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Whiteness and the Future of Artificial Intelligence

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Tracing the digital contours of the settler colony helps us understand how old inequalities will shape a future with artificial intelligence.

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For much of the nineteenth century, Sundays in an open field at the gates of New Orleans saw a spectacular congregation of human activity. Picture a hot, humid, swampy Louisiana summer day, the Spanish moss dripping from the trees, and the bass drum pulse reverberating as you approach a mass gathering at the fringe of the United States’s most Caribbean city.

You’d see New Orleaneans of all stripes, dressed in everything from the latest Parisian fashions to simple rags, standing around in circles, watching the most talented musicians, dancers, actors, and diviners of their city on full display.

If you could have angled your head to see inside the circle, you would be privileged to witness the diversity of humanity coming together. People from across Africa and the Americas co-mingling, sharing their culture, celebrating the arrival of the one day they can express their home and ancestral cultures in public.

Unaware that their communing would one day birth a novel culture, which would in turn branch out to influence cultures in the rest of the world, there must have been an urgent feeling to the gatherings, fleeting if not quite ephemeral, but temporary enough to make them feel dreamlike, religious even. As soon as that feverish dream of a day would break, they would be returning to unpaid labor, toiling in fields or answering to the whims of their white masters. Because they were not, in the society in which they lived, human.

In 2018, after returning to the US from living in Brazil, I visited New Orleans for the first time. While there, I picked up a book on the history of Congo Square, and in the following months I couldn’t help from periodically daydreaming about the historical Sunday gatherings in that city. I drew parallels to the basement house party or the rented community center of my childhood in Milwaukee, where immigrants would dance the night away, speak in their own language, eat their own food, even worship in their own cosmos.

They were also there at the nightclub that I frequented as a student in Madrid, filled with young men who may have risked their lives crossing deserts and seas to arrive in Europe, and who now danced in the center of circles to Youssou N’Dour. Or they were in the hidden away bars and nightclubs of New York and San Francisco, where migrants of a variety of classes and national origins brushed up against each other, catching up on the latest sounds from their various home lands. They were also in online spaces, in which young people across the world found a foothold for expression, with various permutations of digital soul music pulsing on the parallel circuits of a global capitalism still guided by the logic of white supremacy.

Connecting a historical moment like Congo Square to my own experiences helped to challenge lingering colonial logics embedded within my imaginings of America’s past. It particularly helped to destroy an invisible line that tends to be drawn between those whose ancestors arrived on these shores from Africa in bondage hundreds of years ago, and those who arrived more recently for other purposes. It forced me to recognize that African migration to the Americas (or elsewhere) can and should be thought of as a continuum, and the humanity of those who migrate, forced or by choice, is unbroken across space and time.

Last summer, I sat in a parking lot in King City, California, a small town surrounded by mountains and endless fields of fruit and vegetables, listening to a local Spanish language radio broadcast. On it, alongside various Mexican regional musics, they had public service announcements about COVID-19 and ads for English language classes. King City sits in the heart of one of the centers of industrial agriculture in the United States.

The manual labor performed in this region is done by workers from Mexico and Central America, some undocumented, but all descended from people who occupied and moved around these lands freely for thousands of years. Largely invisible in nearby wealthy urban enclaves, they are an integral labor force that save for a periodic scapegoating, demonization, and dehumanization in the media, isn’t normally seen as part of the nation—let alone having their hopes, joys, or individual expressions considered in mainstream discourse.

So I sat there, listening to the bright horn choruses and upbeat snare drum rolls, and imagined that these local radio broadcasts served to provide a sense of community and humanity to their audiences, not unlike those of the Sunday gatherings in New Orleans two hundred years ago. Humanity denied, humanity reclaimed, the contours of citizenship and their interplay with labor are perpetually dancing at the edges of the settler colony.

Contemporaneous to the gatherings at Congo Square, the American settler colony was in an expansive phase moving west across the North American continent. Around the same time, European powers were doling out territories for themselves in Africa, and across the world they accomplished these “civilizing missions” by pushing the existing inhabitants off of the land, killing or imprisoning them, or attempting to wipe out their way of life. The privileges of white settlers in these extensions of Europe were fortified by the legal structures of the colonial state. In the United States, laws like the Homestead Act and the Second Amendment to the Constitution turned white frontier families into state-sponsored militias, their structural advantage scrawled across the physical landscape of the continent.

