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Coping With the Crises: A Reflection From an African University

13 min read.

Every university is unique and similar to other universities in its own way. This is especially evident in the types of challenges and crises it faces and how it deals with them, which is determined by its institutional contexts, capacities, and culture.



The Possibilities and Perils of Leading an African University
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Every university is unique and similar to other universities in its own way. This is especially evident in the types of challenges and crises it faces and how it deals with them, which is determined by its institutional contexts, capacities, and culture. By the time I joined USIU-Africa as Vice Chancellor in January 2016, I had been in academia for more than forty years in six countries on three continents and the Caribbean region at nearly a dozen universities of different types.

So, I thought I was inured to surprises. As it turned out, I faced both familiar and unfamiliar challenges and crises over the next six years. The routine challenges in universities were of course there. The surprises reflected the larger national and international contexts in which the university operated and revealed our institutional strengths and weaknesses as crises tend to do.

The Sovereignty of Nations

The first major crisis erupted while I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts attending a training seminar on Advancement Leadership for Presidents at Harvard University. It was Saturday, July 8, 2016, when I got a message that land belonging to USIU-Africa had been grabbed by a property developer. I was on the way to lunch with an old friend who had kindly agreed to take me to the airport later that day. In my wildest dreams I would never have imagined that as vice chancellor I would be dealing with land grabbing!

The question of land is central in Kenya’s history, political economy, and social imaginary. The country’s settler colonial capitalism rested on the dispossession of large tracts of fertile lands in central Kenya and coercive mobilization of cheap labor around country. The struggles over land between the British settlers and indigenous people lay at the heart of the nationalist movement that culminated in the liberation war led by the Land Freedom Army in the 1950s.

Also known as the Mau Mau rebellion or uprising, the conflict crystallized and unleashed complex forces and negotiations that shaped the trajectory of Kenya’s decolonization and postcolonial dispensation. I had done my PhD dissertation on Kenya’s colonial economic history from 1895-1963, so I understood the dynamics of land dispossession, squatting, grabbing, and ownership, how land was a source of accumulation and wealth, and a powerful symbol of status, identity, and belonging.

USIU-Africa had purchased the grabbed land in 1990, comprising 30 acres, which was not too far from the main campus, from an insurance company that in turn had bought it from another company that acquired the land in the mid-1980s from the former president of the country, Daniel arap Moi. It was high stakes land politics. Before long, another claimant, a major tycoon, joined the fray.

On the long flight from Boston to Nairobi, I was concerned about how this tragic saga would pan out. Immediately after my return the management team and I made some crucial decisions. We visited the two nearest police stations and began planning a peaceful demonstration against the land grabbers to raise public awareness. There was overwhelming support rom the university community.

The march took place on July 13. The chancellor, then in his late eighties, and I together with the management team led the six kilometer demonstration on Thika Superhighway, one of the city’s major thoroughfares, from the campus to the Muthaiga police station to deliver a petition. We deployed marshals to ensure there were no outside agitators to cause mayhem, hired a music band to keep spirits high, brought lots of bottled water and an ambulance. We wore headbands, carried placards, and marched under the banner “Our Land Our Future.”

The demonstration was widely hailed as the most peaceful ever conducted by any university in the country. While we were proud of that, we knew the hard work of reclaiming the university’s grabbed land had only begun. Over the next several days and weeks we visited the ministries of lands and education, organized seminars on land grabbing in Kenya with NGOs, and above all, our internal and external legal counsel began to pursue the legal avenues available to secure the university’s interests.

Months turned into years. It soon transpired that the university’s external legal counsel had allegedly been involved in the company that bought the land from the former president, so we had to get new legal counsel, which introduced complications as the former tried to work with some members of the Board of Trustees and University Council behind management’s back. This was my first encounter with counterproductive interference in legal matters by some members of the governing bodies. Others were to come.

