On 8 June 2020, the head of the Judiciary in Kenya, Chief Justice David Maraga, publicly accused the Executive and President Uhuru Kenyatta of grave constitutional violations, including disregarding court orders, failing to approve the appointment of new judges, and generally acting in a manner likely to suggest that the president’s agenda was to diminish the stature of the Judiciary.
In mid-2019 the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) recommended 41 individuals to be appointed a judges to the president. The JSC is an independent constitutional commission that was created to ensure the independence and accountability of the Judiciary, to oversee judicial appointments, as well as to receive and investigate complaints against judges. The JSC was set up in response to a long history of the Executive’s dominance over the Judiciary.
To date, none of the 41 recommended individuals has been appointed. The Executive cites integrity questions as regards some of them, as well as sitting judges, saying that he is not a mere rubber stamp for the JSC. The Judiciary, on its part, maintains that under the 2010 Constitution of Kenya, the president has no power to refuse names recommended to him by the JSC, that the Executive is attempting to claw back powers taken away from it by the constitution, and that the delay in effecting the appointments is one of several measures the Executive has undertaken to undermine the Judiciary’s efficacy.
Legal commentators have pointed to the centrality of the Supreme Court in resolving election disputes and discerned intent by the Executive to fill the Judiciary with appointments that are more in line with its point of view. The Executive has defended its position by pointing the finger back saying that the Judiciary is the author of its own misfortunes, often citing a historical legacy of case backlogs, on the one hand, and delays in prosecution of corruption cases brought by the Executive, on the other.
Why is this happening now?
In a potent and unprecedented display of judicial independence and might, the Supreme Court of Kenya famously annulled the 2017 presidential election and ordered a re-run. The incumbent’s laudable acceptance of the judgement was nonetheless beset with ominous overtones directed at the Judiciary to the effect that there would come a time of reckoning. Subsequent behaviour and public statements by the Executive indicate a perception on its part that the Judiciary is a hotbed of activists rather than neutral arbiters. Furthermore the Executive has accused the Judiciary of being a hindrance to its efforts in fighting corruption, a matter this author has previously discussed.
Efforts by Kenya’s Executive to undermine the Judiciary point to a regime that is intent on concentrating decision-making power within itself. Part of the reason why the Judiciary is under pressure is because Parliament is not playing its constitutionally-mandated role in checking the Executive’s power.
Public spats between the two branches of government are surprising given the existence of formal mechanisms of communication. The National Commission on the Administration of Justice (NCAJ) is a high level co-ordination mechanism established by statute whose members include the Chief Justice, the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecution. That these parties have often chosen to ventilate their differences through the mass media is indicative of a communications breakdown.
Furthermore, as a result of the political détente between Uhuru Kenyatta and his main rival-turned-collaborator, Raila Odinga (popularly known as “the handshake”), there does not currently exist an effective opposition in Kenyan democracy. As a result, it would appear that the Judiciary is the last remaining institution capable of standing up to the Executive, keeping it honest and maintaining checks and balances. However, the Judiciary is not adept at playing political games. It communicates mainly through judgments which are long, complex and take a long time to emerge. As such, it is likely to suffer in any public conflict with the Executive, which has a well-oiled public relations machine adept at swaying public opinion.
Public spats between the two branches of government are surprising given the existence of formal mechanisms of communication…That these parties have often chosen to ventilate their differences through the mass media is indicative of a communications breakdown.
Surprisingly enough, a factor behind the current impasse could be that elections in Kenya, and indeed in Africa, have not consistently been free and fair. It has been argued that in order for a sitting regime to encourage judicial independence, two things need to happen. First, the regime needs to believe that elections will be held regularly. This happens in Kenya. Secondly, the incumbent regime needs to believe that it could be defeated in a subsequent election. Such a mentality is likely to exist if elections are ordinarily free and fair and widely regarded as such. Since the primary responsibility of ensuring this falls upon the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), which has been found wanting in the past, not only is the Judiciary bearing the burden of a weak Parliament, it is also bearing the brunt of a weak electoral body.
