The much anticipated ruling of Malawi’s Constitutional Court was somberly delivered to an anxious, tense, and polarised nation on February 3, 2020. In a unanimous decision, the court nullified the hotly contested and rigged presidential election of May 21, 2019. It was a brilliant legal victory for the opposition parties, and a profound political watershed for the country.
The level of public anticipation and apprehension was so high that in many parts of the country businesses, schools, offices, and public transport were closed or suspended. It felt like a national holiday. Like millions of spellbound Malawians at home and in the diaspora, I was glued to the radio. It made watching the impeachment trial of President Trump in the US Senate – where the Republicans, save for two, refused to allow additional witnesses and documents – seem farcical in comparison. So much for mature and emerging democracies!
In a lengthy judgement comprising more than 500 pages, but summarised in a proceeding that was broadcast live to an anxious nation, the court noted that it was alive to the enormous importance of the case given that this is the first time in the country’s history that a presidential election has been subjected to a court dispute and ruling. The court stressed that the Constitution calls for an open, transparent and accountable government through the democratic choice exercised by its citizens. The right to vote is guaranteed and entrenched in the Constitution under the Bill of Rights.
It affirmed that elections must be managed with all due diligence and integrity, and conducted in a fair and transparent manner. Clearly, this was not the case with the May 21 presidential election. In more than ten hours of reading the summary judgement, the court systematically demolished the arguments of the respondents. There was substantial compromise of citizens’ voting rights and the principles and processes of free and fair elections. The magnitude of the irregularities and anomalies were so widespread, systematic and grave that the results were compromised, and could not be trusted as a true reflection of the will of the voters.
In a meticulous and masterly exhibition of jurisprudence and judgement, the judges painstakingly outlined and analysed all the issues in contention and the applicable laws, and interrogated relevant legal precedents from other countries. The defence of the respondents against the charges of the petitioners was left in tatters. They lost on the important issues of proof in an election case and the processes of election management. The court found the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) committed multiple breaches against several pertinent sections of the Constitution, and even created illegal processes, thereby raising serious doubts about the validity of the election results. In its ruling, the court called for the appointment of new officers for the commission.
On May 27, 2019, the deeply compromised Electoral Commission had declared the incumbent, Professor Peter Arthur Mutharika of the ruling Democratic People’s Party (DPP), the winner, with 38.57% of the popular vote, against 35.41% garnered by Dr. Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), the age-old independence party, and 20.24% for Dr. Saulos Chilima of the insurgent United Transformation Party (UTM) formed in 2018 by the country’s former Vice President. The rest was shared by four other minor candidates.
The court found the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) committed multiple breaches against several pertinent sections of the Constitution, and even created illegal processes, thereby raising serious doubts about the validity of the election results.
The results provoked angry nationwide protests led by the followers of the two main opposition parties and civil society organisations, most notably the Human Rights Defenders Coalition, which paralysed the major cities in the months that followed. The protesters accused the DPP and MEC led by Dr. Jane Ansah of gross electoral fraud. They called for the ouster of President Mutharika and Dr. Ansah, the latter under the #AnsahMustFall campaign, and demanded fresh elections. DPP supporters responded with counter-demonstrations, state-sanctioned intimidation, and support rallies for the beleaguered Chair of MEC led by women functionaries of the regime. Sporadic violence broke out in several areas.
The country was on fire, staring at the abyss of ungovernability. Public order virtually collapsed in some parts of the country as the discredited police lost their credibility and authority. Even the president could no longer travel freely to many parts of the country outside his ethnic laager, including the capital, Lilongwe, without a convoy of heavily armed military vehicles. The popularity of the Malawi Defence Force rose, and a few misguided elements even seemed to yearn for the dangerous respite of a military coup. Predictably, businesses and the economy were shuttered.
The other institution in which the disaffected and inflamed masses placed their political desires and demands for electoral justice was the judiciary. Within a week after the general elections were held, the two opposition parties filed separate petitions with the High Court for the nullification of the presidential elections over alleged irregularities and mismanagement of the electoral system.
