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White Settlers, Black Colonialists and the Landless Majority

13 min read.

The problem of landlessness in Kenya started with the stealing of land by the British colonialists and has been perpetuated by powerful individuals in the top echelons of post-independence governments.



White Settlers, Black Colonialists and the Landless Majority
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Even as the August 2022 general election approaches, the land question remains unanswered. And with the uncertainty as to who will win the presidency, which remains the centre of power despite devolution following the enactment of the 2010 Constitution, many Kenyans who migrated to the Rift Valley are anxious.

Already, there are land invasions in parts of Laikipia, a county in the Rift Valley, targeting the farms of migrant communities and those of White settlers.

In July, the media reported that herders had driven hundreds of livestock into private ranches, sparking protests from ranch owners in Rumuruti, Mugie, Laikipia Nature Conservancy and Suiyan.

According to Laikipia County Commissioner Daniel Nyameti, the herders were from the neighbouring Baringo, Samburu and Isiolo counties in search of water and pasture for their livestock.

While the invasions were—as in previous years—blamed on prolonged drought in the neighbouring counties, there seems to be a pattern that often leads to deadly conflicts.

In the mix is bad politics, land grievances and unresolved historical land injustices. “The invasions of ranches and farms and the resultant conflict have a historical and cultural context. The herders are most of the time used to invade Laikipia with the aim of driving out land owners and ranchers and claim land for themselves,” Rumuruti resident Charles Kimani told the Nation in July.

“Politicians sometimes provide arms to the morans and pay them to raid and occupy land. This is not about pastoralists escaping drought, because sometimes even after it rains, they still remain here. This is forcible occupation of land that belongs to other people,” Kimani added.

As has been the case before, the security forces intervened.

On 28 July 2021, Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i gave the herders one week to leave the farms or face forceful evictions by the police. “We are preparing a serious crackdown. It’ll be ruthless and merciless, and I plead with all illegal herders to move out within the period,” CS Matiang’i said at the Anti-Stock Theft Unit camp in Naibor in Laikipia County, where he was accompanied by the Inspector General of Police Hillary Mutyambai.

Matiang’i also appeared to blame local politicians for the violence saying, “We must put an end to this balkanization. We will not allow wananchi to be hurt due to political positions. We will immediately arrest those encouraging election rearrangements through forced movements.”

Former Laikipia North MP Mathew Lempurkel has been arrested by police on several occasions for inciting his community to invade private land to graze their animals. In 2017 Lempurkel was arrested following the murder of Tristan Voorspuy, a dual Kenyan/British national, was killed as he visited a site where two cottages had been set ablaze on the Sosian Ranch of which he was co-owner.

On 29 July Narok Senator Ledama Olekina, who comes from the pastoralist Maasai community, tweeted, “Good Morning @FredMatiangi you cannot order our people out of their ancestral lands! Those Ranchers -mostly colonials and former Government official stole our lands and you know that! Saying you will buy out own cows to ease pressure on pasture is killing our economy! No way!”

“When I become President of Kenya . . .  no single person will own more than 1,000 acres of land. All ranches in Laikipia will revert back to the original owners! Neocolonialism will end!” Olekina added.

The senator lamented that the Maasai of Laikipia have been made landless by the “British colonial and neocolonialism as well as their own government orchestrated by CS Fred Matiang’i who makes colonialists look more like philanthropists.”

The recurrent land clashes in Laikipia are just but part of a bigger problem.

Colonial land theft

The problem started with the stealing of land in the fertile areas referred to as the “White Highlands” by the British colonialists. Between 1902 and 1961, the colonial government reserved these areas exclusively for Europeans. They included Machakos, Nairobi, Thika, Mt Kenya region, Laikipia, Naivasha, Nakuru, Kericho, Sotik, Lumbwa, Songhor, Nandi, Uasin Gishu, Trans Nzoia and Mt Elgon.

How it happened

Towett J. Kimaiyo explains Kenya’s land policy since the colonial period in his book, Ogiek Land Cases and Historical Injustices 1902 – 2004. Kenya was declared a British Protectorate on 15 June 1895, which conferred on the British Crown political jurisdiction over the land from the Coast to the Rift Valley.

“Beyond that, the declaration of Protectorate did not confer any rights over land in the territory. Any rights over the land would have to be on the basis of conquest, agreement, treaty or sale with the indigenous people,” Kimaiyo writes.

But to overcome the problem of title to land in the territory, in 1899 the law officers of the crown advised that the Foreign Jurisdiction Act of 1890, which empowered the crown to control and dispose waste and unoccupied land with no settled forms of government and where land had been appropriated to the local sovereign individuals, be effected.

In 1901 the East African (Lands) ordinance-in-council was enacted conferring on the Commissioner of the Protectorate (later named Governor) the power to dispose of all public lands on such terms and conditions as he might think fit, Kimaiyo explains.

In effect, the land—now referred to as Crown Land—was vested in the Commissioner in trust for the British Crown.

The Crown Land Ordinance of 1902 followed suit and empowered the Commissioner to sell up 1,000 acres of Crown land in freehold to any person, or grant leases of 99 years, extended to 999 years in 1915.

The problem started with the stealing of land in the fertile areas referred to as the “White Highlands” by the British colonialists.

As a result, between 1902 and 1915, about 7.5 million acres—20 per cent of the best and most fertile land in Kenya—was reserved for the settlers as Crown Property.

In his book Kenya: A History Since Independence, Charles Hornsby explains that many of the first settlers came from the British aristocracy and military, accustomed to command, and with deeply engrained prejudices against foreigners.

“These imperial settlers were convinced that they were the natural rulers of Kenya (as of everywhere else) and that Africans were their feudal subjects,” writes Hornsby. He further observes that the inhabitants, many of them Kikuyu, resisted colonial rule but the colonialists employed large-scale violence.

History informs that between 1895 and 1908 other communities in the White Highlands, among them the Gusii, the Nandi, the Luhya, the Luo and the Teso, resisted colonial occupation. Colonialization displaced many inhabitants in the “White Highlands”, while others sold their parcels while understanding that they were merely ceding the right to use of the land.

Interestingly, the Maasai did not really resist. Why is this?

