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Journalism: The Essential Non-Essential?

11 min read.

COVID-19 has forced news organisations to adapt to changing times; many are closing down or letting go of their employees. Can journalism be declared redundant at a time when it is needed the most?

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On April 22, Johannesburg-based Kenyan photographer, Cedric Nzaka, took to Twitter to share his latest conquest. He had shot the cover for South Africa’s Cosmopolitan magazine, featuring Miss Universe, Zozibini Tuni. It was a big deal. Much as Nzaka has worked with various luxury brands over the years, ranging from Vogue to Nike and Netflix, this was his first-ever magazine cover. As he received adulation, Nzaka’s feat quickly morphed from being the guy who shot the latest Cosmopolitan cover to being one who did the magazine’s last cover.

On April 30, Associated Media Publishing, South Africa’s franchise holder for Cosmopolitan, announced that after a four-decade run, the company was permanently closing its doors on May 1, and ceasing publication of all its magazines, including House & Leisure, Good Housekeeping and Women On Wheels, due to the financial crunch brought about by COVID-19. And so, just like that, several editors, writers, photographers, designers, stylists and other production support staff became jobless.

Ordinarily, Nzaka and those like him who are contracted by high-end clients on a need-to-basis may have the privilege of having potential clients lurking in the shadows, but not with COVID-19 in the picture. With event cancelations and a lull in advertising, there is not much work for commercial photographers. For writers and editors, it means going freelance, a not-so-easy ballgame for those accustomed to structured work regimes and timely paychecks. It means sending pitches with no guarantee of being commissioned, an exercise which requires thick skin due to the deluge of rejections accompanying this new reality. Presently, things look bleaker with numerous international publications deciding to no longer engage freelancers.

It wasn’t only glossy magazines that took a hit. The Mail and Guardian (M&G), one of Africa’s better known newspapers, found itself in a tight spot too. On March 27, the editor-in-chief, Khadija Patel, the deputy editor, Beauregard Tromp, and the Africa editor, Simon Allison, led the newsroom in appealing to readers on Twitter to subscribe to the paper. They weren’t sure they would afford to pay salaries in the coming months. Moving with speed to innovate, they launched The Continent, a digital newspaper reporting on Africa that is distributed through email and WhatsApp, a move aimed at growing regional readership and opening up future revenue streams. Then, on May 9, Patel and Tromp pulled a surprise move by resigning as editor and deputy editor, prompting speculation that their departure may be the outcome of the current financial ripples.

As Ferial Haffajee, former editor-in-chief of the M&G and later City Press writes in the Daily Maverick about her conversations with Patel, it wasn’t the first time the paper was in need of support from its readership. Thirty-two years ago, the M&G made an almost similar call to the public.

“Near her office is a 1988 poster of the first Weekly Mail (the M&G’s original name) when then editors Anton Harber and Irwin Manoim ran a campaign called Save the Wail,” Haffajee writes of her visit to Patel’s M&G office. “Then Minister of Home Affairs Stoffel Botha threatened to ban the title and on its cover, the paper ran the clarion call ‘DON’T LET US GO QUIETLY’, they asked readers. ‘Carry on reading us. Carry on subscribing. Make a fuss.’”

Patel’s Twitter call for subscriptions delivered an impressive 30 per cent increase in paying readers.

The news business isn’t doing so well in Kenya either. On April 2, Radio Africa Group chairman, Patrick Quarcoo, wrote to employees explaining that while job losses will remain an option of last resort, pay cuts were inevitable, considering that revenue streams were fast drying up. Effective April 1, Quarcoo announced, employees taking home a gross salary of over Sh100,000 will take a 30 per cent cut, while those earning below this amount will have their salaries reduced by 20 per cent. There was a promise that the move (termed interim) will be reviewed periodically.

On April 2, Radio Africa Group chairman, Patrick Quarcoo, wrote to employees explaining that while job losses will remain an option of last resort, pay cuts were inevitable, considering that revenue streams were fast drying up.

And even though it had already effected pay reductions, the Nation Media Group clarified on July 1 that salary cuts will last until December 2020 – this while breaking the news that starting July 3, a chunk of its workforce will be immediately relieved of its duties.

Earlier on, on March 12, the Standard Group’s Orlando Lyomu sent an internal memo on the impending laying off of 170 employees, a purge staggered over a few months.

