“Chitap koret,” this is my ancestral land, a Kalenjin from the Sabaot community, one of the nine ethnic dialects that make up the Kalenjin nation, said to me at the foothills of Mt Elgon, in Trans Nzoia County. Sabaots are a pastoralist community and just like the Maasai people, believe in keeping cattle – even the poorest Sabaot must have a cow or two. “Kalenjin believe North Rift especially belongs to them and nothing will change that,” said Kip, my Sabaot acquaintance.
“These people (the Kikuyus) will always be tenants on our land,” said Kip. “They are here temporarily. It doesn’t matter whether the land they occupy has been bought legally or not, was dished out, bought from one of us or any other person, whether it has a title or not. One day they must vacate this land.” Kip said mutual suspicion between the Kikuyus and Kalenjin in the Rift Valley will always abound. “Mark my words,” said Kip emphatically, “just like the Kikuyu don’t forget, we Kalenjin don’t forgive – we will revisit the issue of land ownership in the Rift Valley. We will soon show them who the true owners of the Rift Valley are.” It was an ominous threat.
Every time there is a shift in the political relations at the national level, between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin elites, every time these elites engage in a public spat, the Kalenjin people of the greater Rift Valley allude to foreigners among them who should be ejected. Every time the issue of foreigners arises in the Rift Valley region, the first targets are specifically the Kikuyu people, some of whom have lived in the Rift Valley region for the last 70 years.
Kip said mutual suspicion between the Kikuyus and Kalenjin in the Rift Valley will always abound. “Mark my words,” said Kip emphatically, “just like the Kikuyu don’t forget, we Kalenjin don’t forgive – we will revisit the issue of land ownership in the Rift Valley. We will soon show them who the true owners of the Rift Valley are.” It was an ominous threat.
The genesis of the land quagmire between the Kalenjin and Kikuyus in the Rift Valley region, traces back to the 1940s, which the British colonial government exacerbated by settling the Kikuyus in the area. An annual colonial write-up of 1957 reported, “In common with other Kalenjin people, however, there is everywhere else, dislike of the Kikuyu settlement being established in what is regarded as their district’s sphere of influence in Uasin Gishu”.
Yet, the colonial government had, by the turn of the 19th century, sowed the seeds of discord, when it pushed many of the ethnic communities into reserve lands and squatter camps, to create room for cash crop growing by the European settler farmers in the White Highlands. Central Kenya, Rift Valley and Coast Province were the major culprits in this settler land colonial project.
A pastoralist community, the Kalenjin, however struck an exceptional deal with the settler farmers: provide manual labour in the farms for exchange of grazing rights. But come the mid-1940s, this arrangement was destabilized, because the settler farmers needed more land for their cash crops. Why? World War (II) had ended in 1945 and Europe had decimated most of its agricultural lands for cash crop production. In addition, the Kalenjin people were expanding in population, even as their livestock grew in numbers. They too were demanding more land to graze their animals. This naturally created further tensions.
The first thing the colonial government did in reaction to this agitation by the Kalenjin was, to contain them in squatter camps and deny them grazing land. A warrior-like people, the Kalenjin refused to be squatters in the settler farms. So, in search of pastureland, they trekked off. This migration led them to central Rift Valley, Taita-Taveta and even in as far as Tanzania.
Every time there is a shift in the political relations at the national level, between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin elites, every time these elites engage in a public spat, the Kalenjin people of the greater Rift Valley allude to foreigners among them who should be ejected
To replace the departing Kalenjins, the colonial government brought in the Kikuyus from Central Kenya to work in the settler farms arguing that the agrarian, sedentary Kikuyus were hardworking and attuned to plant cultivation, unlike the “lazy” pastoralist Kalenjin.
By 1950s therefore, Kikuyu population in the Rift Valley had tremendously grown and this greatly upset the indigenous Kalenjin. This is around the time the Kalenjins started agitating for their land and viewing Kikuyus as strangers and intruders. Hence, the temporary halting of more “importation” of Kikuyus from Central Kenya to Rift Valley, according to colonial reports that quoted Mr P.H Brown, the Uasin Gishu District Commissioner (DC), who recommended the stop.
But, no sooner had Brown stopped further Kikuyu migration into the Rift, than his successor revoked the decree. Mr R.S Symes-Thompson pointed out that Kikuyus were central to agricultural success in the settler farms. It is an arrangement that Jomo Kenyatta inherited and perfected when he became first, the Prime Minister in 1963 and, later President in 1964.
When it became apparent that the British would have to relinquish its power in Kenya, they bought between one and three million acres of land to resettle the landless. They also put a caveat to land ownership: any Kenyan would own land anywhere in Kenya, regardless of their ancestral origins and ethnicity. Secondly, there was no free land. If anybody wanted to buy land, it would, henceforth be, on a willing-seller, willing-buyer. It is an arrangement that greatly favoured the Kikuyus and that Kenyatta took to heart and implemented it even better than the departing British. To date, these two decrees appear in the new promulgated 2010 constitution.
To this end, the British colonial government gave Kenyatta’s government 100 million sterling pounds under the Settlement Fund Trustees (SFT) to buy land for the squatters – many of who were Kikuyus. In 1969, fiery Nandi MP Jean Marie Seroney, convened a charged meeting to debate the land question in Rift Valley. The Nandi Hills Declaration was the aftermath of that meeting, which decreed all land in Nandi belonged to the local community, that would henceforth oppose any further acquisition and settlement of Kikuyus in the area.
Moi who was the Vice President and Minister for Home Affairs and was Seroney’s political nemesis, threw him into detention. The Kalenjins have always argued that even when they had money to buy their own land, the Kenyatta government opposed the move. They cite the example of the Makonge (sisal) Farm in Ziwa. The attempt to buy this land was thwarted by the state in 1976, leading to the arrest of Eldoret North MP, the controversial Chelagat Mutai. The farm, instead, was handed to a land buying company belonging to Kikuyus.
In Property and Political Order in Africa: Land Rights and the Structure of Politics, published in 2014 by Cambridge University Press, Catherine Boone, ably tackles the intricate interconnectedness of supra local politics and land ownership in the volatile Rift Valley region.
“The statist land tenure regime (LTG) established in the Rift Valley farming districts by the colonial state was perpetuated and elaborated by the Kanu government after independence,” writes Boone. She says, the government bought the land from the departing European settlers, and allocated the land through settlement schemes to smallholder farmers between 1960–1975. “The rest of the land so acquired was transferred in the form of large estates to high ranking members of the Kenyatta regime entrenching their status as an economic, as well as a political elite.”
Burnt Forest area – which become infamous in December 2007, after some Kikuyu families were trapped in a Pentecostal church and that was set on fire, burning mostly women and their children below 10 years – “become a zone of mostly Kikuyu settlement schemes and was purchased by the state in 1965.” During the highly contested presidential 2007 election, the Opposition coalition led by Raila Odinga, running on an ODM ticket cried foul and accused the Mwai Kibaki led Party of National Union (PNU) of stealing the elections, provoking ethnic cleansing in Rift Valley, especially in areas that were heavily populated by Kikuyu. Burnt Forest became one of the notorious flashpoints of that ethnic warfare.