Hornsby says that 30 years before the arrival of the British colonialists, the Maasai had suffered drought, wars, and outbreaks of smallpox and rinderpest, which depopulated their land in Central Rift Valley and killed most of their cattle. They thus gave in to the colonialists and even became mercenaries for the British alongside the Kamba and the Luhya Wanga, finds Hornsby. The Maasai lost the entire Central Rift Valley.

According to John M. Lonsdale in The Politics of Conquest: the British in Western Kenya, 1894–1908, three-quarters of the alienated lands had been Maasai-controlled until 1890.

Hornsby says the British signed controversial land agreements with the Maasai, most of whom were illiterate, alienating them for colonial settlements. One of these agreements was the infamous Maasai Agreement of August 1904, a treaty signed by the colonial government and Maasai elders. The Maasai ceded possession of pastures in the Central Rift Valley in return for exclusive rights to a southern reserve in Kajiado and a northern reserve in Laikipia.

Many of the first settlers came from the British aristocracy and military, accustomed to command, and with deeply engrained prejudices against foreigners.

“The British moved the Maasai of Nakuru and Naivasha north to Laikipia ‘in perpetuity’. In 1911-13, to extend white farms and ranching north, the governor drove all 10,000 Maasai from Uasin Gishu, Trans Nzoia, Laikipia and Nakuru into the southern Maasai reserve, which later became Kajiado and Narok districts.”

“Both deportations were justified by agreements with [illiterate] Maasai elders but were repudiated later as having been signed under duress,” Hornsby finds.

This is what Senator Olekina means when he says the Laikipia land belongs to the Maasai. Settlers who remain in Laikipia still own large tracts of land of this alienated land.

The black colonialist

Wĩyathi na Ithaka (independence and Forests [land]) was the rallying call of the Mau Mau, the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru (Gema) resistance movement against the British.

In his Mau Mau song, Wĩyathi na Ithaka, popular Benga artist Joseph Kamaru’s says,

Our people let us join hands, this country is ours and it is our share/ µGod shower us with blessings/We don’t mind being captured, being detained, being displaced, being taken to peripheries/ But we will never stop agitating for our independence until this land sees the light/ This is a black man’s land and our hope is independence.

Therefore, when Kenya became independent in 1963, there was hope among the inhabitants, particularly those who had fought against the colonialists, that they would get their land back.

They were disappointed.

Once he became President, Jomo Kenyatta betrayed the cause of restitution and redistribution of land.

In his paper, History of Land Conflicts in Kenya, Peter Veit notes that Kenyatta maintained the system of freehold land titles and did not question how the land had been acquired. Individual private ownership rights continued to derive from the president just as in colonial times.

“Government programmes to systematically adjudicate rights and register land titles persisted and continued to undermine customary tenure systems. After independence, much of the colonial-era “Crown Land” was categorized as government land. The native reserves became Trust land, but were still governed by statutory trustees—the County Councils and the Commissioner of Lands—rather than directly by traditional institutions,” he writes.

The Kenyatta government also established the Settlement Fund Trustees to facilitate the purchase and distribution of settler farms to landless Kenyans.

The high-density settlements provided some land to landless households, but the schemes were based on a market system and principally benefited Kenyans with the financial means to purchase land, Veit observes.

This, consequently, led to the commercialization of land, inequality, corruption and the continued dispossession of those who were displaced by the colonial government. This is because those who had customarily owned the land did not have access to the necessary capital, or were rightfully against the idea of buying land they had owned.

And those who bought such land—in the Rift Valley for instance —were viewed as foreigners. These were the landless Kikuyu, Luhya, Kamba and Kalenjin who sought settlement in the under-utilised areas in the Rift Valley, the Eastern region and at the Coast.

This was the beginning of displacement under the Jomo Kenyatta regime.

It is important to note here that during the negotiations for Kenya’s independence, Kenyatta accepted the colonialists’ demands that the White settlers remain on their farms if they wished to and that land be transferred only on the basis of “willing buyer, willing seller”.

After independence, land acquisition was largely through four methods: “willing buyer, willing seller”, settlement schemes, shirika schemes (cooperative or collective farms) and land buying companies.

Settlers who remain in Laikipia still own large tracts of land of this alienated land.

These methods, Hornsby says, favoured the Kikuyu because they were richer, had easier access to loans and had more leaders in the high echelons of government. They settled primarily in Nakuru and Uasin Gishu.

Mwalimu Mati of Mars Group, one of Kenya’s leading anti-corruption and fiscal transparency watchdogs, told The Guardian that the root cause of Kenya’s land crisis is that the land was not bought by the people who lost it but by the Kikuyu elite of the time.

“That was the situation in Central Province where the Kikuyu came from. Kenyatta then settled the poor landless Kikuyu in the Rift Valley on land that had belonged to the Kalenjin,” Mati said in February 2008 at the height of the post-election violence, which was largely blamed on land grievances.

Kenyatta allowed politicians and civil servants to buy farms in Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia from the Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC) which acquired and continued to buy farms from the settlers, further contributing to inequalities in land ownership. The Ndung’u Land Report lists the ADC lands that were allocated illegally on pages 134-135.

The wealthy Gema elite, most of them in the Kenyatta government, continued to acquire the good and fertile land, triggering protests from locals, particularly the Kipsigis. Kipsigis MP Moses arap Keino is on record saying in 1973 that the Ministry of Lands and Settlement had become the Ministry of Settling the Rich. The Minister of Lands and Settlement between 1963 and 1979 was Jackson Angaine from Meru.

Kenyatta, too, bought large tracks of land.

“Kenyatta himself illegally acquired large tracts of settlement land. By 1989, “incomers” comprised 35% of the Rift Valley population. Other ethnic groups were outraged, a source of long-term ethnic animosities,” Veit writes.

The Guardian 2008 article reported,

The extended Kenyatta family alone owns an estimated 500,000 acres (2,000 sq. km). That represents a large chunk of the 28m acres (113,000 sq. km) of arable land in Kenya. The remaining 80% of the country is mostly semi-arid and arid land. The Kenya Land Alliance says more than half the arable land in the country is in the hands of only 20% of the population. Two-thirds of the people own, on average, less than an acre per person. There are 13% who own no land at all.

What were the implications?

