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Recovering the Oromo Story in Ethiopia’s Fractured Past

8 min read.

Successive Ethiopian governments have tried to erase the history and culture of the Oromo people, but a recent conference held in Addis Ababa finally gave this marginalised community an opportunity to be heard.

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Recovering the Oromo Story in Ethiopia’s Fractured Past
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The “Ayyaantuu”, are a body of persons within Ethiopia’s Oromo people, whose life’s work is calculating time using a complex system of numerology and astronomy to predict everything from weather patterns for the use of agricultural planning, to moments of societal upheaval.

It is being slowly discovered that they maintained, in their antiquity, a series of astral observatories all along the length of the eastern Rift Valley, through which they had mapped the visible universe, named stars and planets, and developed a calendar system that recycles itself every three hundred and sixty-five years.

Their other tools were a forked sighting staff, still carried by Oromo herdsman today, and the string of a series of lakes along the length of the valley floor that curiously, lie in the pattern of a star system above them.

Perhaps the last of these observatories has been finally acknowledged as such at Namoratunga in northern Kenya, with most of the star-aligned stone pillars still intact.

They had observed a comet, and calculated that it was set to return every seventy-five years.

In 1682, the astronomer Edmond Halley (1656-1742) using Newtonian laws of motion to compute its overall trajectory of the same comet even after it has departed, came to the same conclusion. The comet is now named after him, except in Oromo, where it is called “Gaalessa”.

Gems like this were part of a veritable avalanche of hitherto lesser-documented information that came flooding out during the thirty-third conference of the Oromo Studies Association (OSA) and after. The gathering, held between 26thand 27th July, was historic in many ways. It was the first time the OSA had ever been able to hold a conference on Ethiopian soil.

Out of over 100 papers submitted, there were some fifty-six presentations covering topics ranging from ecological management, history, constitutionalism, culture and economics.

OSA was founded by a group of exiled activists in 1986 in response to a crackdown that had driven those campaigning for greater recognition of the Oromo people and their culture murdered, tortured, jailed or driven out of the country.

There is a long and short background to this.

As a people, The Oromo number over thirty-five million in all directions from Addis Ababa, which also was Oromo territory before the founding of the modern Ethiopian state. They consist of a solid whole third of the country’s overall population.

Ethiopia has travelled its own uncolonized journey in the quest to build a modern, unified African country. Nevertheless, this quest has run into many of the same problems experienced by the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, namely what to do with those sections of the population that still defined themselves as other things, other nations even, predating the idea of the new state?

The Oromo number over 35 million in all directions from Addis Ababa, which also was Oromo territory before the founding of the modern Ethiopian state. They consist of a solid whole third of the country’s total population.

In post-European Africa, the story was quite straightforward. Those Africans argued that Africa must re-embrace its indigenous customs and institutions, and set aside the legacies derived from the long European colonial occupation.

The Ethiopian story allowed for the side-stepping of that question, for a while at least. The official argument has always been that the Ethiopian state is an independently-founded African institution, and that therefore those arguments do not apply.

The periods of Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974) and Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam (1974-1991) saw a fealty to the concept ideal firmly established by Selassie’s predecessor Emperor Menelik (1889-1911): that all of Ethiopia was to be assimilated into one Amharic-speaking Orthodox Christian culture.

The politics of the wars of resistance to Mengistu’s brutal Dergue rule, led to the ascension of a government obliged to make specific statutory recognition of the country’s ethnic landscape, despite the numerous schemes by the new strongman the late Meles Zenawi (1991-2012) to undermine this game-changing arrangement.

The April 2018 resignation of Meles’ successor Prime Minister Desalegn was a direct result of mass protests triggered by the government attempt to expand the boundaries of the already disputed city further into Oromo federal territory.

A reality now exists: a people mobilised in a political context where their previously hidden identities are now constitutionally recognised.

This is the political inheritance Desalegn’s own successor, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is currently grappling with.

From its founding, OSA has functioned as a de facto think tank, policy forum and perhaps virtual parliament for the aspired-for Oromiyya nation-state.

Finally, with this homecoming conference, the enforced diaspora was able to meet and encounter those who had never left home, and many in between.

The Oromo point of view is very straightforward: they say they are the largest colony in the Empire set in motion by Emperor Sahle Selassie in the 1840s, and massively militarily expanded by Emperor Menelik II, and then consolidated through a series of recognition treaties with the European powers. Assimilation, and cultural erasure were the particularly emphasized aspects of this process. The Oromo point to a long-standing need for effective decolonization. At the very least, they argue, this should mean the actual implementation of the full meaning of the 1995 Constitution that for the first-time recognized Ethiopia’s separate nations. At the most, it could mean secession (an option also provided for in the same constitution).