The odour of electoral malfeasance began days after the election as stories of rigging started circulating, buttressed by delays in announcing the results. Soon a new word entered Malawi’s political vocabulary: Tip-ex, a correction fluid used to alter vote results sheets. The elections were Tip-exed, Mutharika was Tip-Ex president. The overwrought social media went into overdrive. On May 25, UTM called for nullification of the election, while the DPP requested the immediate release of the election results, and MCP applied for a judicial review of the presidential election results from several districts and constituencies.
MEC proceeded first to release the results of the parliamentary election, and briefly withheld results of the presidential vote for a few more days, which raised much suspicion. The influential and quasi-religious body, Public Affairs Committee (PAC), issued a press statement on May 30, 2019, stating categorically that the elections lacked credibility. The next day, on May 31, the two main opposition parties filed separate election cases, which were consolidated by the High Court four days later because they were similar.
Efforts by lawyers for the Electoral Commission and the ruling party first to dismiss the case and later to extend the time for disclosures of documents and information by the 2nd respondent (Malawi Electoral Commission) to the 2nd petitioner (Lazarus Chakwera of MCP) were curtailed. The case was referred to select High Court judges sitting as a Constitutional Court (such a court doesn’t exist as a separate entity). The court also dismissed several applications by the Attorney General in August and September for sanctions and an injunction against political demonstrations.
The drama continues
Thus began the months-long election case that was broadcast live and transfixed the troubled nation. The hearing of the case commenced on August 8 and ended on December 20, 2019. The hearings lasted 61 days and, according to the Constitution, judgement had to be rendered within 45 days. February 3, 2020 marks the 45th day. The court hearings, with all their gravity and levity, enraptured the population as no other event since the transition from one-party dictatorship to multiparty democracy in the early 1990s. It raised national awareness about election laws and processes, and democratic rights and responsibilities. The country’s crass and corrupt ruling cabal was exposed for all its impunity, iniquity, and ineptitude.
Some lawyers and pundits were applauded; others damaged their reputations for their mediocrity and mendacity. Similarly, some witnesses were celebrated and others were ridiculed into ignominy. The latter included an insufferably arrogant cabinet minister who flaunted a fake doctorate degree (an unearned accolade so beloved by African elites), but couldn’t mention his alma mater, a term he didn’t seem to know! In the meantime, large demonstrations and counter-demonstrations continued.
The country seemed to be spiralling out of control and the acrimony between the ruling and opposition parties intensified. PAC called for dialogue on the electoral stalemate to no avail. Appeals for an open and inclusive dialogue by the foreign diplomatic missions of Germany, Ireland, Japan, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States also proved ineffectual.
The court hearings systematically revealed blatant manipulation and mismanagement of the electoral process and system. The submissions by the lawyers of the opposition parties vigorously argued that the Electoral Commission had breached its duty and infringed on the petitioners’ and citizens’ political rights under various sections of the Constitution. They concluded; “The irregularity and fraud in the elections were substantial and significant that they affected the integrity of the elections.”
The country seemed to be spiralling out of control and the acrimony between the ruling and opposition parties intensified. PAC called for dialogue on the electoral stalemate to no avail.
The petitioners sought nullification of the presidential election of May 21, 2019 and the declaration of Peter Mutharika as president-elect as invalid, null and void. In their lengthy submissions, the respondents accused the petitioners of relying on hearsay evidence, and claimed “there were no irregularities or other factors that beset the election and that even if any were there, they did not affect the result of the election.” They requested dismissal of the petitions with costs.
In January 2020, the drama continued as the nation eagerly awaited the ruling of the Constitutional Court. Two particular events caught public attention and wrath. One was a visit by the European Union’s election observation mission. They announced plans to release their report on the May 21 election, which was met with outrage by the opposition parties, civil society, and the general public; the EU team was forced into a hasty retreat.
