The death of Daniel Toroitich arap Moi on 4 February triggered a predictable avalanche of contradictory responses. The national media has led the canonisation campaign while a range of other Kenyans sniped at the “Professor’s” poor human rights record and state corruption. BBC correspondent Dickens Olewe reported that Moi left a legacy that will be vigorously debated in the wake of his death, underscoring that “Kenya has changed a lot since Mr Moi left office but his influence will continue to be felt for a long time”.
The resurrection of the Kenya African National Union has already proved to be one of the former President’s most durable achievements. Moi revived the moribund party that brought Kenya independence as the vehicle for his patrimonial rule. The observation that KANU is still ruling the nation is one of the truisms of Kenyan political exegesis. The names and slogans have changed, but the political monoculture that was seeded by Jomo Kenyatta and watered by Moi has held sway over each successive government.
Moi himself was a more elusive phenomenon. His generous and magnanimous persona masked his political acumen. Moi’s two terms under the multi-party regime complicated the enigmatic leader’s profile considerably, adding another decade to the President’s long conversation with the nation. Most of this conversation occurred on the stump where for decades he reiterated his mantra of peace, love and unity with metronomic consistency.
Heavy-handed and despotic after the chaotic 1982 coup attempt, his two terms under the multi-party system allowed the President to sharpen his skills and play the political trickster exposing the opposition’s motivations as no different from those of his own KANU sycophants.
The political monoculture that was seeded by Jomo Kenyatta and watered by Moi has held sway over each successive government
“You Kenyans,” he once berated a large assembly of wananchi, “you Kenyans are a very difficult people to govern!”
The constant succession of schemes, gambits, and political gimmicks served up by his cronies and opponents alike validated his credentials as a mariner in a turbulent ocean. Moi kept the ship of state moving forward at a time when a mix of internal and external forces deemed African governance to be more a case of good seamanship than the neoliberal navigation advocated by the country’s Western partners.
All of this makes sorting out the Moi legacy a highly cautionary exercise. People who were not around for the grand political trope Moi set in motion may not understand what the fuss is about. He was a corrupt and long-serving autocrat who cracked heads. But it is nevertheless important to recognise how the death of a leader serves to crystallize a nation’s perception of itself, and how it got to where it is now.
Political History as System Cycles: Exploitation and Conservation
History comes in different packages. Sometimes it tells the story of empires and civilisations, other times it focuses on the life of great individuals. In recent times, scholars have focused on the social and cultural life of communities and nations to fill out the frame. Scientists have produced works of history detailing how soils, climate, and epidemics have molded life on earth across the eons.
More recently, the study of system dynamics has seen the ecological concepts reproduced across various disciplines, leading in turn to the rise of trans-disciplinary analyses of complex systems. The science of complexity defines decision-makers influencing how a given system behaves as agents—actors subject to larger forces that determine how the games they play are decided.
It is important to recognize how the death of a leader serves to crystallize a nation’s perception of itself, and how it got to where it is now
It follows that systemic influences shaped the landscape that Daniel arap Moi in turn shaped over the course of his 95 years. Much has been written about the man, and his death uncorked a litany of previously hidden details and insights into the Shakespearian drama he presided over while in office. But how do we evaluate the legacy of Moi’s agency during his time in office?
Kenya has undergone several transitions beginning in the run-up to European intervention. Models of ecological cycles provide one method for analysing the developmental dynamics underlying these transitions. Sanderson and Hollings, scholars associated with the resilience movement, have proposed that their model of ecological succession cycles is applicable to social systems.
The cycle encompasses four phases: exploitation, conservation, creative destruction or release, and renewal and reorganisation. These phases are best regarded as ideal types that unfold in an uneven manner with significant overlap. They nevertheless provide a useful backdrop for assessing the evolution of a given system, which in this instance is Moi’s Kenya.
The exploitation phase corresponds to the decades bookending the colonial interlude. Imperial intervention created a new political economy in Kenya based on large-scale agriculture and its state-based support structure dominated by a small ethnic elite. Kenya was both redesigned and reimagined from above as an aggregation of communities distinguished by linguistic and cultural markers and separated by territorial boundaries.
Colonialism instigated a new cycle of far-reaching change for the now politically and spatially bounded territory. In another historical iteration, the region’s borders could have followed different criteria. Left to its own devices, for example, the regional process may have lumped the decentralised societies of the Kenya highlands together with other Bantu speakers to the south and east, or a greater Cushitic nation could have emerged out of the vast rangelands of the Horn of Africa.
This may still happen over time. But the fact of the matter is that history conspired to merge an amalgamation of communities into a nation more variegated and diverse than the population of Europe. These communities share a space the size of France. The mix of ecologies and economies the new colony encapsulated made Kenya unique, even by the standards of this culturally diverse region. The British colonisers controlled the territory by simplifying the equation.
Exploitation was consolidated through the importation of institutions of governance and protocols adapted to the European experience. For the colonial administrators who found indigenous production systems in varying states of crisis and recovery following the disasters of the 1890s, the practical issue was generating the economic output necessary to finance the protectorate and soon-to-be colony. They built the railroad to Uganda, and most of the investment and change over the next eight decades occurred in the agricultural highlands it served.
The inhabitants of these areas bore the brunt of European occupation, which is not to say that the neglect of other communities was not exploitative. The incorporation of the indigenous population into the capitalist economy accelerated with the Swynnerton Plan of 1954, which shifted the role of the indigenous households from labourers to semi-autonomous producers.
This, and the inevitability of political independence, marked the beginning of the conservation phase. Jomo Kenyatta’s agency focused on the preservation of the post-colonial status quo, presided over by his ethnic cohorts with an element of power sharing incorporating a new caste of tribal power brokers into the ranks of the new elite.
Exploitation was consolidated through the importation of institutions of governance and protocols adapted to the European experience
Where other African leaders sought to move directly into the release phase and liberate their people from the political and mental dominance of external hegemonies, President Kenyatta opted to conserve the country’s economic configuration. “I cannot experiment with the lives of my people,” he told his fellow East African heads of State, the socialists Julius Nyerere and Milton Obote.
Conservation also involved expanding new avenues of accumulation within the post-independence economy. For over a decade Kenya achieved a combination of diversified economic growth and political stability. But the template remained the same: in 1975 coffee, tea, and petroleum products still provided 75 per cent of Kenya’s export earnings. Most Kenyans still derived their livelihoods from agriculture.
The development of the conservation phase reached its apogee during the coffee boom of 1977-78, prompting displays of conspicuous consumption. Ordinary Kenyans were treated to the spectacle of the highly publicised shopping trip to London of a group of coffee planters and their wives; they chartered an extra Boeing 747 to convey their purchases back to Kenya.
The country’s state capitalism reinforced large-scale production, formal sector enterprises, exchange controls and import substitution, a provincial administration controlling preferential access to resources and services, and an elitist education model. Although Kenya was a paragon of stability, there were cracks in the façade. Corruption was increasing and the one-party state had become a no-party state run by Kenyatta’s Kiambu kitchen cabinet.