Why is this concerning?
The current situation has a variety of potential consequences, none of which are particularly appealing. It negatively impacts the performance of the Judiciary. If judges are not appointed and sufficient finances are not availed, this exacerbates the existing case backlog and undermines the existing process of institutional reform within the Judiciary. If court orders are not obeyed, this undermines pubic confidence not only in the Judiciary but in the institutional framework established by the constitution. If the political class is encouraged to ventilate grievances outside of the constitution, this is likely to lead to civil strife, particularly come election time.
The Executive will find its war on corruption more difficult since judicial independence is an essential tool to keep bureaucrats and politicians in line, particularly when to do so overtly would be politically costly or even just expensive in terms of expenditure of manpower and finances required for oversight.
The Law Society of Kenya (LSK) was and remains a key actor in establishing the rule of law in Kenya. Political wars could split the LSK, resulting in a division of the bar along political lines. In the latest campaign, Nelson Havi cast himself as the anti-establishment candidate and defeated his main rivals, Maria Mbeneka and Charles Kanjama. The period preceding the election resembled a political campaign, with large sums spent on slick PR campaigns by candidates who represented opposing sides of the political divide. A live debate among the candidates was held on national media prior to the vote. A divided bar would undermine a key player in the struggle for democracy and accountability in Kenya.
The way forward
There is nothing particularly surprising about the current tension between the Judiciary and the Executive. Indeed, it might be argued that such tensions from time to time are healthy and that without them the Judiciary would not be doing its job.
When politicians criticise the Judiciary, they often demonstrate a lack of knowledge of the law. Indeed, rarely will a politician even bother to state the section of the law that they allege the Judiciary to have violated. Furthermore, there is always the tacit implication that the rule of law should be subordinate to the objectives of the Executive branch. This perspective returns Kenya to colonial times when the Judiciary existed to serve the purposes of the Executive. It was treated as an arm of the civil service. This view was further cemented during the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi regimes prior to the promulgation of the Constitution in 2010. The Executive would do well to realise that the Judiciary does not exist to offer services to it. It exists to pass judgements in accordance with the law.
Generally speaking, the Judiciary enforces individual rights, while Parliament exists to provide negotiated solutions to social issues. In enforcing individual rights, the question arises “against whom?” As Kenya is finding out, individual rights need to be enforced not only against other individuals but frequently against the government itself. In early May 2020, for instance, the government evicted more than 7,000 people from the Kariobangi informal settlement in Nairobi after giving a two-day notice and notwithstanding the existence of a court order barring the eviction pending the hearing of a case brought by a local civic group. The interim court order was not an unintended consequence of the system; it is a feature that was very deliberately designed to be part of it.
The Judiciary can help the Executive achieve its aims, particularly where these are difficult to obtain politically. A good example is the war on corruption. The alliance, however, needs to be one borne of separation of powers. Increased authoritarianism by the Executive will not help and neither will judicial activism.
It must be said, however, that the Executive, in making claims of judicial activism, has not satisfactorily demonstrated whether and how the Judiciary has failed to enforce or has gone against the letter and spirit of the constitution or whether the constitution perhaps needs to be amended.
Parliament, the IEBC and the BBI
Part of the reason why the Judiciary is under pressure is because Parliament is not playing its role in checking Executive power. Whereas courts may be better at enforcing individual rights, legislatures are better at negotiating conflicting values. If the court renders something unconstitutional, there is then a burden on Parliament to see whether that thing is in the public interest and requires legislative change or not.
Upon the successful conduct of free and fair elections (a duty given to the IEBC), it is Parliament that bears the primary responsibility of representing the people of Kenya. However, parliamentarians of both houses are disinclined to be overly concerned with their constituents simply because they owe their positions to state largesse dispensed during lavish campaigns. The problem begins before the election though, at the stage of political party primaries, which resemble a process of nomination rather than election and are characterised by widespread irregularities, candidate intimidation and outright bribery.
