Title: Uganda, The Dynamics of Neoliberal Transformation
Editors: Jörg Wiegratz, Giuliano Martiniello and Elisa Greco
Pub.r: Zed Books, 2018
Reviewer: Mary Serumaga, January 2019
Any political debate about Uganda tends to become polarised very quickly. Champions of the prevailing economic orthodoxy speak of the past 30 years as an almost unqualified development success. Critics of the establishment point to the absence of tangible benefits for a broad range of the population. These positions came into sharp focus in 2018 when the People Power movement gained momentum following the international outcry triggered by the abduction and torture of its de facto leader, R. Kyagulanyi, MP.
It is possible to argue either position depending on where one sits on a sliding timeline between 1986 and the present. After four coups d’état in the 24 years following independence – a time when, as was often pointed out to me by an NRM diehard, ‘Even Kampala Road was murram!’ – the economic developments after the NRM takeover in 1986 look like miracles: the introduction and spread of mobile telephony and the internet, construction and tarmacking of major highways, the availability of foreign currency, freedom to travel abroad, etc. It is this contrast, with its racist undertones – what more does a Third World country expect? – on which the ‘Uganda as a success story’ argument is built. It is the line adopted by champions of neoliberal policies, the IMF (“This is an African success story”, Lagarde in 2017), the ruling junta and the bilateral partners and foreign investors who benefit from the liberalization of key sectors of the economy and dismantling of the public service. They are positioned in or close to 1986.
After four coups d’état in the 24 years following independence the economic developments after the NRM takeover in 1986 look like miracles.
Those outside that elite circle, referred to by the authors of this timely collection of essays on the neoliberal project in Uganda, as ‘the wretched of the earth’, are located in the present day. Economically and spatially removed from elite society, what they witness and experience 33 years after the NRM took power is described thus: “High levels of suicide (especially among the youth), poverty-driven deaths, preventable illnesses and generalised destitution.” There is more: 80% youth unemployment, collapse of the education system, ever-recurring stock outs of essential drugs, high maternal and neo-natal death rates, land-grabbing by the rich, embezzlement of public funds, fraudulent grabbing of commercial banks by the Central Bank for sale to the competition or elimination from the market.
In 2018, President Museveni and his Foreign Minister, Sam Kutesa, were cited in a New York criminal court for receiving bribes in exchange of access to public assets. These things are all connected, and held in place by state brutality.
Those outside that elite circle…’the wretched of the earth’, are located in the present day. Economically and spatially removed from elite society, what they witness and experience 33 years after the NRM took power…is “high levels of suicide (especially among the youth), poverty-driven deaths, preventable illnesses and generalised destitution.”
For ‘the wretched of the earth’, this is the story of ‘Uganda in crisis’.
While affirming the physical, political and economic transformation of Uganda since 1986, the authors interrogate both the drivers of the changes (the regime or its foreign financiers?) and identify the beneficiaries.
First the changes. Taking Nystrand and Tamm’s definition of neoliberal interventions, they can be summed up as: “downsizing of the public sector, including retrenchment of staff; privatisation of social services and social protections; and decentralisation or devolution of state power.”
The main premise of the collection is that in addition to the sliding timeline, the discourse is skewed by the lack of scholarly attention to the ongoing processes of transformation. One important dynamic remarked on is that much of the existing social science analyses has been carried out by donor-funded academics and consultants who have in turn produced studies that have tended to support the ‘Uganda as a success story’ point of view. Their collective check-list has included progress in: governance, poverty reduction and political power dynamics including political settlements, political emergencies, party and electoral politics, patronage politics, conflict management, humanitarian assistance, or peace-making. Testing this proposition, it is clear to see how apologists for the military junta that rules Uganda can be portrayed as developmental. For example, poverty as measured by the neoliberals (dubbed by the authors as ‘official poverty’) fell sharply in the first decade reaching a low of 19% from a high of over 50%. (It has risen two percentage points to over 21% in recent years.)
In 2018, President Museveni and his Foreign Minister, Sam Kutesa, were cited in a New York criminal court for receiving bribes in exchange of access to public assets. These things are all connected, and held in place by state brutality.
However the recent sharp rise in undernourishment of 13% between 2006 and 2015 went largely unremarked. Similarly, wealth inequalities created by the restructuring were overlooked in the celebrations. As with the health sector, analyses of governance have been managed by gatekeepers and reported in Bank-speak. For example, small shifts in Uganda’s Transparency International rankings based on the perceptions of foreign investors have been reported as progress, regardless of the facts presented by Uganda’s own Auditor General, Ombudsman, local media and the public. (Note: Transparency International was discredited by its 2018 award to President Museveni for his ‘fight’ against corruption in the same year that he was named as a recipient of a bribe from the now convicted Patrick Ho.)
Much of the existing social science analyses has been carried out by donor-funded academics and consultants who have in turn produced studies that have tended to support the ‘Uganda as a success story’ point of view.
This narrow approach excludes areas of research that would address the issues raised by the increasingly vocal and genuinely suffering majority:
“The first gap is the impact of global capitalism and global political economy on Uganda. This requires a study of the dynamics of Western and Eastern imperialism and their political, economic and cultural dimensions. The second under-researched area concerns the processes of societal transformation, including class formation, consolidation, struggle and compromise (and related core aspects such as dispossession, exploitation etc.), and the ways in which they shape, for instance, political power and market structures. A third overlooked area is the interaction of local and national power structures and dynamics with international political economic patterns.”
More directly put, the impact of Western and Eastern imperialism manifested in the debt-trap, privatization and the foreign direct investment for which privatization made room, and which provides free assets, has not been adequately scrutinized. Indeed, the emergence of a ruling oligarchy (beneficiaries of said privatization, and FDI), and a faux middle class (founded on patronage and corruption – not production), is treated as anecdotal evidence of something amiss rather than a serious existential issue for the majority. This book is timely in pointing out a lack of interrogation of capital accumulation by the politically connected and its impact on the rest of the population by current social science studies on Uganda.
