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Why Bother to Vote? Why Elections Are Losing Their Lustre

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A couple of years ago, there was a contentious debate in academic and policy circles about the perceived decline in global democracy. Through all the talk about how to define democracy and measure its growth and reversal, one thing remained certain: the sanctity of elections. Regardless of whether or not democracy is advancing, elections retain their position at the center of any legitimate democratic system. Problematic though they might be, elections represent the height of political progress.

When there is public outcry over an election, is usually revolves around a particular aspect of the electoral process: the merits and/or drawbacks of election technology, controversy around how votes are counted, the source of campaign money; the list goes on. This has especially been the case in the last year, as people reacted in shock to -and looked for flaws in- the electoral process after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and Donald Trump won the American presidential election.

But how do we know that elections themselves are still a broadly accepted and publicly legitimate way to select leaders? And given that even dictatorial leaders are often happy to hold elections, what is their real value in advancing democracy around the world?

The Erosion of Electoral Credibility

It turns out that people around the world are wondering the same thing. In fact, more than ever before, citizens from across the globe report that elections are not necessarily a defining part of a democratic system. In the 2010-2014 wave of the World Values Survey, for instance, less than half of all respondents (41.5 percent) agreed with the view that elections are an essential characteristic of democracy. This represents a significant drop from the previous round of the survey (2005-2009), when more than half of the respondents (52.3 percent) expressed that elections are an essential part of democratic systems. This drop goes hand in hand with a sinking faith in democracy overall. From 2005-2009 to 2010-2014, there was a 7.1 percentage drop in the proportion of people around the world who felt that democracy is “absolutely important.”

It isn’t difficult to see that elections are losing their lustre. But why? In representative democracies, elections empower citizens to stand in judgment of their (prospective) leaders. Even if only for a short while, elections shine a spotlight on ordinary voters, providing a platform for them to debate, reflect and ultimately assess their choices. Voters hold ultimate power in elections…or do they?

Unfortunately, elections around the globe today have lost much of this original sense of purpose. This is hardly surprising. Over time, elites have used their positions and power to gradually distance electoral processes from the people, and this has created electoral contests that hinge on little more than big money and elite strategy. As a result, the rules that govern elections often do not uphold the principles of democracy, and ordinary voters do not hold the reigns of power in elections anymore.

Electoral Systems

In some ways, it all starts with the electoral system. Although the design of a country’s electoral system — involving calculations of district sizes and populations, determinations of boundaries and vote to seat ratios — may seem like a purely technical process, the choice has serious political implications. At their core, after all, electoral systems determine how votes get counted and translated into seats; they determine who has a chance of a seat at the table. Electoral systems are thus at the heart of democratic design.

Since the choice of electoral system design impacts many later phases of the electoral cycle – especially party and coalition formation and campaign strategy – it is a stage setter, providing the framework and incentive structure for electoral stakeholders’ behavior. A majoritarian system, for instance, tends to favor larger communities – often to the detriment of smaller groups — by requiring only a simple majority for electoral victory. In so much of the world, these types of winner-take-all electoral systems risk creating a tyranny of the majority. They also often produce governments that are seen to be “unfair” in the sense that the number of seats a party wins can often be highly disproportionate to the number of votes that party garnered. Parties who do not manage to win a majority of votes but who still capture a substantial amount of support are left with absolutely no access to decision-making power. In 2015, the controversy surrounding first past the post was brought to the fore in the United Kingdom. There, the Conservatives won 37 percent of the vote and 51 percent of parliamentary seats. The party therefore received a parliamentary majority with less than half of the electorate’s support.

Unfortunately, elections around the globe today have lost much of this original sense of purpose. This is hardly surprising. Over time, elites have used their positions and power to gradually distance electoral processes from the people, and this has created electoral contests that hinge on little more than big money and elite strategy.

Of course, other electoral systems – even ones that seek to produce more “fair,” proportional results – have their problems. Proportional representation may give more parties a seat at the table, but it can also bestow striking amounts of power to the smallest and most ideologically extreme parties, who become “kingmakers” in the kinds of coalition governments that PR systems produce. In Israel, for example, hard-line members of ruling coalitions have routinely blocked potential agreements related to the conflict with Palestinians over “any slight movement perceived as anti-settler.”

Electoral systems are not just about vote counting; they can also determine whose vote counts. In the United States, Donald Trump won the presidential election without winning the majority of Americans’ votes. In fact, Hillary Clinton received almost 3 million more popular votes than Trump, which represented the most votes ever won by a losing candidate in American history. Since it is the votes of the American electoral college, made up of elite party insiders, that ultimately decide the victor, the popular vote can end up determining nothing.

It is easy to see why such systems provide real disincentives to popular participation, especially for non-mainstream voters. Indeed, a post-election poll in the United States revealed that a mere 30 percent of surveyed Americans felt the electoral system was functional. 70 percent said that it was broken.

Money in Politics

Of course, electoral system design is just the tip of the iceberg. The electoral playing field is also heavily skewed by the growing role of money – both legal and illicit – in electoral contests. Without regulations that limit donations and expenditures, require regular and full disclosure of funding sources, and that incentivize close interaction with voters, it is all too easy for politicians to fall prey to a small group of wealthy donors who can and do influence policy formulation in the years between elections. In this situation, ordinary voters must fight to be heard, and even when they are they must struggle to compete with affluent elites. This kind of situation is also self-perpetuating. Once elected, leaders will think about how to retain their positions; the quest for campaign contributions and the subsequent quid pro quo may go on for the entirety of elites’ electoral careers.

This type of election is hardly voter-centered. Indeed, the Kofi Annan-led Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security listed uncontrolled, undisclosed and opaque political finance as a “grave threat” to the credibility of elections. “In an era of explosive growth in campaign expenditure across older democracies, citizens lose faith in the electoral process. They suspect that wealthier citizens and corporations have greater influence in public affairs…Poorly regulated campaign finance in turn leads to lower participation in the democratic process, tainted electoral integrity and impaired democracy.”