The Judiciary can help the Executive achieve its aims, particularly where these are difficult to obtain politically. A good example is the war on corruption. The alliance, however, needs to be one borne of separation of powers. Increased authoritarianism by the Executive will not help and neither will judicial activism.
Thus, from the very beginning, parliamentarians are ill-equipped to play a representative role. A large proportion of Kenya thus feels marginalised at the national level. This is exacerbated by the incumbent’s legitimacy issues arising from the conduct of the last election. This gap in representation is real and is what the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) seeks to fill.
Why does the BBI exist? Primarily as a response to the crisis of legitimacy that President Uhuru Kenyatta suffered subsequent to the last general election, its nullification and the opposition boycott of the re-run. In its Introduction, the BBI report states that Kenyans are weary (and presumably also scared) of divisive politics, and of tense and violent elections that produce a winner who is unacceptable to a large portion of voters.
Returning to Parliament: the constitution may have been reformed. However, the current statutory (as opposed to constitutional) regime that we inherited not only from the past regime but going back all the way to the colonial regime remains largely intact. The colonial legal regime was meant to exercise a high degree of control over the governed. It granted a large degree of discretion to administrators, such as chiefs, that the Judiciary could not touch. Upon independence, successive regimes found such a legal order convenient to their purposes and have sought to retain it. Therefore, there remains a large legislative agenda incumbent upon Parliament to bring Kenyan laws in line with a constitution that returns power back to the people. As may be observed, the more authoritarian a regime is, the more it will seek to establish a compliant Parliament that ignores this responsibility.
Parliament has been ceding key functions to the Executive. Importantly, the critical role of budget-making has increasingly been abdicated to the Executive. It may be expected that without oversight, the Executive would tend towards greater and greater spending. Indeed, what has been witnessed is a huge and growing public debt, inflated and unrealistic revenue collection targets, and consequent pressure on the Kenya Revenue Authority to be as aggressive as possible in raising revenue.
If Parliament abdicates its role in checking the Executive, and leaves this role entirely to the Judiciary, it sets the stage for excessive judicial intervention and renders the Judiciary more prone to attacks of overreaching. This has happened elsewhere. Following the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the High Court ruled that the power to begin the process of exiting the European Union lay with Parliament and not the Prime Minister. Tabloid newspapers, inevitably pro-Brexit, saw this as a delaying tactic and labelled three judges as enemies of the public. This undermines constitutionalism as a whole.
Parliament needs to play a bigger role in evaluating the constitutionality of legislation, particularly where this legislation is of great political impact or when there is a conflict between the Judiciary and the Executive. Parliament has a large budget (some say too large) and it seems fair that some of this money be directed towards the kind of research and technical expertise it would take to explore these questions more fully.
If Parliament abdicates its role in checking the Executive, and leaves this role entirely to the Judiciary, it sets the stage for excessive judicial intervention and renders the Judiciary more prone to attacks of overreaching. This has happened elsewhere.
The implications of a weak Parliament go well beyond putting pressure on the Judiciary; they undermine democracy as a whole.
The politics of patronage as a whole, of which both the ruling party and the opposition are guilty, means that areas vote as a bloc and remain resolutely divided between the opposition and the government, almost always on tribal lines. The politics of patronage entrenches ethnic divisions, discourages independent thinking and prevents powerful leaders from being challenged in their own backyards by their own supporters.
The 27th of August 2020 marks ten years since the promulgation of the 2010 constitution. Now is an appropriate time to reflect on whether the Executive has honoured its constitutional mandate in its relationship with the Judiciary.
The foregoing discussion shows that the current tension is to be expected, given Kenya’s past and the powers and duties imposed upon the Judiciary by the constitution. Moreover, there are constitutional means of addressing the conflict that have not been used so far. Again, this is to be expected, given that the constitutional regime is relatively young and its strictures and institutions are yet to come naturally to a political class that often equates faithfulness to the constitution with an attack on its freedom to act.
