my perception. Hence, I was surprised by how gamblers frame their betting activities as based upon knowledge and by how they enacted gambling as a domestic, reproductive activity that demands careful planning. They consider betting as a meticulously executed form of work whose attraction partly results from its detachment from and even opposition to Kenyan politics (for example, almost all gamblers avoid betting on Kenyan football games as they believe they are rigged and implicated in local politics). Put differently, the gamblers I interacted with understand their betting activities as directed against a kleptocratic capitalist state whose true nature has been, according to my interlocutors, once more revealed by the proposal to tax gambling in Kenya.

Two of my ethnographic observations can illustrate and substantiate this claim, the first being a result of paying close attention to the ways gamblers speak and the second one a result of observing how they act.

Spending my days with gamblers, I realised that they use words that are borrowed from the sphere of cooking and general well-being when they talk about betting in their mother tongue Dholuo. Chiemo (‘to eat’), keto mach (‘to light the fire’), mach mangima (‘the fire has breath’, i.e. ‘is alive’) and mach omuoch (‘the fire has fought back’) are translations of ‘winning’ (chiemo), ‘placing a multi-bet’ (keto mach), ‘the multi-bet is still valid’ (mach mangima) or ‘the multi-bet has been lost’ (mach omuoch). This interpenetration of two spheres that are kept apart or considered to be mutually exclusive in many descriptions of gambling practices sparked my interest and I began to wonder what these linguistic overlaps mean for a wider understanding of the relation between gambling and the ways in which young, mostly male Kenyans try to make ends meet in their daily lives.

While accompanying a friend of mine on his daily trips to the betting shops of Nairobi’s Central Business District, I realized that the equation between gambling and reproductive work, however, does not remain merely metaphorical.

Daniel Okech, a 25-year-old Master of Business Administration worked on a tight schedule. When he did not have to attend a university class during the mornings which he considered not very promising anyway, he worked through websites that offered detailed statistical data on the current and past performances of football teams and players. These ranged from the English Premier League to the football league of Finland (e.g. the website FootyStats). He engaged in such meticulous scrutiny because he considered the smallest changes in a squad’s line-up or in the odds as potentially offering money-making opportunities to exploit. Following up on future and current games, performances and odds was part of Daniel’s daily work routine which was organized around the schedules of European football leagues and competitions. The rhythm of the European football schedule organized Daniel’s daily, weekly and monthly rhythms as he needed to make sure to have money on the weekends and during the season in order to place further bets.

Even though betting is based upon knowledge, habitual adaptations and skills, it rarely leads to a stable income. With regard to the effects it has, betting appears to be almost as bad as any other job and Daniel does not miscalculate the statistical probabilities of football bets. He knows that multi-bets of fifteen or more rarely go through and that winning such a bet remains extraordinarily improbable. What allows gamblers like Daniel to link betting with ‘work’ and the ‘reproductive sphere’ is not the results it brings forward. Rather, I argue that the equation between the ‘reproductive sphere’ and betting is anchored in the specific structure between cause and effect the latter entails.

What differentiates gambling from other jobs is the gap between the quality of one’s expertise and performance and the expected result. For young men in Nairobi, one could argue, betting on football games is what planting maize is for older women in arid areas of Western Kenya in the era of global climate change: an activity perfected by years of practice and backed up by knowledge, but still highly dependent on external and uncontrollable factors. Just like women know that it will eventually rain, Daniel told me that ‘Ramos [Sergio Ramos, defender from Real Madrid] will get a red card when Real Madrid plays against a good team.’

For young men who see their future devoid of any regular and stable employment betting is not a ‘shortcut’ to a better life, as often criticized by middle-class Kenyans or politicians. It is rather one of the few ways in which they can control the conditions of their type of work and daily work routine while at the same time accepting and to a certain extent even taming the uncontrollability and volatility of the world surrounding them.