Examples of these situations abound. In India, where the election commission has set fundraising and expenditure limits, politicians resort to “black money” from the criminal underworld. Politicians have been forthcoming about the reality of the situation. In fact, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is often cited for saying that “every legislator starts his career with the lie of the false election return he files.” In 2012, parliamentarians discussed spending as much as $3.3 million on campaigns, despite expenditure limits of $26,000. To put this in perspective, the average Indian person earned $1,480 at that time, roughly 6 percent of the official limit and .04 percent of the maximum $3.3 million quoted by politicians. In Kenya, where parliament refused to pass a campaign finance regulatory bill into law, candidates have spent millions even before the official beginning of the campaign period. In the run up to the primary elections in April, for instance, aspirants in the North Rift region of the country spent approximately Sh850 million ($8.2 million) on their campaigns. In the Uasin Gishu region, the leading opposition party’s top two gubernatorial aspirants each spent Sh100 million ($967,000) in the primary contest.

Given the dangers, it is surprising how little regulation there is around these issues. In fact, around the world, only about a quarter of all countries in a global study banned corporate donations to political parties, less than half prohibited donations from corporations with government contracts to political parties, and just 4 in 10 outlawed anonymous donations to candidates. Rules about disclosure aren’t much better. Just 50 percent of countries require political parties to submit financial reports in relation to election campaigns.

In such contexts, it comes as little surprise that voters don’t have faith in electoral processes. Average voters can’t compete with big business, and it is easy to understand that some would think there is no point in trying.

Media and Elections

Voters also greatly depend on the media during elections. Indeed, as the conduit of information to the public, the media play a pivotal role in electoral processes. Voters rely on the media to learn about candidates’ and parties’ platforms, to debate with other voters on the current issues, and to find the practical information necessary to cast ballots. Furthermore, the media act as watchdogs, safeguarding the transparency of the process. Without credible information, voters stand little chance of making informed decisions at the ballot box.

Unfortunately, however, media around the world are in crisis. In its most recent report, the Electoral Integrity Project lists media as one of the two (the other was campaign finance) most serious obstacles to a level electoral playing field. There are many challenges to free and independent media today, but some of the most critical election-related problems include:

Freedom of the Media: Media cannot fulfill its duties to society in a politically restricted environment. It is thus worrying that the 2017 edition of the World Press Freedom Index lists only fifteen countries (out of 180) in its most free category (“good situation”). Of these, twelve are located in northern and western Europe. In other countries, media outlets and journalists face high-profile bashing – increasingly from elites, financial restrictions, threats, physical abuse and violence, and an oppressive legal environment. Notably, the Index singles out the African continent for the recent spate of internet shutdowns during elections.

The 2017 Index warns of a “tipping point” in the state of media freedom, especially in democracies. The report states that media freedom “has never been so threatened,” and documents a 14 percent rise in the overall level of media constraints and violations over a five year period as well as how an “obsession” with surveillance and the death of respect for confidential sources have contributed to the decline of many consolidated democracies.

Consolidation: The vast majority of media outlets are owned by an increasingly smaller number of people and firms. In Australia, for instance, the News Corporation and associated Rupert Murdoch companies own 57.5 percent of the country’s newspapers. In Chile, El Mercurio SAP owns 54.9 percent of that country’s newspaper market. The concentration of media ownership means that there is less diversity of opinion in the public domain. Without multiple, diverging viewpoints and feisty public debate, voters are less informed and thus less able to make independent and free choices on election day.

A majoritarian system, for instance, tends to favor larger communities – often to the detriment of smaller groups — by requiring only a simple majority for electoral victory.

Access to Media: Media become especially critical during election campaigns, when candidates and parties rely on television, radio, newspapers and the internet to communicate with the public. Without regulation of some sort, smaller, less affluent contenders will struggle to access the media and therefore to reach voters. In 67.2 percent of cases, countries provide subsidized access to media for political parties, but in many of those cases that subsidy is based on the party’s share of the vote/number of seats in the previous election, or even on the number of candidates running. Newer and smaller parties are thus at an extreme disadvantage. In cases where there is no subsidy for media access, the costs can be prohibitive. In the United States, for instance, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spent approximately $227 million on media. That was 58 percent of her total expenditures for the campaign. Donald Trump spent less in actual dollars, but it still amounted to 59 percent of his campaign’s total expenditures.

Without the freedom to report honestly and in safety and without a balanced playing field, characterized by equal access to media, voters are at a distinct disadvantage, simply because they do not have the opportunity to freely and easily obtain the information they need to make informed decisions about their choices on election day as well as about the legitimacy of their electoral processes. This is even more true as global threats to internet freedom grow.

These problems threaten media’s connection to the public around the world. They also serve to perpetuate elite dominance in the electoral arena, undermining the rights to information and the freedoms of expression and speech that are fundamental to democracy.

Electoral Manipulation

As if the issues outlined above were not enough, old-fashioned rigging continues to be a problem in elections around the world. Despite the advent of electoral technology, which is perceived by some as a way to prevent many polling station-level crimes, in many parts of the world, elections are still susceptible to ballot box stuffing, multiple voting, underage voting, and voter bribery.

These types of incidents are regular occurrences, happening all over the world. Egypt provides an exemplary case in point. In 2010, observers cited the removal of opposition candidates’ names from ballots, blocking opposition agents from entering polling stations, premature closing of polling stations and ballot box stuffing. Evidence in the public record included photos and videos of voter intimidation and election officials filling in blank ballots. In 2014, turnout was so low during the scheduled two days of voting that the election commission took the step of adding a third day. International observers called this a “needless irregularity.” On the night before this additional day, the opposition candidate withdrew his monitors because security forces were abusing them. In 2015, Egyptian elections were marked by widespread vote-buying and violence. In fact, the situation was so extreme that some candidates dropped out of the race.