More and more Kenyans were rendered landless and became squatters. Those who were economically able joined hands to buy their own land back from British settlers through the aforementioned means. Settlements became popular in the Rift Valley, the Coast region and Central Kenya.

In their Promised Land: Settlement Schemes in Kenya, 1962 to 2016, Catherine Boone, Fibian Lukalo and Sandra F. Joireman identify 73 schemes in the former Coast Province, 32 in Eastern Province, and 13 in Nakuru in Rift Valley Province.

They include Cherangani, Kabisi, Lugari, Kipkaren, Ndalal, Elgeyo Border, Lesos and Keben, Ainabkoi East, West and North, Kibigori, Muhoroni and Tamu, East Sotik, Sabatia, Kilombe, Ol Kalou, Wanjohi, Malewa and Kipipiri areas, South Kinangop and Njabini, Eburu, Mweiga/Amboni, Naro Moru and Warazo, Island Farms, Maragwa Ridge, Sigona Estates and Machakos (Mua Hills, Koma Rock and Lukenya).

Peasant farmers also saved and pooled resources together to buy shares in companies that bought land from settlers. Among them was Ngwataniro-Mutukanion Land Buying Company led by former Nakuru MP Kihika Kimani.

Coast region

Land as a historical injustice at the Coast is always an issue on the Kenyan presidential campaign trail during elections.

The land in the region was first grabbed by the Arabs, later by the British and by powerful individuals in post-independence governments, particularly that of Kenyatta.

“In 1970s, to help move ownership of these [beach] plots to Africans, Kenyatta issued a presidential edict that barred the sale of all beach plots without his permission. The result was to move control of these assets entirely into presidential favour, a process administered by Coast PC [Provincial Commissioner] Eliud Mahihu who could decide who could and could not buy coastal plots,” writes Hornsby.

The beach plots were taken over by top government officials, including Kenyatta, further dispossessing the inhabitants.

Quoting the Sunday Times, Hornsby says Mama Ngina bought land at the Coast to build two hotels, while Kenyatta built Leopard Beach Hotel, “which was registered in a Swiss company’s name”. In 1972, it was revealed that the Mombasa County Council had waived all rates on companies and properties owned by the Kenyatta family. 

PC Mahihu owed the Bahari Beach Hotel, while Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner Isaiah Mathenge owned The Coral Beach Hotel.

“The extended Kenyatta family alone owns an estimated 500,000 acres (2,000 sq. km). That represents a large chunk of the 28m acres (113,000 sq. km) of arable land in Kenya.”

Kenyatta also acquired large sisal farms in Taveta in 1972 jointly with the Greek Criticos family, pushing more inhabitants to become squatters.

In 2016, the Kenyatta family “voluntarily gave out” 2,000 acres of “its land” to squatters in Taita Taveta (essentially returning or relinquishing land to the original owners).

Reacting to the move, Raila Odinga—then Opposition leader and now President Uhuru Kenyatta’s ally—said the president should issue more than 2,000 acres.

According to Fr Gabriel Dolan, a human rights activist, hundreds of families were evicted from Gicheha farm in 2018 —land believed to be the property of the Kenyatta family—and resettled on adjacent land popularly known as Sir Ramson land. This became the Ziwani Settlement Scheme in Taveta Sub-county.

There is also the unpopular Lake Kenyatta Settlement Scheme formed in 1973 in the Coast region.

By 1979, Lamu District – now Lamu County – had an 80 per cent population increase, among them nearly 10,000 Kikuyu (including ex-Mau Mau veterans), says Hornsby. The indigenous Bajuni ended up becoming the minority as the Kikuyu became more influential economically and politically.

In a brief for the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, David M. Anderson notes that this caused tension between the immigrants and the indigenous local community during the 2013 elections.

“Candidates representing the outsiders at Mpeketoni did well, supported by a well-financed campaign. Local Bajuni feared that their interest might be sacrificed to the entrepreneurial skills of these outsiders,” Anderson writes in Why Mpeketoni Matters: al-Shabaab and violence in Kenya.

A year later, in June 2014, came the Mpeketoni attack in which at least 60 people, mostly men, were massacred by al-Shabaab militants.

The Ministry of Lands and Settlement had become the Ministry of Settling the Rich.

Anderson writes, “Mpeketoni was a legitimate target. The victims were not Muslim, and none were local Bajuni people: those killed were Kikuyu from the far-distant highlands of central Kenya, members of families that had come to Mpeketoni in the early 1970s, taking up land on a government settlement scheme. Mostly Christian, they were in every respect “outsiders” in this coastal district.”

It was not the first spate of violence in the area. In the run-up to the 1997 elections, violence erupted at the Coast, killing over 100 people and displacing over 100,000, mostly pro-opposition up-country people. At the time, the Kikuyu were in the opposition.

Incidents of violence sparked by the land issue are arguably a consequence of these inequalities, grabbing and disenfranchisement. And while the violence that followed in the wake of the 2007 election is widely viewed as the worst, the 1992 land clashes were in reality far worse.

In those clashes that took place between late 1991 and December 1992, at the height of the general election, some 5,000 people were killed and another 75,000 displaced in the Rift Valley Province, with the Molo area being the epicentre of the violence.

According to the Kenya Human Rights Commission, between 1991 and 1996, over 15,000 people died and almost 300,000 were displaced in the Rift Valley, Nyanza and Western Provinces by politically instigated violence.

The clashes were largely between the Kalenjin and the Kikuyu, with land ownership cited as one of the key triggers.

Commissions of Inquiry

After he came to power in 2002, President Mwai Kibaki, who won the election on an anti-corruption platform, formed the [Paul] Ndung’u Land Commission, a Commission of Inquiry into the Illegal/Irregular Allocation of Public Land, in June 2003.

In its report, the Ndung’u Land Commission found that President Kenyatta and his successor, Daniel arap Moi, who had been his Vice-President, abused their presidential powers by grabbing land and that there had been “unbridled plunder”.

The 20-member commission found that in many instances, presidents Kenyatta and Moi made land grants to individuals without any consideration of the public interest, for political reasons, and without proper pursuit of legal procedures, whilst there was also extensive illegal allocation of alienated land. An accusing finger was also pointed at Commissioners of Land for various illegalities.