It is clear that there is a consistent attack by the Executive upon the Judiciary through a variety of means, including the targeting of individual judges for recrimination, the withholding of funds, the failure to abide by the decisions of the Judicial Service Commission, and the disregarding of court orders. This is extremely concerning when seen in light of the fact that in two years, the country will hold a general election. The attacks are likely to result in a chilling effect upon the resolve of the Judiciary to hold the Executive accountable to free and fair elections.
The undermining of public confidence in the Judiciary is likely to result in a public less likely to side with it in a public relations battle rigged in favour of the Executive. Time and again, this country has witnessed that the alternative to judicial arbitration of electoral disputes is violence. If President Uhuru Kenyatta considers peace in Kenya a priority, his administration must obey the constitution and foster judicial independence.
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The Repression of Palestine Solidarity in Kenya
Kenya is one of Israel’s closest allies in Africa. But the Ruto-led government isn’t alone in silencing pro-Palestinian speech.
Israel has been committing genocide against the people of Occupied Palestine for 75 years and this has intensified over the last 30 days with the merciless carpet bombing of Gaza, along with raids and state-sanctioned settler violence in the West Bank. In the last month of this intensified genocide, the Kenyan government has pledged its solidarity to Israel, even as the African Union released a statement in support of Palestinian liberation. While peaceful marches have been successfully held in Kisumu and Mombasa, in Nairobi, Palestine solidarity organizers were forced to cancel a peaceful march that was to be held at the US Embassy on October 22. Police threatened that if they saw groups of more than two people outside the Embassy, they would arrest them. The march was moved to a private compound, Cheche Bookshop, where police still illegally arrested three people, one for draping the Palestinian flag around his shoulders. Signs held by children were snatched by these same officers.
When Boniface Mwangi took to Twitter denouncing the arrest, the response by Kenyans spoke of the success of years of propaganda by Israel through Kenyan churches. To the Kenyan populous, Palestine and Palestinians are synonymous with terrorism and Israel’s occupation of Palestine is its right. However, this Islamophobia and xenophobia from Kenyans did not spring from the eternal waters of nowhere. They are part of the larger US/Israel sponsored and greedy politician-backed campaign to ensure Kenyans do not start connecting the dots on Israel’s occupation of Palestine with the extra-judicial killings by Kenyan police, the current occupation of indigenous people’s land by the British, the cost-of-living crisis and the IMF debts citizens are paying to fund politician’s lavish lifestyles.
Kenya’s repression of Palestine organizing reflects Kenya’s long-standing allyship with Israel. The Kenyan Government has been one of Israel’s A-star pupils of repression and is considered to be Israel’s “gateway” to Africa. Kenya has received military funding and training from Israel since the 60s, and our illegal military occupation of Somalia has been funded and fueled by Israel along with Britain and the US. Repression, like violence, is not one dimensional; repression does not just destabilize and scatter organizers, it aims to break the spirit and replace it instead with apathy, or worse, a deep-seated belief in the rightness of oppression. In Israel’s architecture of oppression through repression, the Apartheid state has created agents of repression across many facets of Kenyan life, enacting propaganda, violence, race, and religion as tools of repression of Palestine solidarity organizing.
When I meet with Naomi Barasa, the Chair of the Kenya Palestine Solidarity Movement, she begins by placing Kenya’s repression of Palestine solidarity organizing in the context of Kenya as a capitalist state. “Imperialism is surrounded and buffered by capitalistic interest,” she states, then lists on her fingers the economic connections Israel has created with Kenya in the name of “technical cooperation.” These are in agriculture, security, business, and health; the list is alarming. It reminds me of my first memory of Israel (after the nonsense of the promised land that is)—about how Israel was a leader in agricultural and irrigation technologies. A dessert that flowed with milk and honey.