The court case moved at a snail’s pace. No legal resolution had been reached by the time I left more than five years later. In the meantime, we fenced the adjacent ten acres to the grabbed 30 acres that were not disputed, and enhanced security for all of the university’s undeveloped lands on the main campus by constructing perimeter walls.

Security was a paramount institutional consideration because Kenya lives in a dangerous geopolitical neighborhood. The country has suffered several terrorist attacks, the most heinous in recent times include the attacks on the US embassy in 1998 that killed 213 people, the Westgate Mall in 2013 that killed nearly 70 people, in Mpeketoni in Lamu county in June 2014 that killed more than 60 peopleGarissa University in April 2015 that killed almost 150 people mostly students, and on the DusitD2 complex in Nairobi in January 2019 that killed 21 people.

Consequently, campus security was a constant preoccupation for the university leadership. Regardless of where I was at any time of the day or night, I was reachable by our security team. Universities in Kenya are expected to maintain and constantly monitor high levels of security. The name of our university added to our potential vulnerability. In addition to our own campus security team and a contracted security firm, we worked closely with the police, other security agencies, and the immigration department. We conducted periodic security forums and drills for the university community.

In 2019, following instructions from the relevant government ministries we established a biometric system for the entrance to campus. With the outbreak of Covid-19 we introduced an RFID card system. We discovered that daily there were dozens if not hundreds of outsiders without campus affiliation who had been coming on campus to use our facilities including the sports gyms.

Some students protested as these security measures made it impossible for those who had not paid their tuition or taken up deferred payment plans to enter campus. As I noted in another reflection, affordability is a serious problem for many students in Kenyan universities including USIU-Africa. On this matter, the Board and Council unequivocally supported management.

Personally, I was troubled by the emerging surveillance regime, but as vice chancellor I was committed to ensuring utmost security and safety for the university community. However, I declined traveling with armed bodyguard or acquiring a gun as I was advised as xenophobic attacks directed at me escalated. I took pleasure in walking freely on campus and in the neighborhood I lived.

The Politics of Authoritarianism and Anti-intellectualism

As a long-standing academic, public intellectual, and creative writer I relish vigorous debate and abhor anti-intellectualism. As a lifelong activist for democracy and human rights, I detest authoritarianism and the cultures of intolerance, bullying, mobbing, and harassment which are all too rampant on many campuses in Africa and around the world. USIU-Africa was no exception in this regard.

In many contexts, authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism radiate from the top including the governing bodies, which are increasingly comprised of businesspeople and politicians with poor understanding of universities. They seek to impose corporate and partisan modes of governance that flout the core values of academic freedom and shared governance for universities. Aside from the president or vice chancellor, and provost or deputy vice chancellor for academic affairs, management bodies are also increasingly occupied by non-academics who are sometimes indifferent or even hostile to the culture of universities as epistemic communities.

There is now a vast literature on the corporatization and politicization of universities, the imposition of business models and autocratic leadership styles. However, while universities cannot be reduced to businesses, they must exercise prudent business management to survive and thrive. Moreover, universities have never been splendidly isolated from the political dynamics of their societies, nor are they immune from their own internal politics that often reflect and reproduce prevailing and conflicting tendencies and trends in the wider polity.

In many universities, anti-intellectualism manifests itself in a growing disdain for the “argumentative” and “useless” humanities and social sciences, and the valorization of the STEM disciplines and the marketable professional fields.  The devaluation of the liberal arts that prize critical thinking, inquiry, search for truth, humanism, ethics, justice, and the indispensable literacies for interdisciplinary, intercultural, international, information and interpersonal engagement is accompanied by the instrumentalization of knowledges, skills, and outputs.