“Many settlers on the Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia Districts schemes were Kikuyu who had previously been employed on European farms in these areas” points out Boone. “Under Kenyatta, the kanu government used its land powers to open the Rift to settlement by peoples and persons who were not recognized by the state as indigenous to these jurisdictions, and who did not claim ancestral or customary rights in these areas.” Boone adds, “Under colonial rule, these people were categorized into state-recognized ethnic groups (the Nandi, Kipsigis, Maasai, Tugen, Elgeyo, Samburu, Marakwet, Sabaot, Pokot Terik, Turkana and so on).”
Catherine Boone who is a professor of Government, International Development and Political Science at the London School of Economics (LSE), makes the point that even after these communities were pushed to the margins of their lands (presumably to create room for the sedentary communities such as the Kikuyu to engage in agricultural farming), the loss (of land) did not decrease, or become less onerous, overtime.
Conflicts over access to land in Kenya’s Rift Valley have marked all stages of Kenya’s national history and shaped each critical juncture, says Boone. “The colonial state expropriated much of what is now Rift Valley Province from the Maasai and other people indigenous to the Rift. The British proclaimed direct jurisdiction over what it designated as Crown Land in the Rift Valley in 1904.”
Boone argues in her book that “the farming districts of Kenya’s Rift Valley Province are some of the most productive and highly commercialized rural zones of sub-Saharan Africa. These districts – Nakuru, Trans Nzoia, Uasin Gishu and Nandi – are territories with high in-migration and high ethnic homogeneity and with settlement patterns and land allocation authored directly by the central state. It is also one of Africa’s worst conflict-ridden rural areas, with a long and bloody history of land-related struggles.”
Once Daniel arap Moi was in control of the state organs, after succeeding Mzee Jomo Kenyatta in 1978, “he used the central state’s land prerogative in Rift Valley to reward its own clients, who were encouraged by the regime to coalesce around ethnic identity, Kalenjin-ness that was centred on indigeneity (autochthony) in the Rift Valley,” notes Boone. “From 1986 on, government forestlands became caisse noire of patronage resources that were used to cement elite alliances and build political support for Moi among Kalenjin constituencies he needed as a mass power base.”
Hence, “evictions of Kenyatta-era forest squatters and the declassification of new forest land opened a land frontier that Moi used to settle thousands of Kalenjin families. Most Kikuyus were expelled from the Mau Forest in the 1980s, so that Kalenjins could move in. Many were allowed to settle south of Njoro.”
In the South Rift, largely composed of the Kipsigis, Kalenjin’s biggest dialect, a simmering anger of volcanic proportions is going on, brought about by the eviction of the Kipsigis people from the Mau Forest beginning 2018. Many were settled there, originally by President Moi in the early 1980s, soon after becoming the second president of Kenya, and for some as late as 15 years ago during the tenure of President Mwai Kibaki. The Kipsigis are now accusing the Deputy President William Ruto of ominous silence, as they are forcefully being kicked out and their property burned.
Daniel Burgei told me the Kipsigis helped marshal Kalenjin vote for Jubilee Party through Ruto, “now he is mum about the evictions. This is very troubling as we watch this whole spectacle in bewilderment. The Kipsigis have been practicing shamba system in the Mau Forest, where the soils are rich, do not need fertilizer and are good for cabbage, maize potatoes and tomato production. They also have been keeping livestock; cows, donkeys, goats and sheep.” Yet, in the process, they have hived huge chunks of the forest by cutting trees, hence destroying the natural environment, all in the name of giving way to farming, said Burgei.
Ruto, like Moi in the 1970s when he was Jomo Kenyatta’s VP is accused by a section of the Kalenjin people of keeping quiet in the face of the long-standing issue of land ownership in the Rift Valley region.
It is significant to note that “the name Kalenjin came into use as a group of designation in Kenya among World War (II) servicemen and ex-servicemen and students in the elite East Africa high schools in Nairobi and Kampala in the 1940s. “This ethnic consciousness of being Kalenjin was rooted in the native-stranger distinction. In very part, it was produced by the land tenure regime. The form of ethnic consciousness and mobilization that developed in Kenya was not the consciousness of all the people.
“When (former President Daniel arap) Moi led the efforts to amalgamate the political organization of the state-recognized tribes of the western Rift Valley in early 1960, he called the umbrella group the Kalenjin Political Association (KPA).” Boone adds that when the colonial government lifted the ban on indigenous politics, Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) took over the interests of KPA.
“By the time of the February 1962 Lancaster House constitutional negotiations, “the rifts between Kanu and Kadu were…deep and deeply felt…During the talks, Moi would repeat that the people of Kalenjin were prepared to fight and die for their land.” Boone reminds us all, that “Kalenjin first appeared as an official ethnicity on the Kenyan census in 1979, Moi’s first year as a president. Moi promoted Kalenjin identity in the 1980s and 1990s as an ethnic designation to transcend the narrower, older colonial-era identities of Nandi, Kipsigis, Elgeyo, Tugen, and so on.” These ethnic consciousness of being a Kalenjin, says Boone was driven by the sensitive land politics of the Rift.
This consciousness has had the effect of creating a peculiar “tribalism,” in the Rift Valley land politics “namely that in it was almost wholly a consciousness of being, either a Kikuyu or not-Kikuyu.”
If the 1960s and 1970s were decades of consolidation of the Kenyatta regime which sidelined those claiming ancestral land rights in the Rift Valley and “inserted” African settlers into Rift Valley farming districts, the 1980s and 1990s were a reversal of these settlements. Forced to accept plural politics in 1991, by the West, his erstwhile allies in the Cold War era, Moi mobilized the Rift Valley constituencies, “along an axis of competition that pitted indigenes of the Rift Valley against settlers who had been implanted by the Kenyatta regime.”
Boone observes that the Rift Valley politicians tapped into existing land-related tensions in which the central state was directly implicated as the author and enforcer of a contested distribution of land rights. “This conflict found direct expression in electoral politics at the national level. Political rhetoric that pervaded Nandi, Nakuru, Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia districts dwelled on how land was lost to the Europeans was never recovered and how under Kenyatta ‘black colonialists’had been allowed to buy up land that rightfully should have belonged to indigenous communities.”
Prof Boone gives the example of Likia location, in Molo division, Nakuru District, “where most land belonged to Kikuyus in the early 1990s, local Kalenjin politicians reminded the people of the past ownership of the land and encouraged them to reclaim it.”
On January 10, 2019, a former Molo MP, Joseph Kiuna held a press conference in Likia area of Molo and reminded the Kalenjin that they had not forgotten what they had done to the Kikuyus in 2007/2008post-election violence (PEV). “All this time the Kikuyus have been pretending that they had forgotten and moved on,” said Kip. “We Kalenjin are very much aware they have not forgotten anything.” Even though thousands of Kikuyus were internally displaced – up to 600,000 people were dislocated from their homesteads in the greater Rift Valley during PEV, by the marauding Kalenjin warriors – many a Kikuyu nevertheless returned to Rift Valley. The allure of fertile soils, the armistice arrived at between Ruto and Uhuru Kenyatta and a desire to go back to their lands, which they had occupied for many years, was greater than the ominous existential threat of a repeat “ethnic” attack on their farms.