The second was a shocking leak in mid-January 2020. It was reported that on November 28, 2019, the Chief Justice had lodged a formal complaint with the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) about a bribery attempt targeting the judges hearing the case for the nullification of the presidential election. On January 22, the ACB ordered the arrest of Mr. Thom Mpinganjira, a leading business tycoon. But later that same night, Mr. Mpinganjira’s lawyers managed to get an order from a magistrate in another city quashing the arrest warrant. Several days later, on January 28, a High Court judge ordered the re-arrest of Mr. Mpinganjira, and called for disciplinary action to be taken against the errant magistrate and lawyer. The case underscored both the rot and rectitude of the country’s besieged judicial system.
Pivotal moments in Malawi’s history
As February 3, 2020 approached, everyone wondered which face of the courts would show up. There are few dates in any nation’s history that mark pivotal moments. In Malawi’s history they include February 3, 1915, when the leader of the first major uprising against colonial rule, John Chilembwe, an American-educated Baptist pastor, was killed. Chilembwe Day is commemorated every January 15. Another key date is March 3, 1957, the day the British colonial government declared a state of emergency to quell nationalist agitation by arresting leading nationalists, which provoked more protests. The day is marked as a national holiday called Martyrs’ Day in honour of nationalist heroes who sacrificed their lives in the protracted struggle for decolonization.
Then there is of course July 6, Malawi’s Independence Day. In the postcolonial era, June 14, 1993, marks a significant day when a referendum was held to abolish President Banda’s ruthless MCP dictatorship and introduce multiparty democracy. The referendum was approved by nearly 65% of the voters. My parents’ generation had fought for the “first independence”; mine was at the forefront of the “second independence”. In recognition of my own role in the democratic struggle, the opposition party, the United Democratic Front appointed me Shadow Minister, but I turned down a Cabinet appointment when the party won the elections in May 1994. Unfortunately, my initial misgivings about the leadership and integrity of President Bakili Muluzi’s ten-year corrupt and lacklustre administration were borne out.
A day of infamy in Malawi’s political trajectory under the “Second Republic” is July 20, 2011, when nationwide protests broke out against economic mismanagement and creeping political authoritarianism by the DPP government led by President Bingu wa Mutharika, the elder brother of the current president. The draconian crackdown against the demonstrations over the next several days resulted in nearly 20 people killed and another 58 injured and up to 275 arrested. The country was shaken to its knees. The hapless president never regained his political footing, and less than a year later, on April 5, 2012, he died of a heart attack at the age of 78.
The landmark verdict nullifying the presidential election will mark February 3, 2020 as another milestone in the history of this incredibly beautiful, but badly governed, and desperately poor country. One of Malawi’s most renowned intellectuals, Thandika Mkandawire, noted for his caustic wit, told a Malawian friend that visiting Nairobi in December 2019 served as a grim reminder of Malawi’s lost fifty years of independence; much as one might find visiting the Asian economic tigers a sobering testimony to Africa’s lost years of independence.
The Kenya case
Malawi follows Kenya, where on September 1, 2017, the Supreme Court annulled the country’s presidential election held on August 8, 2017. In fact, in its judgement, the Malawi Constitutional Court frequently referred to the Kenya case. Cancelling presidential elections is extremely rare given the high levels of substantiality of evidence required in such cases. Thus Malawi has joined an exclusive club of world democracies. Annulment of an election represents a grave indictment of the electoral body. The Constitutional Court was unsparing in castigating the Malawi Electoral Commission for its incompetent and improper management of the entire presidential election process.
The court called for fresh elections within 150 days. The offices of the President and Vice President were returned to the status quo before the May 21 election, thereby reinstating Vice President Chilima and retaining President Mutharika till new elections. Parliament was urged to meet within 21 days to pass legislation on new presidential, parliamentary, and local elections and maintain the principle of concurrent tripartite elections every 5 years.
Malawi follows Kenya, where on September 1, 2017, the Supreme Court annulled the country’s presidential election held on August 8, 2017. In fact, in its judgement, the Malawi Constitutional Court frequently referred to the Kenya case.