In the wake of the guns and military campaigns (sometimes manned by colonised peoples themselves), urban professionals of the colonial metropoles followed with their pens, phonographs, and cameras and became the documentarians of the folk culture of the marginals, misfits, Native Americans and Africans at the frontier (as well in the working class neighborhoods of cities). These state agents and entrepreneurs would chronicle the transition from an Atlantic society based on slave labor to capitalism. The legends they constructed would become the foundation for an imperialist ideology that continues to this day.

Starting around the mid-1800s, the US witnessed the rise in popularity of the blackface minstrel show. Through the medium of vaudeville, and with Congo Square as one of the direct source materials, the minstrel show denigrated people of African descent (or anyone deemed other at the time), mocking the expressions of humanity that they managed, while simultaneously integrating them into the identity of the nation. This form of entertainment would produce America’s first pop stars who would in turn become global ambassadors for the new American society that was emerging.

The legal mechanisms for enclosure in the world of ideas mirrored those of physical territory. As communication technology rapidly advanced, the mechanical copyright emerged to protect property in the cultural realm. This mechanism ensured a structural advantage for those with the resources to extract and define the value of the culture of those at the margins. The owners of patents and copyrights did more than just document their changing world, they also ossified racial categories and ushered racism along from the biological realm into the cultural one. This was the foundation on which the global entertainment industries of today were built.

After the very slow and wrought process of abolishing Atlantic slavery, and the violent consolidation of the colonial territories, by the turn of the twentieth century debates about citizenship and civil rights would arise to mask the battlefield over humanity. As Native Americans were cordoned off to reservations, Africans in the Americas would be folded into the nation as Black (Negro, Colored, etc). And as the western literary genre moved from the written word to the screen, and the minstrel show moved from live theater, to radio and phonograph, to film and television, the twin legacies of the fascination with and denigration of a dehumanized other would leave their mark on each.

White capitalist copyright owners would position themselves as the authoritative gatekeepers on the pure folk cultures of the inferior races, or white performers, on stage with their actual faces, would insert themselves as the individual genius responsible for the synthesis of a unique cultural innovation, the social relations behind the slick final product forever obscured. While various cultural rebellions have arisen throughout the years to counter these processes of dehumanization, the tools of extraction inherited from the nineteenth century have proven to be more than effective in upholding the logic of empire and racial capitalism.

In parallel to this cultural push and pull, a political debate would arise amongst Black Americans over how to (or whether to) integrate into the settler colonial society. Visions of a return to Africa would wax and wane, while an anti-colonial politics was violently repressed. Ultimately, the call to own property as a way to secure one’s rightful place within the nation, the ghosts of 40 acres and a mule, would ring out loud over the decades. This echo has found new life in today’s discourse around race, resulting in an ascendant black nationalist purism, particularly online. This trend is unfortunate. While there is certainly agency within the beauty and virtuosity that has come into the world as a result of the cultural resilience of African descended peoples in the Americas, it doesn’t mean that it is the result of some intrinsic quality unique to one racial group or national historical context.

In fact, it could be argued that the African retentions that remain in the Americas survived because the dominant systems either tolerated them or weren’t able to read them as such. In other words: Black American cultures have arisen as a result of both black resilience and white supremacy. Still, America’s Blackness is one of the most important cultural expressions of resilience and resistance in modern society. To put an enclosure around it only reinforces the settler colonial mentality, leaving the aims of universal humanism incomplete. Even those Africans at Congo Square, who helped start this whole thing in the first place, would likely remain outside of the gates.

Just over an hour drive from that King City parking lot where I was listening to the radio in Spanish, and on the western edge of the continental territory colonised by the United States, sits the headquarters of the world’s most valuable companies: Google, Facebook, Tesla, Apple—the heart of the global information economy. Even though the bubble of the California Gold Rush has long since burst (a process that seems to repeat itself every few decades), it has turned into a region with one of the largest concentrations of wealth in the world. If mass media was born amongst the colonization project of Euro-American imperialism, the dehumanization of non-European peoples, and the consolidation of racial capitalism, then today’s information economy is also built upon that same infrastructure.

On the wild frontiers of the early internet, online communities emerged that would freely exchange infinitely replicable digital material. In what many thought was a new reality of a post-scarce digitally permanent world, the reign of the regime of copyright briefly found itself in crisis. Music was the most fertile ground from which to declare one’s liberation, but it wasn’t the only one.