However, it was the reduction in earnings by between 20 per cent and 50 per cent at the Mediamax Network that caused a frenzy, leading to resignations and court action. There was temporary relief until the morning of June 22, when over 100 staffers woke up to text messages declaring their roles redundant.

The “infodemic”

With the advent of COVID-19, there was a warning by the World Health Organization (WHO)’s director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, that as the pandemic rears its ugly head, it has a notorious twin in an ongoing “infodemic” – a flood of misinformation. It was, therefore, upon journalists to take the lead in educating the public in a bid to “flatten the curve”.

This announcement resulted in a deluge of infographics, explainers, think pieces and interviews with epidemiologists and other public health practitioners. As governments articulated their responses in war-time lexicon, it was journalists who stepped in and cut out the militarism by being on message about the sorts of individual and communal mitigation measures that were needed to curb the virus. It was journalists who covered newsworthy occurrences that could have been overshadowed by COVID-19, including police violence on the pretext of containing the virus.

It was therefore expected that when the dusk-to-dawn curfew took effect in Kenya, journalists were listed as essential service providers, and were permitted to move around past 7 p.m. and to travel in and out of areas where cessation of movement was enforced.

However, the recent expulsion of journalists from newsrooms makes one wonder whether they are still considered essential service providers. A major concern has been the disconnect between media top dogs and their juniors, with bosses proving that all they need is a flimsy excuse for them to throw their colleagues under the bus.

As governments articulated their responses in war-time lexicon, it was journalists who stepped in and cut out the militarism by being on message about the sorts of individual and communal mitigation measures that were needed to curb the virus.

In his piece, “Newsrooms are in revolt, the bosses are in their country homes”, New York Times columnist Ben Smith juxtaposes the realities of the lives of journalists against those of their bosses, where after COVID-19 hit, top media executives retreated to their out-of-town residences with swimming pools and access to golf courses, while reporters who do the donkey work, were left in limbo. Those lucky not to have lost their jobs suffered a massive pay reduction or were furloughed. They remained stuck in the city, unsure of whether their paycheck-to-paycheck existence would sustain them during and after the pandemic.

Smith should know a thing or two about income and other disparities within newsrooms, having himself been the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed. By shining a light on the opulent lifestyle of those who occupy the higher echelons of journalism (which he himself enjoys, courtesy of his position and income), he is by extension self-indicting in what seems to be the new era of accountability in media and other industries.

“Churnalism”

In their defence, media bosses always play the redundancy card whenever they need to deploy the axe. One may wonder: how does a newsroom become redundant?

In “The slow death of modern journalism” published in The Tribune, an anonymous reporter recounts the travails of working in modern-day newsrooms, where productivity has now been reduced to how many shallow clickbait articles one is required to produce per day for the benefit of advertisers.

“This was the state of journalism before the coronavirus upended our lives, and it is still the state of the journalist in a time of global crisis,” anonymous reporter wrote. “A handful of reporters, probably those you follow on social media, have the time and luxury to produce work in the public interest while many of us, not for want of ambition or ideas, spend our time pumping out rubbish in the knowledge that we can be spiked at a moment’s notice.”

In his 2008 book, Flat Earth News, the investigative journalist Nick Davies called this practice “churnalism” – a reference to the quantity and quality of work reporters are expected to produce. According to anonymous reporter, churnalism means rehashing content from other platforms that broke the story earlier so that reporters don’t need to leave their desks to produce five pieces a day.

When they see their staff as agents of churnalism as opposed to journalists doing intellectual heavy-lifting, media bosses find it easy to declare them redundant when the opportunity arises. The irony is, it is the same bosses who devise visions for churnalism. With productivity reduced to the bare minimum, staffers become redundant by design from the word go; their being on the payroll appears like an act of benevolence.

Yet media bosses don’t act on their own; behind them are media owners, the majority of whom care about nothing but the bottom line. These ownership intricacies and the cloud of terror hovering over newsrooms, courtesy of profit-by-all-means proprietors, is possibly best captured by Savannah Jacobson, a Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) Delacorte Magazine Fellow. In a piece on the New York hedge fund Alden Global Capital’s takeover of nearly 200 newspapers and resultant cuts, Jacobson terms the fund “the most feared owner in American journalism”. The article exposes how investors’ lives are “punctuated by summer trips to Luxembourg and the French Riviera”, while “pens and notebooks disappear from newsrooms” due to low budgets.