Among other recommendations, the commission directed that all illegal allocations of public utility land be nullified, and that such lands be repossessed and restored to the purpose for which they were intended and the culprits be prosecuted.

The report is yet to be implemented.

The report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) also found that the colonial administration used irregular and/or illegal methods to acquire land from the Kenyan inhabitants.

It was revealed that the Mombasa County Council had waived all rates on companies and properties owned by the Kenyatta family.

The report also found that top officials in the post-independence government of President Kenyatta turned the settlement schemes into cartels for their own benefit.

The report said the officials bought land in the Rift Valley, and in other parts of the so-called White Highlands, and in the process swindled communities that were supposed to benefit from the settlement schemes after having been displaced by the British.

It also identified the “willing buyer, willing seller” policy as one that exacerbated the problem.

The TJRC found that there is a close link between land injustices and ethnic violence in Kenya, and that the failure by successive governments to address landlessness has caused individuals and communities to turn to violence. Landlessness has in previous cases, such as in 1992 and 2007, been used as a political tool, causing further displacements.

The TJRC report was published in May 2013 and tabled in the National Assembly in July 2013 but there has not been any substantive progress, mainly because of lack of political will and also because those identified as responsible for the injustices are politicians occupying top government positions.

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Eliud Kibii is a sub-editor with The Star newspaper and writes on international relations, security and electoral processes.


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.



Photo via the African National Congress on X.
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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.

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

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Coffee Act 2023: Government Grip Over Sector a Perilous Policy Decision

The government has not the resources necessary to revive the ailing coffee sector. The proposed Coffee Act 2023 should make room for the private sector as it has both the capacity and the experience to play a significant role in the revival of the moribund sector.



Coffee Act 2023: Government Grip Over Sector a Perilous Policy Decision
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The proposed Coffee Act 2023 has serious limitations and the reforms it recommends may fail to halt the rapid decline of a crucial sector that is in dire need of an urgent rescue agenda to restore it to its former glory.

The Bill currently before parliament does not sufficiently address the question of how it will tackle the twin challenges facing the coffee sector – an opaque marketing system that has over the years been accused of defrauding smallholder farmers who largely sell their coffee beans through the Nairobi Coffee Exchange (NCE) auction, and decline in production and productivity as farmers struggle to buy costly farm inputs in the face of dwindling returns, or abandon coffee farming altogether to pursue more lucrative ventures.

Strangely, the proposed Bill – first mooted by the previous regime of President Uhuru Kenyatta – is also seeking to isolate coffee from a legal regime that has been governing the production, processing and marketing of scheduled commercial crops since 2013. The Crop Act was enacted in 2013 after agriculture was devolved under the 2010 constitution to enable the consolidation or repeal of various statutes related to specific crops and create the conditions necessary for the development of these crops.

Also enacted in 2013, the Agriculture and Food Authority Act that created the Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) defines the authority’s regulatory and operational functions in implementing the Crop Act 2013 and makes provisions for the respective roles of the national and county governments in crop production, processing and marketing. The new AFA Act collapsed several institutions into AFA directorates and repealed the statutes that had created them. The major casualties of the laws that were repealed included the Coffee Act of 2001 that had been revised in 2012, the Sugar Act of 2001, the Tea Act (Cap 343) and the Cotton Act, among 13 other Acts.

Although the other crops have also failed to achieve the results envisaged by the Crop Act 2013 for various reasons, coffee has been of particular interest both politically and economically at the national government level and at the level of the county governments in regions that produce it, especially Mt. Kenya, a vote-rich region whose voting pattern could easily be swayed by the prevailing economic situation during an election period. Despite the numerous challenges facing the coffee sector, thousands of smallholder farmers still hold on to the crop, optimistic that every successive government will turn it around.

Production has declined significantly over the years and a crop that once yielded over 130,000 tons annually in the late ‘80s, earning smallholder farmers huge fortunes, only managed a paltry 34,512 tons of clean coffee in 2021 and just over 53,000 tons last year. The poor farm gate prices that accrue to those farmers – largely smallholder ones – auctioning coffee through cooperatives at the NCE have provoked debate among politicians, farmers and other affected industry actors. There have been claims of cartel-like dealings along the marketing value chain, with corrupt government officials looking the other way as dealers at the auction profit from dubious deals unchallenged, making the sector reforms a Herculean task for any establishment.

One of the leading problems associated with these unfair practices is the role of the marketing agents, who are accused of colluding with the millers and buyers to manipulate prices to the disadvantage of smallholder farmers. They are appointed by officials of cooperative societies to look after smallholder farmers’ interests at the auction, where 25,126 of the 34,512 tons of coffee produced in 2021 were sold. The election of cooperative officials is itself marred with malpractices and a lot of external interference.

Before the current Bill was drafted, there was an attempt by Moses Kuria, the then Gatundu Member of Parliament, to change the Crop Act in 2019 to allow only the export of processed coffee. According to Kuria, by disallowing the export of raw coffee from the country, the proposed amendment would ensure a favourable balance of trade and payment.

“Clause 2 of the Bill seeks to amend section 40 of the Crop Act 2013 to compel the Cabinet Secretary in consultations with the AFA and County Governments while making regulations, to ensure the coffee is exported only in processed form having been roasted, milled, parked and branded and clearly labelled ’a made in Kenya’ inscription,” Kuria’s memorandum read.

However, the proposed Bill now before parliament deviates from this intention. It instead allows only roasters and small businesses to buy coffee from the NCE for processing to promote local consumption. The Bill does not address the main challenge facing coffee marketing. It does not insulate farmers from the unfair practices that industry stakeholders have raised in the past. A buyer, a roaster, a grower miller, or a broker appointed by the grower will continue to be allowed to trade at the Exchange where the coffee will continue to be sold in its raw form.

Sceptics argue that without dismantling the cartels running the coffee sector, which requires the political goodwill that has been lacking, the ongoing reform efforts in the coffee sector will fail. Addressing a coffee reform forum convened in Meru recently by Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, Embu Governor Cecily Mbarire named three companies that she claimed control Kenya’s coffee marketing. She accused the three companies of buying coffee at the Exchange through different company subsidiaries whose directors work closely to manipulate prices in collusion with corrupt government officials. Agriculture CS Mithika Linturi’s threat to revoke the licences of all those involved in the corrupt practices within a week came to nothing.

