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South Africa: The Culture Wars Are a Distraction

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When our political parties only have recourse to the realm of identity and culture, it is a smokescreen for their lack of political legitimacy and programmatic content. It is cynically unpolitical, and it’s all bullshit.

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South Africa: The Culture Wars Are a Distraction
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Almost nine months ago, South Africa entered into a lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19. The lockdown is still in place, but back then the restrictions imposed were incredibly severe: no one could leave their home unless to purchase food or medicine, and the now familiar category of “essential workers” were the only ones permitted to travel for work. Now that these rules have been lifted, some people are desperate to soak in the warm weather and taste a slice of normality. It’s easy to forget that the implementation of lockdown spelled confusion and disaster for most;  easier still, to ignore the fact that despite the gradual reduction of reported cases, the economic impacts are only really appearing now, and things are looking grim.

And so, the debacle unfolding last week over retail company Clicks’ use of a racist advert on its website, is the clearest illustration of the erratic consciousness which characterizes South African public life. The advert, selling the American hair care brand TRESemmé, depicted a white woman’s hair as “fine & flat” and “normal” while a black woman’s hair was described as “dry & damaged” plus “frizzy & dull.” It goes without saying that the ad is reprehensible, offensive, and deserves the outrage its sparked. Yet, this is not the first thing Clicks has done in the last six months which is objectionable—in April, its workers accused them of forcing them to work without pay. It was also at one stage accused of price gouging, and, it wasn’t the only company implicated—across the board and throughout the lockdown, corporations partook in unfair labor and pricing practices in order to shift the economic burdens of the crisis to workers and consumers. Why did these practices produce little outrage?

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), South Africa’s third largest party and one officially styling itself as “Marxist-Leninist-Fanonian” (they copy the late Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian movement in their red uniforms), has been leading the moral crusade against Clicks. In doing so they have been incredibly effective, beginning last week with country-wide protests at a range of Clicks stores, and ending it by reaching an agreement with Clicks’ holding company to remove all TRESemmé products from its stores to be replaced by locally produced ones, as well as to donate 50,000 sanitary pads, sanitizers and masks to rural settlements chosen by the EFF.

These actions marked the return of the EFF to South Africa’s political scene after a long hibernation during most of the lockdown. In its initial stages, the EFF’s most notable call was for people to be quarantined on Robben Island. As it then became apparent that the state’s socio-economic response was lacking, prompting a mass civil-society mobilization to organize food parcels, extend social grants provision and ensure that there was basic support for the poor and vulnerable, the EFF was glaringly absent. But, this is supposed to be South Africa’s working-class party, and much as some on the left have long been disabused of the notion that the working-class is whom they represent, for the most part it’s still believed that the EFF is radical in some meaningful sense.

When the EFF first emerged as a political party in 2013, it was widely cheered as being a viable option to fill the void left in working-class politics in the wake of the Marikana massacre as the ruling African National Congress’ hegemony began to crumble. While the composition of its admirers included a diverse range—disgruntled local businesspeople, university students and the urban unemployed—its militant populist style was touted as left in orientation given its advocacy for policies such as nationalizing South Africa’s mines (which it is no longer that committed to), and land expropriation without compensation. (Two years later, as South Africa’s campuses erupted with #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall, the EFF won SRC elections on many campuses.)

Nowadays, the party has become too loaded with contradictions for it to be considered left-wing in any credible sense, both in its ideology and practice. Besides its lack of internal democracy and the cult of personality surrounding its leader Julius Malema, some of the EFF’s lead figures have been embroiled in various financial scandals including municipal tender fraud and the ransacking of a mutual bank primarily serving informal rural, friendly societies. Throughout its history, the EFF has never had any moorings in the organized working class; it lacks any trade union affiliation (it enjoyed some informal links to the Marikana workers union, AMCU, but it was never formalized), nor does it have any concrete ties to other social movements like those for the unemployed or in mining affected communities.

Despite this, it clings vehemently to the rhetoric of class, and proclaims its opposition to capitalism although playing almost no part in trying to build a working class movement in South Africa. How then, are they still venerated by most as progressive, and taken at their word by even their naysayers who believe them to be sincerely anti-capitalist?

What explains this is that the terms of radical politics in the public discourse, have shifted from a materialist, class-rooted mode, to an identity-based, culturalist one, and the EFF have contributed to this shift and are its biggest beneficiary. In South Africa, where race is deeply embedded in everyday thinking and experience, the EFF has capitalized and revived the idea that black people possess a distinctive, social identity, therefore constituting a “people” whose political and material interests are uniform.