When they see their staff as agents of churnalism as opposed to journalists doing intellectual heavy-lifting, media bosses find it easy to declare them redundant when the opportunity arises.

Using the example of the East Bay Times, which won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting, Jacobson illustrates how regardless of how many journalistic highs a newsroom attains, hedge funders, who are not interested in journalism and only care about how much money they can squeeze out of the industry, go ahead to purge newspapers – as if achievement should be rewarded with punishment. Over a two-year period, more than half the employees were sent packing as the hedge fund works even harder to acquire stakes in more newspapers.

“Winning a Pulitzer Prize doesn’t change the economics of the company,” said the East Bay Times’s executive editor, Neil Chase, “so why would it change the attitude of the owners?”

A “media extinction event”

As COVID-19 unraveled, there was an increase in think pieces on the financial and other dangers faced by newsrooms in Africa and elsewhere. Writing in The Guardian, journalist Kaamil Ahmed references the feasibility study for the establishment of an International Fund for Public Interest Media (IFPIM) conducted by media philanthropy Luminate, which warns that COVID-19 could be a “media extinction event”. Even before the pandemic, Luminate was pushing for the creation of the IFPIM so that media independence and sustainability is guaranteed, especially during turbulent times such as these, without profit-making being the sole consideration.

“The news media needs to be reclaimed as a public good,” Ahmed quotes former M&G editor-in-chief Khadija Patel, who also serves as vice chairperson of the International Press Institute. “It should not be seen as the playground of a few billionaires. The saddest sign would be for us to emerge from this pandemic with a handful of billionaires controlling all of our news.”

Revisiting his tenures as editor of the Cape Angus and the Cape Times, South African journalist Gasant Abarder opines that COVID-19 is the final straw that broke the newspaper industry’s already breaking back. Abarder, who says that he has watched print media slowly go to the dogs over a 17-year period, lays the blame on non-responsive editors and owners who did not pay attention and did not move speedily to innovate with the arrival of online classified sites such as OLX, followed by the exponential growth of social media. Abrader laments the edging out of older, more seasoned hands in exchange for a younger lot who may be talented but who “are paid less to do far more. They must tweet, shoot videos and come back to the office to write a few stories”. He believes that news organisations still need a few grey heads with institutional memory on their payrolls.

“But the newspapers that grew their circulation were owned by the people who knew this was a long play and that investment in quality journalism brought rewards,’’ he writes. “Look at The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Evening Standard. They invested in quality journalism and are now seeing the rewards after just a few years. The Evening Standard became a free paper to commuters on the London Underground. With guaranteed eyeballs, 650,000 copies were put in the hands of the commuters and advertising yields went through the roof.”

Apart from adapting to the changing times, Abrader makes a strong case for good storytelling. He gives examples of specific interventions he resorted to in trying to salvage what was already a dwindling newspaper when he was recalled as editor to do the firefighting. Not keen on selling the previous day’s events as news, he made a deliberate attempt to introduce powerful reporting, including covering the homelessness crisis in Cape Town extensively, going as far as letting a street dweller write the cover story, and allowing students to edit the paper during the #FeesMustFall protests. He admits that this and other efforts came too little too late. By the time he was leaving in 2016, the Cape Angus had only 10 employees, including Abrader himself, down from 57 staffers in 2009 when he first worked at the paper.

Why we do what we do

Accepting his position as acting editor-in-chief for the Mail and Guardian following Khadija Patel’s exit, investigative environment reporter, Sipho Kings, wrote about the cost of producing impactful journalism, coverage which isn’t always considered sexy at the time of writing and publishing. Paying tribute to those he says are willing to fund journalism as a public good, Kings referenced the M&G’s own history, where in the early days, reporters mortgaged their homes to fund the operation. That was before The Guardian stepped in, after which the non-profit Media Development Investment Fund bolstered things, with employees owning 10 per cent of the company.

“There are few newsrooms that take this kind of reporting seriously,” Kings wrote regarding his coverage of climate change, and how unfashionable it was at the beginning. “The M&G is one of them. It costs money to send skilled reporters and photographers to remote areas. It takes bravery to put those stories on the front cover of the newspaper — I am frequently reminded that one of the worst-ever selling editions of the M&G had a climate change story on the cover.”