The same issues can be seen in many other parts of the world. Recent analysis cites allegations of electoral fraud in Russia, election related violence and the theft of vote counting machines in the Philippines, and irregular figures from results sheets in Gabon. In Nigeria, accusations of double voter registration are threatening the legitimacy of a sitting governor and a British MP is on trial for 14 counts of electoral fraud.

Allegations of rigging are also occurring in relation to election technology. The United States 2016 election is perhaps one of the best known recent examples of polls tainted by such accusations, but the vulnerability of election technology is well known in other parts of the world. In 2016, Andrés Sepúlveda revealed how, beginning in 2005, he manipulated elections for a variety of clients across the South American continent, ultimately having a hand in nine different countries. Just before the 2016 election in the Philippines, hackers attacked the country’s election commission website and compromised personal data of approximately 70 million people.

Electoral systems are not just about vote counting; they can also determine whose vote counts

And this isn’t all. The drawing of electoral boundaries, the drafting and amending of laws, access to voter registration, electoral dispute resolution and many other aspects of the electoral process can all be skewed to serve private rather than public interests. In recent years, much of the conversation and rhetoric around elections has focused on trying to determine how many problems, or exactly what problems, constitute a fraudulent election. This is a difficult question – after all, the manipulation of even one part of the electoral process can impact a number of stages later on. If it is clear that private interests have trumped public interests in even one phase of elections, shouldn’t that be enough?

Are polls passé?

For some, issues such as the ones raised above call the very legitimacy of elections into question. For these critics, the solution does not lie in bolstering the electoral process; it rests in upending reliance on elections altogether.

Indeed, one argument is that elections are outdated, relatively undemocratic and far from the best way to channel people’s thoughts and opinions.

Isn’t it bizarre that voting, our highest civic duty, boils down to an individual action performed in the silence of the voting booth? Is this really the place where we turn individual gut feelings into shared priorities? Is it really where the common good and the long term are best served?… Imagine having to develop a system today that would express the will of the people. Would it really be a good idea to have them all queue up at polling stations every four or five years with a bit of card in their hands and go into a dark booth to put a mark next to names on a list, names of people about whom restless reporting had been going on for months in a commercial environment that profits from restlessness?

The argument has its merits. Although elections are processes, made up of multiple phases and activities, each of which has its individual purpose and impact on the final result, the majority of attention, money and work is – more often than not — focused on election day and the counting and announcement of votes. Practically, then, an election is about individual decisions at the ballot box. One tick and it’s all over.

There is also the argument that electoral democracy is a particularly western conception, designed for particular social systems that are organized quite differently from social structures and systems in other parts of the world. Thomas Koelble and Edward LiPuma contend, for example, that “the real measure of democracy is the extent to which governance conforms to the visions of democracy worked out by the governed.” Elections, at least the way they are currently practiced, may not factor into all visions of democracy.

In this reality, what are the other options? Should the focus be – as it has been for the last two decades – on improving electoral processes? Or is there another way altogether? Is it time to reconsider elections as the preferred mode of choosing political leaders?

That may already be happening.

In many places around the world, new political movements – many of which have sprung from waves of popular protests against the corruption, greed, and self-serving mindsets of politicians, are working to create innovative structures through which citizens and voters can easily and directly participate in governance. While these movements do not necessarily reject the concept of elections, they place as much – if not more – importance on internal democracy and consensus. As a result, they approach elections from a position that has grown much more directly from constituents’ and members’ input and decisions than those of traditional parties.

It comes as little surprise that voters don’t have faith in electoral processes. Average voters can’t compete with big business, and it is easy to understand that some would think there is no point in trying.

By placing ordinary people at the center, these movements are defining new modes of direct democracy. Indeed, the Podemos party in Spain makes use of digital platforms like Loomio and Reddit, which allow citizens to take part in policy discussions, vote on senior party positions and come to consensus on issues under debate. Similarly new movements in India and Italy make efforts to grow from the local level upwards, prioritizing grassroots issues.

Another possibility is sortition, or drafting by lot. In this system, a random sample of the population comes together to learn about selected topics, hear from experts, debate with each other and make decisions. In this way, everyone does not vote on a range of issues that few understand. Instead, a randomly selected group of people takes the time to comprehensively understand a set of questions and make well-informed decisions. This body could then interact with elected representatives to draft legislation. Proponents argue that sortition reduces corruption and promotes attention to the common good. Sortition is not new. It was used in ancient Athens, and it has been and/or is being used in Bolivia, Australia, Canada, China, the Netherlands, Ireland and the United States.

The new political movements and the concept of sortition demand much more of people than mainstream elections. This makes sense; it takes significant effort and time to weigh the policy choices facing society. Elected representatives, regardless of their experience and expertise, can only do so much on their own; citizens and voters must be active participants, providing their leaders with the information they require to make informed decisions and constantly demanding accountability.

It may be that if elections are to regain and maintain legitimacy, they, too, will have to ask more of voters. And voters should demand more of their elections, if it’s not already too late.

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Seema Shah is an elections expert with experience in North America, Asia and Africa. She holds a doctorate in Political Science, and her research focuses on electoral politics, with an emphasis on electoral integrity and electoral violence.

Ideas

The False Narratives That Stand in the Way of Our Future

Science vs the arts is a false dichotomy. We must intertwine our artistic skills with our scientific insights to invent our future.

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The False Narratives That Stand in the Way of Our Future
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Over the last few years, I have come to understand at least three narratives that some Kenyans use to wish away the contradictions of the Kenyan state. No matter how much such Kenyans are presented with evidence of changing times or with history that gives a different perspective, they will repeat these narratives louder to drown out the other voices.

​Behind all these narratives lies an effort to wish away the fragmentation of the people by the Kenyan state. But, more than that, these narratives are protected by the curriculum of the public schools which does not allow the teaching of the arts, and particularly the teaching of history. Kenyans are thus denied the opportunity to develop their intellectual capacity to understand not just the limitations of the Kenya state, but to understand the reality of the world in the 21st century.