The problem starts with how the marketing agents are appointed. This is done by the officials of cooperative societies who are elected periodically by members. The elections have in the past been cited as citadels of corruption that have been infiltrated by actors in the coffee value chain who influence the choice of officials to maintain the status quo.

In 2021, former Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya, who led the first phase of the coffee reforms, spoke about mismanagement in the coffee sector cooperative societies, saying that farmers lose their earnings through a flawed management of the chain of production and marketing. The proposed Bill recommends democratising the process of selecting millers and marketing agents by farmers through the holding of factory meetings where several bidders pitch their services. However, this process will require strong goodwill and is not fully insulated from manipulation by well-coordinated cartels.

Agriculture CS Mithika Linturi’s threat to revoke the licences of all those involved in the corrupt practices within a week came to nothing.

If the Bill does not address the need for the cooperatives to have independent marketing agents at the auction who will serve the farmers’ interests and not those of buyers and millers, the fortunes of the farmers will remain unchanged. The success of the proposal that millers make all the necessary disclosures to enable farmers to arrive at an informed decision – disclosure on milling costs, handling and storage charges and other fees and milling losses that the Bill caps at US$40 per ton – will depend on who serves as the marketing agents, how they will be appointed and their inclinations. Although the Bill requires a commercial miller to ensure that the grower or grower’s representative is given reasonable notice to be present during the milling, this will not enhance accountability if the process of appointing the marketing agents is not transparent from the outset.

Direct sales will not offer any reprieve since the Bill requires the prices to be favourable to those at the NCE. The Bill also requires that a commercial miller or a broker appointed in consultation with a commercial miller prepare a sales catalogue for all coffee in licensed warehouses in consultation with the Exchange and the growers. Cases where marketing agents have downgraded coffee to depress prices and offered reserve prices that are too high – and that can easily be leaked in a cartel-like marketing regime, making the coffee unsalable at the first auction and resulting in the downward scaling of prices at subsequent auctions – have in the past been cited as some of the ways by which farmers are exploited.

However, other provisions address administrative issues such as settling the proceeds of the auction in a direct system operated by the Capital Markets Authority (CMA), thus prohibiting a broker or an agent appointed by a grower and other service providers from receiving the proceeds on behalf of the growers and holding them for other commercial activities not related to the coffee sector. Currently, marketing agents trade with farmers’ money through forex conversion, fixed deposit earnings and by making loan advances to unsuspecting farmers at prohibitive interest rates with the connivance of the societies.

A past report of a task force led by Prof. Joseph Kieyah, Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on the Coffee Sub-sector, recommended prompt payment to farmers for coffee delivered to coffee mills, the opening up of the Exchange for farmers to directly trade at the auction, and the creation of a coffee production subsidy. The report also called for reforms in the coffee cooperatives to strengthen them and to enable farmers to hold them to account, and proposed such measures as capping administrative expenses at 15 per cent and penalties for entities that fail to comply with the law.

The industry now seeks a multi-pronged approach to be included in the proposed reforms, which includes the processing and promotion of specialty coffee from Kenya to global markets as is the case in Ethiopia, which has won trademarks for three of its specialty coffees. Coffee is Ethiopia’s main export commodity, contributing to the livelihoods of more than 15 million smallholder farmers and other actors in the sector.

According to the Ethiopia Coffee and Tea Authority (ECTA) report, Ethiopia’s six-month coffee export revenue grew by US$274 million in the first half of the 2021/22 fiscal year. The country also has an impressive local consumption of coffee, with an estimated 42 per cent of the coffee produced going to the domestic market, of which around 5 per cent is smuggled in cross-border trade and traded on the black market. The rest is traded and exported through the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX), which sells around 80 to 85 per cent of the exported coffee.

The price of coffee in Ethiopia has continued to rise. The ECTA introduced “Vertical Integration” into the sector, a scheme that was approved in 2021. The new regulation allows exporters to bypass the ECX and buy coffee directly from aggregators or small washing stations.

With the liberalisation of the coffee market, farmers can decide where to deliver their berries based on the price offered. Moreover, demand has continued to rise and local cooperatives such as washing stations are benefiting from higher competition among buyers.

On 28 January 2020, in collaboration with the National Bank of Ethiopia, the ECTA issued a directive called the “Export Coffee Contract Administration” that fixes a minimum coffee export price based on the global weighted average price attributed to the different grades of coffee from various regions. Exporters submit their contracts to the NBE at the end of each day. They are submitted to another team that compares the prices with international and local coffee prices and uses an average weighted method to calculate a new minimum price upon which coffee exporters base their contract prices the following day.

With the liberalization of the coffee market, farmers can decide where to deliver their berries based on the price offered.

The Bill currently before the Kenyan parliament has introduced a very strong regulatory regime at both the county and the national level. It has failed to allocate any significant roles to the private sector in reviving the sector in areas such as production. Industry stakeholders cite resource constraints facing both the county and national governments and the underfunding of the agriculture sector as issues of major concern. Coffee dealers argue that the correct prescriptive policy would have been for the government to create a conducive environment to allow the private sector players room to grow the sector.

Two agricultural sectors stand as an example of why the immense and ambitious roles that the Bill allocates to both the national and county governments at the expense of the private sector could be a dangerous policy decision.

Let us start with the cashew nuts sector. Despite policy deficiency, the sector showed promising signs when local private processors (through Kenya Nuts Processors Association – NutPAK – which had pushed hard for a ban of raw nut exports) teamed up with growers’ associations, researchers at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI; now renamed Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation – KALRO), and the coast provincial administration to revitalise the cashew nut sector. This was after President William Ruto, then Agriculture Minister, banned the export of raw nuts in 2009 following a report by a task force that had collected views from industry stakeholders and recommended such a move to enable processors who have created more capacity to obtain enough raw materials.

The revitalisation team agreed, as a first measure, on a minimum farm gate price every harvest season, the establishment of collection centres to rid the industry of middlemen, and increased production and productivity by replacing ageing and unproductive trees with high-yielding, fast-maturing varieties to be developed by KARI and supplied through nurseries managed by farmers.