Yet, much as it is desirable, journalism isn’t strictly about whether the work results in the sale of thousands of newspaper every morning or having stories trending on Twitter, which ties to the fact that it also isn’t about blind profiteering. In exercising oversight, journalism will from time to time be the bearer of unpopular opinions, or find itself alone in championing news causes such as climate change, which take a long time to become popular. In these lonely and sometimes dark streets of pioneering coverage, journalists remain true to their vocation, sometimes paying the ultimate price with their lives and livelihoods. It therefore beats logic that these individuals should be the first to be sacrificed at the altar of capitalism.

In light of the foregoing chaos and confusion, two media initiatives at the Columbia Journalism School – the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism – have come together to set up The Journalism Crisis Project, in an effort to make sense of things. Their statement reads:

Today, CJR and Tow are launching The Journalism Crisis Project, to add to the existing research. Since the economic effects of the coronavirus became clear in March, we’ve been compiling and updating a database on losses throughout journalism – tallying layoffs, furloughs, salary cuts, closings and other effects of the journalism downturn. So far, we’ve tracked more than 700 entries of reported changes at hundreds of publications. Our hope is that these efforts, in tandem with our colleagues outside of Columbia, will provide all of us with a baseline of reliable data. From that, we can then begin to understand where we go next…Such work will inevitably raise difficult questions. Are print newspapers worth saving? Is public rescue money a good idea? What should be the limits of philanthropy? How do we rebuild a diverse industry that finally looks like the country? As tough as such questions will be, they are the first steps towards finally addressing our growing problem – which, as with so many others right now, might finally put our old, damaged status quo to rest.

As fear and apprehension whirls around newsrooms, driving journalists to question whether they and their work matter, I have found reassurance in the reflections of the journalist April Zhu, who recently wrote me a note on why we do what we do, which I partially relay below.

In Chinese, the word for journalist is (jì zhe). The zhe just means “person.” Jì means a lot of different things, but among them: remember, record (the verb), record (the noun), even to jot down. I think the word ‘journalist’ is ruined in so many people’s minds; I think the kind of journalism that I do is different to yours, and what we do is almost a totally different profession than what TV broadcasters and pundits do. But there is something about this simple word that reduces our work to its most basic unit: to remember. To record. To take notes. You could say (though a Chinese person would laugh at this) that a jizhe is a ‘remember-man.’

“I was talking to one of my friends (also a journo) last week about the new surge of interest around police brutality, and he was expressing, quite honestly, that it frustrates him that people are only paying attention now, and that journalists covering it now are getting assignments – when he’s been covering this for a long time, and no one paid attention. This is a core tension of our work, kind of like surfing: do you have control over the wave, or are you simply struggling to stay upright, subject to its whims? I sense that you ask yourself this a lot.’’

“What you cover is never ‘hot’, or at least by the time your careful, studied analyses come out, it is no longer ‘hot.’ But you tell the story, and you tell it beautifully. And, once you have told it, it is record. It is part of the archive, forever. Us journalists have a complicated relationship with time and the public, which often leaves us feeling unvalued. But the archive is eternal, the archive is a time machine. Never mind those small feedback loops, whether or not a piece goes viral. The essence of our work is to remember, and that is a long process. That is a process that cannot take place without the archive, because the archive is what people across space and time will return to, almost timelessly. That is the magic of remembering.”

Reporting supported by a micro-grant from Baraza Media Lab.

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Politics

Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning

Rwandans are welcoming, but the government’s priority must be to solve the internal political problems which produce refugees.

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The governments of the United Kingdom and Rwanda have signed an agreement to move asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing. This partnership has been heavily criticized and has been referred to as unethical and inhumane. It has also been opposed by the United Nations Refugee Agency on the grounds that it is contrary to the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

Here in Rwanda, we heard the news of the partnership on the day it was signed. The subject has never been debated in the Rwandan parliament and neither had it been canvassed in the local media prior to the announcement.

According to the government’s official press release, the partnership reflects Rwanda’s commitment to protect vulnerable people around the world. It is argued that by relocating migrants to Rwanda, their dignity and rights will be respected and they will be provided with a range of opportunities, including for personal development and employment, in a country that has consistently been ranked among the safest in the world.

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives. Therefore, most Rwandans are sensitive to the plight of those forced to leave their home countries and would be more than willing to make them feel welcome. However, the decision to relocate the migrants to Rwanda raises a number of questions.