And the Kikuyus have had big group farms ranging between 1000 and 3000 acres in Trans Nzoia and Uasin Gishu Counties. 35 kilometers from Kitale town are the better known Gitwamba and Munyaka Farms located at the foothills of Mt Elgon, bordering Mt Elgon Forest. Most of the Kikuyus who settled here were from Nyeri and its environs. Endowed with black alluvial soils, the farms are very fertile. Since settling there, decades ago, the Kikuyus have grown beans, cabbages, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes amongst a host of other horticultural crops. Markets days in Iten, Kitale, Matunda, Moi’s Bridge and Soy are filled with fresh produce from these farms. As fate would have it, in Trans Nzoia, it is Gitwamba – which in Kikuyu language means a flat, rich plateau with fertile soils and Munyaka which means to be lucky – that were the first flashpoints of ethnic upheavals in 1991. They have remained so to date.
The 1991 ethnic clashes were instigated, organized and executed by Moi’s Kanu regime which suddenly felt under siege from the multi-party advocates. Hoping to tap into their age-old grievances of land ownership and aware he had kept mum as land in the Rift Valley was being parceled to Kikuyus and other communities, by the Kenyatta government in the 1970s, Moi allegedly encouraged the Kalenjins to “reclaim” their land from foreigners, in exchange for their support to further cement and consolidate his grip on state power. By foreigners, he meant the Kikuyu people.
The other Kikuyu farms in TransNzoia are: Wamuini Farm A, the 1,000 agricultural land near St Joseph High School on the Kitale-Ndalu Road. Wamuini Farm B, formerly Mabonde Farm that was called mabonde – Kiswahili for denes, because of its ridges and valleys. There is also Meru Farm bought in the early 1970s. It is near Kitale showground, adjacent to the posh Milimani Estate. The other big farms owned by Kikuyus are Kiirita, Makui and Weteithie Farms. Weteithie, which in Kikuyu means self-help. All these farms were bought through land-buying companies with loans from Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC). They include Mwihoko, which means hope in Kikuyu, Ngwataniro-Mutukanio, Nakuru District Ex-Freedom Fighters Organization (NDEFFO) and Nyakinyua, which was President Kenyatta’s favourite cultural dancing troupe made up of women.
The 1991 ethnic clashes were instigated, organized and executed by Moi’s Kanu regime which suddenly felt under siege from the multi-party advocates. Hoping to tap into their age-old grievances of land ownership and aware he had kept mum as land in the Rift Valley was being parceled to Kikuyus and other communities, by the Kenyatta government in the 1970s, Moi allegedly encouraged the Kalenjins to “reclaim” their land from foreigners, in exchange for their support to further cement and consolidate his grip on state power. By foreigners, he meant the Kikuyu people.
In Trans Nzoia, other Kikuyus acquired land through SFTs, formerly white farms, given ostensibly to “landless people” by Jomo Kenyatta government. In Uasin Gishu County which borders Trans Nzoia, there is a replica of Munyaka Farm, today referred to as Kimumu-Munyaka Farm, located on the Eldoret-Iten Road. The more famous Ya-Mumbi Farm is on the Eldoret-Kapsabet-Kisumu Road. Rukuini and Kondoo Farms are near Burnt Forest. Kimuri and Kiambaa Farms are not far from Eldoret town. Rukuini and Kondoo, just like Gitwamba and Munyaka in Kitale, have remained focal points of “ethnic wars” since 1991.
After the violent uproar that took place in Eldoret North following the controversial 2007 general election, many Kikuyus living in Uasin Gishu County, abandoned their farms in Turbo 30 km from Eldoret town and went to live in town, at Langas estate, the sprawling Kangemi-type ghetto located on the Eldoret-Kisumu highway, just after the Eldoret Polytechnic. Kangemi is a slum on Waiyaki Way, seven kilometres from Nairobi city centre. Stephen Kiplagat, who was born and bred in and whose family still lives in Langas told me that it is today estimated to be 85 per cent populated by Kikuyus. “My family is one of the very few Nandi families that still reside at Langas, the rest are Kikuyus.”
Five Nandi families originally owned Langas. Many of them started parcelling the land and selling it mostly to Kikuyus from the 1980s. Two factors drove this sale: the Kikuyu desire for a plot of land and the fact that they had ready cash to buy the land. With the money, the departing Kalenjin bought land in Kitale, Soy, Turbo and Ziwa so that they could engage in agricultural and livestock farming.
I went to school in Kitale in the 1980s, then it was a one-street settler town and that is where I first heard the phrase “revisiting the issue.” A prominent Kalenjin businessman, (he later become an influential politician in President Moi’s inner circle and today he is retired), said in my presence: “We’ve only leased the land to them (Kikuyus), they should be knowing that…we’ll soon revisit that issue.” When the push for multiparty elections in 1991, appeared inevitable, Moi’s monolithic Kanu one-party dictatorship relented to political pluralism, but not before igniting “ethnic” skirmishes in the Rift Valley.
Kip told me, “resources are becoming scarcer by the day in the Rift Valley region and our people would like the land issue in the Rift Valley region prioritized as a matter of national political discourse.”
The first wave of Kikuyu settlers in Trans Nzoia district first appeared as colonial civil service workers in the mid-1940s after the World War II. The next group showed up in the mid-1950s. These were Kikuyus running away from the Mau Mau insurgency and capture by the British colonial police. Many of them converted to Islam and assumed new identities. Indeed the first Kikuyus to settle in Kitale town were Hamisi Saidi and Hussein Ramadhan. They had taken up Islamic names and soon became petty traders in town.
Resources are becoming scarcer by the day in the Rift Valley region and our people would like the land issue in the Rift Valley region prioritized as a matter of national political discourse
Kigotho Njuguna, Mbugua Gachani, Danson Kangonga Mbugwa, John Muchuri, Wanguhu Githiomi (who hailed from Kijabe) and Peter Kinyanjui – one time Democratic Party of Kenya (DP) point man in Trans Nzoia) formed part of the earliest pioneers of Kikuyu settlers in Kitale. DP was an opposition party once led by Mwai Kibaki, the third President of Kenya. The others were: Lawrence Waweru, Kirima Githaiga, David Kiberu, Waigi Mwangi (originally from Ngecha in Limuru) and Apollos Mwangi. All these men are dead and many of them hailed from Nyeri district.
As the theatre of the politics of succession leading to 2022, plays out in the expansive Rift Valley region, the spectre of the ever-simmering land question looms large. William Ruto, like his predecessor Moi, and not Seroney, finds himself in a dicey position of canvassing the entire Kalenjin vote, amid unsettled land ownership saga that remains an unresolved issue.
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The Evolving Language of Corruption in Kenya
A cabal of politicos has appropriated the everyday language of hardworking Kenyans to camouflage their intentions to perpetuate corruption and state capture.
Andrew Ngumba had a curious way of explaining away institutionalized corruption every time he was accused of engaging in it. “In the days gone by, before the village elders arbitrated any pressing or thorny issue, they would be offered libation just before the deliberations and then thanked with a goat thereafter, as an appreciation for a job well done.”
Those who are old enough will remember Ngumba, who died in 1997, as the mayor of Nairobi from 1977–1980. He later became the MP for Mathare constituency, renamed Kasarani, from 1983–1986. Ngumba estate, off Thika highway, next to East African Breweries, is named after the canny entrepreneur-politician, who founded Rural Urban Credit Finance Limited, dubbed the “ghetto bank”. The finance house collapsed in 1984 and Ngumba sought political refuge in Sweden.
