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A Power Crisis

8 min read.

Andre De Ruyter, the former CEO of Eskom, has presented himself as a simple hero trying to save South Africa’s struggling power utility against corrupt forces. But this racially charged narrative is ultimately self-serving.



A Power Crisis
Photo: Hennie Stander on Unsplash.
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The South African media has recently been abuzz, yet again, with talk of Andre de Ruyter, the former CEO of embattled power utility Eskom, who, until his recent departure, oversaw the parastatal for three years. Notoriously, Eskom is in what seems to be a state of “permacrisis.” Out-of-date technology, ineffectual maintenance, endemic corruption, and criminal inefficiency have combined to the point that the country is crippled by waves of so-called loadshedding—otherwise known as planned power cuts—designed to forestall total grid collapse.

Amid the national panic and governmental inertia about the failures of Eskom, de Ruyter has emerged as a divisive figure, with some believing he should take responsibility for what happened under his watch and others insisting he was scuppered by shadowy figures within the ruling African National Congress. His newly released tell-all book, Truth to Power: My Three Years at Eskom, has made a series of scathing accusations that have once again pushed him to the top of the news cycle.

But de Ruyter’s attempts at crafting a narrative about his tenure at Eskom began before the book was released. Having announced his resignation in December 2022, and then survived an alleged poisoning attempt, in February this year de Ruyter gave a dramatic exit interview to veteran journalist Annika Larsen on eNCA (South Africa’s most watched 24-hour news channel). The interview is fascinating for what it reveals about how de Ruyter used the interview, and Larsen’s failure to ask critical questions, to influence public opinion and bolster his personal brand. The interview also exhibits a set of assumptions about the morality and competence of white men that remains infuriatingly common in public discourse, where tussles over race and meaning continue. South Africa’s power crisis is also, of course, a crisis of power.

In the best traditions of media spin, de Ruyter uses the interview to “set the record straight,” emphasizing the image that he wants to associate with his name and reputation. Unsurprisingly, he positions himself as the good guy in a bad situation, the one non-rotten apple in the barrel. He uses several metaphors to drive home this message, in language pulled straight from popular TV serials:

  • De Ruyter as doctor, the skilled surgeon trying to operate on the “metastasizing tumor” of corruption, which keeps growing faster than he can cut it out or treat it.
  • De Ruyter as plumber, the knowledgeable artisan trying to fix the leaking taps, to “turn off the spigots” that are pouring public money into private pockets.
  • De Ruyter as honest cop, the lone actor trying to bring down the organized crime network, investigating abuses of power with informants in every corner, “making arrests” and doing a “perp walk.”

His chosen metaphors reveal de Ruyter as a hardworking, admirable, ordinary man. This self-presentation rests also on ideas about the altruistic and honest nature of Afrikaner masculinity: the farmers who just want to feed the nation, the engineers whose only desire is to keep the railways running, understandings of Afrikaans history that ignore the violent exclusions of both farms and trains. Larsen, meanwhile, made a point of reminding viewers that de Ruyter took on the Eskom job out of a sense of public duty, in keeping with his self-branding as trustworthy and straightforward.

Here, de Ruyter is doing a kind of universe-jumping, offering us images of himself in multiple parallel vocations and life positions. But de Ruyter the plumber, de Ruyter the cop and de Ruyter the doctor are also always de Ruyter the CEO, who earned more than R7 million (about 350,000 USD) annually during his time at the helm of a failing public enterprise, and who previously held well-paid CEO positions at other large companies.

De Ruyter skilfully uses the interview to entrench the message that he is a good man, or more specifically a good white man, while also being an abused and vulnerable victim who deserves special protection. Much of his claim of moral uprightness is embedded in ideas about money, consumption, and luxury. De Ruyter, the interview makes clear, is not an obscene conspicuous consumer, like others he mentions who wash their hands in whiskey “because they can,” and who finagle the system so that they can drive their McLarens through the potholed streets of eMalahleni (a town formerly known as Witbank, in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province). He is sensible and frugal, as signaled by his chinos, blue shirt and veldskoen (leather shoes similar to desert boots). An obvious symbolic departure from the CEO uniform of suit, tie, pressed shirts and polished shoes, this new appearance is designed to suggest an ethical orientation of restraint and good sense, as well as taste, so often used to mask class judgments.