These narratives are: Social issues such as crime, truancy and drug abuse afflict young men due to the neglect of the “boy child” (by whom, it is never clear), which in turn is due to advocacy for girls by Western feminists; Tanzania is communist and Kenya is capitalist; more Kenyan students need to study the sciences because that’s what the job market needs.

The boy child

Kenyans use the narrative of the neglect of the boy child to deflect questions that affect mostly poor young men, such as police brutality against men, the flawed masculinity promoted by the Kenyan male elite, and the culture of rape that is not only sexual but also financial, intellectual and environmental. By avoiding such analysis, we evade acknowledging that although Kenyan men dominate property ownership and positions of power, those men belong to a socio-economic minority.

Not dealing with the interaction between gender and class allows us to cling to the hope that manhood can be a ticket for all Kenyan men to gain same access to the wealth and power enjoyed by the ruling class. The reality is, though, that this model of the state cannot accommodate more than a minority with that much wealth and power. But rather than dismantle this exploitation, Kenyans would rather blame girls. Imagine that. We adults are blaming children for our failure to establish an equitable society.

This distraction of Kenyans from the inequality of the state is further integrated with race through Kenyans’ focus on Western feminism. Ironically though, the goal of Western feminism is exactly that: to silence questions about the Eurocentric global system and instead simply negotiate white women’s place in it. And this argument has been made for decades by scholars like Micere Mugo, Oyeronke Oyewumi, Ifi Amadiume and Amina Mama, while men such as Ousmane Sembene and Thomas Sankara have tied women’s freedom to African freedom as a whole. However, Kenyan education is grossly Eurocentric. Many graduate students have never heard of these names, and what many Kenyans know of feminism is what they read from white American evangelicals, whose thoughts are shared every Sunday on many Kenyan pulpits.

Tanzania

The narrative of communist Tanzania vs. capitalist Kenya is equally twisted, especially when one remembers that the Berlin Wall fell twenty-seven years ago and the Soviet Union collapsed twenty-five years ago. However, holding onto this myth serves a purpose: it helps us avoid asking questions about our country’s internal exploitation and poor foreign policy choices. The narrative also comforts a certain superiority complex that is rooted in eurocentrism. We think we’re better than Tanzanians because we’re richer. However, we forget that the “we” who are richer are a minority of Kenyans, all thanks to tribalism, which enables us to “share” in the wealth of the privileged few in our respective ethnic groups. In tribalist thinking, kumeza mate ndiko kula nyama, to swallow saliva is to eat meat.

We can also avoid the reality that Tanzania may have a point in questioning the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) that Kenya has enthusiastically signed with the European Union. Already, there are credible voices, like former president Benjamin Mkapa and scholar Horace Campbell, indicating that the EPA will benefit only the flower industry (whose members include colonial settlers), and will take the rest of Kenya to the cleaners. But instead of us asking whether our own government signed the EPA agreement in the interests of the Kenyan people, it is easier to dismiss Tanzania as “communist” and “cold” towards Kenya. 

We have also not come to terms with the history of Kenya’s anti-African foreign policy choices since independence. In word, Kenya publicly declared opposition to apartheid, but in deed, Kenya did not support the ANC and was, in fact, trading with apartheid South Africa. Tanzania, on the other hand, was a base for the ANC. A similar thing happened with the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. As Tanzania welcomed Rwandan refugees, Kenya was home to the rich génocidaires (President Juvenal Habyarimana’s wife was one of those who fled to Europe through Kenya). At the height of the killings, Kenya sent a planeload of Tutsi refugees back to Rwanda. What happened to those refugees is anyone’s guess.

Education: Science vs. arts

In the war against the arts, the narrative of science vs. the arts deflects responsibility for a crawling economy from the leaders to the people. If graduates are jobless, the narrative implies, it is because the graduates are studying the wrong subjects in school, not because the greed and stupidity of the Kenyan ruling class has been an obstacle to the economy expanding to accommodate all talents and professions. That is why the truth that medical and engineering graduates are not getting employed, and the few who do find work are not getting paid, has not yet entrenched itself in public conversations about careers in the sciences.

The problem is that this narrative against arts education is stuck in the industrial era (yes, the 19th century in the West, not Africa), where the governments and industries expected mass education to produce workers for factories. The world has since moved on to the information age, where the automation of knowledge by computers means that “progress” is determined by access to information. And experts are now talking of a conceptual age where what counts is not only information, but also the ability to use it creatively, otherwise called innovation.

In the war against the arts, the narrative of science vs. the arts deflects responsibility for a crawling economy from the leaders to the people.

The division between arts and sciences is traumatizing, even to the individual learner. I remember our frustration as form five students being forced to choose between sciences and arts. A number of us actually loved mathematics and scored distinctions in O levels, but we were told that if we did mathematics we had to do biology, chemistry or physics, in which we were not interested. Can you imagine what innovations would have come out of my generation had we been allowed to do both arts and science, even at university?

What this means is that the whole science vs. arts narrative is literally useless. And yet, the Jubilee government has entrenched this schism, with the Education Cabinet Secretary and his boss, the Deputy President, attacking arts programmes as irrelevant to the country’s needs. As if that is not bad enough, the proposed new curriculum talks of separating schools into “talent” and “technical” schools.

This country does not need to widen this schism in knowledge but to narrow it, so that our youth learn to combine data and information with creativity, and in so doing, craft solutions at both the macro and micro level. Kenyan students should be able to do mathematics and linguistics, or music and physics, agriculture and fine art, or history of the sciences, if they so wish. But instead of bridging this gap, the government is stuck in the 60s, when it saw science and arts as opposite poles.