Nor is due attention paid to the fact that 60 years after independence Uganda is still an exporter of primary commodities because that is what her ‘development partners’ require for their own development. All of this occurs alongside the ‘successes’ such as regular elections, ‘concessions’ or ‘reforms’ such as decentralization, expenditure on civil service reform (without actual civil service reform) and the universal primary education programme (which fewer than 50% of programme pupils complete) and which in turn trigger further disbursements of foreign loans and grants.
The emergence of a ruling oligarchy (beneficiaries of said privatization, and FDI), and a faux middle class (founded on patronage and corruption – not production), is treated as anecdotal evidence of something amiss rather than a serious existential issue for the majority.
The authors confirm this reviewer’s assertions elsewhere that the facts were deliberately distorted. For example, the Bank publishes impressive statistics for vaccination coverage in Uganda ranging between 82% and 93% (Source: World Bank database – Health Nutrition and Population Statistics as updated on 12/18/2017). It has stopped publishing the percentage of immunizations actually paid for by the government of the country which is nowhere near as impressive. If the percentage of coverage funded by government resources is stagnant or falling, that is not just a development issue. It is a crisis. And with changing funding priorities owing to the rise of nationalism in Europe and America, will most likely result in further reductions in health sector aid.
The authors predict a future of ‘enclave economies’: large-scale plantations – tracts of land are already being distributed free of charge to foreign investors – tax and other concessions for ‘investors’ in mining, oil and gas. These enclave economies will have minimal linkages to the rest of the economy and will aggravate poverty and accelerate environmental degradation. A proposal for a Chinese fishing project on River Katonga is a case in point. It will come with 300 Chinese staff precluding any possibilities of indigenous job creation, and adding to the current trend of imported unskilled and semi-skilled labour. Fiscal delinking occurs when foreign investors are given tax holidays.
60 years after independence Uganda is still an exporter of primary commodities because that is what her ‘development partners’ require for their own development.
In his December 2018 report, the Auditor General points out for the second time in three years that there is no clear policy regarding tax waivers for investors. In 2016 one hotel was in its fifth year of an open-ended tax holiday. In 2018:
“[…] because of lack of a proper policy, tax incentives are given to Investors without an accompanying budget. Close of financial year debts for the incentives had grown by 83% to UGX 153.6 billion up from UGX 83.8 billion in the previous year.”
Therefore, a lot of development is not accompanied by jobs and only yields limited tax revenues. Activists find that discussions of the impact of corruption on lives unsupported by relevant studies are easily and routinely derailed with one or a selection of approved Bank statistics. It is gratifying to see apologist denials of these simple facts revealed as mere political gaslighting of opposition politicians and activists. The World Bank, through its monopoly of knowledge production about its clients has developed what is called here “Bank Speak’ with which it disseminates “severely a-historical, abstract and flawed accounts” of Uganda’s political-economic history (Mitchell 2002 cited by Wiegratz et al). By becoming the gatekeeper, the Bank has succeeded in manufacturing consents to their global programme of which Uganda has been made a partner through the NRM ruling class, itself a product of the Bank.
The authors confirm this reviewer’s assertions elsewhere that the facts were deliberately distorted.
Apart from important omissions in telling the Uganda story, the veracity of Bank statistics is questioned. Note the authors say ‘veracity’ as well as ‘accuracy,’ again suggesting intent.
Their finding that the World Bank minimizes embezzlement and incompetence in the public service is in line with the misreporting of planning, implementation and outcomes of Uganda’s foundational economic and social reform programmes comprehensively documented in The Case for Repudiation of Uganda’s Public Debt (Serumaga, cadtm.org, 2017). This book makes it clear that in addition to relevant studies, there is a need for an audit to establish completeness, accuracy and timeliness of World Bank and IMF data and other information on which Uganda’s development policies are based.
The authors predict a future of ‘enclave economies’: large-scale plantations – tracts of land are already being distributed free of charge to foreign investors – tax and other concessions for ‘investors’ in mining, oil and gas…[with] minimal linkages to the rest of the economy…
Also debunked is the link between public service reform and poverty reduction claimed by earlier studies. They are inapplicable in much of Eastern and Northern Uganda where poverty has barely been dented. In these studies, deep wealth inequality; wealth concentration among politically powerful beneficiaries of reform programmes, unemployment (and under-employment), and food insecurity is found to be a characteristic of neoliberalised countries (say WB/IMF clients) the world over.
In Uganda, corruption and incompetence, major barriers to implementation of the planned transformation from a peasant to an industrialized economy has created the opportunity to transfer public service delivery functions to the military. Notably Operation Wealth Creation (OWC) which has over the past five years edged out NAADS, the government agency responsible for distribution of and sensitisation about farm inputs (Wiegratz et al). NAADS was established with a repayable US$50 million loan (and the same amount in grants). OWC is run by the President’s brother and, unsurprisingly, has featured strongly in reports of the Auditor General. In 2016 deliveries of farm inputs worth close to UGX 3 billion were unverified; UGX 1.1 billion said to be expenditure on fuel lacked supporting documents. The fisheries department of the Ministry of Agriculture is now also under military command.
The World Bank, through its monopoly of knowledge production about its clients has developed what is called here “Bank Speak’ with which it disseminates “severely a-historical, abstract and flawed accounts” of Uganda’s political-economic history.
In the meantime, accumulated wealth has driven up land speculation, making it unavailable for productive investment.
What is interesting is that the current crop of political commentators and activists, the punditocracy increasingly visible in debates around politics, governance and development happen to have been founded, financed or otherwise supported by International Financial Institutions (IFIs). Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda (ACCU), Uganda Debt Network (UDN), Civil Society Budget Advocacy Group (CSBAG), Private Sector Foundation Uganda (PSFU).
Apart from important omissions in telling the Uganda story, the veracity of Bank statistics is questioned…Their finding that the World Bank minimizes embezzlement and incompetence in the public service is in line with the misreporting of planning, implementation and outcomes of Uganda’s foundational economic and social reform programmes.