Gamblers do not frame their betting activities in analogy with the quick-to-riches schemes they understand to lie behind the suspicious wealth of economic, political and religious leaders. While religious, economic and political ‘big men’ owe their wealth to opaque and unknown causes, gambling practices are based upon a rigid analysis of transparent data and information. By establishing links between their own life and knowledge on the one hand and football games played outside the influence of Kenyan politicians and businessmen on the other, gamblers gain agency in explicit opposition to the Kenyan state and to nepotistic relations they believe to exist between other Kenyans.

Therefore, it is unsurprising that, in the context of the betting companies’ alleged tax evasion, many gamblers have not yet repeated the usual complaints and grievances against companies or individuals that are accused of tax evasion or corruption. While some agree that the betting companies should pay taxes, others claim that due to the corrupt nature of the Kenyan state it would be preferable if the betting companies increase their sponsoring of Kenyan football teams. No matter what an individual gambler’s stance on the accusation of tax evasion, however, in the summer of 2019 all gamblers were eagerly waiting for their virtual wallets to be unlocked so they could continue to bet against the state.

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This article has been co-published between The Elephant and Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE)

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Donald Trump: America’s ‘African Dictatorship’ Moment

8 min read. For decades, the grandiosity and excesses of Africa’s strongmen have been the subject of global ridicule and scorn. Now, under Donald Trump, Americans are finally getting a taste of what an African dictatorship looks and feels like.

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For the Love of Money: Kenya’s False Prophets and Their Wicked and Bizarre Deeds
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Am I the only one who felt a growing sense of ugly familiarity while watching the 4th of July proceedings in Washington DC? It took me a few days to fully comprehend the oddity of the spectacle. It was atavistically American: a questionable real estate mogul; fighter jets roaring overhead; fireworks blowing off with abandon as vague tenants of “bravery” were touted. One only needed to add in grandiose Lynard Skynyrd music, a screw-on plastic bottle of Bud Light (for safety) and the tossing of an American flag football to make it the most US-driven spectacle ever put on display.

Apart from an eye-rolling display of questionable Americana, the whole display struck a deeper and more sinister chord. Stop me if you’ve seen this movie before: military equipment being trucked in from all over the country to be displayed as props; invites extended mainly to party loyalists; outlandish claims of nationalistic strength in the face of unknown “threats”; and an ever-ballooning budget taken seemingly from the most needy of social programmes.

Further, the entirety of the charade was put on by a leader of questionable (at best) morals, one who openly blasts the press as anti-democratic and who is known to engage in dubious electoral practices.

Many readers within East Africa may have looked at their TV screens and thought to themselves: “It’s finally America’s turn to see this ridiculousness.” They wouldn’t be wrong. In the United States right now, the term “unprecedented” is bandied about with ferocity amongst the media, with well-established media houses with sterling reputations formed through covering the 20th century’s most brutal occurrences suddenly at a loss that anything so gauche could take shape in the form of an American leader.

When it comes down to it though, doesn’t it all reside at the doorstep of personality type?

From where I sit, it most certainly does. All of these strongmen (and they are all male) – whether they’re in power, in post-political ennui or dead – have done the exact same thing. It is different strokes painted with the same brush. Their canvas, on this occasion, is that of spectacle, of projecting something that is better, stronger (dare I say less impotent?) than themselves. It is a public display of strength, ill-needed by those who don’t secretly know that they’re inwardly weak.

Many readers within East Africa may have looked at their TV screens and thought to themselves: “It’s finally America’s turn to see this ridiculousness.” They wouldn’t be wrong. In the United States right now, the term “unprecedented” is bandied about with ferocity amongst the media…

To start with, those who have systematically oppressed and plundered a country often rub it in to commemorate their “achievements”. For example, there is still a nationally celebrated Moi Day annually in Kenya, despite the former president’s record of extrajudicial measures, devaluing of the Kenyan shilling and rampant institutional corruption. Yoweri Museveni has been “democratically” elected five times, and makes sure to always inspect military guards dressed in full pomp at major Ugandan national days and events. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame had an outright military parade during his latest inauguration in 2017. It is true, such days are often celebrated with a display of token military presence; at the inaugural “Trump Day” this past American Independence Day, an exception to the rule was not found.