Just like your archetypal politician, the wily Ngumba would with characteristic panache then ask, “Was the libation and the goat a form of saying ‘thank you for your time’ to the elders, or was it just plain corruption?” His cheekiness aside, which Kenyan society was Ngumba describing? Pre-colonial, before the advent of British settlers and missionaries? Or was he referring to a pre-urban, rural-setting Kenya, before it was contaminated by colonialism, modern capitalism and corruption?
We can imagine what his answer to his own rhetorical question was. Of greater interest, is the way he chose to re-tell the socio-cultural anecdote, with the obvious intention of exonerating himself and like-minded politicians, when caught engaging in bribery and institutional corruption: he implicitly gave a nod to the nefarious activity by normalizing bribery, a vice previously unknown and unexperienced in the very society he was describing.
“Political elites [also] appropriate moral language and social norms to ‘conventionalise’ corruption, fashioning a vocabulary that takes the moral sting from opprobrium, corruption and its various forms,” says Wachira Maina in his report, State Capture – Inside Kenya’s Inability to Fight Corruption. “Corruption is ‘traditionalised’ and reframed as gift-giving or as a form of socially recognizable reciprocity. Corrupt practices are then expressed in the language of moral obligation. No moral wrong is involved when an official or politician from one’s village violates conflict of interest rules or other laws to provide some ‘token benefit’.”
But when is a gift a bribe and a bribe a gift? Let us take the example of the chief – village or otherwise. Until very recently, up to the late 1990s, the chief was a powerful creature bestowed with the powers of “life and death” over his subjects. Until just before the December 1997 general elections, the statutory powers of the chief were many times greater than those of any elected official that you can think of. With the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) reforms, some of their powers were supposedly clipped.
Picture this: Two parties are squabbling over a land boundary. They must go to the chief for arbitration. On the eve of the arbitration, one of the parties, most probably the one who has encroached on his neighbour’s land, gets a brainwave and pays the chief a visit in advance, ostensibly to remind him of their big day. Because of the unwritten law that it is “culturally rude” to visit a chief “empty-handed”, the visiting party decides to “gift” the chief with whatever, as has happened from time immemorial. One can, without too much effort, imagine the possible outcome of the land tussle the following day.
Chiefs were not only very powerful, they happened to be some of the richest people wherever they reigned. Should we wonder why chiefs as public officials, for example, own some of the biggest chunks of land in their area of jurisdiction? At the grassroots level, a socio-cultural norm was deliberately subverted to allow open bribery and the establishment of institutionalized corruption.
As currently constituted in the country, chiefs are an invention of British colonial rule. They are part of the indirect rule that the colonial government imposed on Kenyans. When Kenya gained independence from the British in 1963, the post-independent government inherited the colonial indirect system of government — the whole kit and caboodle. With their “illegitimacy” and corruption networks carried over and sanctioned by the new African government, chiefs entrenched themselves even further by extending their corrupt patronage networks within the government bureaucratic structures.
During their “reign of terror”, which continues today, chiefs interpreted bribes as “gifts” that had to be given by “force of law”; any person with matters arising at the chief’s court knew that a “gift” had to be carried along. So, even though this form of corruption was covert and not dangerous to the existence of the state, it impoverished and terrorized the poor peasants.
Chiefs were not only very powerful, they happened to be some of the richest people wherever they reigned.
Corruption, as an evolving concept, was introduced into Kenya society by the British colonial government and, the civil service has been known to be the home of institutionalized state corruption since pre-independence Kenya. Think about it, the word corruption does not exist in the lexicons of Kenya’s ethnic communities. In the Kikuyu community, for instance, there is a specific lexicon that describes a thief and theft, but there is no word for corruption per se, because in African societies, corruption, a Western concept (and as defined today), was unknown in many African traditional societies.
Indeed, as Wachira observes in his report released in 2019, “corruption has been a persistent problem in Kenya since before independence, but it has flourished and put down robust roots since the country’s return to multiparty politics in 1992.”
What is corruption? For the longest time, corruption has been defined in the binary fashion of either petty or grand corruption. Political scientists have variously described corruption as an act in which the power of public office is used for personal gain. In other words, the misuse of public resources by state officials for private gain. Corruption has also been described as behaviour that deviates from the formal rules of conduct governing the actions of someone in a position of public authority or trust.
The benefits of corruption are either economic — when an exchange of cash occurs — or social, in the case of favouritism or nepotism. Hence, grand corruption, sometimes referred to as political corruption, involves top government officials and political decision makers who engage in exchanges of large sums of illegally acquired money. Petty corruption involves mid- or low-level state officials, who are often underpaid and who interact with the public on a daily basis.
In his concise report, Wachira notes that “a generation of reforms has not dented the corruption edifice or undone its rhizome-like penetration into the body politic of Kenya.” Why? “Part of the problem is conceptual: How we name corruption and how we understand its character,” points out the constitutional lawyer.
These simple but loaded terms of “petty” and “grand” corruption present a false dichotomy, says Wachira. “Petty” suggests that the corruption is merely an irritant, something people do to speed up things or evade a long queue — a way of “lubricating the system. “The term suggests an expedient with trivial effect, considered case by case. In fact, that characterization is deeply mistaken. . . . Most important, it becomes a fee, because it guarantees that what was initially a free service is no longer so. From a macro-economic perspective, its distortionary effect could be as at least as impactful as grand corruption,” writes Wachira.
That is why petty corruption in Kenya has long been baptized chai, meaning tea, or kitu kidogo, which means something small. It is daily language that is used to camouflage an illegal act by likening it to one of Kenya’s best-known pastimes — drinking tea. Civil servants demand chai from the public in order, they argue, to grease the bureaucratic wheel, which oftentimes revolves very, very slowly and needs to be lubricated for it to move. Chai and Kitu Kidogo have become interchangeable, because “something small” also connotes a kind of “lubricant” that “hastens” service delivery.
The police, especially traffic cops, who are synonymous with petty corruption, have perfected the language of chai-taking more than any other state official such that when Kenyans conjure bribe giving, the first person who immediately comes to mind is the policeman.
The State Capture report says, “Indeed language is in a parlous condition when the bribe a judge takes to free a dangerous criminal is named chai, like a nice ‘cuppa’ tea between intimates.”
During their “reign of terror”, which continues today, chiefs interpreted bribes as “gifts” that had to be given by “force of law”.
The report further states that, “the term ‘grand’ on the other hand can also be misleading if grand suggests debilitating to the state. Implicit in the term is the notion of a corrupt deal of significant size, involving senior officials and high-ranking politicians. Such corruption involves large-scale stealing of state resources and, the theory goes, it erodes confidence in government, undermines the rule of law and spawns economic instability.”
In Kenya, grand corruption has involved such mindboggling money schemes as the Goldenberg and Anglo-Leasing scandals and more recently, the Eurobond scandal. These mega-scams are a result of collusion between state officials and politicians, who over time have formed powerful corruption cartels that have proved inextinguishable.
Why does this corruption on a massive scale not cause moral outrage or shock in the public? Why is it not obvious to all? “There are cases in which the term ‘grand’ corruption fails to communicate the moral shock and magnitude that seems implicit. ‘Grand’ then becomes merely an audit term that simply describes financial scale,” says Wachira. “If that conclusion is right, it would then explain the frequent lack of moral outrage about widespread theft in government, with the result that there will be cases in which characterising corruption as petty or grand implies nothing about its impact or the social and political levers one can push to eliminate it.”