By positing some homogenous “black interest,” the EFF is able to flatten the contradictions of its political project, which at this point looks simply like a kind of economic nationalism, less opposed to capitalism per se, and more opposed to the fact that South Africa’s capitalist class continues to be dominated by “white monopoly capital.” The EFF’s biggest problem isn’t that capitalism concentrates wealth in the hands of the few, but that this few are predominantly foreign, white or Indian.

In this crucial way, the EFF’s class project is actually just continuous with that of the ruling African National Congress, which since 1999 has been facilitating the rise of a supposedly patriotic, black bourgeoisie whose economic upliftment is meant to be synonymous with the progress of black people as a whole. South Africa’s political class in the main has never parted with this thesis. All that’s really contested, is how swiftly or not this is happening. According to the EFF—along with the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction of the ANC, led from the shadows by Malema’s former mentor and former president Jacob Zuma—it is not happening quickly enough.

In South Africa, where race is deeply embedded in everyday thinking and experience, the EFF has capitalized and revived the idea that black people possess a distinctive, social identity, therefore constituting a “people” whose political and material interests are uniform.

Instead of being a serious challenge to the ANC’s apparently declining hegemony, the EFF is more accurately an expression of its resilience. The EFF’s sustained inability to articulate a coherent political identity on its own stems from the simple fact that rather than being fascist (as some proclaim), it simply is just a wandering faction of the ANC, its prodigal son.

Yet, it is Frantz Fanon himself who warns against thinking that this project of establishing a state-led, indigenized capitalism is in any meaningful sense progressive. As he writes in the Wretched of the Earth:

Yet the national bourgeoise never stops calling for the nationalization of the economy and the commercial sector. In its thinking, to nationalize does not mean placing the entire economy at the service of the nation or satisfying all its requirements. To nationalize does not mean organizing the state on the basis of a new program of social relations. For the bourgeoisie, nationalization signifies very precisely the transfer into indigenous hands of privileges inherited from the colonial period.

Even if we could successfully transform the capitalist class so that it was demonstrably black, the underclass to which it is causally connected to, whose deprivation makes possible the other’s wealth, would still be black! Framing inequality primarily as racial disparity misses that it is now actually intra-racial inequality that is contributing more to total inequality. But more importantly, it expresses a fundamentally misplaced concern about the problem. As Adolph Reed Jnr. and Walter Benn Michaels recently wrote, “What we’re actually saying every time we insist that the basic inequality is between blacks and whites is that only the inequalities we care about are those produced by some form of discrimination—that inequality itself isn’t the problem.”

The racism that was on display in the advert approved and displayed by Clicks is very much present in our society. But, it is not the definitive issue of our time, nor does it have to be for us to give it appropriate concern and attention. In corporate workplaces, university settings, Model-C or private schools and hospitality venues like hotels or restaurants, racial discrimination and prejudice very much persist and must be opposed. But ultimately, these are also (elite) spheres where the majority of the country are excluded from altogether, and the consequences of the struggles for recognition operative in them have little bearing for the lives of most poor, black people.

Racism does have a significant bearing on their lives, but to paraphrase and modify Stuart Hall’s turn of phrase, it is an experience of race lived through the modality of class. Consider how throughout most of the lockdown for example, dangerous stereotypes were peddled about the working class. When an increase of the child support grant was being considered, poor and working black people were often cast as financially irresponsible and bound to use the funds on drugs. When the lockdown began easing and returning workers refused to work in unsafe conditions, they were lazy and selfish. When the alcohol prohibition was lifted, and there were spikes in trauma incidents at hospitals, it was poor and working class people who were blamed. It was the middle class and ruling elite of all races and across the political spectrum that happily took part in this demonization.

By positing some homogenous “black interest,” the EFF is able to flatten the contradictions of its political project, which at this point looks simply like a kind of economic nationalism, less opposed to capitalism per se, and more opposed to the fact that South Africa’s capitalist class continues to be dominated by “white monopoly capital.”