Worse, the government is basing this division on the equally archaic idea of the job market that belongs to the days of independence. In those days, the government was so desperate for Africans to fill the posts left behind by colonialists that people were guaranteed jobs even after primary school, and they would rise up the ranks in those careers and then retire. But that era no longer exists. These days, a growing proportion of people are in careers different from the ones for which they were trained, and are likely to have changed jobs at least four times before they retire. The job market is no longer the same. What we need is a critical and creative reflection on what these changing times mean for education.

Dealing with our contradictions

​We Kenyans need to stop hiding behind dated narratives of colonial tribalism and the Cold War and develop the guts to confront the good, the bad and the ugly of our history and our national consciousness. We must not shy away from asking ourselves difficult questions about what colonialism actually did to us, how that colonialism is deeply embedded in the current political culture, and how that exploitation is masculinized and transmitted through the education system. We can get the facts about our oppression from science and the social sciences. But we can only face the accompanying dread and implications for social change through the arts.

Experts are now talking of a conceptual age where what counts is not only information, but also the ability to use it creatively, otherwise called innovation.

We also must realize that the reason successive Kenya governments have deliberately discouraged us from learning the arts, and particularly the history of Kenya and of the African continent, is not because they are concerned with development needs. The political class does not want us to understand the reality that we the people are slaving away to enrich a minority.

The schisms that divide Kenyans from each other along ethnicity and gender, or separate Kenyans from their neighbours, or delude us that our professions have no link to our talents, all serve to prevent us from making connections across time, space and cultures. We understand our realities only with a healthy dose of the arts, and we can only craft solutions by weaving our creativity with the tools of science and all the knowledge available to humankind.

​We must therefore reject these narratives that fragment the Kenyan psyche along gender, ethnicity, religious and professional lines. Let us choose to uproot patriarchy, misogyny and religious bigotry, to understand our continental history, and to intertwine our artistic skills with our scientific insights. Only then can we, as Thomas Sankara said, dare to invent the future.

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Ideas

I Write What I Like: Steve Biko’s Legacy of Black Consciousness and Anti-Capitalism Revisited

Continuing our look at the life of Steve Biko, Heike Becker writes about two extraordinary events.

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In 2015 students at South African universities rose up in a mass revolt. Young women and men born after the end of apartheid in 1994 demanded free education; they forcefully insisted that tuition fees be scrapped, and also that the contents, methodologies and academic teachers reflect the post-apartheid ‘free’ South Africa.

In the new student movements the legacy of Steve Biko, who was murdered by the apartheid regime on 12 September 1977 became important again. Young students regarded Biko’s call to autonomous Black action as still relevant for contemporary South Africa. Black Consciousness philosophy gained significance again when students insisted upon the reform of curricula, which they said conveyed racist and colonialist forms of knowledge and ignored, even scorned African intellectual experience. Calls on black people to first free their own minds, become conscious of their own, and each other’s conditions and work together to change the material conditions of black students have been the guiding principles of the new South African student movements as they were for the generation of the 1970s.

A brush with the police: Biko’s early politicisation

Stephen Bantu (Steve) Biko was born in what is today the Eastern Cape province of South Africa on 18 December 1946. His father worked as a policeman, and later as a clerk in the King William’s Town Native Affairs office. He was also enrolled for legal studies at the University of South Africa (UNISA), the distance-learning university. Steve’s father died suddenly in 1950, when Steve was four years old. His mother subsequently raised the children on her own, working as a cook at a local hospital.

In 1962 Steve started his senior secondary schooling at the famous mission educational insitutiton in the Eastern Cape, Lovedale college, where his elder brother Khaya was already a student. Khaya, who was politically active with the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), became a major influence on Steve’s introduction to resistance and liberation politics. A few months into Steve’s studies at Lovedale the Biko brothers were taken into custody by the police. Khaya, who was suspected of being involved with Poqo, the armed wing of the PAC, was charged and sentenced to two years imprisonment, with 15 months suspended. Steve was interrogated by the police and though released he was subsequently expelled from the school after only attending it for three months.

Though he was forced to return home he continued going to classes at Lovedale, where he became friends with Barney Pityana, at the time a student at the school. This friendship became significant in the formation of the Black Consciousness movement, and especially the South African Student Organisation (SASO).

Black Consciousness ideology and the formation of SASO

SASO arose out of profound revolts against apartheid and institutional racism, which spread across South African universities from the mid-1960s. In 1968 at Fort Hare, a fairly independent black institution for higher education, students boycotted the installation of the new rector Johannes Marthinus de Wet, a member of the Afrikaner broederbond (a secret society of male white nationalists). Later in the year the university was closed and 23 students, among them Barney Pityana were not allowed to come back. Significantly, a new organisation of student protest arose in the very last days of 1968 when SASO was founded during a meeting, exclusively attended by black students. This event took place at Mariannhill, a Catholic mission west of Durban, and the site of St. Francis College, a coeducational independent secondary school, which was the alma mater of Biko, from which he had matriculated with very good grades in 1965 and subsequently taken up studies at the ‘non-European’ medical school of the University of Natal. Biko became the new organisation’s first President when SASO was officially inaugurated at the Turfloop campus of the University of the North (UNIN) in July of the following year.

The developments that led to the formation of SASO need to be understood in the politics of South Africa’s 1968 moment, a reinvention of the politics of protest. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the emergence of new repertoires of resistance in student protests. Yet SASO’s formation was also due to the complex relations of black students with the country’s long-existing national student organisation NUSAS (National Union of South African Students). NUSAS, which had been founded in 1924, was open to students of all races.

At the ‘black’ universities which had been established as apartheid institutions in the early 1960s small numbers of students joined NUSAS, and at some institutions battles took place for permission to form autonomous Student Representative Councils (SRC) and to affiliate to NUSAS. Yet there also was frustration about racist tendencies within the student association. At issue was that NUSAS despite its multiracial membership was essentially dominated and controlled by white students.

In 1968 Biko and others thus formed SASO, which for political reasons offered membership to students of all ‘black’ sections of the population, which included those assigned to the apartheid categories of ‘African’, ‘Coloured’ and ‘Indian’. In 1971 the SASO Policy Manifesto set out the Black Consciousness doctrine.