While the book was produced primarily as a source to enable future scholars to avoid the omissions and errors of the past, the introduction alone is invaluable for navigating the miasma of Ugandan political affairs. It goes some way in answering the rhetorical demand put to activists: what are your policy alternatives? After reading this it should become evident what needs to be done.
Part I. The State, donors and development aid
Although much is made of the purported partnership between Uganda and the WB and indeed other development partners, Lie is of the view that the concept of partnership is merely a cover for the WB’s indirect rule over Uganda through its poverty reduction strategy mechanisms. In Donor-driven State Formation: Friction in the WB–Uganda Partnership he demonstrates with evidence that partnership “‘exists when they [government] do as we [WB] want them to do, but they do so voluntarily’” (Lie citing Randel et al. 2002: 8)
The current crop of political commentators and activists, the punditocracy increasingly visible in debates around politics, governance and development happen to have been founded, financed or otherwise supported by International Financial Institutions (IFIs).
He uses the gradual displacement of Uganda government’s Poverty Eradication Action Plan by the WB’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) to demonstrate this unequal relationship. The author reveals how Bank staff evaluate the implementation in four visits made during the year, putting a gloss on unfavourable outcomes to allow further disbursements for budget support yet sending messages of disapproval by reducing the amounts released (and disrupting implementation). He calls this process ‘developmentality.’
It is a little irksome that Lie’s chosen example dates from 1999 and no attention is given to the beginning of the relationship, the Economic Recovery Programme circa 1987. It is under this umbrella that work meant to provide the administrative foundation for future work like PEAP and PRSP was done with frankly disastrous results and undermined the possibility of success of later work.
Most importantly the legal implications of ‘developmentality’ are not addressed in the essay, namely that the appearance of voluntary cooperation gives the unsustainable loan agreements some legal standing in the event of attempted repudiation in the future. Lie’s conclusion after he has so ably demonstrated indirect rule by the WB, is that the WB is not hegemonic and that the government has not fallen prey to the donor community is perverse.
Readers of this collection will find a vocabulary with which to capture Uganda’s situation and to relate it to countries facing the same predicament – particularly useful are concepts such as ‘procedural democracy” as opposed substantial democracy. Rubongoya in his essay ‘Movement Legacy’ and neoliberalism as political settlement in Uganda’s political economy describes a transaction between the junta and foreign implementers of neoliberalism. In return for a free hand in forming and introducing policies favourable to their own constituencies, foreign actors provide the NRM the means to consolidate and prolong its grip on the State.
A related transaction took place in Acholi. There, even though the armed conflict continued for two decades after 1986, there was an agreement to treat it as a post-conflict zone. In Our Friends at the Bank? The Adverse Effects of Neoliberalism in Acholi Atkinson reveals that development partners turned a blind eye as increasing amounts of aid intended for development of the ‘post-conflict’ zone were channeled to the armed coercion of the Acholi.
Readers of this collection will find a vocabulary with which to capture Uganda’s situation and to relate it to countries facing the same predicament – particularly useful are concepts such as ‘procedural democracy” as opposed substantial democracy.
Without the more recent experience of the Arua Atrocities in 2018 and the internet connectivity that allowed the news to spread across the country it would be difficult to believe that foreign actors could be so cynical. Yet in August 2018, the donor community that had armed the junta sat silent as elected leaders were abducted and tortured. These essays serve to open eyes and minds to the magnitude of what is at stake for them and why in fact their cynicism is to be expected.
African dependency is a myth created to gain access to resources without which Western populations would have to live within their means and in relative austerity. The myth allows austerity and poverty to be permanently transferred to Uganda and other African countries via neoliberal policies. This reviewer has argued elsewhere that this manufactured poverty is mitigated by emergency aid, post-conflict aid, humanitarian aid and non-specific aid from Western tax-payers. The fears surrounding Brexit and the stocking up of emergency drugs and foodstuffs are a further indication that they enjoy a standard of living subsidized for example by Ugandan farmers, that would be otherwise impossible to maintain.
African dependency is a myth created to gain access to resources without which Western populations would have to live within their means and in relative austerity.
But they are secondary beneficiaries. The primary beneficiaries of neoliberalism are a class unto themselves: the Davos elite which includes individuals in autocratic regimes like the NRM, IFIs and foreign investors all of who became fabulously wealthy and influential via the proceeds from this system. Like their counterparts in other African IMF outposts, billionaires Museveni, Sam Kutesa, Muhwezi were all penniless in their pre-regime lives.
Part II: Economic restructuring and social services
As with many of the findings of these studies, the basic facts will not be new to Ugandans, for instance the rise in poverty alongside increasingly visible trappings of extreme wealth of the oligarchs. In The Impact of neo-liberal reforms on Uganda’s Socio-economic Landscape Asiimwe throws light on the mystery of how development by-passed some and benefited others.:
“Asiimwe’s chapter shows that the economic growth miracle was to a significant extent based on the effect of large sums of aid, which sometimes constituted half of the national budget, creating public-expenditure-driven growth. The reforms induced stagnation, decline or minimal growth in key productive sectors, such as agriculture and industry. Small-scale producers and workers –mostly youth and women – were systematically marginalised by the policy reforms. Asiimwe argues that Uganda’s growth is not based on a structural transformation of the economy, but rather on a deepening of primitive accumulation occurring through corruption – which is the use of extra-economic force to access and control resources – aid dependence, widespread economic trickery and the dumping of low quality foreign products that crowd out local products. Asiimwe observes that donors’ policy preferences systematically produced anti-poor and anti-development effects, as the commodification of health and education left the majority of the population with sub-par access, or denied access altogether.” (Wiegratz et al).
The primary beneficiaries of neoliberalism are a class unto themselves: the Davos elite which includes individuals in autocratic regimes like the NRM, IFIs and foreign investors all of who became fabulously wealthy and influential via the proceeds from this system. Like their counterparts in other African IMF outposts, billionaires Museveni, Sam Kutesa, Muhwezi were all penniless in their pre-regime lives.