Here we see how propaganda represses, even before the idea of descent is born: Kenyans born in the 1990s grew up with an image of a benign, prosperous, and generous Christian Israel that just so happened to be unfortunate enough to be surrounded by Muslim states. Israel’s PR machine has spent 60 years convincing Kenyan Christians of the legitimacy of the nation-state of Israel, drawing false equivalences between Christianity and Zionism. This Janus-faced ideology was expounded upon by Israel’s ambassador to Kenya, Michel Lotem, when he said “Religiously, Kenyans are attached to Israel … Israel is the holy land and they feel close to Israel.” The cog dizzy of it all is that Kenyan Christians, fresh from colonialism, are now Africa’s foremost supporters of colonialism and Apartheid in Israel. Never mind the irony that in 1902, Kenya was the first territory the British floated as a potential site for the resettlement of Jewish people fleeing the pogroms in Europe. This fact has retreated from public memory and public knowledge. Today, churches in Kenya facilitate pilgrimages to the holy land and wield Islamophobia as a weapon against any Christian who questions the inhumanity of Israel’s 75-year Occupation and ongoing genocide.
Another instrument of repression of pro-Palestine organizing in Kenya is the pressure put on Western government-funded event spaces to decline hosting pro-Palestine events. Zahid Rajan, a cultural practitioner and organizer, tells me of his experiences trying to find spaces to host events dedicated to educating Kenyans on the Palestinian liberation struggle. He recalls the first event he organized at Alliance Français, Nairobi in 2011. Alliance Français is one of Nairobi’s cultural hubs and regularly hosts art and cultural events at the space. When Zahid first approached Alliance to host a film festival for Palestinian films, they told him that they could not host this event as they already had (to this day) an Israeli film week. Eventually, they agreed to host the event with many restrictions on what could be discussed and showcased. Unsurprisingly they refused to host the event again. The Goethe Institute, another cultural hub in Kenya that offers its large hall for free for cultural events, has refused to host the Palestinian film festival or any other pro-Palestine event. Both Alliance and Goethe are funded by their parent countries, France and Germany respectively (which both have pro-Israel governments). There are other spaces and businesses that Zahid has reached out to host pro-Palestine education events that have, in the end, backtracked on their agreement to do so. Here, we see the evolution of state-sponsored repression to the private sphere—a public-private partnership on repression, if you will.
Kenya’s members of parliament took to heckling and mocking as a tool of repression when MP Farah Maalim wore an “Arafat” to Parliament on October 25. The Speaker asked him to take it off stating that it depicted “the colors of a particular country.” When Maalim stood to speak he asked: “Tell me which republic,” and an MP in the background could be heard shouting “Hamas” and heckling Maalim, such that he was unable to speak on the current genocide in Gaza. This event, seen in the context of Ambassador Michael Lotem’s charm offensive at the county and constituency level, is chilling. His most recent documented visit was to the MP of Kiharu, Ndindi Nyoro, on November 2. The Israeli propaganda machine has understood the importance of County Governors and MPs in consolidating power in Kenya.
Yet, in the face of this repression, we have seen what Naomi Barasa describes as “many pockets of ad hoc solidarity,” as well as organized solidarity with the Palestinian cause. We have seen Muslim communities gather for many years to march for Palestine, we have seen student movements such as the Nairobi University Student Caucus release statements for Palestine, and we have seen social justice centers such as Mathare Social Justice Centre host education and screening events on Palestinian liberation. Even as state repression of Palestine solidarity organizing has intensified in line with the deepening of state relations with Apartheid Israel, more Kenyans are beginning to connect the dots and see the reality that, as Mandela told us all those years ago, “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians.”
Only Connect: Human Beings Must Connect to Survive
We must fight to remain human, to make connections across borders, race, religion, class, gender, and all the false divisions that exist in our world. We must show solidarity with one another, and believe we can construct another kind of world.