On the organisational level, the SASO activists held that to avoid domination by white ‘liberals’ black people had to organise independently. In 1970 Biko wrote in the SASO Newsletter, suggestively signing as ‘Frank Talk’:

The role of the white liberal in the black man’s history in South Africa is a curious one. Very few black organisations were not under white direction. True to their image, the white liberals always knew what was good for the blacks and told them so…

Nowhere is the arrogance of the liberal ideology demonstrated so well as in their insistence that the problems of the country can only be solved by a bilateral approach involving both black and white. This has, by and large, come to be taken in all seriousness as the modus operandi in South Africa by all those who claim they would like a change in the status quo. Hence the multiracial political organisations and parties and the ‘nonracial’ student organisations, all of which insist on integration not only as an end goal but also as a means.

Black Consciousness as SASO’s official ideology was profoundly influenced by the SASO leadership’s reading of Frantz Fanon, particularly the militant philosopher’s Black Skin, White Masks and the African-American Black Power movement. In the early years the focus was on the psychological empowerment of black people; they believed that black people needed to rid themselves of any sense of racial inferiority, an idea they expressed by popularizing the slogan ‘black is beautiful’. As early as 1971, the SASO leadership discussed proposals to cast off the students-only attitude, including the formation of a Black Workers’ Council (later renamed the Black Workers Project) and launched the Black People’s Convention (BPC), a new political movement that would soon run alongside SASO. Practically the activists organised Black Community Programmes (BCPs).

In the early years of its existence, the all-black SASO was allowed space to grow at the black universities, in part because the government regarded the separate black student association and its emphasis on largely psychological-oriented black consciousness as quite compatible with the apartheid ideology. They were to learn soon that SASO, and more generally the ‘black conscious movement’ that Biko promoted, posed a major threat to the regime. But by the time that SASO began to be more active in political campaigns, from about 1972 onwards, the organisation had established already firm structural roots, which made it difficult for the government to entirely suppress it.

An early example of the dialectics of repression and radicalised politicization included the 1972 student protests at ‘Turfloop’ after the Student Representative Council (SRC) President, Onkgopotse Tiro, was expelled after speaking out against Bantu education during a graduation ceremony at the university. 1974 became a crucial year. In January SASO officially condemned the presence of the Apartheid forces in Namibia; the organisation also reaffirmed the non-collaboration stance of the Black Consciousness Movement and condemned the Bantustan leaders. In September of the same year a rally celebrated the ascension of FRELIMO (the Mozambican liberation movement under the leadership of Samora Machel) into power in Mozambique was held despite the refusal to grant permission for the action.

Repression followed suit. Eighty SASO and BPC leaders were detained without trial for their support of the pro-FRELIMO rally and during the following year tried at the Supreme Court in Pretoria, eventually in 1976 they were sentenced and incarcerated on Robben Island. In 1974 SASO was listed as one of the affected organisation under the Affected Organisation Act of 1974. This prohibited it from receiving foreign funding to pursue its objectives. In July 1975 SASO held its annual conference under very difficult conditions. Only one member of the executive committee could attend the meeting. The rest of the executive members were either banned or had been arrested. Finally in October 1977, SASO and other Black Consciousness organisations were banned under the Internal Security Act. The most brutal example of repression of course was the murder of Steve Biko while in detention in September 1977.

The ‘Durban Moment’

As South African student politics radicalised, the protests initially confined to university politics grew beyond campus concerns; they became instrumental in laying the grounds for the new black trade unions that emerged in the 1970s. In some instances, black and white students, and a few younger, radical academics, worked together in these new-left politics. Radical academics were involved particularly in the efforts around strikes and black labour unions. The connection between students, radical academics, workers and other marginalised social groups becomes brilliantly apparent in the ‘Durban moment’, probably the most significant political development ensuing from South Africa’s 1968. The ‘Durban moment’ is often regarded as the beginning of the new wave of resistance that led to the Soweto uprising, the massive uprisings of the 1980s and eventually the demise of the regime.

Early 1973 saw a massive strike wave in the port town of Durban. By the end of March 1973, almost 100,000, mainly African workers, approximately half of the entire African workers employed in Durban, had come out on strike. Through songs and marches, workers made their demands heard – the first public mass action since the political activism of the 1950s. This was political action, and also more immediately a labour revolt; workers exercised the power of factory-based mass action.

What looked like spontaneous strikes, originated in a complex mix: low wages, the humiliation of pass laws and racism, the hardship of migrant labour, forced removals, and significantly the denial of black workers’ right to organize. The strikes signalled the growth of militant non-racial trade unionism, and in a wider sense a revived spirit of rebellion in the country.

There were links between the eruption of workers’ action and the underground liberation movements; the resurgence of Marxist thinking among a new generation came into play. There was however also, though this has sometimes been denied, decisive influence of the recently emerged Black Consciousness movements’ ideas. Of special importance was the links between activist intellectuals, who in different ways embodied South Africa’s 1968 moment, thinking in new ideological perspectives, and having tried out new methods of activism. Most significant here was the special political alliance, intellectual and personal friendship between Steve Biko and Richard (‘Rick’) Turner, a lecturer in political philosophy at the University of Natal, who held a doctorate on the political works of Jean-Paul Sartre, which he had completed at the Sorbonne in Paris. In the early 1970s Turner was a researcher into labour issues, and a community and labour organiser in Durban, deeply influenced by the French Left, including Althusserian readings of Marxism.

Turner’s and Biko’s philosophical and political ideas significantly shaped the massive strikes in Durban in the early 1970s and continued to impact on the resistance movement against apartheid in different ways throughout the 1980s. Biko’s radical emancipatory Black Consciousness ideology in conversation with Turner’s anti-capitalist notion of ‘participatory democracy’ provided a brief glimpse into the possibilities of another South Africa.