The government argues that relocating migrants to Rwanda will address the inequalities in opportunity that push economic migrants to leave their homes. It is not clear how this will work considering that Rwanda is already the most unequal country in the East African region. And while it is indeed seen as among the safest countries in the world, it was however ranked among the bottom five globally in the recently released 2022 World Happiness Index. How would migrants, who may have suffered psychological trauma fare in such an environment, and in a country that is still rebuilding itself?

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives.

What opportunities can Rwanda provide to the migrants? Between 2018—the year the index was first published—and 2020, Rwanda’s ranking on the Human Capital Index (HCI) has been consistently low. Published by the World Bank, HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens. Rwanda’s score is lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa and it is partly due to this that the government had found it difficult to attract private investment that would create significant levels of employment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, has since worsened.

Despite the accolades Rwanda has received internationally for its development record, Rwanda’s economy has never been driven by a dynamic private or trade sector; it has been driven by aid. The country’s debt reached 73 per cent of GDP in 2021 while its economy has not developed the key areas needed to achieve and secure genuine social and economic transformation for its entire population. In addition to human capital development, these include social capital development, especially mutual trust among citizens considering the country’s unfortunate historical past, establishing good relations with neighbouring states, respect for human rights, and guaranteeing the accountability of public officials.

Rwanda aspires to become an upper middle-income country by 2035 and a high-income country by 2050. In 2000, the country launched a development plan that aimed to transform it into a middle-income country by 2020 on the back on a knowledge economy. That development plan, which has received financial support from various development partners including the UK which contributed over £1 billion, did not deliver the anticipated outcomes. Today the country remains stuck in the category of low-income states. Its structural constraints as a small land-locked country with few natural resources are often cited as an obstacle to development. However, this is exacerbated by current governance in Rwanda, which limits the political space, lacks separation of powers, impedes freedom of expression and represses government critics, making it even harder for Rwanda to reach the desired developmental goals.

Rwanda’s structural constraints as a small land-locked country with no natural resources are often viewed as an obstacle to achieving the anticipated development.

As a result of the foregoing, Rwanda has been producing its own share of refugees, who have sought political and economic asylum in other countries. The UK alone took in 250 Rwandese last year. There are others around the world, the majority of whom have found refuge in different countries in Africa, including countries neighbouring Rwanda. The presence of these refugees has been a source of tension in the region with Kigali accusing neighbouring states of supporting those who want to overthrow the government by force. Some Rwandans have indeed taken up armed struggle, a situation that, if not resolved, threatens long-term security in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. In fact, the UK government’s advice on travel to Rwanda has consistently warned of the unstable security situation near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi.

While Rwanda’s intention to help address the global imbalance of opportunity that fuels illegal immigration is laudable, I would recommend that charity start at home. As host of the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for June 2022, and Commonwealth Chair-in-Office for the next two years, the government should seize the opportunity to implement the core values and principles of the Commonwealth, particularly the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, political and civil rights, and a vibrant civil society. This would enable Rwanda to address its internal social, economic and political challenges, creating a conducive environment for long-term economic development, and durable peace that will not only stop Rwanda from producing refugees but will also render the country ready and capable of economically and socially integrating refugees from less fortunate countries in the future.

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Politics

Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement

The elite’s ‘solution’ to the climate crisis is to turn the displaced into exploitable migrant labour. We need a truly internationalist alternative.

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“We are not drowning, we are fighting” has become the rallying call for the Pacific Climate Warriors. From UN climate meetings to blockades of Australian coal ports, these young Indigenous defenders from twenty Pacific Island states are raising the alarm of global warming for low-lying atoll nations. Rejecting the narrative of victimisation – “you don’t need my pain or tears to know that we’re in a crisis,” as Samoan Brianna Fruean puts it – they are challenging the fossil fuel industry and colonial giants such as Australia, responsible for the world’s highest per-capita carbon emissions.

Around the world, climate disasters displace around 25.3 million people annually – one person every one to two seconds. In 2016, new displacements caused by climate disasters outnumbered new displacements as a result of persecution by a ratio of three to one. By 2050, an estimated 143 million people will be displaced in just three regions: Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Some projections for global climate displacement are as high as one billion people.

Mapping who is most vulnerable to displacement reveals the fault lines between rich and poor, between the global North and South, and between whiteness and its Black, Indigenous and racialised others.