24 November 2021. We wake to the news that 27 migrants have drowned in the English Channel.
“Stop the boats!” cry the Tories. It’s the hill British Prime Minister Sunak has chosen to die on. But there is no political will to stop the wider crisis of global migration, driven by conflict, poverty, persecution, repressive regimes, famine, climate change, and the rest. Moreover, there is zero understanding that the West is behind many of the reasons why people flee their homes in the first place. Take Afghanistan, a useless Allied war that went nowhere. It left the Taliban more powerful than ever. Afghans who worked for the British army, betrayed when our forces pulled out. Now they make up the majority of cross-Channel migrants.
Not for them the welcome we gave Ukrainians. Wrong skin colour, maybe? Wrong religion? Surely not.
Some right-wingers rejoice at news of these deaths. “Drown ’em all!” they cry on social media. “Bomb the dinghies!” There are invariably photos of cute cats and dogs in their profiles. Have you noticed how much racists and fascists love pets? Lots of ex-servicemen among them, who fail to see the link between the failed wars they fought, and the migration crisis these spawned. The normalisation of a false reality is plain to see. Politicians and the media tell folk that black is white, often in meaningless three-word slogans, and the masses believe it. Migrants, especially those who arrive in small boats, are routinely labelled criminals, murderers, rapists, invaders, Muslims intent on imposing Islam on the UK, and “young men of fighting age”, which implies that they are a standing army.
If you bother to look beyond the stereotypes, the reality is very different.
One couple’s story
Riding those same waves, a year or so later, are two Iranian Kurds. A young couple. Let’s call them Majid and Sayran. They have sadly decided not to have children, in 12 years of marriage, because they believe Iran is no place to bring up children. Activists who oppose the regime, they were forced to flee after receiving direct threats. They ran an environmental NGO, and held Kurdish cultural events that are banned in Iran.
The husband, Majid, a writer, first fled to Iraq in 2021. He and his wife were parted for 18 months. She eventually joined him in a Kurdish area of Iraq. They were forced to flee again, when the Iranian regime bombed the homes and offices of political dissidents in Iraq, killing and wounding many of their friends. They decided their only hope was to head for Britain via Turkey, Italy and France. They paid people smugglers around USD30,000 in total. They eventually ended up in a hotel in my home town. Their story continues below.
Meanwhile, there I am sitting at home in the UK, getting more and more enraged about my government’s attitude and policies on immigration. I feel powerless. I think about refugees living in an asylum hotel in my town. I’m told many of them are Muslim, now trying to celebrate Ramadan. I picture them breaking their fasts on hotel food, which relies heavily on chips and other cheap junk. I meet some of them in the queue at the town’s so-called community fridge, where I used to volunteer. I chat a little to Majid, who can speak some English. I try to find out why they are there. The “fridge” gives out food donated by supermarkets to anyone in need. The food would otherwise be thrown away because it’s about to reach its sell-by date. The refugees go there, they tell me, to get fresh stuff because the hotel food is so awful. I can sense the growing resentment from locals in the queue, who want to put “Britain first”.
Thinking, thinking. Then I berate myself. I should take action, however small. Get down to the supermarket, buy food for, say, six families. I can’t feed everyone, but let’s start somewhere. Food that people from the Middle East (the majority of the hotel residents) will like. Hummus, flatbreads, dates, olives, nuts, rice. Divide it into six bags. I don’t know how I will be received (I feel rather nervous), but let’s give it a go.
I can sense the growing resentment from locals in the queue, who want to put “Britain first”.
The hotel manager is cagey. (I am later banned. He and his female head of security are rude and hostile, but that’s still to come.) For now, he lets me in to distribute the food. Luckily, I spot Majid, just the person I’m looking for. I recognise him from the “fridge” queue. He can translate for the others, who quickly gather in the lobby. The food is snatched within minutes, people are delighted with it. (It turns out Majid and his wife are atheists. But they get some food too.)