Coffee came to symbolise the pinnacle of the development of the conservation phase. The industry’s subsequent decline is an interesting exemplar of release phase transitional dynamics. The shift from Kenyatta to the Moi regime described a similar arc of boom and decline. Kenya’s colonial blueprint had reached its natural limit as a small ethnic cabal controlled the government, and large swaths of the country were ruled as an internal colony.
Land ownership was a volatile manifestation of Kenya’s dual economy and structural inequality. In the 1979 census Kenya registered a 3.6 per cent population growth rate, and jumped to an unprecedented 4.1 in the 1989 census, guaranteeing decades of increasing pressure on the already hard-pressed economy and land resources. This configuration could not be sustained.
The transition from conservation to release was already underway when Moi took office in August of 1978. The vice president’s limited ability to grow his wealth despite his privileged position in Kenyatta’s government set him apart from Kenyatta’s inner circle. They regarded him as, “a passing cloud” although Mzee Kenyatta had rejected their assessment. They believed that Kenya needed a hard-nosed capitalist who could keep in check the unruly masses and the Marxist agitators who made a point of drinking their beer out of cow horns.
Two plots to remove Moi from the line of succession brought the fault lines into clear view. One involved amending the constitution, the other was the Ngoroko Squad, ostensibly an anti-poaching unit clandestinely created to remove the vice president and his key allies in the event of the death of the ailing Kenyatta.
The former failed following the intervention of the Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, and the other backfired when President Kenyatta died in Mombasa, allowing the Coast Provincial Commissioner to set in motion the swearing-in process before the Ngoroko Squad could intervene. Moi was to face many other threats over the course of his tenure.
Kenya’s Release Phase Political Dynamics
Forest succession is a commonly cited example of the ecological model featured here. The establishment of tree species corresponds to the exploitation phase, the maturing of trees supporting the greater arboreal ecology corresponds to the conservation phase, and destruction, usually by fire, triggers the release phase, which eventually gives way to reorganisation in the form of whatever similar or new ecological system follows in its place.
Ecological release is similar to the creative destruction of capitalism, a concept derived from Marx and popularised by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. The impact of ecological release, however, considerably exceeds the influence of Schumpeterian innovation in the business cycle. Release, in contrast, proceeds by breaking up the rigid conservative order, which takes the system into the more liquid, chaotic regime of complexity science.
Kenya needed a hard-nosed capitalist who could keep in check the unruly masses and the Marxist agitators who made a point of drinking their beer out of cow horns
Release rearranges established linkages, leading to a more fluid but turbulent state system, facilitating what Robert Kaufmann refers to as spontaneous internal organisation, a process strongly influenced by the system’s initial conditions. Reorganisation inevitably generates varying degrees of violence. Conflict, in the context of this case study, is a function of agents within the system pursuing different strategic objectives.
This is an important caveat qualifying the role of human agents, especially in a complex system like Kenya where the potential for political violence is always close to the surface. The criteria in this context is not based on ethical or moral considerations, but on how conflict affects the capacity to adapt and to navigate the system from release to the reorganisational phase.
When Kenya’s release cycle began to erode the post-independence order, most Kenyans attributed it to disruptive developments reverberating within the political arena. At the time, no one was able to anticipate the directionality of these developments and the trajectory that was set in motion. Most Kenyans hoped a blend of continuity and incremental change would prevail over the radical agenda of the Kenyatta state’s critics.
The new president was well aware of his vulnerable position when he took over. Kenyatta’s death generated a temporary mood of political reflection similar to the one we are currently witnessing. Moi took advantage of this by declaring he would fuata nyayo za Mzee, follow in the footsteps of Kenyatta. Most Kenyans were not familiar with the Swahili term for footstep (nyayo) when he made the declaration tethering the new regime to the conservative policies of the first government.
The idealistic goals of the post-independence neo-Marxists were fading across the continent. Nyayo governance became a form of adhocracy predicated on Moi’s vision of national unity, but otherwise unencumbered by any ideological orientation. The missionary Christianity of Moi’s upbringing only partially filled the space that it shared with the anti-intellectual biases and suspicion of external blueprints Moi displayed once he was in the chair. His intimate familiarity with the Kenya landscape and the behavioural proclivities of its inhabitants became the theory behind the trial and error process that characterised most of Moi’s time in office.
The prospects of a fresh start—Moi famously stated that sleeping in a bed of gold will not guarantee a good night’s sleep—reassured the body politic. But the sponsors of the change-the-constitution plot were unrepentant. They saw Moi as a soft target, an unsophisticated church-going country lackey who could be dealt with in due course.
Moi quickly adapted his low profile modus operandi to deal with the threat. The new Moi emerged as a master of ambiguity and unpredictability, sowing uncertainty to offset his weak power base. He began by instigating the pro-Nyayo and anti-Nyayo debate, which allowed him to cull his opponents in the Kenyatta network of high-ranking administrators and regional power barons.
This was the first in a series of often theatrical ploys played out in the public sphere. These tactics required no small amount of public acrobatics and reverse spin by the new coalition of political travellers and opportunists hitched to the Moi caravan. It was later extended to high-ranking civil servants, cabinet ministers, ambassadors, and other members of the Moi nomenklatura in the form of unexpected announcements on the state broadcaster’s 1 pm news bulletins.
Most Kenyans hoped a blend of continuity and incremental change would prevail over the radical agenda of the Kenyatta state’s critics
The 1977 spike in world Arabica prices had boosted Kenya’s domestic income by 14 per cent. The boom gave way to a precipitous reversal of the sector’s fortunes, exacerbated by widespread use of counterfeit agro-chemicals in 1979 that resulted in catastrophic crop failures.
The problems affecting coffee production soon spread to other areas of the estate sector such as sisal, maize and wheat, and livestock farming. But Kenya’s commercial smallholders absorbed most of the pain. Moi used their marginalisation to increase small-scale producer cooperatives’ representation in institutions like the Kenya Producers Cooperative Union (KPCU) and otherwise exploited smallholder grievances to further counter the influence of the estate sector’s entrenched elites.
The financial buffer protecting the Kenyatta elite planters concentrated around Thika and Nakuru was wearing thin, decreasing the clout of another set of anti-Nyayo actors. But the powerful kingmaker behind the Moi succession, Charles Njonjo, was the real threat. Njonjo tipped his hand when he attended a Kiambu church where the pastor’s sermon referred to “the lead sheep who cannot lead his flock to good pasture.”
Moi outflanked him by announcing that Western governments were grooming “a traitor in our midst”. Kenyans added another previously obscure Swahili term, to their vocabulary as speculation over the unnamed msaliti mounted over the days, sending an array of possible saboteur candidates running for cover.