While there is of course an obvious and important link between consumption and corruption, de Ruyter’s particular employment of these tropes echoes a common racialization of consumption, in which luxury enjoyed by black people is perceived as outrageous, excessive, inappropriate, and fundamentally immoral. De Ruyter does not deliver this critique directly, but foregrounds the horrors of brazen corruption, with excessive consumption provided as evidence. What is important here is not just the enormous problem of corruption at Eskom, but also the fact that black people enjoying luxury lifestyles is represented as inherently immoral, in contrast to the moderation and sense of white men like de Ruyter, who, we must assume, enjoy their wealth in socially acceptable ways. (Let us briefly recall that R7 million annual salary.)

De Ruyter places the entire responsibility for the Eskom disaster onto the (implied black) corruption that ruins everything. He emphasizes how he led investigations and handed information over to the police, who did nothing. State security also did nothing. Indeed, according to the narrative presented, everyone was complicit except for de Ruyter, who alone was trying to save the country from acts of treason. He positions himself as an honest and altruistic servant of the people with no ulterior motive but to do his duty. (Once again, we must gently nod in the direction of the annual Eskom salary, and wonder what the longer-term career consequences will be.)

De Ruyter’s self-branding as a good white man is enhanced throughout the interview by displays of racial self-awareness. He makes starry-eyed mention of one “wise colleague,” implied to be a black woman, who helps him understand his white Afrikaans blindspots. Like a local version of the US mammy stereotype, this generous and supportive black woman seems to have been happy to educate de Ruyter, helping him to bypass the prejudices that are one of the few negative elements of the version of Afrikaner identity on show here.

He also namechecks his personal assistant “Zodwa,” another generous and helpful supporting character, thus putting black femininity into its stereotypical place as servile to the CEO, who is naturalized as male and white. Zodwa has been “educated” to keep the coffee coming to service de Ruyter’s caffeine addiction, which is then implicated in the alleged poisoning attempt. This incident is the central pole for his claims of victimhood, pivoting away from a state of privileged knowing towards one of physical suffering and pain.

De Ruyter seems to claim that the attack on him was also an attack on the state. He argues that the story was reported in major US and European news media, which affected investor confidence, highlighting his own significance as a national asset. In this narrative, he appears as a crucially important public servant who should be protected by the state that he is serving. While of course no public servant should be subjected to violence or threats of violence, the current facts of the South African polity make this disturbingly common. In suggesting that he, and he alone, should be offered special protection by the state, as opposed to the many honest civil servants and whistleblowers who take huge risks to protect South Africa’s failing assets, de Ruyter perhaps unconsciously echoes the hysterical mythos that equates murders of white farmers to a planned genocide. This is a statement of white exceptionalism, insisting that his contribution and presence are unusually significant.

Continuing the thread of his exceptional victimhood, de Ruyter bemoans the neglect and incompetence that characterized his case, as though these are not the absolute norm in police investigations in South Africa. He points out how he was treated with suspicion by powerful people in government, that he was the subject of spy investigations, had tracking devices placed in his car, was called derogatory names by ministers, and so on. The narrative here is that despite being a good guy, a superhero even, trying to single-handedly fix a very, very broken thing, he was victimized and attacked rather than being rewarded for his efforts. The result of all this injustice is a kind of discursive shrug: “Guys, I tried, so now I’m going to lay low in Europe.” Such options were not available to Babita Deokaran.

Curiously, de Ruyter also uses the interview to present himself as an environmentalist. He namedrops his visit to COP27. He emphasizes the importance of wind and solar power, worries about air pollution and water scarcity, and wants to contribute to keeping the planet liveable for future generations. Regardless of any attempts he may have made to push Eskom towards renewables, it is disconcerting to witness someone who was at the helm of one of the world’s filthiest energy companies so unctuously suggest that he is a climate activist. These claims ring hollow. Having departed from a position where he could conceivably influence energy policy, de Ruyter now, conveniently, wants to champion a transition to just energy.