“Grand corruption” in Kenya today has evidently surpassed the current nomenclature; the staggering sums of money stolen have numbed the people’s sensibilities to shock and have refused to register in their psyche. How, for example, can the president have the audacity of treating Kenyans to shock therapy by telling them that KSh2 billion is stolen from the state coffers every 24 hours? That kind of pillage can no longer be termed as corruption, let alone grand corruption. A more appropriate language has to be found; and there can be no other word for it other than theft.
The State Capture report problematizes the matter of the naming of state plunder and discusses at length what could be the problem with language that seeks to explain the massive haemorrhage of state resources orchestrated by unscrupulous individuals. The report notes that corruption in Kenya has been described as a malignant tumour that hampers the government from governing properly “The problem of naming [corruption] is then compounded by medical or sociological language that pathologises corruption. . . . Therein lies the problem: Anti-corruption programmes ‘pathologise’ the relationship between corruption and the state, deploying medical terms like ‘cancer on the body politic,’ ‘a disease that we must cure’ or ‘a pervasive ill’ potentially responsive to curative interventions.
Even when the language used is sociological rather medical, the pathological dimension stays. Corruption is ‘a perverse culture’ or ‘negative norm’. Both the medical and the sociological language mobilise a deep-seated ‘conviction that there is something pathological – an illness – within [Kenya] politics and culture’. This suggests that what the reformers must do is ‘to identify this pathology’ and formulate a diagnosis that examines the Kenyan society and brings to the surface the ‘fissures and contradictions’ that explain the graft.
In his report, Wachira goes on to say, “The medical perspective that implies that the state has gone awry and can be put to rights with an appropriate intervention is pervasive. Implicit in the diagnosis and the proposed cure is the thought that the state is constructed for some legitimate — or benign — purpose that has been perverted by corruption.”
Joseph G. Kibe, a Permanent Secretary in six different ministries in the 1970s, was once interviewed about his experience working as a top government bureaucrat, many years after his retirement in 1979. Said Kibe, “In those days, I could see some kind of low-level corruption starting to creep in, especially involving clerks. For instance, in the Lands Office, they would remove one file and hide it away from where the index shows it is and wait until the owners of the land wanted to conduct a transaction at which point they would ask for a bribe.”
The same low-level corruption has been rampant in the corridors of justice. The low-paid court clerk in the magistrate’s court “disappears” a case file so that he can solicit a bribe to enable the miraculous re-appearance of the “lost” file.
“A generation of reforms has not dented the corruption edifice or undone its rhizome-like penetration into the body politic of Kenya.”
The former PS, who went on to work for Transparency International (TI) Kenya Chapter, said in 2004, “Corruption had crept into ministries, departments and government corporations and was likely to entrench itself unless it was stopped. With corruption you give up development because all resources you have, only a little will do good. A lot will be taken away for personal use.”
Because the patronage networks created by the civil service and the political class have ensured that corruption is profitable and has high returns, it has become extremely difficult to fight the vice. “The difficulties of fighting corruption lie in the union of corruption and politics; a union in which, at least since Goldenberg scandal, a power elite has captured the state, especially the Presidency and the Treasury and repurposed the machinery of the government into a ‘temporary zone for personalised appropriation’” says Wachira.
State capture is a term that was popularized in South Africa, a country that since its independence 27 years ago, has witnessed some of the biggest state scandals since the end of Apartheid. “What is at play in Kenya [today] is ‘state capture’ defined as a political project in which a well-organised elite network constructs a symbiotic relationship between the constitutional state and a parallel shadow state for its own benefit”, explains the State Capture report.
The success of the state capture rests on the ability of a small group of powerful and rich operatives to take over and pervert the institutions of democracy, while keeping the façade of a functioning democracy. Thus, oversight institutions are weakened; law enforcement is partisan and in the pockets of the politicians; civic space is asphyxiated; free elections are frustrated and are typically won by the most violent or the most corrupt, or those who are both violent and corrupt. Arrest and indictments are often the precursor of inaction, not proof of official will to fight corruption.
“Corruption eats at the moral fabric of the nation,” once said Harris Mule, one of the finest PSs to have served at Kenya’s Ministry of Finance. “Positive norms and traditions, once appropriated by the corrupt, instantly transform themselves into curses. Take the uniquely Kenyan institution of Harambee, as an example. It has been changed from what was once a positive manifestation of the culture of philanthropy and community service, into a political tool that fails to deliver what it promises.”
Mule further said, “Corruption causes poverty by promoting unfair distribution of [the] national income and inefficient use of resources. Poverty and inequality in turn breed discontent and can cause national instability. The political implications of sharp economic inequalities are potent.” The former PS was clear in his mind that corruption was the art of “transferring state assets into private hands at the expense of the public interest and purse.”
Harambee, which means, “pulling together”, was a noble idea that tapped into the egalitarian and altruistic nature of African society, that of pooling their meagre resources together for the public good. It was very popular throughout the 1970s and 1980s and to a lesser extent in the 1990s. When Mwai Kibaki came to power in 2003, his government instituted a probe into the now much-maligned popular group effort. Wachira explains that,
As the report of the Task Force on Public Collections or Harambees showed clearly, politicians are the largest donors to ‘charitable’ causes — churches, schools, higher education and funerals are firm favourites — to which they give fortunes that are many times more that their own legitimate incomes. Such charity is, in truth, a bait and switch ploy: once moral institutions buckle to the lure of corruption money, the corrupt buy absolution and are free to dip deeper into the public coffers.
Both the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi regimes misused the Harambee spirit for self-aggrandizement. Mzee Kenyatta, who hardly gave any money towards any Harambee effort and if he did, it was a symbolic sum, expected Kenyans to contribute to his Harambee causes, which were baptized all manner of noteworthy names. The monies were not accounted for and nobody would dare ask how the funds raised were spent, whether they were spent on the causes for which they had been contributed. In many instances, the money collected went to line the pockets of Mzee’s friends.
During Moi’s time, Harambee was used by civil servants, especially chiefs, to solicit bribes and favours from people calling into government offices for services that are meant to be free. A citizen visiting a chief’s office to obtain a personal identification document would be presented with a card for a Harambee by the chief and his subordinates. If you wanted to be served at the Ministry of Lands for example, you would be presented with a Harambee card by a junior officer acting on behalf of his boss. Yours was not to question the authenticity of the card, why a public office was presenting a Harambee card to and all sundry, or why it was “mandatory” to contribute before being served in a public office. If you did, you would be called an “enemy of development” and labelled anti-Nyayo.
Why does this corruption on a massive scale not cause moral outrage or shock in the public?
Just after the Narc party was swept into power in 2003, the country witnessed a “citizen’s jury” at work: it exposed and sometimes went as far as making citizens’ arrests of errant police officers caught engaging in bribery. But what happened to citizens’ arrests? It was just a matter of time before the citizens themselves caved in and returned to offering the same bribes to the very same police officers. Why? Because they realized belatedly that to fight institutionalized corruption in Kenya, there must be goodwill and concerted effort from the government: the fish rots from the head and the fight against corruption must begin at the top.
Since 2013, corruption seems to have acquired a new word to camouflage it – hustler. Under the Jubilee government, “hustler” has come to describe tenderpreneurs masquerading as the toiling masses. It is the new lexicon that has been adopted by a cabal of people intent on raiding government coffers, a cabal that has appropriated the everyday language of Kenyans who eke out a living the hard way. It is the latest socio-cultural jargon that has been unleashed on the political landscape by a network of politicos intent on acquiring state power so that, in their turn, they can perpetuate state capture.