A key tenet of such military-driven presidential events, at least within those run by would-be strongmen, is the heavy under-current of politicisation made more stark as the figurehead acts exceptionally stoic and well-behaved for the event. At the rally on the Fourth of July, chants of “lock her up” broke out among the crowd, and reports of minor clashes made the news. Therein, as they say, lies the key difference, the breaking point from a day of democratic celebration of national history into something more sinister. It is when the very essence of patriotism swings to identify with a single individual that the political climate can become potentially even more dangerous than it already is.

Within hours of the spectacle that put him at the centre, Trump made heavy-handed allegations of communism against his political “enemies”; within days he was saying that certain Congresswomen (all of colour) should go back to their countries of origin if they didn’t “love” the US enough. The standard, it seems, is political allegiance.

Within weeks of the Fourth of July event, Donald Trump’s supporters were chanting “send her back” at presidential rallies. These chants, while directed at all four Congresswomen, (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan), were particularly poignant in the context of Ms. Omar, who was born in Somalia before fleeing to the Daadab refugee camp in Kenya, and finally resettling as a refugee in the US, where she eventually found a permanent home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This, when seen through the lens of escalating nationalism, jingoistic tendencies towards refugees (including the abysmal treatment of migrants on the United States’ southern border with Mexico in a series of “detention facilities”), and thrown as chum to stirring crowds at politically-driven rallies, is a dangerous recipe.

The message being espoused and defended at the present by both the Trump administration and right-wing politicians loyal to it has taken root at the very celebration of American democracy itself. It is, in fact, association by patriotism. It is becoming a deeper-seated sense of national identity and the mere act of seeing such policies associated with the nation’s independence is, to put it mildly, a dangerous precedent. It is a continuation of a trend of both ramping up and normalising such attacks on what is deemed “un-American” by those currently in power. This designation, once considered “beyond the norm” within United States’ politics, has rapidly shifted towards becoming the routine.

While the rally was taking place, Trump harangued the crowd with a 45-minute all-American masturbatory salute to military hardware. He read off assorted names of different combinations of letters and numbers, each signifying a different tool of top-grade, American-made weapon of death and destruction. Fighter jets, tanks, humvees, all were given their due with a salute through the rain-soaked vista of the National Mall of Washington DC. They were each named nearly laboriously, in exquisite reverence for their ability to unleash death on vague “enemies of the state” (typically seen in the guise of unspecified foreigners in Hollywood action blockbusters).

In a more current context, this is still a practice around the region. Military honour guards are inspected in ceremony by the head of state. In fairness, despite the US press’s fervent response, America has an awkward relationship with the fetishisation of the military on every official and unofficial national occasion. Fighter jets zoom over the heads of Americans. Since the 9/11 terror attacks, we have seen the rampant rise of forced acts of patriotism, many of which later turned out to be directly sponsored by the Pentagon to the tune of millions of US dollars (furnished by the US taxpayer).  This continued to deepen the divide among the American public along the lines of military interventionism and military prioritisation. It is an underlying sentiment of “tanks are now alongside White House officials, and who are you to disagree with their patriotism?” The association, as it were, is the issue.

It is a slippery slope when the military is viewed as an extension of the leadership, rather than one that protects the national interest. All too often within strongman-type of leadership structures, the military (and their goals) become an arm of the central governmental figure, with such events as seen on the Fourth of July being a means to “stroke the ego” of the leadership.

An adept dictator always knows where their bread is buttered: the more that one inflates the importance of the military and raises its stature, the more likely the military is going be loyal to you. In a sense, the Fourth of July parade was a natural extension of Trump’s extensive rallies in support of “the troops”, “the cops” and “the brave people guarding our border from the invasion from the South”. Daniel arap Moi is a good example of this behaviour; in the post-1982 coup period, he closed ranks, gave the military more emphasis, and rewarded loyalty.

Within weeks of the Fourth of July event, Donald Trump’s supporters were chanting “send her back” at presidential rallies. These chants…were particularly poignant in the context of Ms. Omar, who was born in Somalia before fleeing to the Daadab refugee camp in Kenya, and finally resettling as a refugee in the US…

In turn, this behaviour can drive the chosen narrative of the state – that the military is way too powerful to be challenged. The story is told, played out on screen, marched in front of the masses, splashed across newspaper front pages. It helps to reinforce an idea, one of division, that of being on an opposing side from the government if you dare disagree.