The efforts kicked off well in the two years preceding devolution. However, when the agriculture function was devolved and the provincial administration – which was championing the revival efforts – was restructured, the initiative failed to transition into the new governance order. While the county governments in the cashew-growing regions have spoken about the importance of the cashew sector over the years since devolution, they have failed to develop policies and plans for the revival of the sector and have allocated very few resources to agriculture and to the cashew nut sector in particular, leading to a significant drop in production.

Coffee dealers argue that the correct prescriptive policy would have been for the government to create a conducive environment to allow the private sector players room to grow the sector.

Although drought was blamed for the decline in production in 2021, in reality, the cashew nut sector has been in free-fall since 2013. The 2022 AFA Year Book of Statistics reports that production in the coast region during the year under review decreased from 12,668 tons in 2020 to 9,121 tons in 2021.

Once a top earner for the coast region, the value of the cashew nut produced decreased from KSh587.25 million in 2020 to KSh457.4 million in 2021, with less than 20 per cent of the processed crop destined for export. The rest was processed through cottage industries and consumed locally, a strange turn of events for a crop whose harvest could attain over 40,000 metric tons in its heyday. The low volumes have kept the big players out of the scene, with the newly created processing plants struggling to obtain the raw material to keep their production lines running.

The other crop that illustrates the danger presented by the proposed increased control over the coffee value chain is macadamia, which is, coincidentally, largely produced in the Mt. Kenya region where coffee is also popular. Although a Bill to regulate the nut sector has been tabled at the national level, the sector has grown in the last decade largely due to the immense support of a competing private sector seeking to increase production to utilise their installed capacity. However, since 2021, several factors have conspired to threaten it: the emergence of more macadamia-producing countries in the world including China, and a decline in the quality of nuts harvested due to poor and uncontrolled harvesting techniques, a regulatory issue that can only be tackled by both the county and national governments.

Despite the significant growth of the sector, the county governments in macadamia-growing regions have failed to consolidate the gains of the previous decade. Today, farmers receive not more than KSh30 per kilo of nuts at the farm gate, down from the KSh200 they received in the pre-COVID-19 period. The sector now faces collapse due to the emergence of other competing cash crops.

The proposed Coffee Bill 2023 seeks to revive and restructure the defunct CBK but fails to assign production and marketing roles to traders despite their huge investments; millers, processors, marketing agents and other dealers do not see any goodwill in the revival efforts. According to Pius Ngugi, who has operated Thika Coffee Mill for many years and is one of the biggest indigenous coffee processors in the country, this is likely to affect the proposed reforms to be undertaken by the revived CBK and the county governments.

Although drought was blamed for the decline in production in 2021, in reality, the cashew nut sector has been in free-fall since 2013.

The stated objectives of the 2013 Cash Crop Act that the current Bill appears to reverse were the need to circumvent regulatory bureaucracy in the crop subsectors and remove unnecessary regulations and levies, and the reduction of overlap and duplication of roles to promote the competitiveness of the crops, and more importantly, attract and promote private investment in agricultural crops.

Even at the CBK board level, traders do not have representation. The proposed members include a chairman, the Principal Secretary in charge of trade, the Principal Secretary in charge of cooperatives, two smallholder farmers, two coffee estate farmers, a nominee from the proposed Coffee Research Institute (CRI), one person from an association of farmers and the Chief Executive Officer, who will also double as the Board’s secretary.

The previous Coffee Act, which was repealed when the sector was placed under the AFA as a Coffee Directorate, provided room for the inclusion of players from the private sector and gave the minister in charge of agriculture the opportunity to appoint board members based on their interests and expertise in the coffee industry. The composition of the CBK board would have borrowed a leaf from Oils and Nuts Development Bill 2023, also in parliament, which suggests a similar board with the inclusion of a processor with ten years’ experience to grow nuts the sector.    The proposed CBK board also contrasts with the provisions of the proposed Nuts and Oil Crops Development Bill 2023, which seeks to play a similar role as the CBK that proposes the inclusion of a processor with at least ten years of experience in its board.

The government, through the CBK and the county governments, has a crucial regulatory role to play to protect all the industry stakeholders. This regulatory role should create room to allow various investors in the sector to fill the investment gaps that affect the production, processing and marketing of coffee. For instance, the proposed Bill requires the county governments to offer extension services in the areas of sustainable production, primary processing of coffee and climate-smart agriculture, all of which are resource-intensive activities that it is doubtful they will fund satisfactorily.

The Bill also gives the CRI the responsibility – in collaboration with the county governments – of disseminating coffee production and processing technologies, propagating coffee planting materials, supervising nursery operations, issuing seeds, mapping out areas suitable for coffee production in Kenya, and capacity building, all costly undertakings that the private sector has a proven record of successfully performing. These roles can be played by the private sector with much ease and innovation based on their growing needs and market knowledge.

Despite the significant growth of the sector, the county governments in macadamia-growing regions have failed to consolidate the gains of the previous decade.

A good example of this will suffice to illustrate the point. A KSh240 million cashew nut production revival project has successfully been undertaken in a partnership that includes the European Union and the Visegrád Group of countries (V4) – Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – and Tensenses Ltd, now Grow Fairly. Close to 1 million new high-yielding cashew nut trees have been planted at the coast from a nursery that was created five years ago when the project commenced. The 15,000 farmers registered to grow organic cashew nuts were provided with materials and other support while the coast county governments subsidised the purchase of seedlings from the nursery. Early this year, the company opened a new factory that will process 2,400 tons of cashew nuts per year once the new crop is fully established.

Under the repealed Coffee Act, commercial millers could give farmers credit in the form of money and farm inputs to be recovered from the proceeds of coffee sales. The proposed Bill has thrown this out of the window and barred millers and marketing agents from providing loans or advances to coffee farmers at an interest. This, according to the thinking of the drafters of the Bill, will encourage the farmers to access berry advances at a rate of 3 per cent.

In effect, in October 2023 the government approved a KSh4 billion advance for coffee farmers that is expected to boost their earnings. However, agriculture ministers from coffee-growing counties have decried the low uptake of the KSh3 billion berry advance that the previous government had provided over the previous four years.

In December last year, Kiplimo Lagat, the Nandi County Executive Committee (CEC) member in charge of Agriculture and Co-operative Development argued that, from its inception, the fund was poorly crafted and thus failed to attract farmers who were wary of its unclear objectives and fearful of its outcomes.