One of the president’s allies eventually named Njonjo. Parliament shouted him down when he tried to defend himself. Removed from office and isolated, a commission of enquiry that was high on entertainment but low on hard evidence finished the job, sending the pardoned but disgraced Njonjo into retirement in 1983.
The institutional entropy overtaking Kenya’s public sector was less amenable to political quick fixes. The endemic discontent in Luo Nyanza spread to other communities, encouraging a cabal of non-commissioned Air Force officers to plot a Samuel Doe-style military coup on 1 August 1982. The poorly executed takeover was symptomatic of the creeping disorder underpinning popular opposition to the Moi state. This coup redirected the subsequent course of events. Moi called snap elections, trusting the electorate to undertake another culling operation.
Some of the problems fueling the decomposition of the old status quo were internal and some were external, such as the donor-dictated structural adjustment policies and the privatisation of state assets that followed in their wake. Others were a mix of environmental factors and the government’s limited capacity to manage contingency arrangements, like the maintenance of strategic grain reserves during the boom-bust maize production cycle of the early 1980s.
They saw Moi as a soft target, an unsophisticated church-going country lackey who could be dealt with in due course
The food security problem became a full-blown national crisis when the 1984 long rains failed. Even though the government response to the famine was efficient, the narrative from below blamed the government for the stomach cramps and diarrhoea caused by the American yellow maize distributed as relief food.
The redistributive logic behind Moi’s patrimonial politics fed the spreading corruption of the post-1982 period. Where Kenyatta’s corruption was elitist, Moi presided over a more inclusive government that partially mitigated the backlash against his populist gravy train. Regardless of the motive and the contribution of the collinear neoliberal policies to the public sector meltdown, the corrosive impact on social services was the same.
In the meantime, Kenya’s reputation for stability was now more a function of the growing chaos raging across the greater region than of the nation’s internal equilibria. The consensus abroad focused on the need for programmatic policy-based solutions to address Kenya’s faltering progress. If Moi’s gospel of peace, love, and unity appeared homespun and quaint, his by-the-seat-of-his-pants governance style came across as reactionary in contrast.
Moi had, by that point, no patience with any form of political critique however constructive or patriotic. When the government massacred several thousand ethnic Somalis quarantined without food and water at the Wagalla airstrip in Wajir in February 1984, the opposition remained silent. The double standard applied to Kenya’s minority communities provides a backdrop for the number of brave and principled critics of the government who also paid a heavy price over the years.
The fire that started as a bush-clearing exercise was raging out of control.
Razing the Forests
In 1989 I returned to Kenya to undertake a PhD on the commercialisation of small-scale agriculture, and all was not well. The Ministry of Agriculture’s Land Rovers were running out of fuel by mid-month, cooperatives and local authorities went into remission. The purchasing power of civil service salaries continued to decline, agricultural output stagnated, the new American Ambassador ratcheted up the criticism, and Kenya’s traditional allies diverted their developmental funding to the country’s emergent civil society.
Disenchantment with the government had increased apace with the impact of donor conditionalities. For KANU’s primitive accumulators, the Bretton Woods policy reforms turned out to be very good news. The political machine had to be fed, and the privatisation policies provided a new entry point. Kenya’s public lands became a source of new fuel. Privatisation released Moi’s State House to unleash a wave of environmental degradation.
The narrative from below blamed the government for the stomach cramps and diarrhea caused by the American yellow maize distributed as relief food
The Nyayo tea zones carved out of the margins of highland forests had signalled the Moi government’s position on Kenya’s dwindling forest cover. Forested areas of the Rift Valley like the Enosoopukia watershed and the Mau escarpment were opened to smallholder settlement. Local compradors used their State House connections to target other local forests, urban real estate, riparian border zones, and communal land reserves. Excisions in Nairobi’s Karura forest, a stone’s throw from the United Nations Environment Programme headquarters, became the stuff Nobel Prizes are made of.
A 1990 profile published in the New Yorker portrayed Moi as a paragon of Africa’s Big Man syndrome. Previous to this, one of my former students had published a similar exposé in the International Herald Tribune. However correct these critiques may have been on the surface, they did not factor in the larger dynamics at work, including the effects of International Financial Institutions’ policies on African policy.
Privatisation in Kenya reminded me of Victor Borges’ short story, The Gospel According to Mark. A Christian missionary goes off to a remote atoll to share the good news with its primitive inhabitants. He spends the better part of a year preaching in a simple wooden church. The natives duly attend, but remain dull-eyed and show no sign that they comprehend the import of his sermons. Then, early one Friday morning in April, his pupils come to his house en masse. They are uncharacteristically excited and babbling in their language, which the missionary has yet to master. He only recognises some localised words from the scriptures. Their joy and enthusiasm increase as they escort him to the church. Perplexed, the missionary turns the corner where, with smiles and gesticulations, they point to the cross and the nails they have prepared especially for him, their foreign saviour.
Local compradors used their State House connections to target other local forests, urban real estate, riparian border zones, and communal land reserves
Cannibalising parastatals and running down other state corporations and using the purloined resources to buy the assets back at throw-away price became standard procedure. Prime land was privatised only to be sold back to the government at inflated prices. The plot-grabbing mania snowballed until schools, churches, private property, and even the dead in their cemeteries were fair game for the grabbers and their accomplices in the hallways of the Ministry of Lands. Like the bodyguard who stole the President’s gold KANU cockerel from the bedroom of his Kabarak farm, one especially bold privateer obtained a title for a Nairobi plot that actually belonged to Moi.
While politicians and activists incited their constituents against the Moi government, angry peasants targeted their local patrons, co-op officials, and corrupt civil servants. The seizure of cooperative factories, the burning of tea and cane fields, and the revolt of rice growers forced state marketing bodies to raise producer prices and in some cases cancel farmers’ loans. Smallholder producers launched lawsuits against managers of cooperatives, others attacked officials or burnt down their houses. The reform of the Cooperatives Act side-lined the front-line ministry of rural development, leaving producers at the mercy of local mafias and a new class of brokers and middlemen usurping their role.
Powerless to stop the forces they had set in motion, the IMF mandarins turned off the taps and left capitalism in Kenya to sort itself out without them. Elsewhere in Africa the turbulence released by their neoliberal medicine was claiming many of Africa’s Big Men: how was Moi to avoid the same fate?
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Solidarity Means More Than Words
Although the South African government is one of the most vocal supporters of the Palestinian cause, its actions tell a different story.
On October 15 South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, decked in a black and white keffiyeh, pledged his solidarity with the people of Palestine. He was surrounded by colleagues in the same attire holding Palestine flags. This was a week after Israel began its bombardment of the Gaza strip. The situation in Gaza is an even worse nightmare than usual, with the death toll from Israeli strikes now exceeding 11,000 civilians, half of whom are children. Much of the open-air prison housing more than two million people has been reduced to rubble. South Africa’s already critical rhetoric on Israel has become significantly harsher, but the question being asked is, when will this translate into action?
Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has stood unfailingly with Palestine, beginning with the close friendship and camaraderie between former president Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) at the time of Mandela’s release from prison in 1990. South Africa was one of the first countries to refer to Israel as an apartheid state, a progressive stance at the state level, even in Africa.
Yet the current government’s bravery, even in diplomacy, is questionable. The pro-Palestine public and civil society are demanding answers to basic questions, such as why Israeli citizens can travel to South Africa visa-free, while Palestinians cannot. And although South Africa recalled its ambassador to Israel in 2018, downgrading the embassy to a liaison office, it has yet to take the step to expel the Israeli ambassador to South Africa.
But things are shifting. Israel has acted with such violence that South Africa’s language has grown stronger to the point that the Cabinet called Israel’s bombardment of Gaza not just a genocide but a “holocaust on the Palestinians.” After a month of civil society and public pressure on the government to expel Eliav Belotsercovsky, Israel’s Ambassador to South Africa, Ramaphosa recalled South African diplomats in Tel Aviv for “consultations,” and Naledi Pandor, the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, has called for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to arrest and try Netanyahu and his Cabinet for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Notwithstanding these diplomatic maneuvers, the expulsion of Belotserkovsky is still in discussion at the parliamentary level, and in practice, the relationship between Israel and South Africa is in contradiction. South Africa is Israel’s biggest trade partner on the African continent. In 2021, South Africa exported $225 million worth of goods to Israel, mostly in the form of capital goods (tangible assets or resources used in the production of consumer goods), machinery and electrical products, and chemicals; it paid $60 million for imports, mostly intermediate goods (goods used to finalize partially finished consumer goods), and food products by far, making a total in trade of $285 million. This is one-third of Israel’s total trade with sub-Saharan Africa of $760 million.
In 2012, the government announced that products made in the West Bank need to be labeled as originating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as opposed to a “Product of Israel,” which led to an outcry from Zionist groups and the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, calling the move discriminatory and divisive. But several Checkers and Spar branches still stock items labeled “Product of Israel,” with no repercussions.
Zionist entities have for decades been openly committing crimes under South African law. South African nationals have traveled to Israel to fight in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), and some are there currently. This is illegal under the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act which is very clear about citizens fighting under other flags. A South African citizen may not provide military assistance to a foreign army unless they have made an application to the Minister of Defence and received their approval. When the issue was raised at a recent parliamentary hearing, Minister in the Presidency, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, admitted that the State Security Agency is aware of this phenomenon, and would provide the identities of these soldiers to the National Prosecuting Authority, as they are a threat to the State. Yet the fact that South Africans have been fighting in the Israeli army is no secret. Recently, a video emerged of a soldier leading other soldiers in South Africa’s national anthem. Another question being asked yet again is, why has it taken this long for any prosecutions to take place or even be suggested?
In July a group of Israeli water experts and state officials visited South Africa to pitch their technology to the South African government, a trip organized by the Jewish National Fund of South Africa and the South African Zionist Federation. The Jewish National Fund is notorious for planting forests on former Palestinian villages demolished by the Israeli army. Israel and South Africa are also connected in the agriculture sphere and South Africa is not alone in this. Israel had been using agriculture and military training to carve an increasingly wider economic path to make its way through Africa, and in 2021 Israel nearly obtained observer status at the African Union, a proposal suspended by South Africa and Algeria’s protests.
The Paramount Group, an arms manufacturer with offices and factories in Cape Town and Johannesburg, is strongly connected to the Israeli army, providing armored vehicles to Haifa-based Elbit Systems, who in turn supplies Israel with 85% of its land-based and drone equipment. The founder, Ivor Ichikowitz, is an outspoken Zionist whose family foundation has been known to raise funds to support the IDF and Paramount’s Vice President for Europe, Shane Cohen, was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Israeli Army. Ichikowitz has been allied with prominent South African politicians for many years. In 2009 the Mail and Guardian reported that Ichikowitz had flown Jacob Zuma to Lebanon and Kazakhstan for free on his personal jet. He was also, bizarrely, a broker in a peace mission by African heads of state, including Ramaphosa, to Ukraine in June this year. By allowing for these sales to Elbit, South Africa is violating its own commitment to the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty of 2014, which, as a signatory, has agreed to cease the provision of weaponry when there is a reasonable expectation that such arms might be employed in severe breaches of international human rights or humanitarian law.
The South African government has been quietly allowing its own laws to be flouted by Israeli and Zionist interests. But pressure is mounting on the government’s need to convert its narrative into action. Minister Pandor has called for an immediate imposition of an arms embargo on Israel. Does this mean the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) will prohibit Paramount sales to Elbit? The country’s National Prosecuting Authority has been instructed to prosecute South Africans serving in the IDF. Will this actually happen? Will the DTI stop stores from selling products incorrectly labeled and will South Africa cut trade ties with Israel and impose Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS)?
Momentum has grown, and people are raging against the machine. The South African government is in the spotlight. It will be forced to show where its red lines are drawn and where its allegiance really lies. The people are watching.
Coffee Act 2023: Government Grip Over Sector a Perilous Policy Decision
The government has not the resources necessary to revive the ailing coffee sector. The proposed Coffee Act 2023 should make room for the private sector as it has both the capacity and the experience to play a significant role in the revival of the moribund sector.
The proposed Coffee Act 2023 has serious limitations and the reforms it recommends may fail to halt the rapid decline of a crucial sector that is in dire need of an urgent rescue agenda to restore it to its former glory.
The Bill currently before parliament does not sufficiently address the question of how it will tackle the twin challenges facing the coffee sector – an opaque marketing system that has over the years been accused of defrauding smallholder farmers who largely sell their coffee beans through the Nairobi Coffee Exchange (NCE) auction, and decline in production and productivity as farmers struggle to buy costly farm inputs in the face of dwindling returns, or abandon coffee farming altogether to pursue more lucrative ventures.
Strangely, the proposed Bill – first mooted by the previous regime of President Uhuru Kenyatta – is also seeking to isolate coffee from a legal regime that has been governing the production, processing and marketing of scheduled commercial crops since 2013. The Crop Act was enacted in 2013 after agriculture was devolved under the 2010 constitution to enable the consolidation or repeal of various statutes related to specific crops and create the conditions necessary for the development of these crops.
Also enacted in 2013, the Agriculture and Food Authority Act that created the Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) defines the authority’s regulatory and operational functions in implementing the Crop Act 2013 and makes provisions for the respective roles of the national and county governments in crop production, processing and marketing. The new AFA Act collapsed several institutions into AFA directorates and repealed the statutes that had created them. The major casualties of the laws that were repealed included the Coffee Act of 2001 that had been revised in 2012, the Sugar Act of 2001, the Tea Act (Cap 343) and the Cotton Act, among 13 other Acts.