I didn’t do this for the thanks. But I’m glad I made that first move. Taking it further, I invite them both round for a meal. I spend hours making Persian rice, it’s a big hit. My new friends fall on the spread like ravening wolves. One thing leads to another. We start to meet regularly. It helps that they have some English, which greatly improves as the weeks pass and they go to classes. They are thrilled by everyday things – walks in the country, pizza, a local fair, being taken to see the film Oppenheimer. (“We were amazed to see so many British people go to the movies!”) They tell me they are delighted simply to make contact, to see how ordinary people live, to be invited into my, and my friends’ homes. I tell them I have plenty to learn from them, too. We get a bit tearful. I say hi to Sayran’s mum on the phone in Iran. We also laugh a lot. Majid has a black sense of humour.
At first, I don’t ask about their experience of crossing the Channel. All I know is that the entire journey, from Iran to Britain, was deeply traumatic. Until now, months later, when I ask Majid to describe what happened.
Majid picks up the story of their journey in Turkey: “The most bitter memories of my life were witnessing my wife’s tiredness, fear and anxiety as we walked for nine hours to reach Istanbul. I saw my wife cry from exhaustion and fear many times, and I myself cried inside. In a foreign country without a passport, our only hope was luck, and our only way was to accept hardship because we had no way back. The most bitter thing in this or any refugee journey is that no one gives any help or support to his fellow traveller. The smallest issue turns into a big tension.”
To reach the sea, where they would take a boat to Italy, they walked through dense pine forests. “There were about 30 of us in this group and none of us knew each other. We passed through the forest with extreme anxiety and fear of being arrested by the ruthless Turkish police. We were all afraid that some babies who were tied tightly on their father’s shoulders would cry and the police would find us. But as soon as we stepped into the forest, all the children became silent due to their instinct and sense of danger. They didn’t make a single sound all the way. We were in the forest for about 12 hours, and reached the beach by 8 a.m. Here we were joined by several other groups of refugees; by now we were more than 100 people.”
The week-long journey to Italy in a 12-meter “pleasure” boat carrying 55 people was terrifying. “As the boat moved towards the deep parts of the sea, fear and anxiety took over everyone. The fear of the endless sea, and worse, the fear of being caught by Turkish patrols, weighed heavily on everyone’s mind. The boat moved at the highest speed at night, and this speed added to the intensity of the waves hitting the hull of the boat. Waves, waves, waves have always been a part of the pulse of travellers. As the big waves moved the boat up and down, the sound of screams and shouts would merge with the Arabic words of prayers of old, religious passengers. I can say that there is no scene in hell more horrific than this journey. It was near sunset when several passengers shouted: ‘Land! Land!’”
On the way to France, they somehow lost their backpacks. All their possessions gone. Moving fast forward, they found themselves in yet another forest, this time close to the French coast.
“For the first time, I felt that the whole idea I had about Europe and especially the French was a lie. Nowhere in the underdeveloped and insecure countries of the Middle East would a couple be driven to the wrong address at night, in the cold, without proper clothing. But what can be done when you illegally enter a country whose language you do not know? It was almost 2 o’clock in the morning. The sound of the wind and the trees reminded us of horror scenes in the movies. It was hard to believe that we were so helpless in a European country on that dark, cold and rainy night.” He collected grass and tree leaves to make a “warm and soft nest. I felt like we were two migratory birds that had just arrived in this forest.” Eventually they found what they were looking for – a refugee camp. The next step was to try and cross the Channel.
“I can say that there is no scene in hell more horrific than this journey.”
“We reached the beach. The sky was overcast and it was almost sunset. A strange fear and deadly apprehension gripped all the poor refugees in that space between the sky, the earth and the sea.” A smugglers’ car brought a dinghy and dumped it on the beach before quickly driving away. It was no better than a rubber tube. The refugees filled it with air, and attached a small engine. “They stuck 55 people in that tube.” The dinghy went round in circles and ended up on another part of the French coast. Many people decided to disembark at this point, leaving 18 passengers.