Make no mistake, however ridiculous the Fourth of July show was, it was most definitely intended to be a show of strength. How could one feasibly dare to challenge the seat of power when the very entirety of military might is on public display, with guns pointed squarely into the crowd from the very basis of the Lincoln Memorial? This is not unlike the grandiose trains of government vehicles that accompany Museveni as he zips around Kampala or Uhuru Kenyatta as he delays traffic whilst travelling out to play golf on the outskirts of Nairobi. (The number of cars isn’t the point; it’s that they would crush you if you were to stand in their path.) Think what you want of Kagame’s policies and the issues surrounding democratic practices in Rwanda; only a fool would doubt his closeness to the top military brass. What Trump is engaging in now is the classic appearance of alliances – the same outer projection that any opposition’ would be met with those same large caliber guns that faced outward to the crowd. Only the obtuse would see that positioning as merely coincidental.

It isn’t a coincidence that those in the Trump administration’s camp were given prime seats at the base of the Lincoln Memorial. Those “in the know” are given strength by a sort of transitive property of influence. The man on the stage is in charge of those with the guns, and he approves of you enough to let you into the inner sanctum.

It is further not a coincidence that the “vicious, mean, hateful, disgusting democrats” weren’t even invited within shouting distance of the “in club”. They haven’t shown enough Trumpian loyalty to be positioned near the military hardware. Instead members of the Democratic Party were told to “sort themselves” and largely stayed away from the proceedings of the event at the National Mall in Washington DC that rainy evening.

The end consequences of these deepening of divisions could be seen during the event and in the immediate hours afterwards. Squabbles broke out, flag-burning protesters were angrily confronted, reports of arrests were made.

From the White House (or possibly from a late night flight down to a golf course) Trump began to launch public attacks against those who would have stood against his event, his party and his party’s party. The tirade began in public, with attacks that were based on race, classism and politics. The “haters” and “losers” were blamed, and the appearance of strength steadily deepened the already existing party line divisions.

It was in the hours after that that the evidence was most apparent that Trump had used the Fourth of July “Salute to America” as a means for further political grandstanding. The traditional 4th of July political “ceasefire” was sounded with the firing off of verbal and political shots. It was in the insults that the intended circling of the wagons became further crystallised. It was classic Trump and classic strongman – to put on the best of appearances only to sink several notches lower as soon as the cameras officially turned off.

Let’s finish with the gold standard of ridiculous self-congratulatory events – Idi Amin. Am I saying that the crimes of Idi Amin are equal to those of Trump? Obviously not, but am I comparing their gauche public tendencies and sub-par intellects? Absolutely. Amin was famous for his parades during times of extreme national duress. He continued on, medals ablaze with the military’s full might on display. Add to this his self-congratulatory nature, his vindictive political favouritism and his toxic displays of might. (Amin, it has been noted, was jealous of the then Central African Republic president, Jean-Bedel Bakassa, who visited him adorned with medals more extravagant than his own.)

As for Trump, he is not one to shy away from self-aggrandisement and self-promotion. His very own Boeing 737 is famously decked with solid gold interiors. His ego can even be described as all-consuming; it eats whatever stands in its path. It is a self-sustaining entity, a black hole from which there can be no escape. The same could be said about Amin – power went to his head, and quickly. Once it did, enemies were dispatched and invented to be dispatched.

Trump’s paranoia could be viewed as becoming extreme. There is an endless need for loyalty and deference to Trump, especially amongst his most loyal followers; the Fourth of July parade was simply the latest manifestation of it. With such parades, limits and moderation don’t typically follow suit.

There will be more events, bigger showmanship and more association with himself as the idyllic vision of America. He is filling out his strongman shows nicely now, and starting to walk around in them. He now needs feats of false strength in order to back himself up.

The key difference between Trump and Amin, of course, is that the US military is a global monolith, one that can destroy the world with the push of a red button by an orange finger.

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