The murder of Biko while in police detention in September 1977, and the assassination of Turner a few months later, in January 1978 at his home in Durban were devastating for their families, friends and comrades. They were shattering too for the country’s politics of resistance, closing off new non-authoritarian radical forms of resistance. Biko’s (and Turner’s) imaginative power and creativity, and their reflection on alternatives to apartheid beyond the management of the state by the liberation movement in power remains a tremendous inspiration.

This article was first published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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Decolonising Accidental Kenya or How to Transition to a GameB Society

Decolonisation will involve adopting a forward-looking orientation transcending the accidental circumstances of our individual and collective upbringing.

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Decolonising Accidental Kenya or How to Transition to a Game B Society
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The Berlin Conference of 1886 set the forces responsible for creating the map of modern Africa in motion. This demarcation of the continent by colonial interests resulting in the consolidation of spaces on a map into countries was for the most part an arbitrary exercise. It resulted in the formation of a wide-ranging set of artificial nation states. Kenya and most other African nations are, by this definition, historical accidents.

The colonial cookie cutter changed everything, rerouting resources and labour into new avenues with new beneficiaries, rewiring the system of production and exchange in fundamental ways. All of this had massive consequences for populations falling within their borders, and beyond. Ironically, imposing a Eurocentric version of the central state turned out to be even more disruptive for what were arguably the Greater Horn of Africa’s more organically constituted units like Somalia, the intra-lacustrine region, and the former Kingdoms in Rwanda and Burundi.

Africa’s colonial reorganisation, by the standards of historical conquest and exploitation, was short-lived. In some pockets, it acted as an accelerator where its benefits have outlived its negative impacts, for the most part. In others, the disruption and confusion engendered still appear to be a permanent condition. In all cases, colonialism provided the context for the problems that came afterwards, diverting blame for the continent’s issues to external forces and actors when convenient.

This is one way of looking at Africa’s state at this point in time. But what if we look closer, and dig deeper? We are now in the territory of complex systems science, which has demonstrated the influence of initial conditions on any given system’s pathway over time. Colonialism articulated within other parameters such as the natural contours of geography, spatial factors, demographic conditions, and other variables that account for the region’s long-term historical trajectories.

Maybe the accident is not so accidental. A certain regression back to the African mean has been observable over the past several decades, giving rise to the counter-factual hypothesis that a different historical trajectory sans colonial intervention would have likely produced a similar configuration of political units, marked by the same initial conditions in the form of demographic, environmental, and technological parameters.

The localised nature of political organisation and the isolation of many areas of the continent would still have ended up acting as an entry point for outside interference and domination by invaders speaking different languages and representing other civilisations. Computer simulations modelled on the same system parameters would no doubt inscribe developmental pathways not so different from the one now prevailing. The end result would still be the rise of an economic and political elite, albeit perhaps not the product of formal education based on the Western mindset, because the emergence of state organisation is in any case an eventuality that has been occurring in Africa according to its own historical patterning since pharaonic times.

This is one point. The other is that countries sharing a given region or sector tend to converge once during periods of transition. The influence of initial conditions becomes more pronounced during these episodes, which by definition appear chaotic because they involve the break-up and reconfiguration of the system’s units and linkages. This has been occurring in clear sight during the current shift from an agrarian to a diversified, multi-sectoral economy in Kenya.

The process of change is accelerating apace at this juncture, telescoping internal changes that occurred over several centuries in other parts of the world and within several generations in Africa. The significance of Kenya’s transition transcends its borders because, due to whatever accidents of the past hundred years, its transformation will influence developments elevating the synergies of the larger region.

According to this thought experiment, the conventional analyses and the assumptions they are based on are no longer as compelling as they were during the heyday of radical political economy praxis. Despite the revival of the colonialism argument by millennial commentators who are trying to make sense of the economic cul-de-sac they find themselves in, the decolonisation narrative is not an issue for most of the region’s economically active population.

Decolonisation and reorganisation

We can nevertheless carry Franz Fanon’s diagnosis forward with a view towards anticipating the emergence of a new Africa more aligned with the region’s initial conditions, and hosting a distinctively African capitalism. We are actually witnessing these processes occur before our eyes. The turbulence erupting across the Horn will hopefully prove to be a necessary part of the larger transformational dynamic at work.

The process is sufficiently advanced to make some of us believe that countries like Kenya and others on the global periphery are positioned to make a vital contribution to the planet’s salvation. But sorting out the nation’s internal order is a prerequisite for achieving this station, and progress towards this point is in danger of stalling.

During the past two decades, Accidental Kenya has entered the territory of the release phase, as detailed in analyses about the Moi transition and the reorganisation taking form in its wake. The analyses were based on a developmental cycle comprising four phases: exploitation, consolidation, release, and reorganisation leading to a new cycle. There is no guarantee societies undergoing such phase transitions will complete the process. They can retreat to the previous state and stagnate, break-up, or even collapse—as was the fate of previous African civilisations.

After decades of hard-fought effort to decentralise decision-making and redistribute institutional governance, the executive branches of government in this part of the world are doing everything they can to reconcentrate decision-making power in the centre. Rwanda has already become an exemplar of the elite-controlled surveillance state.

The benefits of political decolonisation are typically usurped by other actors, and its role replaced by new forces. The decision to build a railway to the source of the Nile to protect the shipping route to India set in motion a chain of reactions that continues up to the present. A deeper form of decolonisation than self-rule will be needed to initiate a new cycle.

The big fix deception

“If it’s broken, just get under the hood and fix it.” So went the rallying cry for billionaire Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential candidacy (“hood” refers to the bonnet of an automobile). It helped make his on-and-off campaign the most successful third party run in the United States since 1912. More significantly, the notion of “just fixing” the “broken” political system became a meme that has resonated ever since, providing a gaping entry point for the politics of restoration championed by the likes of Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, and Donald Trump.