The impact of neoliberal reforms on social services has been equally damaging. In Social service provision and social security in Uganda: entrenched inequality under a neoliberal regime Nystrand and Tamm describe how the commodification of basic healthcare and education – they are now consumer products rather than citizen entitlements – has increased inequalities along class, regional and urban/rural lines. Those locked out from access to the services evolve into the ‘chronic poor’.
“Those who have gained from neoliberal reform are, for example, not primarily the Ugandan business sector at large – as the domestic private sector is very weak with the exception of a few large companies and individual businesspersons close to the ruling elite – but rather the ruling elite, which has been able to use donor funding to preserve their power through patronage.” (Nystrand and Tamm citing Whitfield et al. 2015)
Primary health and education, two of what used to be known as priority programme areas, are reviewed in detail, restating familiar data showing low completion rate, high teacher absenteeism (60 percent on any given day), and demonstrating how the majority of UPE pupils never attain functional literacy or numeracy. The result has been migration to proliferating private services to avoid the deterioration and the gradual fall in the quality of public education. The authors thus demonstrate that migration was the goal of neoliberalisation but that decentralized government has failed to either improve or maintain quality.
Ssali in Neoliberal health reforms and citizenship in Uganda also states that quality as well as availability of health services has suffered. Although expenditure per capita on healthcare has increased threefold, service delivery has not improved. Her essay highlights the way in which governments surrendered health services to market forces thus creating two streams, a service for the spatially marginal (the rural population) and poor, and one for the rich. This is borne out by the previously known fact that even where maternal and neo-natal services are available, less than 20 percent of women use them opting for reliance on the extended family and other support networks.
Those who have gained from neoliberal reform are…not primarily the Ugandan business sector at large – as the domestic private sector is very weak with the exception of a few large companies and individual businesspersons close to the ruling elite – but rather the ruling elite, which has been able to use donor funding to preserve their power through patronage.
As with education, so with health. The sector is characterised by inadequate resources and high absenteeism (50 per cent no-shows on any given day). Competence is a major challenge: “It was found that only 35 per cent of public health providers can correctly diagnose at least four out of five of the most common conditions, and only one out of five knew how to manage the most common maternal and neo-natal complications.” Public health and education services have thus become the preserve of the poorest and most physically marginalized. Heavily dependent on donor funding, they are assessed to be unsustainable in the long run. (Nystrand and Tamm)
Part III: Extractivism and enclosures
Commodification of forests was executed via the doling out of concessions to private sector players for management. It has had the same result, namely, privileging of capitalist interests over smallholder indigenous interests. Readers may find Nel’s Neoliberalisation as Ugandan Forestry Discourse useful in understanding the impact of privatization on the crater lakes of Kabarole in 2017, which left fishermen without a livelihood and made the lakes vulnerable to environmental degradation. Wedig discusses this in relation to Lake Nalubaale (Victoria) in Water-grabbing or Sustainable Development? The same applies to more recent sand-mining concessions granted by the President’s brother, Caleb Akandwanaho (aka Gen Salim Saleh) to Chinese investors to the exclusion of indigenous artisanal miners.
As Smith and Van Alstine show in Neoliberal oil development in Uganda, any resistance to rampant dispossession is prevented by the deployment of the armed forces. In the case of oil, it has been the presidential elite Special Forces Command armed and trained by the United States. Military deployment together with the use of Public Order Management legislation to subdue populations that make the debt incurred during this phase of history odious and liable to repudiation.
There is similar commercial pressure for land and similar dispossession for the implementation of the envisaged transformation to an industrialized economy as discussed by Nakayi in The politics of land law reform in neoliberal Uganda.
Race, culture and commoditization
A new proposition is that even cultural identity has been commoditized in the neoliberal dispensation. Youth, race and faith are looked at from this perspective. In Youth as ‘Identity Entrepreneurs’; Emerging Neoliberal Subjectivities in Uganda, Vorhöller studies a group of dancers in Northern Uganda and concludes that: “They tend to prioritise short-termism, instrumentalism, flexibility, pragmatism and self-interest and often switch cultural styles and political allegiances depending on situational contexts and according to calculations of expected benefits.”
The youth market their youth to the myriad NGOs promoting neoliberal policies and looking for exemplars of how they support and are embraced by the youth. Once sponsored, the youth adapt to the required value system of their sponsors. Another example would be the youth marketing their youth and numbers to political parties. They form savings groups at the behest of the President, which groups are then given cash at public events to demonstrate the regime’s interest in the youth. New enterprises such as radio calling, telephoning radio discussion programmes to push propaganda are performed by groups such as the Lango Radio Callers group. That the group is short-termist and not rooted in ideology or any belief is clear from the fact that it publicly announced its intention to desert the NRM for the opposition if it was not paid the millions of shillings and iron roofing sheets promised before the elections. Besides ethnicity, other identities emerging from youth celebrity culture, academic qualifications and even internet presence are also available for political branding.
The role of Pentecostal-charismatic churches in politics and their rise to prominence (originating in the rise of NGOs and faith-based organisations, the result of the government’s withdrawal from its role as principal driver of development) is covered by Barbara Bompani in Religious Economics: Pentecostal-charismatic Churches and the Framing of a New Moral Order. Bompani posits that PCCs endorsed neoliberal policies by their close relationship with the ruling class, legitimising neoliberalism and provide a moral framework within which those living (or enduring) the neoliberal experience can maintain hope in a country in crisis. It is further argued that they share an exclusionary world view with neoliberalism in which “the sinful, immoral, non-conforming are to be targeted for discipline, reform and legal action.”
The framework provided by this book, its definitions of neoliberal policy and examination of its effects, will facilitate public discussion even of issues as sensitive as race. The elitism created by the exaltation of FDI, where those with access to foreign capital are perpetually entitled to special favours such as tax waivers, is analysed in African Asians and South Asians in Neoliberal Uganda: Culture, History and Political Economy in which Anneeth Kaur Hundle proposes that “the FDI policy opens up new possibilities for racial elite class formation.”