Pan-Africanism in a Time of Pandemic
Solidarity conferences have been replaced by aid conferences called by “donors”. What we need is a Pan-African conference organised by movements and individuals committed to human development.
There was a time, in the last century, when the under-privileged of the world shared a common understanding of the causes of their condition. Today the causes manifest in vaccine Apartheid. That the COVID-19 pandemic should find most African countries with less than one doctor and less than ten beds per a thousand of their population shows the failure of the development efforts of the past 60 or so years. The same countries all struggle with unsustainable debt, which is still being paid during the pandemic and has been increased by the COVID debt. When the global emergency was declared in January 2021, development partners began to hoard personal protective equipment. When vaccines became available a year later, there was insufficient production capacity to meet world needs. The same development partners rejected the option of allowing African countries to manufacture the vaccines on the continent. They hoarded their supplies until they were nearly expired before donating them to African countries.
In the 1950s, there would have been a different reaction. By then, African and Asian countries were moving inexorably towards independence. Organised by Indonesia, Myanmar (now Burma), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), India, and Pakistan, African countries attended the Bandung Conference of 1955 with economic and social development in mind. Then as now, China and the United States were on opposite sides of the Cold War and each sought to influence Africa while Africa sought non-alignment in order to freely pursue her development goals.
For one week in Bandung, Indonesia, twenty-nine African and Asian heads of state and other leaders discussed the formation of an alliance based on five principles: political self-determination, mutual respect for sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, and equality. The ten-points in the communiqué released after the conference became the governing principles of the non-aligned movement and they included self-determination, protection of human rights, the promotion of economic and cultural cooperation, and a call for an end to racial discrimination wherever it occurred. The alliance began to disintegrate when India and Yugoslavia shunned the radical stand against Western imperialism, leading to the organisation of a rival non-aligned conference in 1965. The 1965 conference was postponed.
While there was no follow-up to Bandung, the ideals it stood for were being espoused by other formations. On the African continent, the Casablanca Group—the precursor to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU)—had a membership of five African states: Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Libya, and Morocco. The All-African Peoples’ Conference (AAPC) took place in Cairo in 1958 after the founder, Uganda’s John Kale, was inspired by his attendance at the Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Conference the previous year. It was a meeting representing peoples and movements and not just states. The conference demanded the immediate and unconditional independence of all the African peoples, and the total evacuation of the foreign forces of aggression and oppression stationed in Africa.
The All-African People’s Conference recommended African co-operation in the interest of all the Africans, denounced racial discrimination in South, East and Central Africa, and demanded the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, the suppression of the Federation of Nyasaland (Malawi) and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and independence for the two countries.
The Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organisation (AAPSO) organised a conference in Cuba in 1957. The 500 delegates to the AAPSO conference represented national liberation movements as well as states and after a number of such gatherings, AAPSO resolved to include Cuba and Latin America in its membership. Thus was the organisation of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL) born.
The activities of OSPAAAL included financial support for the anti-colonial struggle in Palestine and for South Africa’s Africa National Congress (ANC). American aggression towards Cuba and its blockade of Vietnam were denounced and global solidarity was shown to political activists under threat of arrest. The movement solidified in the 1966 Tricontinental Conference in Havana, Cuba. The Solidarity movement established a think tank, the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research which produced educational materials in the form of newsletters, articles and the now iconic revolutionary art. This work continues to this day.
For the next decade, Cuba provided support to the armed struggle for independence in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and Equatorial Guinea, and to South Africa’s ANC. Fidel Castro was a familiar face on the diplomatic circuit and received Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, and other leaders, in Havana.
The United States government was caught between the expectations of its allies, the former colonial powers and those of the soon-to-be independent countries whose alliance it sought. The civil rights movement in the United States was a thorn in its side as it appealed to Africans in the Independence movement. America chose her traditional allies and neo-colonialism put down roots.
Regardless of that, leaders of African and American movements interacted, learning from each other; Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, and a number of other leaders of the day met Kwame Nkrumah at Ghana’s independence celebrations in 1957. Martin Luther King was also there. Reflecting on the cost of freedom and mentioning Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia and Kenya, King later wrote, “Ghana reminds us that freedom never comes on a silver platter. It’s never easy. . . . Ghana reminds us of that. You better get ready to go to prison.” Following a visit to Nigeria in 1960, King reported,
I just returned from Africa a little more than a month ago and I had the opportunity to talk to most of the major leaders of the new independent countries of Africa and also leaders of countries that are moving toward independence [. . .] they are saying in no uncertain terms that racism and colonialism must go for they see the two are as based on the same principle, a sort of contempt for life, and a contempt for human personality.
Today Dr King would probably have added predatory debt to that list.
Malcolm X visited Egypt and Ghana in 1959 and met Gamal Abdel Nasser and Kwame Nkrumah. In 1964, he spoke at the OAU conference in Egypt. He went to Tanzania and to Kenya where he met Oginga Odinga and Jomo Kenyatta. Back in New York Malcolm X related his experience: “As long as we think—as one of my good brothers mentioned out of the side of his mouth here a couple of Sundays ago—that we should get Mississippi straightened out before we worry about the Congo, you’ll never get Mississippi straightened out.” Prophetic words. Just this month the President of the United States warned against a “Jim Crow assault” on the voting rights of people of colour and the under-privileged that were won in 1965 after a long and hard civil rights struggle.
By the time the Bandung Conference was taking place, Frantz Fanon had already published Black Skin, White Masks and was to follow it up with A Dying Colonialism and The Wretched of the Earth. Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa would appear in 1972. There was an explosion of global awareness of Africa. Musicians like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Letta Mbulu, and Caiphus Semenya and others became known in Europe and America as they raised awareness about apartheid. African fashion became the signature of the civil rights movement. On the African continent, the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (Festac77) was held in Lagos, attracting 59 countries. Exhibits ranged from David Aradeon’s African architectural technology to work by the Chicago Africobra arts collective. The welcome given to the American diaspora contingent at the venue is testament to the sense of oneness that prevailed at the time.
Yet here we are in the new millennium facing identical existential crises. Palestine has lost over half the territory it had in 1966. The televised ethnic cleansing taking place in the country is openly supported by American aid. The Republic of South Africa has found that the end of apartheid may only have been the beginning of the struggle for human development. The country is just emerging from three days of looting and burning by impoverished citizens. Cuba is still under a US embargo and there was even an attempt to blockade medical supplies being shipped to Cuba for the fight against COVID.
Cold War tensions between China and the West have been revived with the United State’s growing opposition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China has remained faithful to the non-interference principle, to the extent of transacting business with African leaders without regard to that other principle, the observance of human rights.
While most African countries are nominally independent, this has not brought development as they had envisaged it. Now, as in 1966, the main economic activity is the export of raw commodities. Africa’s Asian partners in the Bandung Communiqué have long since moved out of the realm of what used to be called “The Third World”. Malaysia, at number 62 out of 189 countries listed on the Human Development Index, is ranked as a Very High Human Development Country. Indonesia, the host of the Bandung Conference, is in the High Human Development category, with a ranking of 107. India, which abandoned the spirit of Bandung, is a medium human development country (ranked 131) while Yugoslavia ceased to exist. Only eight African countries are highly developed, while 30 fall in the Low Human Development category. Within that category, Uganda slipped down one place in 1997 and is ranked 159.