Although the other crops have also failed to achieve the results envisaged by the Crop Act 2013 for various reasons, coffee has been of particular interest both politically and economically at the national government level and at the level of the county governments in regions that produce it, especially Mt. Kenya, a vote-rich region whose voting pattern could easily be swayed by the prevailing economic situation during an election period. Despite the numerous challenges facing the coffee sector, thousands of smallholder farmers still hold on to the crop, optimistic that every successive government will turn it around.
Production has declined significantly over the years and a crop that once yielded over 130,000 tons annually in the late ‘80s, earning smallholder farmers huge fortunes, only managed a paltry 34,512 tons of clean coffee in 2021 and just over 53,000 tons last year. The poor farm gate prices that accrue to those farmers – largely smallholder ones – auctioning coffee through cooperatives at the NCE have provoked debate among politicians, farmers and other affected industry actors. There have been claims of cartel-like dealings along the marketing value chain, with corrupt government officials looking the other way as dealers at the auction profit from dubious deals unchallenged, making the sector reforms a Herculean task for any establishment.
One of the leading problems associated with these unfair practices is the role of the marketing agents, who are accused of colluding with the millers and buyers to manipulate prices to the disadvantage of smallholder farmers. They are appointed by officials of cooperative societies to look after smallholder farmers’ interests at the auction, where 25,126 of the 34,512 tons of coffee produced in 2021 were sold. The election of cooperative officials is itself marred with malpractices and a lot of external interference.
Before the current Bill was drafted, there was an attempt by Moses Kuria, the then Gatundu Member of Parliament, to change the Crop Act in 2019 to allow only the export of processed coffee. According to Kuria, by disallowing the export of raw coffee from the country, the proposed amendment would ensure a favourable balance of trade and payment.
“Clause 2 of the Bill seeks to amend section 40 of the Crop Act 2013 to compel the Cabinet Secretary in consultations with the AFA and County Governments while making regulations, to ensure the coffee is exported only in processed form having been roasted, milled, parked and branded and clearly labelled ’a made in Kenya’ inscription,” Kuria’s memorandum read.
However, the proposed Bill now before parliament deviates from this intention. It instead allows only roasters and small businesses to buy coffee from the NCE for processing to promote local consumption. The Bill does not address the main challenge facing coffee marketing. It does not insulate farmers from the unfair practices that industry stakeholders have raised in the past. A buyer, a roaster, a grower miller, or a broker appointed by the grower will continue to be allowed to trade at the Exchange where the coffee will continue to be sold in its raw form.
Sceptics argue that without dismantling the cartels running the coffee sector, which requires the political goodwill that has been lacking, the ongoing reform efforts in the coffee sector will fail. Addressing a coffee reform forum convened in Meru recently by Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, Embu Governor Cecily Mbarire named three companies that she claimed control Kenya’s coffee marketing. She accused the three companies of buying coffee at the Exchange through different company subsidiaries whose directors work closely to manipulate prices in collusion with corrupt government officials. Agriculture CS Mithika Linturi’s threat to revoke the licences of all those involved in the corrupt practices within a week came to nothing.
The problem starts with how the marketing agents are appointed. This is done by the officials of cooperative societies who are elected periodically by members. The elections have in the past been cited as citadels of corruption that have been infiltrated by actors in the coffee value chain who influence the choice of officials to maintain the status quo.
In 2021, former Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya, who led the first phase of the coffee reforms, spoke about mismanagement in the coffee sector cooperative societies, saying that farmers lose their earnings through a flawed management of the chain of production and marketing. The proposed Bill recommends democratising the process of selecting millers and marketing agents by farmers through the holding of factory meetings where several bidders pitch their services. However, this process will require strong goodwill and is not fully insulated from manipulation by well-coordinated cartels.
Agriculture CS Mithika Linturi’s threat to revoke the licences of all those involved in the corrupt practices within a week came to nothing.
If the Bill does not address the need for the cooperatives to have independent marketing agents at the auction who will serve the farmers’ interests and not those of buyers and millers, the fortunes of the farmers will remain unchanged. The success of the proposal that millers make all the necessary disclosures to enable farmers to arrive at an informed decision – disclosure on milling costs, handling and storage charges and other fees and milling losses that the Bill caps at US$40 per ton – will depend on who serves as the marketing agents, how they will be appointed and their inclinations. Although the Bill requires a commercial miller to ensure that the grower or grower’s representative is given reasonable notice to be present during the milling, this will not enhance accountability if the process of appointing the marketing agents is not transparent from the outset.
Direct sales will not offer any reprieve since the Bill requires the prices to be favourable to those at the NCE. The Bill also requires that a commercial miller or a broker appointed in consultation with a commercial miller prepare a sales catalogue for all coffee in licensed warehouses in consultation with the Exchange and the growers. Cases where marketing agents have downgraded coffee to depress prices and offered reserve prices that are too high – and that can easily be leaked in a cartel-like marketing regime, making the coffee unsalable at the first auction and resulting in the downward scaling of prices at subsequent auctions – have in the past been cited as some of the ways by which farmers are exploited.
However, other provisions address administrative issues such as settling the proceeds of the auction in a direct system operated by the Capital Markets Authority (CMA), thus prohibiting a broker or an agent appointed by a grower and other service providers from receiving the proceeds on behalf of the growers and holding them for other commercial activities not related to the coffee sector. Currently, marketing agents trade with farmers’ money through forex conversion, fixed deposit earnings and by making loan advances to unsuspecting farmers at prohibitive interest rates with the connivance of the societies.
A past report of a task force led by Prof. Joseph Kieyah, Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on the Coffee Sub-sector, recommended prompt payment to farmers for coffee delivered to coffee mills, the opening up of the Exchange for farmers to directly trade at the auction, and the creation of a coffee production subsidy. The report also called for reforms in the coffee cooperatives to strengthen them and to enable farmers to hold them to account, and proposed such measures as capping administrative expenses at 15 per cent and penalties for entities that fail to comply with the law.
The industry now seeks a multi-pronged approach to be included in the proposed reforms, which includes the processing and promotion of specialty coffee from Kenya to global markets as is the case in Ethiopia, which has won trademarks for three of its specialty coffees. Coffee is Ethiopia’s main export commodity, contributing to the livelihoods of more than 15 million smallholder farmers and other actors in the sector.
According to the Ethiopia Coffee and Tea Authority (ECTA) report, Ethiopia’s six-month coffee export revenue grew by US$274 million in the first half of the 2021/22 fiscal year. The country also has an impressive local consumption of coffee, with an estimated 42 per cent of the coffee produced going to the domestic market, of which around 5 per cent is smuggled in cross-border trade and traded on the black market. The rest is traded and exported through the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX), which sells around 80 to 85 per cent of the exported coffee.
The price of coffee in Ethiopia has continued to rise. The ECTA introduced “Vertical Integration” into the sector, a scheme that was approved in 2021. The new regulation allows exporters to bypass the ECX and buy coffee directly from aggregators or small washing stations.