“There is a need for the government to rethink the concept under which the fund was established to make it more attractive to the farmers. Perhaps the fund is suffering from structural challenges thus scaring away farmers,” he said.

The fund was established in early 2019 to help coffee farmers across the country resolve the problem of delays in the coffee payment cycle. According to the top management of New Kenya Planters Cooperative, by December last year, only KSh401 million had been advanced to farmers in the coffee-growing counties since the inception of the fund. James Wachihi, Nyeri CEC member in charge of agriculture, could see no clear reasons for the low uptake of the fund.

According to Ngugi of Thika Coffee Mills, the government should confine itself to ensuring a conducive environment for increased production and promote marketing. The private sector has enough resources, he observed, adding that the government should encourage millers and other industry stakeholders to get involved in increasing coffee production through estates or by contracting farmers and providing them with farm inputs and other services via the cooperative societies to which they belong.

The existing environment does not leave room for such an arrangement since there is no guarantee of securing the raw material from the farmers once the support has been provided. Production has been in decline due to lack of resources and high poverty levels among the smallholder farmers, the high costs of farm inputs, and the lack of a supportive framework that would include the provision of extension services.

Under the repealed Coffee Act, commercial millers could give farmers credit in the form of money and farm inputs to be recovered from the proceeds of coffee sales.

Farmers have also divested from coffee to go into other lucrative ventures. Coffee is now grown in 33 counties, the major coffee-growing counties being Kiambu, Kirinyaga, Nyeri, Murang’a, Kericho and Bungoma. In 2020/21, the coffee sub-sector recorded a 6.4 per cent decline in production, down from 36,873 tons to 34,512 tons of clean coffee – particularly in the high-production counties. Kiambu, the biggest coffee-producing county, saw estate farms record a decline in acreage from 12,627 hectares in 2019 to 10,520 in 2021, with cooperatives recording a drop from 11,724 hectares to 8,585 hectares during the same period, according to AFA numbers. In much of the land lost, coffee ceded ground to real estate.

The KSh4 billion fund may have political connotations. It comes at a time when the sector is undergoing political turmoil, with the current efforts by Deputy President Gachagua, who is spearheading reforms in the sector, receiving divided views from various actors. The fund was created after President Ruto offered the six government-owned sugar millers in western Kenya a KSh117 billion lifeline. Mathioya Member of Parliament Edwin Mugo and Kiambu Women Representative Gathoni Wamuchomba decried the move publicly.

Buyers and traders have also kept away from the Exchange due to the confusion reigning in the licensing regime. In August this year, auctions dropped by over 95 per cent, reaching only 192 tons compared to over 4300 tons in the same month last year.

A significant amount of political goodwill is needed to revive the coffee sector. The county governments, which will implement national government policy on agriculture as prescribed in the constitution, must create synergies and integrate all stakeholders in implementing multi-pronged measures in order to put back cash into the farmers’ pockets. Given the resource constraints at both the national and county government levels, the focus should be on creating a conducive environment for the private sector to drive the ongoing efforts to revive the coffee sector.

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South Africa: Entrenched Divisions over Gaza-Israel Conflict

While the two main political parties tiptoe around the Gaza-Israel conflict, smaller parties and religious groups are taking hard positions and the general population’s views are split along racial lines.



The Nakba, Israeli Apartheid and the Question of Palestine
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South Africa’s two main political parties recently took to parliament to set out their official positions on Gaza-Israel conflict and, bar differences in tone and delivery, they seem, on the face of it, to be on the same page, broadly speaking.

On behalf of the ANC, International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor said her party believes Israel has a right to exist as a state alongside a state of Palestine and that this has been the long-standing view of the ANC.

The International Relations and Cooperation spokesperson for the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) said the DA stood in solidarity with both Palestinians and Israelis who seek a two-state solution and rejects any sentiment that seeks to annihilate either Israel or Palestine.

That said, DA leader John Steenhuisen, who infamously travelled to Ukraine in May 2022 on what he called a “fact-finding mission” and returned pledging South Africa’s support for that country and vowing that he would not stop putting pressure on the ANC government to change its stance on its conflict with Russia, recently fired a member of the shadow cabinet for tweeting in support of the Palestinians.

Steenhuisen dropped his erstwhile Public Enterprises shadow spokesperson Ghalib Cachalia over a statement on X that read, “I will not be silenced. Israel is committing Genocide. Full BLOODY stop.”

Cachalia, who is the son of anti-Apartheid activists Amina and Yusuf Cachalia and a relative of a former ANC MP Ismail Mahomed Cachalia, was axed for stepping out of line following a DA national caucus meeting in October at which party members were told that they should abstain from making public statements that could divide or inflame the Gaza-Israel conflict further.

The DA is visibly tiptoeing around the situation in the Middle East and this approach is most certainly linked to next year’s election in which the DA hopes to lead an opposition coalition including parties that are already divided on the Gaza-Israel conflict. Even the normally obstreperous former party leader, now chair of the DA Federal Council, Helen Zille, has opted to stay mum.

More importantly, the DA has a large following in the Western Cape, the only opposition-controlled province of the nine provinces that make up South Africa. The Western Cape is the only one of South Africa’s nine provinces that is controlled by the main opposition DA, which has its roots in the white parliamentary opposition to the apartheid-era National Party before democracy in 1994.

The party is seen as being mainly white and middle class, with members drawn from all races, but in the demographically unique Western Cape, coloured voters form the majority and, since the 2009 election at least, the DA’s main support.

The Western Cape also happens to have a large and influential Muslim population and it would not do their electoral chances any good to upset that constituency so close to such a crucial election.

Cape Town’s Muslim population is South Africa’s largest, and it has a long history, being there for as long as the city has existed. The city’s core Muslim population is made up of people who can trace their roots to south-east Asia, and a racial group known as the Cape Malays, who were originally brought to South Africa from Dutch colonies in Malaysia and Indonesia as enslaved labourers. The Cape Malay community in turn forms part of the coloured community in Cape Town and the province.

Other members of the Cape’s Muslim community include individuals of Indian or Pakistani descent, a large number of Somali nationals and refugees from African and Asian countries.