Solidarity conferences have been replaced by aid conferences called by “donors”. They are no longer organised by activists like the Moroccan Mehdi Ben Barka who, together with Chu Tzu-chi of the People’s Republic of China, organized the Tricontinental Conference (Ben Barka was abducted and “disappeared” in 1965 before the conference took place.) or John Kale. Recent conferences have been organised by European heads of state or United Nations bodies. India and China organise their own conferences for Africa, having transitioned to the ranks of developed countries. Attending delegates are the residual wretched.
The India–Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) inaugurated in 2008 is scheduled to be held once every three years. The France-Africa Finance Summit is an initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron whose various remarks about Africa on his tour of the continent were perceived as racist and disparaging.
At the Forum on China-African Cooperation (FOCAC) in Johannesburg in 2015, China offered US$60 billion in development assistance, US$5 billion in the form of grants and the rest in loans. Attendance by African heads of state was higher than for the most recent African Union Conference; only six did not turn up (but were represented).
Attending delegates are the residual wretched.
The following year FOCAC was held in Beijing. On the first day, members of the American Congress issued a statement condemning China’s predatory lending to African and Asian countries. They argued that the recipient countries eventually wound up needing to be bailed out by the IMF, mostly with American money, thereby transferring American capital to China. For his part, the beleaguered president of economically battered Zimbabwe received the offer of another US$60 billion with fulsome gratitude, saying President Xi Jinping was doing what “we expected those who colonised us yesterday to do.”
The International Development Association for Africa: Heads of State Summit held on 15 July 2021 was a World Bank exercise. The agenda, according to their website, was “to highlight the importance of an ambitious and robust 20th replenishment of the International Development Association.” In other words, it was about increasing members’ debt. These days “cooperation” means aid – with strings attached – not solidarity. This year there will also be a virtual African Economic Conference (AEC) to discuss “Financing Africa’s post COVID-19 Development”. It is organised by the United Nations Development Programme, the African Development Bank and the Economic Commission for Africa.
Of the original anti-colonial activist countries of the 1960s, most Asian countries are in a position to offer solutions to economic questions; they compete in the global arena manufacturing pharmaceuticals and agricultural technology. China has mastered all of the foregoing as well as dominating foreign infrastructural development investment. The African bloc stands alone in not being organised enough to participate in the global discourse except as receivers of aid.
It is true that together with Latin American countries, resource-wealthy African countries have endured Western-engineered coups d’état and other debilitating interference but the dynamism of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah and Amilcar Cabral is missing. In its place is the renewed use of the once hated colonial public order laws to quell dissent against corruption and repression.
These days “cooperation” means aid – with strings attached – not solidarity.
Two decades after Lumumba’s assassination, the less wealthy Burkina Faso lit the path to self-sufficiency before the country’s radical president, Captain Thomas Sankara, was assassinated with French connivance. Three months earlier, Sankara had called for the repudiation of debt at an Organisation of African Unity Conference. The delegates were stunned as can be seen from the expression on the late Kenneth Kaunda’s face.
The last African-Asian Conference organised by Africa may or may not be more of a memorial than the birth (re-birth?) of the solidarity movement. On the 50th anniversary of the original Bandung Conference, in 2005, Asian and African leaders met in Jakarta and Bandung to launch the New Asian-African Strategic Partnership (NAASP). They pledged to promote political, economic, and cultural cooperation between the two continents. An interesting outcome was their communiqué to the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council concerning the development of Palestine. On the cultural front, there is talk of a third Festac.
Then there is Cuba, host of the 1966 Tricontinental Conference. Cuba ranks as a high human development country and has the highest doctor-patient ratio in the world—more than double the concentration in the US—and the most hospital beds per 10,000, nearly double what is available in the US. Cuba also has the highest pupil-teacher ratio in the world. Out of necessity due to the economic embargo imposed on it, and being unable to import fertilisers, Cuba pioneered vermiculture, a technique now in use globally. The country manufactures 80 per cent of its vaccines and has five COVID-19 vaccine candidates (two are being used under emergency licence like AstraZeneca, J&J and the other Western products). While Western pharmaceutical manufacturers took an early decision to bar Africa from manufacturing its vaccines on intellectual property grounds, Cuba is willing to transfer its technology to countries that need it. Funds should have been no object as the African continent is awash with COVID Emergency Response funds borrowed from the World Bank and the IMF. This is the kind of development that has been sought for the last sixty-plus years.
The dynamism of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah and Amilcar Cabral is missing.
But Africa is not talking to Cuba about developing vaccine capacity. African leaders are waiting for UNICEF, appointed by the World Bank, to procure Western-made vaccines for them with funds they shall have to repay. In Uganda, delivery is expected in six months. Meanwhile, Norway and others are donating small amounts of vaccine, hardly enough to cover the twenty-nine million Ugandans that will give us immunity. The Indian-manufactured brand, AstraZeneca, is not recognised in Europe and will prevent recipients travelling there.
The Conscious Era began to wind down with the accession of leaders of independent African states more interested in the instant gratification of cash inflows than in the principles of the past. Yoweri Museveni had the opportunity to learn from the Cuban model when he met Castro in the early months of his rule. As it turned out, he was only wasting El Comandante’s time. Despite condemning his predecessors’ SDR177,500,000 debt to the IMF during the Bush War, Museveni’s SDR49,800,000 structural adjustment facility was signed on 15 Jun 1987—he had been in power for just eighteen months. Since then he has extended his credit to SDR1,606,275 (US$2,285,199.26) from the IMF alone. New debt to the World Bank (contracted since 2020) amounts to US$468,360,000.00. A separate COVID Debt owed to the World Bank amounts to US$300 million so far while over US$31 million is owed to the African Development Bank. These funds have not been used to purchase vaccines.
The Black Lives Matter movement has echoes of the Black Power movement of the 1960s. The movement is strong on showing solidarity with persecuted activists and victims of racism through online campaigns. BLM chapters are in solidarity with Ghanaian activists. Like the Tricontinental Institute, BLM has made attempts to educate, for example via the Pan-African Activist Sunday School. What is needed is another Pan-African conference organised by movements and individuals committed to human development.
Protests, Chaos and Uprisings: Lessons from South Africa’s Past
The recent riots are an attempt to force change after years of neglect by a state that has remained aloof and uninterested in the economic and social dispossession of the African majority.
The current upheavals across South Africa are ostensibly in response to former President Jacob Zuma’s arrest (or surrender) on 8 July 2021. But contrary to the misinformation in circulation, Zuma was not arrested on charges of corruption, racketeering and for diverting state assets and resources to a circle of cronies including the Gupta family. His reluctance to appear before the Zondo Commission led Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, the Chair, to issue a warrant for Zuma’s arrest for contempt of court.
Protest politics in South Africa have a long history and protests have been deployed differently at different historical moments. Whereas protests were an important vehicle during the fight against apartheid, their resurgence and propulsion to the centre of the struggles in post-apartheid South Africa has come as a surprise to many. These so-called “service delivery protests” are said to be caused by community dissatisfaction with municipal service delivery and to lack of communication between councils and councillors on the one hand, and citizens on the other.
The African National Congress-led (ANC) government has been facing growing protests associated with economic contraction, and the dual pressures of a recessionary environment and rising unemployment. But while their grievances may be valid, citizens’ protests have been perceived as having a negative impact on government programmes, businesses, investor confidence and jobs. Indeed, the ongoing service delivery protests could be regarded as a self-defeating strategy in those areas that are more susceptible to them, mostly the municipalities located in the peri-urban areas.