Further to his narrative of being a good, rational, environmentalist, de Ruyter strategically uses science in his self-promotion. He cites University of the Witwatersrand  climatology expert Professor Francois Engelbrecht, notably favoring a white man’s expertise, as evidence for a coming mega-drought. He talks about the high-tech, artificial intelligence cameras and programs that he implemented in the fight against sabotage within Eskom. He goes into detail about the attempted cyanide poisoning and the medical and toxicological aspects of the testing. His comments suggest that he is comfortable with the science, and more importantly, that he knows all the experts personally. He repeatedly mentions his new environmental stance and actually ends the interview with his desire to fight climate change. He does not say how, or indeed whether, his professional track record might impact meaningful participation.

There are various competing and intersecting claims to power in this text. De Ruyter is at once victim and superhero, both scared and brave, both racially self-aware and emphatic about his authority. He offers himself as a mouthpiece of white middle-class outrage about how Eskom has been allowed to fall apart, deflecting all blame towards the democratic government while strategically ignoring any responsibilities of the apartheid state. He talks about his direct line to government ministers and powerful people high up in intelligence, to professors, to scientists, while criticizing the ANC for its “embarrassing” socialist discourses. The party is, de Ruyter would have us believe, stuck in the 1980s, while he—the very image of a modern, educated, and urbane Afrikaner—looks to the future, obliquely suggesting yet again that white South Africans are better placed to be in charge than those who took over from them.

De Ruyter engages common scaremonger tactics, warning of impending social and environmental catastrophes (mega-droughts, total blackout, and concomitant crime and looting), but is forthright about his plans to leave the country and “lay low” for a while. There is no sense here of the intense irony of this contradictory position: that de Ruyter the man of morals, the superhero who wants to save South Africa, the victim at the mercy of the government, is able to access an easy life in the imagined white citadels of civilized Europe. He is a victim when it is discursively convenient to be one and a figure of authority when it is not. He is patriotic when it suits him, but ready to jet off at any moment. Is he powerful or powerless, or a strategic combination of both? How do we read his position, suspecting as we must that a rich, elite white man with a long corporate history would be skilled in using the media spotlight to his advantage?

Notwithstanding his masterful massaging of the narrative, supported by Larsen’s uncritical approach, there is one point in the interview where the reality of de Ruyter’s worldview creeps through. About midway through he cautions that the country should accept that Eskom can never be returned to “its former glory.” But what glory is this? What glory was there in a state utility that served only white communities, keeping the lights and the pool pumps on all through the decades of apartheid while black communities languished without power under clouds of coal smoke? Eskom was never designed to serve all South Africa’s people. And similarly, it seems that this presentation of de Ruyter as the savior of Eskom, hampered by the evil forces of the ANC, is designed less to serve the nation than to serve himself.

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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Mehita Iqani is a professor of communications in the Journalism Department at Stellenbosch University, where she currently runs research projects on climate and environment, health and happiness and creative communications through the DSI-NRF-funded SA Research Chair in Science Communication. Nicky Falkof is a writer and academic based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She is an associate professor in media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.


Being Black in Argentina

What does Javier Milei’s presidential victory mean for Argentina’s black and indigenous minorities?



Being Black in Argentina
Photo: Argentinian President Elect Javier Milei. Image credit Mídia NINJA CC BY 4.0 Deed.
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On November 19, Javier Milei secured the presidency of the Republic of Argentina with 56% of the vote. However, his victory is expected to significantly impact a specific segment of the country.

During my six-month exchange in Argentina’s Venado Tuerto (pop. 75,000) in 2016, I encountered someone of shared Black ethnicity on the street only once. A person whom many locals incidentally mistook for me—along with a Cuban Black girl, the only black person like me in the whole high school. As insignificant as a census of this small city’s population may seem, it effectively illustrates a sobering reality: the presence of Black people in Argentina is sparse, and their numbers have dwindled over time.