With the liberalisation of the coffee market, farmers can decide where to deliver their berries based on the price offered. Moreover, demand has continued to rise and local cooperatives such as washing stations are benefiting from higher competition among buyers.
On 28 January 2020, in collaboration with the National Bank of Ethiopia, the ECTA issued a directive called the “Export Coffee Contract Administration” that fixes a minimum coffee export price based on the global weighted average price attributed to the different grades of coffee from various regions. Exporters submit their contracts to the NBE at the end of each day. They are submitted to another team that compares the prices with international and local coffee prices and uses an average weighted method to calculate a new minimum price upon which coffee exporters base their contract prices the following day.
With the liberalization of the coffee market, farmers can decide where to deliver their berries based on the price offered.
The Bill currently before the Kenyan parliament has introduced a very strong regulatory regime at both the county and the national level. It has failed to allocate any significant roles to the private sector in reviving the sector in areas such as production. Industry stakeholders cite resource constraints facing both the county and national governments and the underfunding of the agriculture sector as issues of major concern. Coffee dealers argue that the correct prescriptive policy would have been for the government to create a conducive environment to allow the private sector players room to grow the sector.
Two agricultural sectors stand as an example of why the immense and ambitious roles that the Bill allocates to both the national and county governments at the expense of the private sector could be a dangerous policy decision.
Let us start with the cashew nuts sector. Despite policy deficiency, the sector showed promising signs when local private processors (through Kenya Nuts Processors Association – NutPAK – which had pushed hard for a ban of raw nut exports) teamed up with growers’ associations, researchers at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI; now renamed Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation – KALRO), and the coast provincial administration to revitalise the cashew nut sector. This was after President William Ruto, then Agriculture Minister, banned the export of raw nuts in 2009 following a report by a task force that had collected views from industry stakeholders and recommended such a move to enable processors who have created more capacity to obtain enough raw materials.
The revitalisation team agreed, as a first measure, on a minimum farm gate price every harvest season, the establishment of collection centres to rid the industry of middlemen, and increased production and productivity by replacing ageing and unproductive trees with high-yielding, fast-maturing varieties to be developed by KARI and supplied through nurseries managed by farmers.
The efforts kicked off well in the two years preceding devolution. However, when the agriculture function was devolved and the provincial administration – which was championing the revival efforts – was restructured, the initiative failed to transition into the new governance order. While the county governments in the cashew-growing regions have spoken about the importance of the cashew sector over the years since devolution, they have failed to develop policies and plans for the revival of the sector and have allocated very few resources to agriculture and to the cashew nut sector in particular, leading to a significant drop in production.
Coffee dealers argue that the correct prescriptive policy would have been for the government to create a conducive environment to allow the private sector players room to grow the sector.
Although drought was blamed for the decline in production in 2021, in reality, the cashew nut sector has been in free-fall since 2013. The 2022 AFA Year Book of Statistics reports that production in the coast region during the year under review decreased from 12,668 tons in 2020 to 9,121 tons in 2021.
Once a top earner for the coast region, the value of the cashew nut produced decreased from KSh587.25 million in 2020 to KSh457.4 million in 2021, with less than 20 per cent of the processed crop destined for export. The rest was processed through cottage industries and consumed locally, a strange turn of events for a crop whose harvest could attain over 40,000 metric tons in its heyday. The low volumes have kept the big players out of the scene, with the newly created processing plants struggling to obtain the raw material to keep their production lines running.
The other crop that illustrates the danger presented by the proposed increased control over the coffee value chain is macadamia, which is, coincidentally, largely produced in the Mt. Kenya region where coffee is also popular. Although a Bill to regulate the nut sector has been tabled at the national level, the sector has grown in the last decade largely due to the immense support of a competing private sector seeking to increase production to utilise their installed capacity. However, since 2021, several factors have conspired to threaten it: the emergence of more macadamia-producing countries in the world including China, and a decline in the quality of nuts harvested due to poor and uncontrolled harvesting techniques, a regulatory issue that can only be tackled by both the county and national governments.
Despite the significant growth of the sector, the county governments in macadamia-growing regions have failed to consolidate the gains of the previous decade. Today, farmers receive not more than KSh30 per kilo of nuts at the farm gate, down from the KSh200 they received in the pre-COVID-19 period. The sector now faces collapse due to the emergence of other competing cash crops.
The proposed Coffee Bill 2023 seeks to revive and restructure the defunct CBK but fails to assign production and marketing roles to traders despite their huge investments; millers, processors, marketing agents and other dealers do not see any goodwill in the revival efforts. According to Pius Ngugi, who has operated Thika Coffee Mill for many years and is one of the biggest indigenous coffee processors in the country, this is likely to affect the proposed reforms to be undertaken by the revived CBK and the county governments.
Although drought was blamed for the decline in production in 2021, in reality, the cashew nut sector has been in free-fall since 2013.
The stated objectives of the 2013 Cash Crop Act that the current Bill appears to reverse were the need to circumvent regulatory bureaucracy in the crop subsectors and remove unnecessary regulations and levies, and the reduction of overlap and duplication of roles to promote the competitiveness of the crops, and more importantly, attract and promote private investment in agricultural crops.
Even at the CBK board level, traders do not have representation. The proposed members include a chairman, the Principal Secretary in charge of trade, the Principal Secretary in charge of cooperatives, two smallholder farmers, two coffee estate farmers, a nominee from the proposed Coffee Research Institute (CRI), one person from an association of farmers and the Chief Executive Officer, who will also double as the Board’s secretary.
The previous Coffee Act, which was repealed when the sector was placed under the AFA as a Coffee Directorate, provided room for the inclusion of players from the private sector and gave the minister in charge of agriculture the opportunity to appoint board members based on their interests and expertise in the coffee industry. The composition of the CBK board would have borrowed a leaf from Oils and Nuts Development Bill 2023, also in parliament, which suggests a similar board with the inclusion of a processor with ten years’ experience to grow nuts the sector. The proposed CBK board also contrasts with the provisions of the proposed Nuts and Oil Crops Development Bill 2023, which seeks to play a similar role as the CBK that proposes the inclusion of a processor with at least ten years of experience in its board.
The government, through the CBK and the county governments, has a crucial regulatory role to play to protect all the industry stakeholders. This regulatory role should create room to allow various investors in the sector to fill the investment gaps that affect the production, processing and marketing of coffee. For instance, the proposed Bill requires the county governments to offer extension services in the areas of sustainable production, primary processing of coffee and climate-smart agriculture, all of which are resource-intensive activities that it is doubtful they will fund satisfactorily.
The Bill also gives the CRI the responsibility – in collaboration with the county governments – of disseminating coffee production and processing technologies, propagating coffee planting materials, supervising nursery operations, issuing seeds, mapping out areas suitable for coffee production in Kenya, and capacity building, all costly undertakings that the private sector has a proven record of successfully performing. These roles can be played by the private sector with much ease and innovation based on their growing needs and market knowledge.