A Kenyan scholar, Wanjala Nasong’o, laments in The Daily Nation of April 6, 2022 “the rise of anti-intellectualism that intensified in Kenya under Moi, and that has become ubiquitous in the world on account of the rise of right-wing populist nationalism. Its essence is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who represent it; and a disposition to constantly minimize the value of that life. The result of this is the current general disdain towards all forms of intellectual activity and a tendency to denigrate those who engage in it… Anti-intellectualism is identified with religious anti-rationalism, populist anti-elitism, and unreflective instrumentalism… Religious anti-rationalism is the belief in the superiority of faith over reason and the fear that scientific endeavors will lead to the elimination of religion. The growth of religious fundamentalism around the world and the popularity of new-age religions in the face of contemporary life challenges is a testament to this.”

It was not unusual for academic or professional meetings to be opened by Christian payers oblivious to the fact that attendees were multi-religious or even agnostic and atheists. As I noted in a previous reflection, at USIU-Africa I was struck by the lack of a vigorous academic culture outside the classroom. Serious debates in leadership meetings were rare, save for those in management and occasionally the Senate.

Another troubling dimension of institutional cultures in many universities including USIU-Africa is the growth of incivility. In a speech I delivered virtually on May 26, 2021 to the USIU-Africa community and other participants, titled “Higher Education in a Post-Covid-19 World: Challenges and Opportunities for African Universities,” I commented extensively on this problem. I urged the audience to seriously embrace the values of academic freedom, shared governance, diversity, equity and inclusion, respectful internal and external communication, civility and collegiality, the role of universities as generative spaces in the rigorous search for truth, and their social responsibility by eschewing institutional naval gazing for the higher purpose of social impact.

On civility I stated, “The academic bully culture, as Darla Twale and Barbara De Luca call it in their book by that title has grown. Some call it academic mobbing. Incivility and intolerance in universities has several manifestations. At a macro level it reflects the frictions of increasing diversification of university stakeholders, growing external pressures for accountability, and the descent of political discourse into angry populisms. Student and faculty incivility are also fueled by rising sense of entitlement, consumerist attitudes, emotional immaturity, stress, racism, tribalism, sexism, ageism, xenophobia, social media, and other pervasive social and institutional ills that universities must confront and address to foster healthier institutional climate.”

The culture of incivility at USIU-Africa was expressed in contradictory ways. There was exaggerated respect for authority, as evident in the pervasive reference and reverence for titles, undoubtedly a survival tactic from the legacies of national and institutional authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism. There was also fear to confront dysfunctional behavior perpetrated by peers. I would often be approached by faculty, staff, and students who disapproved the attitudes and actions of their leaders and colleagues, saying “we don’t agree with what they are doing.” I would always ask them why they didn’t say so and openly debate their opponents.

In the first few years, I found meetings of the Faculty Council, which I attended upon invitation, quite vigorous, before they descended into sterile monologues by an intellectually insecure and intolerant leadership that would only allow their supporters to speak. Similarly, student politics tended to be constructive, notwithstanding predictable, and understandable protests over tuition increases. Things changed when the government imposed a uniform way of choosing student leaders.

This was prompted by efforts to curtail the power of longstanding popular leaders at some public universities. Instead of direct elections, the new system required all universities to establish an electoral college that would select the student leadership. This introduced increasingly sectarian political mobilization at a private university like ours that had not indulged in such politics before in which the populist factional leaders, who were not necessarily universally popular, could enjoy more power than the selected leaders they sponsored.

One event captured rising anti-intellectualism among some students.  In March 2019, students in the recently established pharmacy degree program sued the university for not changing the grading system to lower pass rates, which other students had rejected! They lost the case with costs. Ironically, the case raised national awareness that the university’s grading standards were high, contrary to colonialist stereotypes about the laxity of private and American-style universities. The following year enrollment in the pharmacy program shot up!

Throughout this saga, the Management Board and University Senate remained firm, confident that the university would prevail to maintain high grading standards. A few disgruntled faculty egged the pharmacy students on. The Council was unnerved and called for an emergency meeting and demanded daily updates. I even had to cut short my vacation to Mozambique where I was visiting my son. The propensity for misguided interventions by the Council worsened during the Covid-19-19 pandemic.