Within Ethiopian political discourse (and even beyond), this stance provokes a whole spectrum of reactions, from the deeply considered, to the nakedly visceral. It has been the primary driver of the culture of political intolerance in Ethiopia.

The Oromo point of view is very straightforward: they say they are the largest colony in the Empire set in motion by Emperor Sahle Selassie in the 1840s, and massively militarily expanded by Emperor Melelik II, and then consolidated through a series of recognition treaties with European powers.

Take the case of Ruda Kura, a Sayyoo clan elder, who lived between 1870 and 1974. He endured monstrous deprivations, including being chained to a tree in a public square for three years, and being publicly flogged due to his refusal to pay taxes to, or otherwise endorse the imposed Menelik state structures.

Much of such history is not widely known, not just in wider Ethiopia, but even among the current younger generations of Oromos themselves. And where it is known, there are often numerous academicized and historicized apologia seeking to explain it away.

This is where OSA’s relevance came in.

The first goal was to set the historical record straight, whatever the potential outcomes. This included the possibility of a consensus being arrived at that, despite the long-standing historical injustices, perhaps Ethiopia should just struggle on as a unitary, monolingual state.

But it is simply not possible to have a productive discussion on a way forward, if “half the story has never been told” as Bob Marley aptly put it.

And it is simply not possible to tell that half of the story if it has never been documented, and those carrying it in the hearts and memories are dismissed as unreliable, inauthentic sources, because they do not speak the language of academia.

This was a mission to re-define knowledge, and have it recognized as such.

It is a story with which many other native populations would be familiar. However, in the Ethiopia/Oromo case there was also a very longstanding, vigilant and meticulous system of censorship and policing within academia to prevent this other knowledge being produced in the first place.

OSA was established to carry out an “engaged scholarship” aimed at telling the full Oromo story, recovering and conserving the embattled indigenous knowledge, and researching the continued effects of what they see as a sustained colonial occupation aimed at erasing them.

The significance of the conference revealed itself only slowly, in many public and private moments. The appointed interim President of the Oromo federal unit he opening, and listened to some of the early presentations after making a short speech. This was followed by the mayor of Addis Ababa attending the opening of the last day, and giving his own speech. Neither had been on the programme, and never had Oromo natives holding office in the capital spoken so freely to an independent Oromo native gathering critical of the Ethiopian state. It was also a homecoming for many members after four-decade separations, such as among the Jalata family, whose member, the activist Professor Asafa Jalata, had been exiled in the United States.

It was triply significant for the American researcher, activist and academic Bonnie Holcomb, author of the 1991 book: The Invention of Ethiopia: The Making of a Dependent Colonial State in Northeast Africa, whose had been arrested and eventually banned from the country altogether back in the 1970s, for documenting the Oromo experience that informed the work.

She was able to finally return through this conference. In her time, she has seen the culture move from being essentially banned and demonised to nominally statutorily recognised, and the organisation she co-founded finally make its way home, to discover and connect with two generations of home-based activism.

A second major OSA goal was to generate reflection on what contemporary thinking on “Development” means for the Oromo people. This is partly because Oromo areas of Ethiopia constitute the breadbasket of the country, and as such, any objections to further development (read “eviction” and environmental destruction) projects were deemed as the thoughts of a backward people. Many native peoples can learn from this.

A new approach is needed to get beyond the crisis that five hundred or more years of dominant Western thought has now imposed upon the planet. The planet has reached a point where it may no longer be able to sustain human, and possibly other forms of especially mammalian life. Western thought’s underlying Abrahamic exhortation to “…multiply…fill the earth and subdue it…” (Genesis: 1:28) is about to kill us all.

Key to this new approach will be resetting humanity’s relationship with the rest of nature. For that to happen, humanity will have to reach deep into those areas of human knowledge hitherto marginalised and downgraded by the great White experiment, for answers. Only those peoples who, despite colonialisms and attempted genocides, still held on to their pre-Abrahamic knowledge systems or have the means of reconstructing them, can help.

The Oromo are a prime example of this.

Through their book: Sacred Knowledge Traditions of the Oromo of the Horn of Africa, essentially researched over a period of three decades, Dr Gemetchu Megerssa and Dr Aneesa Kassam have finally managed to capture the detailed outline of this thought system, aspects of which have been recognized by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as part the intangible human cultural heritage.

Apart from astronomy and numerology, the Oromo offer much to learn regarding autonomous governance, democratic governance and the management of power (political authority is handed to a new age-set through elections every eight years), organic agriculture (the world-renown Boran bull species is a product of the indigenous breeding knowledge of the Booran branch of Oromo) and spiritual care.