Globalised asymmetries of power create migration but constrict mobility. Displaced people – the least responsible for global warming – face militarised borders. While climate change is itself ignored by the political elite, climate migration is presented as a border security issue and the latest excuse for wealthy states to fortify their borders. In 2019, the Australian Defence Forces announced military patrols around Australia’s waters to intercept climate refugees.

The burgeoning terrain of “climate security” prioritises militarised borders, dovetailing perfectly into eco-apartheid. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet,” declares the party of French far-Right politician Marine Le Pen. A US Pentagon-commissioned report on the security implications of climate change encapsulates the hostility to climate refugees: “Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.” The US has now launched Operation Vigilant Sentry off the Florida coast and created Homeland Security Task Force Southeast to enforce marine interdiction and deportation in the aftermath of disasters in the Caribbean.

Labour migration as climate mitigation

you broke the ocean in
half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you
– Nayyirah Waheed

Parallel to increasing border controls, temporary labour migration is increasingly touted as a climate adaptation strategy. As part of the ‘Nansen Initiative’, a multilateral, state-led project to address climate-induced displacement, the Australian government has put forward its temporary seasonal worker program as a key solution to building climate resilience in the Pacific region. The Australian statement to the Nansen Initiative Intergovernmental Global Consultation was, in fact, delivered not by the environment minister but by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Beginning in April 2022, the new Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme will make it easier for Australian businesses to temporarily insource low-wage workers (what the scheme calls “low-skilled” and “unskilled” workers) from small Pacific island countries including Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Not coincidentally, many of these countries’ ecologies and economies have already been ravaged by Australian colonialism for over one hundred years.

It is not an anomaly that Australia is turning displaced climate refugees into a funnel of temporary labour migration. With growing ungovernable and irregular migration, including climate migration, temporary labour migration programs have become the worldwide template for “well-managed migration.” Elites present labour migration as a double win because high-income countries fill their labour shortage needs without providing job security or citizenship, while low-income countries alleviate structural impoverishment through migrants’ remittances.

Dangerous, low-wage jobs like farm, domestic, and service work that cannot be outsourced are now almost entirely insourced in this way. Insourcing and outsourcing represent two sides of the same neoliberal coin: deliberately deflated labour and political power. Not to be confused with free mobility, temporary labour migration represents an extreme neoliberal approach to the quartet of foreign, climate, immigration, and labour policy, all structured to expand networks of capital accumulation through the creation and disciplining of surplus populations.

The International Labour Organization recognises that temporary migrant workers face forced labour, low wages, poor working conditions, virtual absence of social protection, denial of freedom association and union rights, discrimination and xenophobia, as well as social exclusion. Under these state-sanctioned programs of indentureship, workers are legally tied to an employer and deportable. Temporary migrant workers are kept compliant through the threats of both termination and deportation, revealing the crucial connection between immigration status and precarious labour.

Through temporary labour migration programs, workers’ labour power is first captured by the border and this pliable labour is then exploited by the employer. Denying migrant workers permanent immigration status ensures a steady supply of cheapened labour. Borders are not intended to exclude all people, but to create conditions of ‘deportability’, which increases social and labour precarity. These workers are labelled as ‘foreign’ workers, furthering racist xenophobia against them, including by other workers. While migrant workers are temporary, temporary migration is becoming the permanent neoliberal, state-led model of migration.

Reparations include No Borders

“It’s immoral for the rich to talk about their future children and grandchildren when the children of the Global South are dying now.” – Asad Rehman

Discussions about building fairer and more sustainable political-economic systems have coalesced around a Green New Deal. Most public policy proposals for a Green New Deal in the US, Canada, UK and the EU articulate the need to simultaneously tackle economic inequality, social injustice, and the climate crisis by transforming our extractive and exploitative system towards a low-carbon, feminist, worker and community-controlled care-based society. While a Green New Deal necessarily understands the climate crisis and the crisis of capitalism as interconnected — and not a dichotomy of ‘the environment versus the economy’ — one of its main shortcomings is its bordered scope. As Harpreet Kaur Paul and Dalia Gebrial write: “the Green New Deal has largely been trapped in national imaginations.”

Any Green New Deal that is not internationalist runs the risk of perpetuating climate apartheid and imperialist domination in our warming world. Rich countries must redress the global and asymmetrical dimensions of climate debtunfair trade and financial agreements, military subjugation, vaccine apartheidlabour exploitation, and border securitisation.