Taken together, this collection of essays is a commendable effort in achieving its objective of determining by whom, why, how and to what effect Uganda was transformed since 1986. A criticism might be that few Ugandan analysts were cited by any of the contributors even where the same ground has been extensively covered by them. Secondly, the book may be slightly behind the curve. Much of this data has been available but is only being published in this context when the effects of the reported activities are leading to seismic changes. The great value of the collection is that it finally ‘mainstreams’ the discourse and will perhaps provoke debate on those issues of which Ugandans have been aware but which have languished in the ‘informal sector’ of scholarship and public debate.
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Lessons From India’s COVID Calamity
Neglect of the public healthcare system, suppression of scientific information and sacrificing citizen welfare for political mileage have led to the public health crisis facing India today.
An Australian newspaper called it “Modi’s COVID apocalypse”. The Indian activist and author Arundhati Roy calls it “a crime against humanity”. These descriptions of India’s current public health crisis may seem alarmist, but they are not far from the truth. By the end of April, India was recording more than 300,000 new COVID infections and nearly 3,000 deaths per day, a 30-fold increase from September last year, when the country reported a new infection rate of 11,000 per day. Media reports are showing overflowing crematoriums and hospitals overwhelmed by the number of patients seeking treatment. Reports of people dying in ambulances outside hospitals because the latter did not have enough beds or oxygen cylinders reveal a healthcare system that is on its knees.
However, according to those who are witnessing the catastrophe first-hand, the horrifying images shown in the local and international media are just a microcosm of what is really happening on the ground. Even those with money and connections are unable to secure the healthcare they need. Barkha Dutt, a famous media personality in India who lost her father to COVID last week, told ITV that despite her privileges and connections, she could not get access to the treatment her father needed. She never imagined that she would become the story that she has been covering for months. She said lack of drugs and equipment in New Delhi’s hospitals is even forcing people to go to Sikh temples, which are supplying oxygen for free to those who need it. Many families in New Delhi and other large cities are treating their sick relatives at home with oxygen cylinders, some bought at exorbitant rates on the black market. Crematoriums cannot keep up with the number of bodies arriving at their gates. The smell of death is everywhere.
Many of the current deaths are not exclusively due to the virus, but also to a lack of preparedness on the part of India’s healthcare system, which suddenly became overwhelmed due to a dramatic spike in corona cases. Analysts say the easing of restrictions and complacency on the part of Indians in general led to the crisis. People went back to work and continued with their daily lives as if there was no pandemic. The winter wedding season was in full swing in cities like New Delhi.
On its part, the government did little to avert the crisis by allowing the Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious gathering that is held along the banks of the Ganges river, to take place. The gathering became a superspreader event, as did the many political rallies held in states like West Bengal, which were attended by hundreds of people. At one such rally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi even boasted that the presence of large numbers of people at the rallies showed that his political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had massive support. Social distancing and wearing of masks were not prevalent at these crowded meetings.
In January, Modi told leaders at the World Economic Forum that India had “saved humanity from a disaster by containing corona effectively”. He said that India had defied expectations of “a tsunami of corona infections”. Now he is having to eat his own words. Not only has India, the world’s second most populous country, become the epicentre of the disease – with new aggressive variants being reported every week – but it is in the very awkward position of having to seek aid from other countries, including its long-time rival Pakistan, which has offered to help. The UK, USA and other governments plan to send oxygen and other medical supplies to India.
India has tended to view itself as a regional economic powerhouse, and so being reduced to a recipient of humanitarian aid is having a wounding effect. This is not how Modi, whose Hindu nationalist rhetoric has ignited a “Hindu First” movement in India, would like India to be viewed. India’s prime minister now finds himself reduced to having to accept medical aid for a country that has marketed itself as a destination for medical tourism and the “pharmacy of the world” that manufactures affordable drugs for developing nations. The Serum Institute of India is currently producing a large proportion of the AstraZeneca vaccine that is being rolled out in many countries. But Modi has decided to nationalise the institute as well, and has banned exports of the vaccine until the country sorts out its own health crisis, leaving millions of people around the world, including Kenya, in limbo.
India’s public healthcare system was already strained before the pandemic. The government spends a measly 1 per cent of its budget on health. The medical needs of Indians are met mostly by the private sector. Nearly 80 per cent of the healthcare in urban areas is provided by private facilities. In rural areas, 70 per cent of the population relies on private clinics and hospitals, which are unaffordable for the majority. This privatisation of healthcare has come at a huge cost. Poor Indians suffer disproportionately from preventable diseases. Malnutrition rates among mothers and children are also among the highest in the world. What we are witnessing is how neglect of public healthcare systems can have long-term negative consequences, especially during a disaster or an epidemic.
India is also a lesson in how leaders can impact the spread of a disease. Since he took office, Prime Minister Modi has tried very hard to control public perceptions about his achievements and the virtues of the BJP, which he has filled with spin doctors who try to present a rosy image of India under his leadership. Several journalists have been arrested under Modi’s watch and media organisations that call him out are dismissed as unpatriotic. News channels in India are dominated by pro-government news anchors and journalists who have twisted the narrative in favour of Modi, even when he stands in the way of press freedom. In March 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, Modi asked India’s Supreme Court to stop media organisations from publishing any COVID-related news without getting government clearance first. Thankfully, because the Supreme Court is obliged to protect the rights and freedoms enshrined in India’s constitution, including freedom of the press, the court refused his request.
What we are witnessing is how neglect of public healthcare systems can have long-term negative consequences.
Like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the USA, Modi underplayed the scale of the pandemic and painted independent media and journalists who questioned his policies as enemies of the people. As a result, more than half a million Americans, nearly 400,000 Brazilians and some 200,000 Indians have died from COVID-19. The link between a paranoid, media-hostile leadership and negative health outcomes is evident in these cases.