The Wrath of a Pandemic

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020 forced universities around the world to confront unprecedented challenges that simultaneously exposed and exacerbated existing deficiencies and dysfunctions. Six stand out. First, in terms of transitioning from face to face to remote teaching and learning using online platforms. Second, managing severely strained finances. Third, ensuring the physical and mental health of students, faculty, and staff. Fourth, reopening campuses as safely and as effectively as possible. Fifth, planning for a sustainable post-pandemic future. Sixth, contributing to the capacities of government and society in resolving the multiple dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At USIU-Africa management began preparing for the Covid-19 pandemic almost immediately after it erupted. I subscribe to key higher education magazines in the United States, Britain, Canada, such as The Chronicle of Higher EducationTimes Higher EducationUniversity Affairs Canada, that send daily updates, and regularly read other academic media including University World News. By the end of January 2020, it was clear to me the world was facing a major health crisis.

Management activated the university’s business continuity plan that had been created a year before, set up a task force for Covid-19 and mobilized the occupational safety and health administration (OSHA) committee, and the governance bodies. We also began preparing faculty, students and staff through a comprehensive communication strategy using multiple platforms and disseminating information from authoritative sources to curtail misinformation and mitigate panic. A training program for transition to online teaching and learning was launched by the recently established USIU Online. A survey showed 94% of the students had access to smart gadgets.

By the time the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic and the Kenyan government announced closure of all education institutions from March 19, 2020, we were ready. The campus closed on March 17, and the following day we started offering classes online. The Spring and Summer semesters were concluded successfully online, and so was the Fall semester, during which improvements were made based on the experiences of the previous two semesters. This continued for the first two semesters in 2021, while during the third semester we partially reopened the campus. The provision of essential services in ICT, Library, Finance, Admissions, Counseling, and other areas continued online.

The University’s relatively successful online transition can be attributed to four key factors: robust business continuity planning; massive investments in electronic infrastructure in previous years and new investments during the pandemic; remarkable commitment by faculty, students, and staff, facilitated by continuous training; and using experiences to make improvements. We managed the welfare of international students unable to leave immediately by keeping them on campus until end of the 2020 spring semester.

Management and I were committed to managing the pandemic as effectively as possible, as well as actively planning for the future, exploring how to turn the challenges into opportunities. The university became a national leader in Kenya on e-Learning as evident in its partnerships with the Commission for University Education in organizing forums on the subject, CUE’s approval of the first online degree program in the country at USIU-Africa in 2020, and the university’s selection as a lead partner of the Mastercard Foundation for a major e-Learning initiative for some of the foundation’s partner institutions including eleven in Africa.

Personally, I participated in numerous national and international forums on the implications of Covid-19 as chair of the Board of Trustees of the Kenya Education Network, the country’s NREN, member of the Administrative Board of the International Association of Universities, and the Advisory Board of the Alliance for African Partnership, a consortium of about a dozen African universities and Michigan State University, and numerous other forums. I began researching on and writing a series of papers on the implications of Covid-19 for various aspects of higher education in Africa and around the world.

However, we faced challenges. One was ensuring quality of instruction and delivery of essential services. In the first few months, management and OSHA conducted daily reviews. Another centered on connectivity and devices for many of our students and faculty. We engaged the two telcos, Safaricom and Telekom, to provide subsidized subscription Wi-Fi rates. The integrity of the assessment process posed a special challenge. The schools adopted various mitigation measures including open book exams, using projects, online presentations, and prorating existing assessments. In addition, we acquired appropriate technology tools, such as the Responders Lockdown browser and monitoring system.

One of the biggest challenges was financial. The closure of the campus resulted in reduced revenues from auxiliary services and some student fees. Most significantly, for the rest of 2020, student enrollments fell significantly, and as a tuition dependent institution our finances became severely strained. Enrollments dropped because students’ parents or guardians faced job losses and salary reductions. Further, national examinations for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education in 2020 were postponed so there was no new pipeline for the fall 2020 semester.