This is a classic case of the re-definition of knowledge. The primary source for this great study was a series of initiation sessions that Gemetchu was inducted into as a young man, in search of a deeper understanding of the Oromo system. His key teacher was Bulee Gayoo. He agreed to pass on the teaching upon establishing that in fact, Gemetchu was Ruda Kura’s paternal grandson.

Apart from astronomy and numerology, the Oromo offer much to learn regarding autonomous governance, democratic governance and the management of power (political authority is handed to a new age-set through elections every eight years), organic agriculture (the world-renowned Boran bull species is a product of the indigenous breeding knowledge of the Booran branch of Oromo) and spiritual care.

Among his people, Bulee Gayyoo was an ilmaan korma, a first son born when his own father was forty years old. This meant he was “born within time”, and aligned with the Oromo Gadaa time system, giving him special responsibilities as a custodian of its knowledge.

In Kenya, he presented first as a night watchman, and then a cattle-labourer in Kariobangi market and lived in the slums of Mathare Valley, where the teaching sessions took place. He passed on in 2003. Now he lives on in the form of a deeply researched book. How much of the knowledge held by people such as him, never made this journey? How much is lost to the vanities and stricture of Western-inspired academia?

But there is more: the recovered Oromo story also offers the foundation for a greater study of the black Kushite civilizational system that gave rise to the black civilization of Khemet, better known as Ancient Egypt.

With Oromo, OSA may have found the place where the proper historical reconstruction of the actual African story may begin.

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Kalundi Serumaga is a social and political commentator based in Kampala.

Ideas

Equality, Family and Unpaid Domestic Work: Kenyan High Court Ruling

The judgment of the Kenyan High Court joins a global constitutional conversation of how institutional inequalities within the family may be judicially redressed.

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Equality, Family and Unpaid Domestic Work: Kenyan High Court Ruling
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In an interesting judgment delivered earlier this month, the High Court of Kenya at Nakuru held that the housework and care-work performed by a female spouse (the plaintiff) entitled her to an equal share of the matrimonial property at the time of the dissolution of marriage. The facts of MW v AN were that the parties were married in 1990, separated in 2003, and divorced in 2011. The dispute centred on the fate of a house constructed at Nakuru. While the house was registered in the name of the male spouse (the defendant), the plaintiff argued that she had taken out extensive loans to finance the purchase of the land and the construction of the house. Moreover, despite having a job herself, she had been the sole caregiver in the family. The defendant, for his part, argued that not only had he bought the plot on his own, but had also been providing financial contributions towards the upkeep of his wife.

The High Court of Kenya at Nakuru held that the housework and care-work performed by a female spouse (the plaintiff) entitled her to an equal share of the matrimonial property at the time of the dissolution of marriage.

Justice Mumbua Matheka observed that Section 6(7) of the Matrimonial Property Act of 2013, matrimonial property “vests in the spouses according to the contribution of either spouse towards its question, and shall be divided between the spouses if they divorce or their marriage is otherwise dissolved.” In Echaria v Echaria, it had been held by the Court of Appeal that where there was a “substantial but unascertainable contribution” by both parties, a default rule of equal division would apply. The question, of course, turned upon the meaning of the word “contribution”.

In this context, Justice Matheka observed that “contribution” would have to include not only tangible financial contribution, but also the “unseen” contribution of housework and care-work. In paragraph 38, she observed:

This other part of mothering, housekeeping and taking care of the family is more often than not not given any value when it comes to sharing matrimonial property. It is easy for the spouse working away from home and sending money to lay claim to the whole property purchased and developed with that money by the spouse staying at home and taking care of the children and the family. That spouse will be heard to say that the other one was not employed so they contributed nothing. That can no longer be a tenable argument as it is a fact that stay at home parents and in particular women because of our cultural connotations do much more work (house wives) due to the nature of the job . . . hence for a woman in employment who has to balance child bearing and rearing this contribution must be considered. How do we put monetary value to that process where a woman bears the pregnancy, gives birth, and takes care of the babies and where after divorce or separation she takes care of the children single handedly without any help from the father of the children. . . . Should this court take this into consideration when distributing matrimonial property where the husband as in this case is left in the matrimonial home where the wife rents a house to provide shelter for herself and the children? I think it should count, especially where the husband has not supported the raising of the children, has not borne his share of parental responsibility.