It is impossible to think about borders outside the modern nation-state and its entanglements with empire, capitalism, race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability. Borders are not even fixed lines demarcating territory. Bordering regimes are increasingly layered with drone surveillance, interception of migrant boats, and security controls far beyond states’ territorial limits. From Australia offshoring migrant detention around Oceania to Fortress Europe outsourcing surveillance and interdiction to the Sahel and Middle East, shifting cartographies demarcate our colonial present.

Perhaps most offensively, when colonial countries panic about ‘border crises’ they position themselves as victims. But the genocide, displacement, and movement of millions of people were unequally structured by colonialism for three centuries, with European settlers in the Americas and Oceania, the transatlantic slave trade from Africa, and imported indentured labourers from Asia. Empire, enslavement, and indentureship are the bedrock of global apartheid today, determining who can live where and under what conditions. Borders are structured to uphold this apartheid.

The freedom to stay and the freedom to move, which is to say no borders, is decolonial reparations and redistribution long due.

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Politics

The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections

The Murang’a people are really yet to decide who they are going to vote for as a president. If they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves. Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Can Jimi Wanjigi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction?

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In the last quarter of 2021, I visited Murang’a County twice: In September, we were in Kandiri in Kigumo constituency. We had gone for a church fundraiser and were hosted by the Anglican Church of Kenya’s (ACK), Kahariro parish, Murang’a South diocese. A month later, I was back, this time to Ihi-gaini deep in Kangema constituency for a burial.

The church function attracted politicians: it had to; they know how to sniff such occasions and if not officially invited, they gate-crash them. Church functions, just like funerals, are perfect platforms for politicians to exhibit their presumed piousness, generosity and their closeness to the respective clergy and the bereaved family.

Well, the other reason they were there, is because they had been invited by the Church leadership. During the electioneering period, the Church is not shy to exploit the politicians’ ambitions: they “blackmail” them for money, because they can mobilise ready audiences for the competing politicians. The politicians on the other hand, are very ready to part with cash. This quid pro quo arrangement is usually an unstated agreement between the Church leadership and the politicians.

The church, which was being fund raised for, being in Kigumo constituency, the area MP Ruth Wangari Mwaniki, promptly showed up. Likewise, the area Member of the County Assembly (MCA) and of course several aspirants for the MP and MCA seats, also showed up.

Church and secular politics often sit cheek by jowl and so, on this day, local politics was the order of the day. I couldn’t have speculated on which side of the political divide Murang’a people were, until the young man Zack Kinuthia Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) for Sports, Culture and Heritage, took to the rostrum to speak.

A local boy and an Uhuru Kenyatta loyalist, he completely avoided mentioning his name and his “development track record” in central Kenya. Kinuthia has a habit of over-extolling President Uhuru’s virtues whenever and wherever he mounts any platform. By the time he was done speaking, I quickly deduced he was angling to unseat Wangari. I wasn’t wrong; five months later in February 2022, Kinuthia resigned his CAS position to vie for Kigumo on a Party of the National Unity (PNU) ticket.

He spoke briefly, feigned some meeting that was awaiting him elsewhere and left hurriedly, but not before giving his KSh50,000 donation. Apparently, I later learnt that he had been forewarned, ahead of time, that the people were not in a mood to listen to his panegyrics on President Uhuru, Jubilee Party, or anything associated to the two. Kinuthia couldn’t dare run on President Uhuru’s Jubilee Party. His patron-boss’s party is not wanted in Murang’a.

I spent the whole day in Kandiri, talking to people, young and old, men and women and by the time I was leaving, I was certain about one thing; The Murang’a folks didn’t want anything to do with President Uhuru. What I wasn’t sure of is, where their political sympathies lay.

I returned to Murang’a the following month, in the expansive Kangema – it is still huge – even after Mathioya was hived off from the larger Kangema constituency. Funerals provide a good barometer that captures peoples’ political sentiments and even though this burial was not attended by politicians – a few senior government officials were present though; political talk was very much on the peoples’ lips.

What I gathered from the crowd was that President Uhuru had destroyed their livelihood, remember many of the Nairobi city trading, hawking, big downtown real estate and restaurants are run and owned largely by Murang’a people. The famous Nyamakima trading area of downtown Nairobi has been run by Murang’a Kikuyus.

In 2018, their goods were confiscated and declared contrabrand by the government. Many of their businesses went under, this, despite the merchants not only, whole heartedly throwing their support to President Uhuru’s controversial re-election, but contributing handsomely to the presidential kitty. They couldn’t believe what was happening to them: “We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him.”