As my friend and comrade Awande Buthelezi once eloquently put it to me (channeling Walter Rodney), in post-apartheid South Africa, it’s not so much that people are poor because they’re black, but they are black because they’re poor. What this means is that that the most egregious racialization, that is, literally treating particular groups as possessing characteristics inherent to their nature, happens concomitantly with their particular economic subjugation. What people now often refer to as “classism” is actually just racism by another word. The word classism was only popularized to accommodate the false notion that black people couldn’t be racist, not least against their own race—which misses the important point that while race isn’t real, racism definitely is. And to express contempt for working class people, treating them as if they were a cultural identity (an apparently primitive and conservative one at that), and not an objective social relation rooted in political economy, is precisely to engage in racializing them. The basic insight of all this is that racial ideology provides the justification for continued economic exploitation. As the American sociologist Oliver Cromwell Crox explains, “to justify humanly degrading labor, the exploiters must argue that the workers are innately degraded.”

Why then, are people poor? It’s always been because of capitalism, and at the moment every single opposition force in South Africa treats it as its perennial premise. To borrow a phrase from Karen and Barbara Fields, people treat apartheid as if its chief business was producing white supremacy rather than mining gold, diamonds and platinum. Our society is essentially classist, therefore it is essentially racist. But, what is liquidated in the turn of understanding social cleavages exclusively through identity is the class antagonism which actually grounds the material interests which shape political life—the antagonism between wage labor, capital, and the professional managerial strata in between.

In forever using race as a proxy for class, we ignore that race is no longer a reliable predictor for class position, and that this was always bound to become the case in a country where black people are a substantial numerical majority. The interests of black people are not, could not be the same, and to posit them as such is to make possible a public sphere in which actual working class interests are sidelined and ignored. With the public sphere now more or less being entirely the vapid abyss that is social media, a significant portion of the country is excluded from public life; for example, only 53% of South Africans have access to the internet.

The gravity of the issues facing the majority of South Africans such as skyrocketing unemployment, a deepening hunger crisiswater shortages and drought, as well as the crisis of social reproduction which manifests in escalating gender based violence made last week’s debacle feel painfully myopic. South Africans have always known the magnitude of the challenges before us, but what we are still unwilling to admit is that we are in the grips of a global, systemic, and worsening capitalist crisis, not simply seeing through a passing pandemic or set back by temporary issues of governance and state incapacity.  In the face of all this, the EFF’s actions are nothing more than asking that corporations be woke in their profiteering, leaving production for profit unchallenged as the basic principle of social organization.

It is Frantz Fanon himself who warns against thinking that this project of establishing a state-led, indigenized capitalism is in any meaningful sense progressive.

No political party in South Africa today presents a credible alternative, not even the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition who recently announced that it was officially adopting a policy of “non-racialism”—which is as laughable as the EFF claiming to be Marxist-Leninist-Fanonian. The DA sits on a pretend moral high ground and professes to be against racial identity politics while being committed to it in practice.

This year, the DA has campaigned to have farm murders (of white farmers) be declared a national emergency and categorized as hate crimes, treading not far from the right-wing conspiracies that claim there is a white genocide ongoing in South Africa.  Rather than accepting, as the evidence shows, that this falls part of the general pattern of violent crime and social disorder and that poor black people are crime’s main victims (a symptom of worsening poverty and inequality), the DA tries to construct some special victimhood for white South Africans, despite remaining firmly wedded to the current economic system.

The culture wars in South Africa are simply a battle for the soul (read race) of the ruling class, the political elite scrambling to be captains of the Titanic while the ship sinks and the world around it burns. It’s all a distraction, and what’s left of the progressive left must ignore it. It is only the working class and its constituent social movements presenting a credible vision for social transformation in the short and long term, emphasizing that the emancipation of the working class is the emancipation of all. That there is a way out—and not merely drifting aimlessly and precariously on a lifeboat trying to survive, but towards a society free of domination and exploitation, one that is truly non-racial and non-sexist.

It is exactly this universalist impulse driving the solutions being put forward by a collection of burgeoning movement coalitions, such as the COVID-19 People’s Coalition, the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign and the Cry of the Xcluded, and include things like introducing a basic income grant for all, to adopting a people’s climate justice charter and green new deal that ends our original sin of mineral extractivism while shielding us from ecological catastrophe. As the old order crumbles, rather than present solutions underpinned by a substantive vision of what constitutes the good society, South Africa’s political class resorts mostly to empty and inane posturing. When our political parties have recourse to the realm of identity and culture, it is a smokescreen for their lack of political legitimacy and programmatic content. It is cynically unpolitical. It’s all bullshit.

And sincerely, there is no time for bullshit. The stakes are too high. The left re-emerging in South Africa must declare unapologetically: no war but class war.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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William Shoki is Staff Writer of Africa Is A Country. He is based in Johannesburg.

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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