Many independent journalists and observers believe that the official figures on COVID deaths and infections put out by the Indian government are a gross underestimation, and that the actual figures could be two or three times more than those that are being reported. Crematoriums are reporting more cremations adhering to COVID protocols than what is being given as the official death toll from COVID-19. This could be partly because many deaths are occurring at home and so are not being reported. In addition, people who die from COVID but who were not tested are not recorded as having died from the disease.
Meanwhile, the BJP government, is assuring India’s 1.4 billion citizens that it is doing everything to increase the supply of oxygen and increase vaccination levels among those over the age of 18, but these measures are coming a little too late. The death toll is likely to rise significantly over the coming weeks.
Lack of trust in the government may be the biggest hurdle countries face as they try to contain the virus. In Kenya, the theft of COVID-19 donations last year and massive corruption scandals at the state-run medical supplies agency, KEMSA, have severely diminished citizens’ faith in the government’s willingness and ability to protect them. Moreover, apart from periodic lockdowns and curfews, there seems to be no strategy on how prevention measures will be instituted in the long term. Also no one is quite sure when vaccination will reach “herd immunity” levels; people like me who have received their first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine under the COVAX facility – a global mechanism for pooled procurement and distribution of vaccines for low and middle income countries – still don’t know for sure if they will get their second jab, a scenario complicated by the fact that Modi has temporarily banned the Serum Institute from exporting the vaccines.
India has three important lessons for Kenya and the rest of the world.
Lesson 1: Do not neglect the public healthcare system
Countries around the world such as South Korea and Uganda that have successfully contained the coronavirus, managed to do so because the containment measures were led and funded by the public sector. Mass testing and other measures could not have taken place if the government did not initiate them, and ensured their successful implementation through a nationwide network of public healthcare facilities. But for this to happen, people must have faith in the government, which is sorely lacking in many countries.
The emphasis on private healthcare in countries such as Kenya and India has also left millions of poor and low-income people completely vulnerable to epidemics and pandemics. Public healthcare systems in all countries should be beefed up so that countries are not caught unawares in the future. Like public education, public health is an investment that reaps economic and social dividends in the future. COVID-19 has shown us the folly of relying solely on the private sector to meet citizens’ health needs and the importance of investing in robust public health systems that play a key role in detecting, containing and stopping the spread of infectious diseases.
Lesson 2: Do not suppress or distort scientific information and data
Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro consistently underplayed the threat posed by the novel coronavirus disease. Trump initially referred to it as a minor flu even as hospital beds were filling up, and even as infection rates were rising. Both leaders also mocked the wearing of masks and social distancing, which American and Brazilian scientists advocated. Trump’s rallies were filled with people who ignored corona protocols. In India, some politicians even said that the pandemic was a hoax intended to prevent farmers in Punjab from organising protests against the government’s agriculture policies. By ignoring the science, and peddling false information, these leaders put their countries’ citizens in immense danger. Vilifying the press – which is often the public’s main source of corona-related data and information – in the face of a pandemic is also not a good idea.
Lesson 3. Do not sacrifice public health to gain political mileage
Politicians should not sacrifice people’s lives at the altar of politics. Prime Minister Modi could have banned pilgrims from attending the Kumbh Mela, just as he ordered a nationwide lockdown early last year. But he chose not to do so because he wanted to appease Hindus and his Hindu nationalist base. In addition, he attended massive political rallies where few people wore masks, thereby facilitating the spread of the virus. He put people’s lives in danger because he wanted to score political points for his party. In the United States and Brazil, leaders chose to keep the economy running even if it meant losing hundreds of thousands of lives. In Kenya, politicians engaged in Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) rallies even as corona cases were rising. Moreover, parliamentarians are discussing BBI amendments to the constitution rather than what measures could be taken to protect Kenyans not just from the coronavirus disease and its various variants, but also from the hardships they have had to endure in the past year due to job losses and business closures. This is the type of shortsightedness and lack of compassion and vision among the country’s leadership that has led to the public health crisis facing India today.
Towards an African Revolution: Fanon and the New Popular Movement (Hirak) Engulfing Algeria
Sixty years after the death of the revolutionary Frantz Fanon and the publication of his masterpiece, The Wretched of the Earth, Algeria is undergoing another revolution. In the first of a two-part blogpost, Hamza Hamouchene provides a brief historical account of Fanon’s anti-colonial thought, his critique of the postcolonial ruling elites and the new popular movement (Hirak) engulfing Algeria.
During the upheavals that the North African and West Asian region witnessed a decade ago – what has been dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’- Fanon’s thought proved to be as relevant as ever. Not only relevant, but insightful in helping to grasp the violence of the world we live in, and the necessity of a sustained rebellion against it.
Fanon’s wrote during in a period of decolonisation in Africa and elsewhere in the Global South. Born in Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean, though Algerian by choice, he wrote from the vantage point of the Algerian revolution against French colonialism and of his political experiences on the African continent. Today, we might ask: can his analyses transcend the limitations of time? Can we learn from him as a committed intellectual and revolutionary thinker? Or should we just reduce him to another anti-colonial figure, largely irrelevant for our post-colonial times?
For me, as an Algerian activist, Fanon’s dynamic and revolutionary thinking, always about creation, movement and becoming, remains prophetic, vivid and committed to emancipation from all forms of oppression. He strongly and compellingly argued for a path to a future where humanity ‘advances a step further’ and breaks away from the world of colonialism and European universalism. Fanon represented the maturing of anti-colonial consciousness and he was a decolonial thinker par excellence.
Despite his short life (he died at the age of 36 from leukaemia in 1961), Fanon’s thought is rich and his work, in books, papers and speeches, prolific. He wrote his first book Black Skin, White Masks in 1952, two years before Điện Biên Phủ (the defeat of the French in a crucial battle in Vietnam) and his last book, The Wretched of the Earth in 1961. His 1961 classic became a treatise on the anti-colonialist and Third-Worldist struggle, one year before Algerian independence, at a moment when sub-Saharan African countries were gaining their independence – an experience in which Fanon was deeply and practically involved.