Management organized numerous meetings in which the Director of Finance and I informed staff and faculty, as well as the governing organs about the dire financial situation we were facing. We invited the Faculty and Staff Councils for detailed briefings. I spent several weeks calling individual staff and faculty members to find out how they were doing, offer support, and solicit their views on how we could catalyze lessons from the pandemic to make the university more resilient and effective in future.

Within months of the outbreak of the pandemic several Council members demanded drastic measures including immediate salary cuts and furloughs. Management preferred a more measured approach to begin in the 2020-2021 budget year to maintain essential operations, morale, and as part of the duty of care to employees. Unconscionably, when there was blowback from a minority of faculty to measures adopted in the 2020-2021 budget, those same Council members tried to distance themselves from the budget over which they enjoyed the sole authority of approval according to the university’s charter and statues.

Prior to and after the approval of the 2020-2021 budget by the Council various consultations and engagements were held with the schools, staff and the faculty council executive committees to brief them on why it was necessary to implement the anticipated austerity measures. This was part of a tradition of wide consultations with stakeholders by management as it drafted the university budget for Council deliberation and approval.

The measures included graduated salary cuts (6%-23), suspension of institutional contributions to pension payments, placing some employees on unpaid leave, and suspension of the Employee Tuition Waiver. We indicated the measures would be reviewed each semester and based on student enrollment adjusted accordingly.

In addition, management developed several mitigation measures, such as strengthening fundraising, external partnerships, student recruitment and retention, and the university’s customer service and support. It is instructive that we secured the $63.2 million dollars for scholarships from the Mastercard Foundation that I mentioned in another reflection during the pandemic, and later huge support from the Foundation’s e-Learning initiative.

Before implementation we asked all employees to sign-off their approval. The majority approved. However, a minority group of opposed faculty applied for a court injunction to stop the implementation of the measures. They argued, against all evidence, that the university had enough resources to navigate the crisis without undertaking any drastic measures. Their blatant dishonesty and shenanigans would have been hilarious if the implications were not so serious.

Management believed it had a firm case to prevail in court. Many employers in Kenya including universities had implemented similar measures, so had much richer universities in the developed countries, as I shared continuously in my presentations to faculty and staff. The court issued a temporary injunction against implementation of the measures and encouraged mediation. After several futile attempts in which the litigants refused to consider any of the cost containment measures, it was clear to management that the court case should proceed in an expedited manner.

However, some members of the Council preferred more negotiations which persisted for the rest of the academic year. The litigants succeeded in running down the clock. Informed advice from management and the external legal counsel to Council hit against a wall of an inexplicable fear of the court process. The university continued to bleed financially. By January 2021 nothing had come out of the negotiations and the university found itself in dire financial straights.

The university was forced to undertake two drastic measures. First, dozens of employees on unpaid leave were furloughed. I found this deeply painful. A suit against the redundancies by the two unions that represented a few dozen staff failed because we had scrupulously followed labor law and institutional policies and procedures. It was the exercise of such due diligence that made management confident of prevailing in the suit lodged by the faculty litigants.

Second, various options were explored to secure temporary revenues to sustain operations including bank loans. In the end, the Board of Trustees, which has fiduciary responsibility over university assets, approved the liquidation of more than a third of the university’s limited endowment. It had never been tapped before waiting for it to grow large enough for the conventional annual endowment spending rate of 4-5% to support institutional priorities such as student aid.

This crisis compromised the university’s financial future. Institutional culture, on which I will say more in another reflection, had eaten prudent management and made a mockery of an otherwise effective pandemic management strategy. It was a case of institutional exceptionalism, entitlement, self-sabotage, and financial illiteracy by a litigious minority run amok. I was deeply saddened.

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Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is a Malawian historian, academic, literary critic, novelist, short-story writer and blogger. He is the Associate Provost and North Star Distinguished Professor at Case Western Reserve University.


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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