Hay más por otros lados, acá no llegaron” (There are more of them elsewhere, they have not arrived here) is a rhetoric prevalent among many Argentines, but the reality is quite dissimilar. Contacts between Argentina and Black people, particularly of African descent, date back to the 16th century transatlantic slave trade, when West and Central Africa people were brought by Spanish and Portuguese settlers to the coastal city of Buenos Aires, only to be sold and moved mostly within the Río de la Plata, present-day Argentina and Uruguay. In “Hiding in Plain Sight, Black Women, the Law, and the Making of a White Argentine Republic,” Erika Denise Edwards reports that between 1587 and 1640 approximately 45,000 African slaves disembarked in Buenos Aires. By the end of the 18th century, one-third of Argentina’s population was Black.

What, then, became of the Black African population in Argentina? Some attribute their decline to historical factors such as their active involvement in conflicts including the War of Independence against Spanish colonists (1810-1819) and the war with Paraguay (1865-1870), in which Black men often found themselves on the front lines, enduring the brunt of the attacks, or even choosing to desert and flee the country. These factors intersect with a gradual process of miscegenation and interracial mixing, leading to a progressive whitening of the population—both in terms of physical attributes and ideology.

Adding to this complex mix, political rhetoric comes into play. Influential Argentine leaders, such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in the 19th century, idealized white Europe not only as a model for overcoming the country’s socio-economic challenges but also as a narrative that implied the absence of Black people in Argentina, thereby erasing an integral part of the nation’s history.

Doing so has shrewdly allowed a country to avoid reckoning with its past of slavery and navigate the complexities of its presence, using the escamotage that there are no race-related issues in the country because there are no Black people. This assertion is incorrect for several reasons beyond those mentioned above. First, despite being imperceptible to the naked eye, there is a small but existing population of Afro-descendants in Argentina. Nevertheless, in my second stay in Argentina, this time in Buenos Aires, it became more apparent to me how a certain nationalistic current, in the footsteps of Sarmiento, proudly makes itself of this consistent lack of Black heritage. Comparing itself favorably to neighboring countries, this current boasts a notion of white supremacy in Argentina, which celebrates the Italian immigration from the 19th and 20th centuries as the foundation of national identity, while largely overlooking the historical legacy of African bodies that predates it.

As a result, even in a cosmopolitan capital city such as Buenos Aires, a significant portion of the white Argentine population based its identity on my opposite—not knowing that as an Afro-Italian, my Italian citizenship actually made them closer to my blackness and African roots than they wanted. Asserting that there are no racial concerns in Argentina is misleading. It amounts to the invisibilization of racial discrimination in a country where those who deviate from the preferred prototype, including Indigenous communities such as Mapuche, Quechua, Wichi, and Guarani, experience limited access to education and social services, and are disproportionately prone to experience poverty than their white counterparts.

Even within everyday discourse in Argentina, the assertion is refuted: many are labeled Black despite not matching the physical appearance associated with the term. The expression “es un negro” might refer to everyone who has darker skin tones, grouping them into a specific social category. However, beyond a mere description of physical attributes, “es un negro” delineates a person situated at various margins and lower rungs of society, whether for economic or social reasons. The appellation is also ordinarily used in jest as a nickname for a person who, of “black phenotype,” has nothing. The label “morocho” seems to be the most appropriate appellation for dark-skinned people in the country.

Argentine white supremacist identity is often matched by a certain right-wing political ideology that is classist, macho and, to make no bones about it, xenophobic. In the 2023 elections, such a systemic structure takes on the face of Javier Milei. The Argentine’s Donald Trump claimed in 2022 at the presentation of his book that he did not want to apologize for “being a white, blonde [questionable element], blue-eyed man.” With false modesty, the demagogue took on the burden of what it means in the country to have his hallmarks: privilege, status, and power.