In Fanon’s intellectual journey, we can see the interactions between Black America and Africa, between the intellectual and the militant, between theory and practice, idealism and pragmatism, individual analysis and collective action, the psychological life (he trained as a psychiatrist) and physical struggle, nationalism and Pan-Africanism and finally between questions of colonialism and those of neo-colonialism.
Fanon did not live to see his adoptive country become free from French colonial domination, something he believed had become inevitable. Yet his experiences and analysis were the prism through which many revolutionaries abroad understood Algeria and helped to turn the country into the mecca of Third World revolution.
Six decades after the publication of his masterpiece The Wretched, Algeria is witnessing another revolution, this time against the national bourgeoisie that Fanon railed against in his ferocious chapter ‘The Pitfalls of National Consciousness.’
Fanon and colonial Algeria
The Algerian independence struggle against the French was one of the most inspiring anti-imperialist revolutions of the 20th century. It was part of a wave of decolonisation that had started after the Second World War in India, China, Cuba, Vietnam and many countries in Africa. The wave of decolonisation inscribed itself in the spirit of the Bandung Conference and the era of the ‘awakening of the South’, the Third world as it was then known, which has been subjected to decades of colonial and capitalist domination under several forms, from protectorates to settler colonies.
Frantz Fanon methodically unpicked the mechanisms of violence put in place by colonialism. He wrote: ‘Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state.’ According to him, the colonial world is a Manichean world (to see things as having only two sides), which goes to its logical conclusion and ‘dehumanises the native, or to speak plainly it turns him into an animal.’
What followed the insurrection on November 1, 1954, launched by nationalist forces against the French, was one of the longest and bloodiest wars of decolonisation, which saw the widespread involvement of the rural poor and urban popular classes. Huge numbers of Algerians were killed in the eight-year war against the French that ended in 1962, a war that has become the foundation of modern Algerian politics.
Arriving at Blida psychiatric hospital in 1953 in French controlled Algeria, Fanon realised quickly that colonisation, in its essence, produced madness. For him, colonisation was a systematic negation of the other and a refusal to attribute humanity to them. In contrast to other forms of domination, the violence here was total, diffuse, and permanent.
Treating both French torturers and liberation fighter, Fanon could not escape this total violence. This led him to resign in 1956 and to join the Front de libération nationale (FLN). He wrote: ‘The Arab, alienated permanently in his own country, lives in a state of absolute depersonalisation.’ He added that the Algerian war was ‘a logical consequence of an abortive attempt to decerebralise a people’.
Fanon saw colonial ideology being underpinned by the affirmation of white supremacy and its ‘civilising mission.’ The result was the development in the ‘indigènes évolués’ (literally the more evolved natives) of a desire to be white, a desire which is nothing more than an existential aberration. However, this desire stumbles upon the unequal character of the colonial system which assigns places according to colour.
Throughout his professional work and militant writings, Fanon challenged the dominant culturalist and racist approaches on the ‘native’: Arabs are lazy, liars, deceivers, thieves, etc. He advanced a materialist explanation, situating symptoms, behaviours, self-hatred and inferiority complexes in a life of oppression and the reality of unequal colonial relations.
Fanon believed in revolutionary Algeria. His illuminating book A Dying Colonialism (published in 1959) or as it is known in French L’An Cinq de la Révolution Algérienne, shows how liberation does not come as a gift. It is seized by the popular classes with their own hands and by seizing it they are themselves transformed. He strongly argued the most elevated form of culture – that is to say, of progress – is to resist colonial domination. For Fanon, revolution was a transformative process that created ‘new souls.’ For this reason, Fanon closes his 1959 book with the words: ‘The revolution …changes man and renews society, has reached an advanced stage. This oxygen which creates and shapes a new humanity – this, too, is the Algerian revolution.’
Bankruptcy of the post-colonial ruling elites
Unfortunately, the Algerian revolution and its attempt to break from the imperialist-capitalist system was defeated, both by counter-revolutionary forces and by its own contradictions. The revolution harboured the seeds of its own failure from the start: it was a top-down, authoritarian, and highly bureaucratic project (albeit with some redistributive aspects that improved people’s lives in the reforms carried out in the first years of independence).
However, the creative experiences of workers’ initiatives and self-management of the 1960s and 1970s were undermined by a paralyzing state bureaucracy that failed to genuinely involve workers in the control of the processes of production. This lack of democracy was connected with the ascendancy of a comprador bourgeoisie that was hostile to socialism, workers control and staunchly opposed to genuine land reform.
By the 1980s, the global neoliberal counter-revolution was the nail in the coffin and ushered in an age of deindustrialization and pro-market policies in Algeria, at the expense of the popular classes. The dignitaries of the new neoliberal orthodoxy declared that everything was for sale and opened the way for mass privatization.
Fanon’s work still bears a prophetic power as an accurate description of what happened in Algeria and elsewhere in the Global South. Fanon foretold the bankruptcy and sterility of national bourgeoisies in Africa and the Middle East today. A ‘profiteering caste’, he wrote, that tended to replace the colonial ruling class with a new class-based system replicating the old structures of exploitation and oppression.
By the 1980s, the Algerian national bourgeoisie had dispensed with popular legitimacy, turned its back on the realities of poverty and underdevelopment. In Fanon’s terms, this parasitic and unproductive bourgeoisie (both civilian and military) was the greatest threat to the sovereignty of the nation. In Algeria, this class was closely connected to the ruling party, the FLN, and renounced the autonomous development initiated in the 1960s and offered one concession after another for privatizations and projects that would undermine the country’s sovereignty and endanger its population and environment — the exploitation of shale gas and offshore resources being just one example.
Today, Algeria – but also Tunisia, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, Gabon, Angola and South Africa, among others – follows the dictates of the new instruments of imperialism such as the IMF, the World Bank and negotiate entry into the World Trade Organisation. Some African countries continue to use the CFA franc (renamed Eco in December 2019), a currency inherited from colonialism and still under the control of the French Treasury.