Despite the significant growth of the sector, the county governments in macadamia-growing regions have failed to consolidate the gains of the previous decade.
A good example of this will suffice to illustrate the point. A KSh240 million cashew nut production revival project has successfully been undertaken in a partnership that includes the European Union and the Visegrád Group of countries (V4) – Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – and Tensenses Ltd, now Grow Fairly. Close to 1 million new high-yielding cashew nut trees have been planted at the coast from a nursery that was created five years ago when the project commenced. The 15,000 farmers registered to grow organic cashew nuts were provided with materials and other support while the coast county governments subsidised the purchase of seedlings from the nursery. Early this year, the company opened a new factory that will process 2,400 tons of cashew nuts per year once the new crop is fully established.
Under the repealed Coffee Act, commercial millers could give farmers credit in the form of money and farm inputs to be recovered from the proceeds of coffee sales. The proposed Bill has thrown this out of the window and barred millers and marketing agents from providing loans or advances to coffee farmers at an interest. This, according to the thinking of the drafters of the Bill, will encourage the farmers to access berry advances at a rate of 3 per cent.
In effect, in October 2023 the government approved a KSh4 billion advance for coffee farmers that is expected to boost their earnings. However, agriculture ministers from coffee-growing counties have decried the low uptake of the KSh3 billion berry advance that the previous government had provided over the previous four years.
In December last year, Kiplimo Lagat, the Nandi County Executive Committee (CEC) member in charge of Agriculture and Co-operative Development argued that, from its inception, the fund was poorly crafted and thus failed to attract farmers who were wary of its unclear objectives and fearful of its outcomes.
“There is a need for the government to rethink the concept under which the fund was established to make it more attractive to the farmers. Perhaps the fund is suffering from structural challenges thus scaring away farmers,” he said.
The fund was established in early 2019 to help coffee farmers across the country resolve the problem of delays in the coffee payment cycle. According to the top management of New Kenya Planters Cooperative, by December last year, only KSh401 million had been advanced to farmers in the coffee-growing counties since the inception of the fund. James Wachihi, Nyeri CEC member in charge of agriculture, could see no clear reasons for the low uptake of the fund.
According to Ngugi of Thika Coffee Mills, the government should confine itself to ensuring a conducive environment for increased production and promote marketing. The private sector has enough resources, he observed, adding that the government should encourage millers and other industry stakeholders to get involved in increasing coffee production through estates or by contracting farmers and providing them with farm inputs and other services via the cooperative societies to which they belong.
The existing environment does not leave room for such an arrangement since there is no guarantee of securing the raw material from the farmers once the support has been provided. Production has been in decline due to lack of resources and high poverty levels among the smallholder farmers, the high costs of farm inputs, and the lack of a supportive framework that would include the provision of extension services.
Under the repealed Coffee Act, commercial millers could give farmers credit in the form of money and farm inputs to be recovered from the proceeds of coffee sales.
Farmers have also divested from coffee to go into other lucrative ventures. Coffee is now grown in 33 counties, the major coffee-growing counties being Kiambu, Kirinyaga, Nyeri, Murang’a, Kericho and Bungoma. In 2020/21, the coffee sub-sector recorded a 6.4 per cent decline in production, down from 36,873 tons to 34,512 tons of clean coffee – particularly in the high-production counties. Kiambu, the biggest coffee-producing county, saw estate farms record a decline in acreage from 12,627 hectares in 2019 to 10,520 in 2021, with cooperatives recording a drop from 11,724 hectares to 8,585 hectares during the same period, according to AFA numbers. In much of the land lost, coffee ceded ground to real estate.
The KSh4 billion fund may have political connotations. It comes at a time when the sector is undergoing political turmoil, with the current efforts by Deputy President Gachagua, who is spearheading reforms in the sector, receiving divided views from various actors. The fund was created after President Ruto offered the six government-owned sugar millers in western Kenya a KSh117 billion lifeline. Mathioya Member of Parliament Edwin Mugo and Kiambu Women Representative Gathoni Wamuchomba decried the move publicly.
Buyers and traders have also kept away from the Exchange due to the confusion reigning in the licensing regime. In August this year, auctions dropped by over 95 per cent, reaching only 192 tons compared to over 4300 tons in the same month last year.
A significant amount of political goodwill is needed to revive the coffee sector. The county governments, which will implement national government policy on agriculture as prescribed in the constitution, must create synergies and integrate all stakeholders in implementing multi-pronged measures in order to put back cash into the farmers’ pockets. Given the resource constraints at both the national and county government levels, the focus should be on creating a conducive environment for the private sector to drive the ongoing efforts to revive the coffee sector.
South Africa: Entrenched Divisions over Gaza-Israel Conflict
While the two main political parties tiptoe around the Gaza-Israel conflict, smaller parties and religious groups are taking hard positions and the general population’s views are split along racial lines.
South Africa’s two main political parties recently took to parliament to set out their official positions on Gaza-Israel conflict and, bar differences in tone and delivery, they seem, on the face of it, to be on the same page, broadly speaking.
On behalf of the ANC, International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor said her party believes Israel has a right to exist as a state alongside a state of Palestine and that this has been the long-standing view of the ANC.
The International Relations and Cooperation spokesperson for the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) said the DA stood in solidarity with both Palestinians and Israelis who seek a two-state solution and rejects any sentiment that seeks to annihilate either Israel or Palestine.
That said, DA leader John Steenhuisen, who infamously travelled to Ukraine in May 2022 on what he called a “fact-finding mission” and returned pledging South Africa’s support for that country and vowing that he would not stop putting pressure on the ANC government to change its stance on its conflict with Russia, recently fired a member of the shadow cabinet for tweeting in support of the Palestinians.
Steenhuisen dropped his erstwhile Public Enterprises shadow spokesperson Ghalib Cachalia over a statement on X that read, “I will not be silenced. Israel is committing Genocide. Full BLOODY stop.”
Cachalia, who is the son of anti-Apartheid activists Amina and Yusuf Cachalia and a relative of a former ANC MP Ismail Mahomed Cachalia, was axed for stepping out of line following a DA national caucus meeting in October at which party members were told that they should abstain from making public statements that could divide or inflame the Gaza-Israel conflict further.
The DA is visibly tiptoeing around the situation in the Middle East and this approach is most certainly linked to next year’s election in which the DA hopes to lead an opposition coalition including parties that are already divided on the Gaza-Israel conflict. Even the normally obstreperous former party leader, now chair of the DA Federal Council, Helen Zille, has opted to stay mum.
More importantly, the DA has a large following in the Western Cape, the only opposition-controlled province of the nine provinces that make up South Africa. The Western Cape is the only one of South Africa’s nine provinces that is controlled by the main opposition DA, which has its roots in the white parliamentary opposition to the apartheid-era National Party before democracy in 1994.
The party is seen as being mainly white and middle class, with members drawn from all races, but in the demographically unique Western Cape, coloured voters form the majority and, since the 2009 election at least, the DA’s main support.