Historians and experts argue that these types of riots are not merely random acts of violence or people taking advantage of dire circumstances to steal and destroy property. They are, instead, a serious attempt to force change after years of neglect by politicians, media, and the general public.
This article takes a historical view of South Africa’s current upheaval and suggests that this moment has been a long time coming.
Service delivery in historical context
The pre-1994 era was prone to mass protests and defiance campaigns, some sporadic but most coordinated by social movements. They include the two defiance campaigns of 1952 and 1989, in Gauteng, the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) defiance campaigns that led to the Sharpeville and Langa massacres in 1960 and, of course, the 1976 Soweto student uprisings. These coordinated mass protests had a clear aim — the abolition of the apartheid laws which were central to racial segregation, white supremacy and the oppression of the majority black population.
The violent service delivery protests, which are mostly prevalent at the local government level, have been associated with the results of apartheid: marginalisation of the majority black population with regard to basic needs, including housing, clean drinking water, proper sanitation, electricity, and access to healthcare and to infrastructure. After the end of apartheid, the new democratic government led by the ANC inherited an unequal society and was confronted with protests against lack of basic services and systemic corruption at local government level. Some scholars and analysts have suggested that such unrest epitomises the dispossession of African people, precluding them from complete liberation in their own land and subjecting them to continued subjugation by their white counterparts.
The ongoing service delivery protests could be regarded as a self-defeating strategy in those areas that are more susceptible to them.
Various communities throughout the country have resorted to violent riots, destroying schools, libraries and the houses of underperforming local government councillors. One opinion is that service delivery protests are exacerbated in the informal settlements where poverty and unemployment are high, and where there is a lack of technical and managerial skills within municipalities beset by corruption, poor financial management, and a lack of accountability on the part of local councillors and municipal officials.
Public protests did not feature as prominently during the initial part of the Mandela administration (1994–1999). The relative lull in public protests following the inauguration of the Mandela presidency in 1994 might have been a result of three key factors. One aspect is the negotiated settlement that gave rise to what is often characterised as a democratic dispensation, popularly and quite falsely described as a new era for South African people but which rapidly descended into mass frustration. In the neo-liberal euphoria of the “new democratic South Africa”, the strategic power of mass protest action that had helped to remove the apartheid regime struggled to find a new footing. Protests were suddenly viewed as acts against the state and were vigorously discouraged by an ANC government that was increasingly detached from the broader population. The ANC-led administration preferred to mobilise mass movements as cheerleaders of government programmes and as a result, when protests did take place, they were often state-managed to be peaceful, media-friendly events.
Another factor is that militant apartheid-era civic society formations were demobilised, which effectively weakened opposition to unpopular government policies and even brought newer NGOS into sharp disagreement with the government. Finally, the adoption of the pro-poor Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), which was aimed at redistributing wealth, was well received as a pacifying measure. However, in 1996, less than 24 months after the introduction of the RDP, the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) macro-economic policy was adopted, signalling a shift to neoliberalism that prioritised the interests of big business over those of poor citizens. The adoption of GEAR led to the immediate loss of the few economic benefits citizens had received under the apartheid system.
Various social formations including the labour movement and civil society organisations accused the government of “selling out the people’s mandate”. Cost recovery was an essential part of GEAR, and this soon pitted indigent citizens against the government. While the shift to GEAR marked a radical change in how the government approached delivery of services and generated criticism from various quarters, it did not immediately trigger mass protest action mainly because the organisations championing workers’ and ordinary citizens’ rights were in alliance with the ANC. But the grounds were laid for future public protests.
In the neo-liberal euphoria of the “new democratic South Africa”, the strategic power of mass protest action that had helped to remove the apartheid regime struggled to find a new footing.
Some point to the FIFA World Cup (June–July 2010) as a tipping point. The country’s working poor came out in protest, angered by the commercialisation of municipal services and escalating poverty. Other factors that have been the cause of the so-called service delivery protests include the rising costs of basic services (clean drinking water, sanitation and electricity) as a result of the implementation of orthodox market policies, forced demolitions of informal settlements, disparities between luxury stadia and impoverished neighbourhoods and the gentrification brought on by the World Cup which has made inner-cities inaccessible to low-income informal traders.
This contradictory socio-economic policy framework has produced a highly fragmented regulatory structure, which has further compounded the socio-spatial unevenness of contemporary South Africa. The protracted low growth after the 2014 crash of commodity prices and various political scandals undermined the credibility of the ANC leadership. The national difficulties reverberated at the local level; after ruling Johannesburg for over two decades, the ANC lost the city to a coalition of opposition parties in 2016. The new mayor, Herman Mashaba, a self-styled libertarian entrepreneur, announced his commitment to “pro-poor” investments and to ending the arm’s length approach of municipal service providers.
Analysing the rationale behind the provision of basic services may help to clarify the uneasy categorisation of South African social policies and political discourse with respect to the neoliberal paradigm.
The current situation
In the first quarter of 2021, amidst the social and economic devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the South African Treasury announced, and subsequently defended, its decision not to increase the country’s extensive social grant payments — that now reach 18 million impoverished citizens — above inflation. Treasury officials have argued that a bigger increase in social welfare protection is simply not currently feasible given the country’s rapidly rising public debt — which has now breached the 80 per cent of debt-to-GDP ratio threshold — and investor demands for fiscal consolidation. This type of fiscal restraint is unfolding in a context of heightened wealth inequality and an official unemployment rate now above 30 per cent.
And, as is often the case — whether they have been peaceful, organised, or not — protesters have been largely viewed as looters, rioters and thugs. Feelings of righteous anger following a year of lockdown, precarious livelihoods, escalating state aggression, and hostile and often deadly policing are bound to have been co-opted by thuggish elements. But the dangerous shades of ethno-nationalism that originally seemed to fuel the riots cannot be left unexamined as they have an impact on how we think about the protests, just as terms like “uprising” and “upheaval” offer ways to think about the unrest as indications of a far deeper social, economic and political rupture.
The adoption of GEAR led to the immediate loss of the few economic benefits citizens had received under the apartheid system.
Reducing the unrest to a “looting spree” also averts attention from a state that has for 27 years been aloof and not interested in recalibrating the economic and social dispossession of the African majority. While President Ramaphosa seems lethargic and tone-deaf, he is no different from his predecessors in insisting on market-led policies, foreign-investor largesse and failed non-distributive economic policies. Add to this the small matter of the “missing” R500 billion. In April 2020, a stimulus package of 500 billion rand was announced. The money was meant to augment the existing social safety net that provides 11.3 million South Africans with monthly assistance for food and other social services. The Auditor-General has described the expenditure as irregular, noting the wrongful diversion of some of the funds to state employees through contracts. To date, the hectoring tone adopted by most public officials regarding this matter shows no sense of irony or self-awareness that their own hands are dirty.
Many analysts and observers inside and outside South Africa have predicted this moment for over fifteen years, evoking the Arab Spring as a cautionary tale. South Africa is not the only country going through a seismic shift. Haiti, Cuba, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Mozambique and Hong Kong are all facing profound upheavals. But while South Africa elicits deep sentiments across the world, it is not immune to the complexities of state formation, fractured class interests and a leadership vested in maintaining the status quo.
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