Milei’s need for apologies should not revolve around his connotations but rather the proposals presented during his election campaign and outlined in his political program, which include the dollarization of pesos and the removal of government subsidies. Besides assessing if these actions would really benefit the vulnerable economy of the country, it’s worth questioning why it’s the middle-class, often white population that stands to suffer the least from such policies. They can afford to transact in dollars, weather an initial depreciation of their income, and provide for their children’s education without relying on government subsidies. In essence, they can do without the limited benefits offered by the Argentine state, given their already privileged positions.

The election of this politician not only adversely affects Black minorities, but also targets apparent minorities whom this divisive ideology seeks to erase, including Indigenous populations and the poorest segment of society—the current Argentinian “blacks”—who significantly enrich the Argentine populace. In such a scenario, one can only hope that the world will strive for a more consistent record of their existence.

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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Risks and Opportunities of Admitting Somalia Into the EAC

The process of integrating Somalia into the EAC should be undertaken with long-term success in mind rather than in the light of the situation currently prevailing in the country.



Risks and Opportunities of Admitting Somalia Into the EAC
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The East African Community (EAC), whose goal is to achieve economic and political federation, brings together three former British colonies – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania – and newer members Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, and most recently the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Somalia first applied to join the EAC in 2012 but with fighting still ongoing on the outskirts of Mogadishu, joining the bloc was impossible at the time. Eleven years later, joining the bloc would consolidate the significant progress in governance and security and, therefore, Somalia should be admitted into the EAC without undue delay. This is for several reasons.

First, Somalia’s admission would be built on an existing foundation of goodwill that the current leadership of Somalia and EAC partner states have enjoyed in the recent past. It is on the basis of this friendship that EAC states continue to play host to Somali nationals who have been forced to leave their country due to the insecurity resulting from the prolonged conflict. In addition, not only does Somalia share a border with Kenya, but it also has strong historical, linguistic, economic and socio-cultural links with all the other EAC partner states in one way or another.

Dr Hassan Khannenje of the Horn Institute for Strategic Studies said: ”Somalia is a natural member of the EAC and should have been part of it long ago.”

A scrutiny of all the EAC member states will show that there is a thriving entrepreneurial Somali diaspora population in all their economies.  If indeed the EAC is keen to realise its idea of the bloc being a people-centred community as opposed to being a club of elites, then a look at the spread of Somali diaspora investment in the region would be a start. With an immense entrepreneurial diaspora, Somalia’s admission will increase trading opportunities in the region.

Second, Somalia’s 3,000 km of coastline (the longest in Africa) will give the partner states access to the Indian Ocean corridor to the Gulf of Aden. The governments of the EAC partner states consider the Indian Ocean to be a key strategic and economic theatre for their regional economic interests. Therefore, a secure and stable Somali coastline is central to the region’s maritime trade opportunities.

Despite possessing such a vast maritime resource, the continued insecurity in Somalia has limited the benefits that could accrue from it. The problem of piracy is one example that shows that continued lawlessness along the Somali coast presents a huge risk for all the states that rely on it in the region.

The importance of the maritime domain and the Indian Ocean has seen Kenya and Somalia square it out at the International Court of Justice over a maritime border dispute.

Omar Mahmood of the International Crisis Group said that ”Somalia joining the EAC then might present an opportunity to discuss deeper cooperation frameworks within the bloc, including around the Kenya-Somalia maritime dispute. The environment was not as conducive to collaboration before, and perhaps it explains why the ICJ came in. Integrating into the EAC potentially offers an opportunity to de-escalate any remaining tensions and in turn, focus on developing mechanisms that can be beneficial for the region.”

Nasong’o Muliro, a foreign policy and security specialist in the region, said: “The East African states along the East African coast are looking for opportunities to play a greater role in the maritime security to the Gulf of Aden. Therefore, Somalia joining the EAC bloc will allow them to have a greater say.”