We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him

Last week, I attended a Murang’a County caucus group that was meeting somewhere in Gatundu, in Kiambu County. One of the clearest messages that I got from this group is that the GEMA vote in the August 9, 2022, presidential elections is certainly anti-Uhuru Kenyatta and not necessarily pro-William Ruto.

“The Murang’a people are really yet to decide, (if they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves) on who they are going to vote for as a president. And that’s why you see Uhuru is craftily courting us with all manner of promises, seductions and prophetic messages.” Two weeks ago, President Uhuru was in Murang’a attending an African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) church function in Kandara constituency.

At the church, the president yet again threatened to “tell you what’s in my heart and what I believe and why so.” These prophecy-laced threats by the President, to the GEMA nation, in which he has been threatening to show them the sign, have become the butt of crude jokes among Kikuyus.

Corollary, President Uhuru once again has plucked Polycarp Igathe away from his corporate perch as Equity Bank’s Chief Commercial Officer back to Nairobi’s tumultuous governor seat politics. The first time the bespectacled Igathe was thrown into the deep end of the Nairobi murky politics was in 2017, as Mike Sonko’s deputy governor. After six months, he threw in the towel, lamenting that Sonko couldn’t let him even breathe.

Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people

“Igathe is from Wanjerere in Kigumo, Murang’a, but grew up in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County,” one of the Mzees told me. “He’s not interested in politics; much less know how it’s played. I’ve spent time with him and confided in me as much. Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people. President Uhuru wants to use Igathe to control Nairobi. The sad thing is that Igathe doesn’t have the guts to tell Uhuru the brutal fact: I’m really not interested in all these shenanigans, leave me alone. The president is hoping, once again, to hopefully placate the Murang’a people, by pretending to front Igathe. I foresee another terrible disaster ultimately befalling both Igathe and Uhuru.”

Be that as it may, what I got away with from this caucus, after an entire day’s deliberations, is that its keeping it presidential choice close to its chest. My attempts to goad some of the men and women present were fruitless.

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest. Kiambu has produced two presidents from the same family, Nyeri one, President Mwai Kibaki, who died on April 22. The closest Murang’a came to giving the country a president was during Ken Matiba’s time in the 1990s. “But Matiba had suffered a debilitating stroke that incapacitated him,” said one of the mzees. “It was tragic, but there was nothing we could do.”

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest

It is interesting to note that Jimi Wanjigi, the Safina party presidential flagbearer is from Murang’a County. His family hails from Wahundura, in Mathioya constituency. Him and Mwangi wa Iria, the Murang’a County governor are the other two Murang’a prominent persons who have tossed themselves into the presidential race. Wa Iria’s bid which was announced at the beginning of 2022, seems to have stagnated, while Jimi’s seems to be gathering storm.

Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Jimi’s campaign team has crafted a two-pronged strategy that it hopes will endear Kenyans to his presidency. One, a generational, paradigm shift, especially among the youth, targeting mostly post-secondary, tertiary college and university students.

“We believe this group of voters who are basically between the ages of 18–27 years and who comprise more than 65 per cent of total registered voters are the key to turning this election,” said one of his presidential campaign team members. “It matters most how you craft the political message to capture their attention.” So, branding his key message as itwika, it is meant to orchestrate a break from past electoral behaviour that is pegged on traditional ethnic voting patterns.

The other plunk of Jimi’s campaign theme is economic emancipation, quite pointedly as it talks directly to the GEMA nation, especially the Murang’a Kikuyus, who are reputed for their business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. “What Kikuyus cherish most,” said the team member “is someone who will create an enabling business environment and leave the Kikuyus to do their thing. You know, Kikuyus live off business, if you interfere with it, that’s the end of your friendship, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Can Jimi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction? As all the presidential candidates gear-up this week on who they will eventually pick as their running mates, the GEMA community once more shifts the spotlight on itself, as the most sought-after vote basket.

Both Raila Odinga and William Ruto coalitions – Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya and Kenya Kwanza Alliance – must seek to impress and woe Mt Kenya region by appointing a running mate from one of its ranks. If not, the coalitions fear losing the vote-rich area either to each other, or perhaps to a third party. Murang’a County, may as well, become the conundrum, with which the August 9, presidential race may yet to be unravelled and decided.

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