However, away from mainstream politicians and politics, South Africans seem split along the usual racial lines, with many white South Africans supporting Israel and blacks supporting Palestinians

Smaller parliamentary parties have also taken position, including the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) who said they were taking Palestine’s side in the issue. During the parliamentary debate, EFF MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi said his party stood with the oppressed and condemned Israel as a “murderous apartheid regime engaged in the systematic extermination of Palestinians”.

The right-wing Freedom Front Plus (FF Plus) party, which was founded in 1994 by members of the white settler Afrikaner community but which now has significant support among the Western Cape’s Coloured community, took the opposite stance.

FF Plus MP and chief International Relations spokesperson Corné Mulder has taken issue with what he calls “the ANC government’s open anti-Israel sentiments” and said the FF Plus emphasised its support for the state of Israel and recognised Israel’s right to defend itself and its citizens with all means at its disposal.

The divisions highlighted by political parties can also be seen in South Africa’s civil society where there are even splits in the Jewish community.

The South African Jewish community traces its origins to the early decades of the 19th century, when small numbers of Jewish immigrants, mainly from the United Kingdom and Germany, began settling in what are today South Africa’s Western Cape and Eastern Cape provinces.

The divisions highlighted by political parties can also be seen in South Africa’s civil society where there are even splits in the Jewish community.

According to the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the umbrella representative spokesbody and civil rights lobby of the South African Jewish community, the country’s Jewish population reached a peak of 118,200 in 1970. Thereafter, mainly as a result of political unrest, the community began decreasing, and today it numbers around 75,000 people.

South African Jewry remains by far the largest Jewish community on the African continent. Most Jews today live in Johannesburg and Cape Town. South African Jews are overwhelmingly affiliated to Orthodox congregations, comprising some 88 per cent of the total, while the Progressive movement accounts for most of the remaining affiliated Jews, with a small Conservative congregation in Johannesburg.

So you have organisations such as the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF), the umbrella body of all Zionist and pro-Israel organisations in South Africa, which has mounted an aggressive campaign to shore up support outside the community amongst journalists and other opinion shapers.

At the same time, there are groups such as South African Jews for a Free Palestine (SAJFP) who have been calling out the Israeli government and urging an immediate ceasefire and decolonisation.

South African Jewry remains by far the largest Jewish community on the African continent.

In a recent statement, the SAJFP said the Israeli government had escalated a fundamentally immoral and criminal offensive against the population of Gaza, that there was no justification for Israel’s atrocities in Gaza, and that what is going on there was nothing less than collective punishment, ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Meanwhile, when the South African government recalled its ambassador to Israel this week, SAZF national chairperson Rowan Polovin described the action as the ANC government withdrawing unilaterally from brokering peace in the Middle East, choosing to side with Hamas militants responsible for abducting South African hostages.

The situation has also awoken voices from South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle such as Dr Allan Boesak who at the start of November questioned the country’s co-hosting of the recent United States of America’s African Growth and Opportunity Forum for 2023.

Boesak said co-hosting the meeting would mean playing host to representatives of US President Joe Biden amid the intensifying genocidal war on the people of Gaza and on all Palestinians. He pointed out that it was an incomprehensible situation that raised fundamental questions for South Africans who profess a “special relationship” with the Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom, dignity, and the right to return of the land, and to the land.

Another of the issues Boesak raised was the fact that South Africa retains diplomatic ties with Israel despite the ANC’s stance on the general Palestinian question and the Gaza issue in particular.

Back in June this year a story unfolded that would foreshadow some of the divisions in South African politics and society on the Israeli Palestinian issue.

The way the incident unfolded, and the positions of political parties and civil society, including religious groups, was almost like a dry run for how various political parties, religious groups and civil society would position themselves following the October 7 events and their aftermath in Gaza and Israel.

It emerged that around a fifth of school leavers from Herzlia High School, a Jewish community school in Cape Town, go to Israel in the year after their final exams to join the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).

The story of the Herzlia High School students joining the IDF was brought into the public domain by Khalid Sayed, a Muslim ANC Member of the Provincial Legislature (MPL) and that party’s provincial education spokesperson. The story surfaced following the broadcast of an interview at the end of May with ILTV Israel News, an Israeli TV news channel, during which the authorities at the school disclosed that a number of their students had joined the IDF.

In the legislature Sayed posed a question to the province’s education MEC (equivalent of a provincial minister) David Maynier in which he wanted to know whether learners at Herzlia High School underwent some form of indoctrination to ensure their support and loyalty to the Israeli regime.

A fifth of school leavers from Herzlia High School, a Jewish community school in Cape Town, go to Israel in the year after their final exams to join the Israel Defence Forces.

Sayed argued that an educational institution meant to foster critical thinking, empathy, and a commitment to justice, was instead being associated with support for Israel’s regime and military which is involved in inflicting injustice on the Palestinian people. He said that by maintaining ties with Israel, the school had become complicit in the occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people.

In response, Maynier claimed Sayed had asked the question to deflect attention from the South African government’s entanglements with Russia, and made an issue of the fact that just a short while before, Sayed had posted pictures of himself on social media posing with the Russian Consul General in Cape Town.

At this point in the debate in the provincial legislature, EEF’s Aisha Cassiem took up the cudgels and called for Herzlia High School to be deregistered. Cassiem said it was insulting for the DA provincial government to condemn the war in Ukraine but do nothing with regard to this school which she said was clearly aligned to the state of Israel and encouraging learners to partake in apartheid.

Maynier stood firm and said the DA-run provincial government would not deregister Herzlia High School and accused the ANC and the EFF of playing politics. In this he was supported by a DA political ally, the ACDP (African Christian Democratic Party) whose MPL’s contribution to the debate was to point out that the ACDP supports Israel and its “right to defend itself”.

At the same time, ChristianView Network, a vocal Christian lobby group based in the Western Cape, said in a statement at the time that the debate was the climax of “a string of unwarranted Muslim anti-Israel verbal attacks harassing and threatening Cape Town Jewish institutions and leaders on the allegation of association with Israel”.

Fast forward to the last few weeks since the flare up between the Hamas-controlled Gaza and Israel and the positions on Israel reflect similar divisions, only even more entrenched.

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