Third, Somalia’s membership of the Arab League means that there is a strong geopolitical interest from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. However, Somalia stands to gain more in the long-term by joining the EAC rather than being under the control of the Gulf states and, to a large extent, Turkey. This is because, historically, competing interests among the Gulf states have contributed to the further balkanisation of Somalia by some members supporting breakaway regions.

On the other hand, the EAC offers a safer option that will respect Somalia’s territorial integrity. Furthermore, EAC partner states have stood in solidarity with Somalia during the difficult times of the civil conflict, unlike the Gulf states. The majority of the troop-contributing countries for the African Union Mission to Somalia came from the EAC partner states of Uganda, Kenya and Burundi. Despite having a strategic interest in Somalia, none of the Gulf states contributed troops to the mission. Therefore, with the expected drawdown of the ATMIS force in Somalia, the burden could fall on the EAC to fill in the vacuum. Building on the experience of deploying in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, it is highly likely that it could be called upon to do the same in Somalia when ATMIS exits by 2024.

The presence of the Al Shabaab group in Somalia is an albatross around its neck such that the country cannot be admitted into the EAC without factoring in the risks posed by the group.

According to a report by the International Crisis Group, the government of Somalia must move to consolidate these gains – especially in central Somalia – as it continues with its offensive in other regions. However, Somalia may not prevail over the Al Shabaab on its own; it may require a regional effort and perhaps this is the rationale some policymakers within the EAC have envisioned. If the EAC can offer assurances to Somalia’s fledgling security situation, then a collective security strategy from the bloc might be of significance.

Somalia’s admission comes with risks too. Kenya and Uganda have in the past experienced attacks perpetrated by Al Shabaab and, therefore, opening up their borders to Somalia is seen as a huge risk for these countries. The spillover effect of the group’s activities creates a lot of discomfort among EAC citizens, in particular those who believe that the region remains vulnerable to Al Shabaab attacks.

If the EAC can offer assurances to Somalia’s fledgling security situation, then a collective security strategy from the bloc might be of significance.

The EAC Treaty criteria under which a new member state may be admitted into the community include – but are not limited to – observance and practice of the principles of good governance, democracy and the rule of law. Critics believe that Somalia fulfils only one key requirement to be admitted to the bloc – sharing a border with an EAC partner state, namely, Kenya. On paper, it seems to be the least prepared when it comes to fulfilling the other requirements. The security situation remains fragile and the economy cannot support the annual payment obligations to the community.

According to the Fragility State Index, Somalia is ranked as one of the poorest among the 179 countries assessed. Among the key pending issues is the continued insecurity situation caused by decades of civil war and violent extremism. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch ranks Somalia low on human rights and justice – a breakdown of government institutions has rendered them ineffective in upholding the human rights of its citizens.

Somalia’s citizens have faced various forms of discrimination due to activities beyond their control back in their country. This has led to increasingly negative and suspicious attitudes towards Somalis and social media reactions to the possibility of Somalia joining the EAC have seen a spike in hostility towards citizens of Somalia. The country’s admission into the bloc could be met with hostility from the citizens of other partner states.

Dr Nicodemus Minde, an academic on peace and security, agrees that indeed citizens’ perceptions and attitudes will shape their behaviour towards Somalia’s integration. He argues that ”the admission of Somalia is a rushed process because it does not address the continued suspicion and negative perception among the EAC citizens towards the Somali people. Many citizens cite the admission of fragile states like South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo as a gateway of instability to an already unstable region”.

Indeed, the biggest challenge facing the EAC has been how to involve the citizens in their activities and agenda. To address this challenge, Dr Minde says that ’’the EAC needs to conduct a lot of sensitisation around the importance of integration because to a large extent many EAC citizens have no clue on what regional integration is all about”. The idea of the EAC being a people-centred organisation as envisioned in the Treaty has not been actualised. The integration process remains very elitist as it is the heads of state that determine and set the agenda.

The country’s admission into the bloc could be met with hostility from the citizens of other partner states.