The Western Cape also happens to have a large and influential Muslim population and it would not do their electoral chances any good to upset that constituency so close to such a crucial election.
Cape Town’s Muslim population is South Africa’s largest, and it has a long history, being there for as long as the city has existed. The city’s core Muslim population is made up of people who can trace their roots to south-east Asia, and a racial group known as the Cape Malays, who were originally brought to South Africa from Dutch colonies in Malaysia and Indonesia as enslaved labourers. The Cape Malay community in turn forms part of the coloured community in Cape Town and the province.
Other members of the Cape’s Muslim community include individuals of Indian or Pakistani descent, a large number of Somali nationals and refugees from African and Asian countries.
However, away from mainstream politicians and politics, South Africans seem split along the usual racial lines, with many white South Africans supporting Israel and blacks supporting Palestinians.
Smaller parliamentary parties have also taken position, including the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) who said they were taking Palestine’s side in the issue. During the parliamentary debate, EFF MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi said his party stood with the oppressed and condemned Israel as a “murderous apartheid regime engaged in the systematic extermination of Palestinians”.
The right-wing Freedom Front Plus (FF Plus) party, which was founded in 1994 by members of the white settler Afrikaner community but which now has significant support among the Western Cape’s Coloured community, took the opposite stance.
FF Plus MP and chief International Relations spokesperson Corné Mulder has taken issue with what he calls “the ANC government’s open anti-Israel sentiments” and said the FF Plus emphasised its support for the state of Israel and recognised Israel’s right to defend itself and its citizens with all means at its disposal.
The divisions highlighted by political parties can also be seen in South Africa’s civil society where there are even splits in the Jewish community.
The South African Jewish community traces its origins to the early decades of the 19th century, when small numbers of Jewish immigrants, mainly from the United Kingdom and Germany, began settling in what are today South Africa’s Western Cape and Eastern Cape provinces.
The divisions highlighted by political parties can also be seen in South Africa’s civil society where there are even splits in the Jewish community.
According to the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the umbrella representative spokesbody and civil rights lobby of the South African Jewish community, the country’s Jewish population reached a peak of 118,200 in 1970. Thereafter, mainly as a result of political unrest, the community began decreasing, and today it numbers around 75,000 people.
South African Jewry remains by far the largest Jewish community on the African continent. Most Jews today live in Johannesburg and Cape Town. South African Jews are overwhelmingly affiliated to Orthodox congregations, comprising some 88 per cent of the total, while the Progressive movement accounts for most of the remaining affiliated Jews, with a small Conservative congregation in Johannesburg.
So you have organisations such as the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF), the umbrella body of all Zionist and pro-Israel organisations in South Africa, which has mounted an aggressive campaign to shore up support outside the community amongst journalists and other opinion shapers.
At the same time, there are groups such as South African Jews for a Free Palestine (SAJFP) who have been calling out the Israeli government and urging an immediate ceasefire and decolonisation.
South African Jewry remains by far the largest Jewish community on the African continent.
In a recent statement, the SAJFP said the Israeli government had escalated a fundamentally immoral and criminal offensive against the population of Gaza, that there was no justification for Israel’s atrocities in Gaza, and that what is going on there was nothing less than collective punishment, ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Meanwhile, when the South African government recalled its ambassador to Israel this week, SAZF national chairperson Rowan Polovin described the action as the ANC government withdrawing unilaterally from brokering peace in the Middle East, choosing to side with Hamas militants responsible for abducting South African hostages.
The situation has also awoken voices from South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle such as Dr Allan Boesak who at the start of November questioned the country’s co-hosting of the recent United States of America’s African Growth and Opportunity Forum for 2023.
Boesak said co-hosting the meeting would mean playing host to representatives of US President Joe Biden amid the intensifying genocidal war on the people of Gaza and on all Palestinians. He pointed out that it was an incomprehensible situation that raised fundamental questions for South Africans who profess a “special relationship” with the Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom, dignity, and the right to return of the land, and to the land.
Another of the issues Boesak raised was the fact that South Africa retains diplomatic ties with Israel despite the ANC’s stance on the general Palestinian question and the Gaza issue in particular.
Back in June this year a story unfolded that would foreshadow some of the divisions in South African politics and society on the Israeli Palestinian issue.
The way the incident unfolded, and the positions of political parties and civil society, including religious groups, was almost like a dry run for how various political parties, religious groups and civil society would position themselves following the October 7 events and their aftermath in Gaza and Israel.
It emerged that around a fifth of school leavers from Herzlia High School, a Jewish community school in Cape Town, go to Israel in the year after their final exams to join the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).
The story of the Herzlia High School students joining the IDF was brought into the public domain by Khalid Sayed, a Muslim ANC Member of the Provincial Legislature (MPL) and that party’s provincial education spokesperson. The story surfaced following the broadcast of an interview at the end of May with ILTV Israel News, an Israeli TV news channel, during which the authorities at the school disclosed that a number of their students had joined the IDF.
In the legislature Sayed posed a question to the province’s education MEC (equivalent of a provincial minister) David Maynier in which he wanted to know whether learners at Herzlia High School underwent some form of indoctrination to ensure their support and loyalty to the Israeli regime.
A fifth of school leavers from Herzlia High School, a Jewish community school in Cape Town, go to Israel in the year after their final exams to join the Israel Defence Forces.
Sayed argued that an educational institution meant to foster critical thinking, empathy, and a commitment to justice, was instead being associated with support for Israel’s regime and military which is involved in inflicting injustice on the Palestinian people. He said that by maintaining ties with Israel, the school had become complicit in the occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people.
In response, Maynier claimed Sayed had asked the question to deflect attention from the South African government’s entanglements with Russia, and made an issue of the fact that just a short while before, Sayed had posted pictures of himself on social media posing with the Russian Consul General in Cape Town.
At this point in the debate in the provincial legislature, EEF’s Aisha Cassiem took up the cudgels and called for Herzlia High School to be deregistered. Cassiem said it was insulting for the DA provincial government to condemn the war in Ukraine but do nothing with regard to this school which she said was clearly aligned to the state of Israel and encouraging learners to partake in apartheid.
Maynier stood firm and said the DA-run provincial government would not deregister Herzlia High School and accused the ANC and the EFF of playing politics. In this he was supported by a DA political ally, the ACDP (African Christian Democratic Party) whose MPL’s contribution to the debate was to point out that the ACDP supports Israel and its “right to defend itself”.
At the same time, ChristianView Network, a vocal Christian lobby group based in the Western Cape, said in a statement at the time that the debate was the climax of “a string of unwarranted Muslim anti-Israel verbal attacks harassing and threatening Cape Town Jewish institutions and leaders on the allegation of association with Israel”.
Fast forward to the last few weeks since the flare up between the Hamas-controlled Gaza and Israel and the positions on Israel reflect similar divisions, only even more entrenched.
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