And while interaction with the old guard of racial capitalism allowed a tradition of gatekeeping and cultural appropriation inherited from vaudeville to continue, what had emerged within the confines of the virtual world—torrent libraries, file sharing sites, personal blogs, forums and chat rooms—collectively could be thought of as a sort of digital Congo Square. The response from the United States Department of Homeland Security, alongside other policing efforts, was to raid the safe houses of free exchange and try and put an end to it all through intimidation.

Before the average uploader became familiar with the DMCA takedown, some big companies looked at the anarchistic landscape and lured the loosely organized scattering of digital cultural producers onto their free platforms. Soundcloud, Youtube, Instagram, Twitter, etc all provided sleek design, convenience, and a veneer of protection from the harshest crackdowns by the state.

Yet, these platforms were not immune to the demands of capital or its watchdogs. Perhaps, they never were meant to be. Investors eventually wanted returns, and the landed copyright elite needed their cut too, and whether planned or not, all the platforms would eventually make concessions that favored the biggest property owners over the public. These concessions would eventually evolve into the phenomenon now popularly known as surveillance capitalism.

Eventually, the ideological struggles of our time would also move on to the individualized “feeds” and “timelines” of the Silicon Valley platforms. No longer reserved for the stage of fights between or within nations, political speech is tailored, tracked, and manipulated in the interest of generating more interaction with minimal regard to the real world consequences. We may constantly measure ourselves against how we think other people might see us online, but when you strip us back down to our most human needs and desires, the questions that concern much of the population of this planet are fairly simple: What is the right of any individual human to exist wherever they are on Earth? And, under what conditions do they have a right to do so?

So today, across the world, young people leave rural communities to work in the fields, mines, and factories that fuel the supply chains of multinational corporations with the slightest hope that integration into the global economy will provide a better future for them and their families. Masses from the urban margins take to the streets with the belief that by facing state violence head on they might bring about a more just reality for their communities.

And, when members of both groups feel like they have no alternative but to hit the unmarked highways of the world’s most dangerous migration routes and seek a better future elsewhere, they are doing so with the idea that the same world that can beam images and sounds via satellite to a mobile phone in their pocket must be able to recognize a humanity denied as a result of neocolonial economic, environmental, and military policy.

Like in the post-Reconstruction era in the US, many of the proposed solutions to the injustices that have emerged in the digital age have concentrated on finding technological fixes to restore (old) systems of fair(er) compensation for the output (input) of online denizens. However, rather than provide solutions to the structural inequalities inherent to capitalism, technological fixes such as blockchain capitalism, cash app mutual aid, personalized sponsorship accounts, and other enclosure-oriented solutions ultimately retrofit the infrastructures of exploitation against the claims of universal humanism. While there certainly is value in building community online, especially as a form of resistance or resilience, the question remains: What forms of online participation emerge from the claims to humanity of the marginalsmisfitsNative Americans and Africans at the frontier?

And in our resistance, we should also never forget that the reality of surveillance capitalism is that one person’s individual wealth, clout, or social relevance is insignificant in comparison to the aggregate picture of all the behaviors of the world’s population.

By the time the platforms had a monopoly on audiences, they no longer needed the cultural products they claimed to be supporting to have any exchange value at all (with human moderation becoming fertile ground for corruption or payola). While influencers try to squeeze out a few pennies from sponsors or trickle down monetization schemes based on clout they’ve managed to accumulate in their online and real world social networks, the runways of the digital future are paved with the promise of returns from the proprietary algorithms built on data hoarded from the behavior of the masses.

As it stands, a few companies, concentrated in specific geographic locations, fortified by an accumulated wealth never seen before, defended by the largest military force ever to exist, swallow and secure all the information we give them: our behaviors, our desires, all of our humanistic acts and expressions, and employ small armies to sort, categorize, process and program, with the end goal of creating an “artificial intelligence” that can ultimately stake a claim to humanity too.

However, unlike the popular science fiction fantasy in which the future battles for humanity will happen between robots and humans, as big tech plans an exit from a planet in crisis, our future struggles are more likely to look like the age old one of humans who can harvest the fruits of their enclosures versus those of us who can’t. So, if blackness is the foundational currency on which the capitalist information economy is built, what will whiteness mean to a cyborg.

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

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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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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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