As happened in Kenya after the presidential election was annulled on September 1, 2017, the annulment in Malawi will be greeted with jubilation by the leaders and followers of the opposition parties, and with trepidation by those affiliated to the ruling party, including some professionals and former activists who sold their souls for tarnished pieces of silver. In the days leading to the Constitutional Court ruling, political and religious leaders, the security services, foreign diplomatic missions, as well as the United Nations and the African Union, appealed for calm and urged citizens to accept the court’s decision.
One hopes President Mutharika will try to salvage his tattered reputation by gracefully accepting the court decision, as his predecessors, President Banda did when he lost the 1993 referendum, and President Muluzi lost an ill-guided attempt at a third term.
As became evident in Kenya, annulling a presidential election does not guarantee a smooth re-election process. In fact, the opposition in Kenya proceeded to boycott the repeat election in October, which led the incumbent, President Uhuru Kenyatta, to cruise to victory unopposed. This is unlikely to happen in Malawi. In fact, what might be in question is not whether the main contending parties will contest the fresh presidential election, but how. Will the opposition parties proceed separately as before or form an electoral alliance to fight the fresh election?
In its ruling, the Constitutional Court found that no candidate in the May 21, 2019 presidential election had secured a majority and proclaimed that from the next election only a candidate who secured 50+1 would be deemed elected as President. Parliament was asked to make the necessary amendments to the electoral law. In 2017 the DPP, supported by a minority party, had blocked the Presidential, Parliamentary and Local Government Amendments Bill that would have allowed a 50+1 electoral system.
The court ruling might facilitate much-needed political realignment. The two leading parties, UTM and MCP, must seriously pursue forming a possible coalition to beat the DPP and any coalition it might cobble together. Malawi cannot afford to mortgage its future to the DPP, a party that has degenerated into an incompetent, sleazy, tribalistic, nepotistic, and kleptocratic cabal. Creating meaningful and durable political coalitions require statesmanship and compromise that is quite rare among politicians.
Malawi has been offered a historic opportunity to reclaim its future, to change direction and to fulfill the dreams of millions of its people who fought for the “second independence”. The opposition parties and politicians who succeeded in nullifying the presidential election must not seek to become a reincarnation of the discredited DPP regime, greedily awaiting their chance to “eat” from the paltry state coffers. They owe it to history, and to the past, current and future generations of citizens of this aggrieved country to pursue and realise persistent yearnings for an inclusive, integrated, innovative and sustainable democratic developmental state and society.
As we’ve learned from development studies and histories and economies of some Asian countries, creating such a state and society is not a mystery: it is not a matter of ethnicity or race or nationality, neither is it dictated by the peculiarities of culture or the imagined genius of a particular civilization, let alone the endowments of natural resources. Rather, it is determined by the quality of institutions and leadership, the development of human capital, and the prevalence of the social capital of trust. The future will centre on confronting many challenges and seizing new opportunities. Two stand out.
First, there is need to undertake profound political reforms, including of the electoral system. There are, of course, many other electoral systems, including single member or multi-member constituencies under which there are several variants; they can also be complemented by majoritarian or proportional or mixed majoritarian and proportional features. Malawi must introduce an electoral system that best promotes proportionality of seats to votes, accountability to constituents, inter-ethnic and inter-religious conciliation, and minority office holding. The decentralisation and devolution of power from a highly centralised presidency should also be on the table.
The newly empowered masses must maintain pressure on the politicians to embrace the politics of policy differences rather than that of ethnic chauvinism and personal self-aggrandizement. They must resist the self-serving machinations and shenanigans of the political class. As we have learned in African studies and from the rise of contemporary political populisms around the world, ethnicity (or race), overlaid by all manner of regionalisms, is often a more powerful predictor of political loyalties and voting behavior than class and social interests.
But ethnicity itself is a complex phenomenon. “Moral ethnicity” differs from “political ethnicity”. The former represents a complex web of social obligations and belonging, while the latter reflects the competitive confrontation of “ethnic contenders and constituencies” for state power and national resources. As I wrote elsewhere, “Both are socially constructed, but one as an identity, the other as an ideology. Ethnicity may serve as a cultural public for the masses estranged from the civic public of the elites, a sanctuary that extends its comforts and protective tentacles to the victims of political disenfranchisement, economic impoverishment, state terror and group rivalry. In other words, it is not the existence of ethnic groups (or racial groups) that is a problem in itself, a predictor of social conviviality or conflict, but their political mobilisation.” This is the struggle Malawians committed to a more inclusive future must fight.