Dr Khannenje offers a counter-narrative, arguing that public perception is not a major point of divergence since “as the economies integrate deeper, some of these issues will become easy to solve”. There are also those who believe that the reality within the EAC is that every member state has issues with one or the other partner state and, therefore, Somalia will be in perfect company.

A report by the Economic Policy Research Centre outlines the various avenues through which both the EAC and Somalia can benefit from the integration process and observes that there is therefore a need to fast-track the process because the benefits far outweigh the risks.

EAC integration is built around the spirit of good neighbourliness. It is against this backdrop that President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has extended the goodwill to join the EAC and therefore, it should not be vilified and condemned, but rather embraced.  As Onyango Obbo has observed, Somalia is not joining the EAC – Somalia is already part of the EAC and does not need any formal welcoming.

Many critics have argued that the EAC has not learnt from the previous rush to admit conflict-plagued South Sudan and the DRC. However, the reality is that Somalia will not be in conflict forever; at some point, there will be tranquillity and peace. Furthermore, a keen look at the history of the EAC member states shows that a number of them have experienced cycles of conflict in the past.

Somalia is, therefore, not unique. Internal contradictions and conflict are some of the key features that Somalia shares with most of the EAC member states. The process of integrating Somalia into the EAC should, therefore, be undertaken with long-term success in mind rather than in the light of the situation currently prevailing in the country.

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The Repression of Palestine Solidarity in Kenya

Kenya is one of Israel’s closest allies in Africa. But the Ruto-led government isn’t alone in silencing pro-Palestinian speech.



The Repression of Palestine Solidarity in Kenya
Photo: Image courtesy of Kenyans4Palestine © 2023.
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Israel has been committing genocide against the people of Occupied Palestine for 75 years and this has intensified over the last 30 days with the merciless carpet bombing of Gaza, along with raids and state-sanctioned settler violence in the West Bank. In the last month of this intensified genocide, the Kenyan government has pledged its solidarity to Israel, even as the African Union released a statement in support of Palestinian liberation. While peaceful marches have been successfully held in Kisumu and Mombasa, in Nairobi, Palestine solidarity organizers were forced to cancel a peaceful march that was to be held at the US Embassy on October 22. Police threatened that if they saw groups of more than two people outside the Embassy, they would arrest them. The march was moved to a private compound, Cheche Bookshop, where police still illegally arrested three people, one for draping the Palestinian flag around his shoulders. Signs held by children were snatched by these same officers.

When Boniface Mwangi took to Twitter denouncing the arrest, the response by Kenyans spoke of the success of years of propaganda by Israel through Kenyan churches. To the Kenyan populous, Palestine and Palestinians are synonymous with terrorism and Israel’s occupation of Palestine is its right. However, this Islamophobia and xenophobia from Kenyans did not spring from the eternal waters of nowhere. They are part of the larger US/Israel sponsored and greedy politician-backed campaign to ensure Kenyans do not start connecting the dots on Israel’s occupation of Palestine with the extra-judicial killings by Kenyan police, the current occupation of indigenous people’s land by the British, the cost-of-living crisis and the IMF debts citizens are paying to fund politician’s lavish lifestyles.

Kenya’s repression of Palestine organizing reflects Kenya’s long-standing allyship with Israel. The Kenyan Government has been one of Israel’s A-star pupils of repression and is considered to be Israel’s “gateway” to Africa. Kenya has received military funding and training from Israel since the 60s, and our illegal military occupation of Somalia has been funded and fueled by Israel along with Britain and the US. Repression, like violence, is not one dimensional; repression does not just destabilize and scatter organizers, it aims to break the spirit and replace it instead with apathy, or worse, a deep-seated belief in the rightness of oppression. In Israel’s architecture of oppression through repression, the Apartheid state has created agents of repression across many facets of Kenyan life, enacting propaganda, violence, race, and religion as tools of repression of Palestine solidarity organizing.