“Women and children were wailing and crying. The children looked at the sea dumbfounded. Men argued with each other and sometimes arguments turned into fights. The boat was not balanced. I was writhing in pain from headaches, while my wife’s face was yellow and pale because of the torment.”
At last a ship approached, shining bright floodlights at the dinghy. It belonged to the British coast guard. “When they threw the life rope towards our plastic boat, we were relieved that we were saved from death.”
My friends tell me about conditions at the hotel. Grim. Food that is often inedible, especially for vegetarians like them. They send me photos of soya chunks and chips. Residents are banned from cooking in their rooms, or even having a fridge. Majid and Sayran have sneaked in a rice steamer and something to fry eggs on. (They have to hide them when the cleaners come round.) Kids have no toys and nowhere to play except in the narrow corridors. Everyone is depressed and bored, waiting for months, sometimes years, to hear the result of their asylum claims.
Majid takes up the story: “Due to the lack of toys and entertainment, the boys gather around the security guards and help them in doing many small tasks. The image of refugee children going to school on cold and rainy mornings is the most painful image of refugees in this developed country. In schools, language problems make refugee children isolated and depressed in the first few years. What can be the situation of a pregnant woman, or a woman whose baby has just been born, with an unemployed husband, and poor nutrition, in a very small room in this hotel? Imagine yourself. Many elderly people here suffer from illnesses such as rheumatism, knee swelling, and high blood sugar. But many times when they ask for a change in the food situation or request to transfer somewhere else, they are ridiculed by the hotel staff. One day, a widow who had no food left for her and was given frozen food, went to the hotel management office with her daughter to protest. But one of the security guards took the food container from this woman’s hand and threw it on the office floor in front of her child. Now that little girl is afraid and hates all the security.”
“When they threw the life rope towards our plastic boat, we were relieved that we were saved from death.”
Yet racists rant about migrants living it up in five-star hotels costing the taxpayer £8 million a day. They don’t think or care about how we got here: the Tories let the asylum backlog soar, by failing to process asylum claims in a timely fashion. Some of us cynically wonder if this was deliberate. The number of people awaiting an initial decision is now 165,411. This compares to 27,048 asylum applications, including dependents, between January and September 2015, before the UK left the European Union.
I’ve done what I can. Lobbied the Home office to improve the food and conditions. I eventually got a reply, both from them and the catering contractor. Wrote to my MP, local councillors, inter-agency bodies that monitor conditions in hotels, migrant organisations, the press. We have had some success. There is a lot more to do.
I ask my friends if the threat of being deported to Rwanda (a key plank of the UK’s asylum policy) might have deterred them from coming. Or if anything would have stopped them. Majid replies: “Not at all! Because everywhere in this world is better than Iran for life. Especially for me, I have a deep problem with the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. They threatened me with death over the phone.”
Making sense of the world
World news has become unbearable to read, watch or listen to. Once a news junkie, I increasingly find myself switching off. I’m equally appalled by the widespread apathy, even among friends who were once politically engaged. Then there is all the dog whistling our government does, in language that echoes that of the far right. Ministers and MPs have shamelessly whipped up suspicion, hatred, and fear of the Other. “Cruella” Braverman was one of the worst offenders, but at least she is no longer Home Secretary. Her “dream” of deporting refugees to Rwanda (her words) has become a nightmare for Sunak. Both are of East African Asian heritage.
Ministers and MPs have shamelessly whipped up suspicion, hatred, and fear of the Other.
This may sound trite, but we must struggle to remain human, and make connections where we can – across borders, race, religion, class, gender, all the false divisions that exist in our world. We have to keep lobbying those in power, and going on protest marches. We must show solidarity with one another. We have to believe we can construct another kind of world, pole pole, from the bottom up. A kinder world would help, for starters. It can begin in very small ways.
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.
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