Furthermore, this would have to be determined by evidence:

It is time that parties took time to give evidence, sufficient enough to support the value to be placed on the less obvious contribution. It is unfair and unjust for one party to be busy just making their money (the ‘seen’ income) while the other is doing two or three other jobs in the family whose income is ‘unseen’ and then claim this other one did nothing. This attitude is so entrenched we still hear women especially who are housewives say: sifanyi kazi (literally I do not do any work) simply because they do not leave the home to go earn money elsewhere.

Consequently, Justice Matheka held that notwithstanding the fact that the matrimonial property was registered in the name of the husband, the maximum “equality is equity” would apply, and that consequently “the property be valued, sold and each party have 1⁄2 share of the proceeds of the sale.”

Justice Matheka’s judgement is important because of the explicit recognition it gives to “unseen” and unpaid housework, within the context of domestic relationships; as has been well established by now, across the world and across societies, within the institution of the family, the burden of such work is gendered in nature (see, e.g., The Second Shift) – and often, unseen and unpaid domestic work by the female spouse is what “frees up” the male spouse to enter the labour market and engage in the kind of financially remunerative work that, ultimately, results in (for example) matrimonial property being bought with “his” money, and therefore registered in his name. Thus, departures from traditional notions of property are essential in order to do justice in and within the institution of the family.

It is important to contextualise this judgment, both within the framework of Kenyan and comparative law. In Kenya, the default position used to be (as in many other countries) that only financial contributions were to be taken into account in calculating respective shares in the matrimonial property upon dissolution of marriage. Explicitly seeking to change this, the Kenyan Constitution of 2010 contained Article 45(3), which – borrowed from CEDAW – states that, “Parties to a marriage are entitled to equal rights at the time of marriage, during the marriage and at the dissolution of the marriage.” In her book, Equality in Kenya’s 2010 Constitution (2021), Dr Victoria Miyandazi notes that the intention behind Article 45 was, inter alia, to address “harmful practices such as . . . unequal claims to matrimonial property upon divorce.” In Agnes Nanjala Williams vs Jacob Petrus Nicholas Vandergoes, the Court of Appeal directly applied Article 45 between two private parties to mandate an equal division of assets between the spouses, even in the absence of a statutory framework (“horizontal application of rights”).

Justice Matheka’s judgement is important because of the explicit recognition it gives to “unseen” and unpaid housework.

This position, however, was arguably overruled by the Matrimonial Property Act of 2013, which required judges to take into account the relative contributions of the spouses (as indicated above), but also explicitly specified that the word “contributions” included “domestic work, childcare, and companionship.” The Matrimonial Property Act was challenged by the Federation of Woman Lawyers on the basis that the displacement of the 50 per cent rule in favour of “non-monetary contributions” would restore the gendered inequality within marriage, based on the difficulty of calculating non-monetary contributions. This challenge, however, was rejected by the court.

In that context, the judgment in MW v AN is important, as it essentially restores the position of the default equality rule where there is evidence of “non-monetary contribution”, and allays fears that judiciaries that might not have entirely broken out of patriarchal norms will use the vagueness of the statutory clause to devalue housework or care-work.

Furthermore, this is a position that has been advanced by progressive courts across the world. Perhaps the most outstanding example is New Zealand, where the Property Relations Act of 1976 established a presumption of equal sharing at the time of dissolution, and specifically provided that financial contribution was not to be treated as weightier than non-financial contribution. In numerous judgments interpreting the Property Relations Act, the New Zealand courts have interpreted it with a view towards fulfilling the statutory purpose of achieving the “equal status of women in society”, holding, for example, that wherever the provisions of the Act were ambiguous, the default presumption would be in favour of the property being matrimonial/joint (and therefore, subject to equal division).

The judgment in MW v AN is important, as it essentially restores the position of the default equality rule where there is evidence of “non-monetary contribution”.

Indeed, Justice Matheka’s language is also remarkably similar to a 1992 judgment of the Colombian Constitutional Court. In Sentencia No. T-494/1992, the Constitutional Court was considering the eviction of a widow from the matrimonial home; the widow’s non-monetary contributions had not been taken into account in determining whether or not she had a legal interest in the home. The Constitutional Court noted that such a position would have the effect of “invisiblising” domestic work, and deepening inequalities within social relations. The court went on to question the “artificial” distinction between “productive” and “non-productive work”, and noted that refusal to factor in unpaid domestic work would violate the Colombian Constitution’s guarantee of equality and non-discrimination.

The judgment of the Kenyan High Court, thus, joins a global constitutional conversation of how institutional inequalities within the family may be judicially redressed; and it also, I submit, advances the goals of Article 45(3) – itself a fascinating constitutional provision. For these reasons, it deserves careful study by students of comparative constitutional law.

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