Malawi’s current first-past-the-post or winner-take-all system is one of the root causes of political instability. It facilitates minority presidencies. Since the dawn of multiparty democracy in 1994, there have been six elections. Only in two of these did the elected president garner more than half the votes of the electorate (1994–Bakili Muluzi 46.15%; 1999–Bakili Muluzi 52.34%; 2004 Bingu wa Mutharika 35.97%; 2009 Bingu wa Mutharika 66.17%; 2014 Peter Arthur Mutharika 36.4%; 2019 Peter Arthur Mutharika 38.57%).
The newly empowered masses must maintain pressure on the politicians to embrace the politics of policy differences rather than that of ethnic chauvinism and personal self-aggrandizement. They must resist the self-serving machinations and shenanigans of the political class
Incidentally, it is the first-past-the-post system that allowed the election of President Donald Trump, who lost the popular vote to Senator Hilary Clinton by a margin of 2,868,686. Similarly, commenting on Brexit a day after Britain left the European Union, a British journalist wrote in The Guardian: “How did a matter of such momentous constitutional, economic and cultural consequence come to be settled by a first-past-the-post vote and not by a super-majority?…There is much that is historically unjust about the British state, but very little of that injustice derives from the EU…It was the task of the Brexit campaign to persuade the electorate otherwise. In the referendum they succeeded with 37%, enough to transform our collective fate for a generation at least.”
Second, the awakened citizenry must force the political class to attend to the country’s tenacious crises of mass poverty, low economic growth, and rising inequalities. There is a pressing need for strategic and sustainable interventions in the traditional primary, secondary, and tertiary sectors, and what some call the quaternary sector or the knowledge sector comprising high quality education and training, research and development, and the advancement of science, technology and innovation.
In short, a future democratic government will need to focus steadfastly on economic growth and transformation by overcoming the country’s enduring legacies of underdevelopment as it simultaneously embraces, even if belatedly, the unrealised potentialities of the old industrial revolutions and the possibilities of the fourth industrial revolution. At stake is the need to raise the country’s human development index by ensuring the provision of what the United Nations Development Programme calls basic capabilities while moving towards enhanced capabilities. Especially critical is reducing power imbalances and gender inequalities, as well as promoting youth employability and decent work.
Malawi’s development deficits are glaring indeed, ranging from persistent poverty among the rural and urban masses, to poor physical and social infrastructure, abysmally low levels of education at all levels, and extensive unemployment and underemployment. Each time I visit the country, I am struck by how little the cities where I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s have changed. I joke to my relatives and friends that I cannot get lost in Lilongwe, Blantyre, or Zomba, although I left the country 43 years ago! When I visited last December, together with my family, including my son and his fiancée, it was disconcerting to see that the primary and secondary schools I attended look so dilapidated; they are depressing and pale replicas of the fine institutions I attended.
Thus, getting the politics right is only a prelude to getting the economics right for the well-being and dignity of Malawian citizens. The good news from the ruling of the Constitutional Court annulling the presidential election is that an indispensable first step has been taken. This day will be remembered as a turning point in the country’s tortured political history. Perhaps it will be known as Constitutional Democracy Day.
One of my relatives, a young, bright and highly educated professional, said the whole saga had left her proud to be a Malawian. This is a moment of reckoning for the country, she said, when Malawians became active citizens, abandoning the docility of bystanders in the political game created, controlled and manipulated by self-serving, cynical, corrupt and crafty politicians. Her fervent hope is that the citizenry, now informed and inspired by their active involvement in a signal political event, will not retreat to the political sidelines as passive observers. That, too, is my hope and the hope of many in this land of the lake, the Warm Heart of Africa, to use the country’s much beloved national moniker.
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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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