When I meet with Naomi Barasa, the Chair of the Kenya Palestine Solidarity Movement, she begins by placing Kenya’s repression of Palestine solidarity organizing in the context of Kenya as a capitalist state. “Imperialism is surrounded and buffered by capitalistic interest,” she states, then lists on her fingers the economic connections Israel has created with Kenya in the name of “technical cooperation.” These are in agriculture, security, business, and health; the list is alarming. It reminds me of my first memory of Israel (after the nonsense of the promised land that is)—about how Israel was a leader in agricultural and irrigation technologies. A dessert that flowed with milk and honey.

Here we see how propaganda represses, even before the idea of descent is born: Kenyans born in the 1990s grew up with an image of a benign, prosperous, and generous Christian Israel that just so happened to be unfortunate enough to be surrounded by Muslim states. Israel’s PR machine has spent 60 years convincing Kenyan Christians of the legitimacy of the nation-state of Israel, drawing false equivalences between Christianity and Zionism. This Janus-faced ideology was expounded upon by Israel’s ambassador to Kenya, Michel Lotem, when he said “Religiously, Kenyans are attached to Israel … Israel is the holy land and they feel close to Israel.” The cog dizzy of it all is that Kenyan Christians, fresh from colonialism, are now Africa’s foremost supporters of colonialism and Apartheid in Israel. Never mind the irony that in 1902, Kenya was the first territory the British floated as a potential site for the resettlement of Jewish people fleeing the pogroms in Europe. This fact has retreated from public memory and public knowledge. Today, churches in Kenya facilitate pilgrimages to the holy land and wield Islamophobia as a weapon against any Christian who questions the inhumanity of Israel’s 75-year Occupation and ongoing genocide.

Another instrument of repression of pro-Palestine organizing in Kenya is the pressure put on Western government-funded event spaces to decline hosting pro-Palestine events. Zahid Rajan, a cultural practitioner and organizer, tells me of his experiences trying to find spaces to host events dedicated to educating Kenyans on the Palestinian liberation struggle. He recalls the first event he organized at Alliance Français, Nairobi in 2011. Alliance Français is one of Nairobi’s cultural hubs and regularly hosts art and cultural events at the space. When Zahid first approached Alliance to host a film festival for Palestinian films, they told him that they could not host this event as they already had (to this day) an Israeli film week. Eventually, they agreed to host the event with many restrictions on what could be discussed and showcased. Unsurprisingly they refused to host the event again. The Goethe Institute, another cultural hub in Kenya that offers its large hall for free for cultural events, has refused to host the Palestinian film festival or any other pro-Palestine event. Both Alliance and Goethe are funded by their parent countries, France and Germany respectively (which both have pro-Israel governments). There are other spaces and businesses that Zahid has reached out to host pro-Palestine education events that have, in the end, backtracked on their agreement to do so. Here, we see the evolution of state-sponsored repression to the private sphere—a public-private partnership on repression, if you will.

Kenya’s members of parliament took to heckling and mocking as a tool of repression when MP Farah Maalim wore an “Arafat” to Parliament on October 25. The Speaker asked him to take it off stating that it depicted “the colors of a particular country.” When Maalim stood to speak he asked: “Tell me which republic,” and an MP in the background could be heard shouting “Hamas” and heckling Maalim, such that he was unable to speak on the current genocide in Gaza. This event, seen in the context of Ambassador Michael Lotem’s charm offensive at the county and constituency level, is chilling. His most recent documented visit was to the MP of Kiharu, Ndindi Nyoro, on November 2. The Israeli propaganda machine has understood the importance of County Governors and MPs in consolidating power in Kenya.

Yet, in the face of this repression, we have seen what Naomi Barasa describes as “many pockets of ad hoc solidarity,” as well as organized solidarity with the Palestinian cause. We have seen Muslim communities gather for many years to march for Palestine, we have seen student movements such as the Nairobi University Student Caucus release statements for Palestine, and we have seen social justice centers such as Mathare Social Justice Centre host education and screening events on Palestinian liberation. Even as state repression of Palestine solidarity organizing has intensified in line with the deepening of state relations with Apartheid Israel, more Kenyans are beginning to connect the dots and see the reality that, as Mandela told us all those years ago, “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians.

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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