Systems of governance can be repaired, but can politicians fix them? It seems the more we depend upon them, the bigger the problem. In Kenya, for example, a submission to the recent court of appeal deliberations on the latest scheme to fix Accidental Kenya described our politicians as “job seekers who stand for nothing”. The description, strictly speaking, is not accurate: those often capricious Kenyan “job seekers” actually represent the entrenched tradition of pursuing personal accumulation by any means available.

Rwanda has already become an exemplar of the elite-controlled surveillance state.

This goes to the beating heart of Kenya’s colonial legacy, which endorsed the exploitation of Accidental Kenya by a numerically small elite committed to the creation of a capitalist political order. Small cliques of individuals have been in the business of applying fixes ever since the country’s creation. During the formative period, the administration established this by passing a comprehensive set of statutes limiting preferential access to land and markets for agricultural production.

After independence, Jomo Kenyatta endorsed the primacy of opportunistic accumulation when he castigated former Mau Mau fighter Bildad Kaggia for not grabbing the fruits of political independence like Paul Ngei and many of his other colleagues in the fight for independence. The unbalanced relationship between accumulation and the public good has persisted because the great majority of Kenyans endorsed the unbounded quest for private wealth in both principle and practice.

Independence in 1963 allowed Kenyans to participate in the economy established by colonial exploitation, the accumulation and resulting growth resulting in the consolidation of its accidental formation.  The release phase highlighted the breakdown of the colonial-designed, state-centric economic order, and was accompanied by an unprecedented feeding frenzy triggered by World Bank and IMF-mandated privatisation of public land and other resources.

The trauma eventually led to the comprehensive reforms demanded by a mobilised and increasingly militant cross-section of the nation’s citizens. This opened the way for the long and tortuous process of public participation and political deal-making culminating in the 2010 Constitution. Anointed with the blood of citizens, the new charter signalled the onset of a fundamental reorganisation of Kenyan society and an economy attuned to the challenges facing future generations. It opened the door for the nation to seek its real post-colonial destiny.

A bridge too far

Kenyan political power relations being what they are, it only took one electoral cycle for the job seekers to decide they needed to “get under the hood and fix it” once again.  Renewal got sidetracked into the Building Bridges Initiative, launched with the full resources of the government behind it. BBI in turn gave rise to the noise unleashed by the Uthamaki-Hustler narrative, which obscured the fact that the fix was actually a top-heavy Chinese political model clothed in the language of magical developmental thinking.

The circus accompanying these developments attempted to conjure up the illusion that BBI and its quasi-legitimisation by county legislatures were post-reform steps forward needed to resolve, once and for all, the nation’s most fundamental divisions that fall beyond the scope of the new Constitution.

The gambit to fix what is regarded as one of the most well-thought-out constitutions of the contemporary era became the source of one of those dangerous month-of-August Kenyan moments. Once again, a few gallant individuals came to the rescue. The judgements delivered by Kenya’s High Court and Court of Appeal, and Judge Kiage’s critique of executive bad faith rescued another generation from being trapped inside Accidental Kenya.

Small cliques of individuals have been in the business of applying fixes ever since the country’s creation.

Judge Kiage’s deconstruction of the BBI juggernaut bundled together the wisdom of Western jurisprudence with key historical interpretations of society and governance. His robust application of these sources to expose the bad faith characterising Kenya’s top-down fixology was perhaps the most powerful defence of democracy the world has witnessed since the rise of Trumpism.

The Court of Appeal secured the integrity of the 2010 Constitution for the time being, but there is no reason to expect the leadership at the top here and in neighbouring countries to change course in regard to their usual transactional goals and their quest to remain in power.

The nation-state in its current form has proven poorly adapted to the distinctive features of sub-Sahara Africa, and the political class will continue to enjoy the relative autonomy conferred by the state due to its position in the international system of nation states, its relationship to the Western military intelligence networks, and the temporary largesse of Xi Jinping’s Chinese chequebook—for the time being.

The quest for autonomy

The international order based on nation-states is not going away, even though its civilisational operating system has clearly reached its limits with respect to ensuring the planet’s survival over the longue durée. The majority of people on Planet Earth will nevertheless continue to follow their social media, the news fed to them by the usual suspects, and their appetites for material consumption while the signs and omens of the changing climate and its ramifications manifest around them.

The African state may look the same at the top, but it is part of a larger, complex system that has been evolving in the presence of systemic stressors. The sequence of developments over the post-independence period that appears indicative of dysfunction and incapacity and incoherence from without camouflages massive shifts occurring within.

This is the backdrop to Judge Kiage’s reminder that a constitution is “not a mechanical statute but the mirror of a nation’s soul.”

Kenya has progressed through a series of calamities including economic shocks, an attempted military coup, droughts and famines, unprecedented population growth, the politics of secession, ethnic insurgencies, terrorist attacks, grand corruption, devastating El Nino rains, desert locust invasions, privatisation from above and other inappropriate policies, and the HIV and coronavirus pandemics.

The gambit to fix what is regarded as one of the most well-thought-out constitutions of the contemporary era became the source of one of those dangerous month-of-August Kenyan moments.

We all come of age doped up on something. Then we pick up all kinds of baggage as we move on. Decolonisation in this context, involves adopting a forward-looking orientation transcending the accidental circumstances of our individual and collective upbringing.

This form of decolonisation synchs with the growing movement across the world striving to combine our scientific, technological, anthropological, ecological and other knowledge traditions with our direct experience of the sacred in order to transcend the accidents that create a new civilisational operating system. The advocates of this movement in my homeland refer to it as GameB. The content of GameB deserves its own discussion, but for the time being we can note that Kenyan society is already a player in this movement.

The Muslim poet and mystic Rumi said, “In the beginning I wanted to change the world, but then I realised the only thing I can do is change is myself.”

This is where we are right now. Nation-building in Kenya begins with creating a community of diverse communities. Wandia Njoya set the ball rolling in her insightful essay on Kenya’s twisted educational system by telling us we can start “by learning to love our children.”

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