Fanon predicted this behaviour of the national bourgeoisie when he noted that its mission has nothing to do with transforming the nation but rather consists of ‘being the transmission line between the nation and capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the masque of neo-colonialism.’ Fanon’s analysis of the class basis of independence speaks to the contemporary postcolonial reality, a reality shaped by a national bourgeoisie ‘unabashedly…anti-national,’ opting he added, for the path of a conventional bourgeoisie, ‘a bourgeoisie which is stupidly, contemptibly and cynically bourgeois.’
Fanon also noted in 1961 the international division of labour, where we Africans ‘still export raw materials and continue being Europe’s small farmers who specialise in unfinished products.’ Algeria remains in a extractivist model of development where profits are accumulated in the hands of a foreign-backed minority at the expense of dispossession of the majority.
The Hirak and the new Algerian revolution
Fanon alerted us sixty years ago that the enrichment of this ‘profiteering caste’ will be accompanied by ‘a decisive awakening on the part of the people and a growing awareness that promised stormy days to come.’ In 2019 Algerians shattered the wall of fear and broke from a process that had infantilised and dazed them for decades. They erupted onto the political scene, discovered their political will and began again to make history.
Since 22 February 2019, millions of people, young and old, men and women from different social classes rose in a momentous rebellion. Historic Friday marches, followed by protests in professional sectors, united people in their rejection of the ruling system and their demands of radical democratic change. ‘They must all go!’ (Yetnahaw ga’), ‘The country is ours and we’ll do what we wish’ (Lablad abladna oundirou rayna), became two emblematic slogans of the uprising, symbolising the radical evolution of a popular movement (Al Hirak Acha’bi). The uprising was triggered by the incumbent president Bouteflika’s announcement that he would run for a fifth term despite suffering from aphasia and being absent from public life.
The movement (Hirak) is unique in its scale, peaceful character, national spread – including the marginalised south, and participation of women and young people, who constitute the majority of Algeria’s population. The extent of popular mobilisation has not been seen since 1962, when Algerians went to the streets to celebrate their hard-won independence from France.
The popular classes have affirmed their role as agents in their own destiny. We can use Fanon’s exact words to describe this phenomenon: ‘The thesis that men change at the same time that they change the world has never been as manifest as it is now in Algeria. This trial of strength not only remodels the consciousness that man has of himself, and of his former dominators or of the world, at last within his reach. The struggle at different levels renews the symbols, the myths, the beliefs, the emotional responsiveness of the people. We witness in Algeria man’s reassertion of his capacity to progress.’
The Hirak succeeded in unravelling the webs of deceit that were deployed by the ruling class and its propaganda machine. Moreover, the evolution of its slogans, chants, and forms of resistance, is demonstrative of processes of politicisation and popular education. The re-appropriation of public spaces created a kind of an agora where people discuss, debate, exchange views, talk strategy and perspectives, criticize each other or simply express themselves in many ways including through art and music. This has opened new horizons for resisting and building together.
Cultural production also took on another meaning because it was associated with liberation and seen as a form of political action and solidarity. Far from the folkloric and sterile productions under the suffocating patronage of authoritarian elites, we have seen instead a culture that speaks to the people and advances their resistance and struggles through poetry, music, theatre, cartoons, and street-art. Again, we see Fanon’s insights in his theorisation of culture as a form of political action: ‘A national culture is not a folklore, nor an abstract populism that believes it can discover the people’s true nature. It is not made up of the inert dregs of gratuitous actions, that is to say actions which are less and less attached to the ever-present reality of the people.’
The struggle of decolonisation continues
Leaving aside largely semantic arguments around whether it is a movement, uprising, revolt or a revolution, one can say for certain that what is taking place in Algeria today is a transformative process, pregnant with emancipatory potential. The evolution of the movement and its demands specifically around ‘independence’, ‘sovereignty’ and ‘an end to the pillage of the country’s resources’ are fertile ground for anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and even ecological ideas.
Algerians are making a direct link between their current struggle and the anti-French colonial resistance in the 1950s, seeing their efforts as the continuation of decolonisation. When chanting ‘Generals to the dustbin and Algeria will be independent’, they are laying bare the vacuous official narrative around the glorious revolution and revealing that it has been shamelessly used to pursue personal enrichment. We see a second Fanonian moment where people expose the neo-colonial situation and emphasise one unique characteristic of their uprising: its rootedness in the anti-colonial struggle against the French.
Slogans and chants have captured this desire and made references to anti-colonial war veterans such as Ali La Pointe, Amirouche, Ben Mhidi and Abane: ‘Oh Ali [la pointe] your descendants will never stop until they wrench their freedom!’ and ‘We are the descendants of Amirouche and we will never go back!’
The struggle of decolonisation is being given a new lease of life as Algerians lay claim to the popular and economic sovereignty that was denied to them when formal independence was achieved in 1962. In Fanon’s prophetic words: ‘The people who at the beginning of the struggle had adopted the primitive Manichaeism of the settler – Blacks and Whites, Arabs and Christians – realise as they go along that it sometimes happens that you get Blacks who are whiter than the whites and the hope of an independent nation does not always tempt certain strata of the populations to give up their interests or privileges.’
This two-part long read is an extract from a chapter in a forthcoming book Fanon Today: The Revolt and Reason of the Wretched of the Earth (edited by Nigel Gibson, Daraja Press 2021).
This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy Journal.
South Africa: Why an Amnesty for Grand Corruption Is a Bad Idea
A full confession can bring amnesty and immunity from prosecution or civil procedures for the crimes committed. Therein lies the central irony. As people give more and more evidence of the things they have done they get closer and closer to amnesty and it gets more and more intolerable that these people should be given amnesty.
South Africa’s former Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, provoked a political storm recently when she suggested that public servants implicated in grand corruption should be given the chance to apply for amnesty.
Many South Africans, weary of rampant, unchecked and unaccountable corruption, could be forgiven for asking: what on earth was she thinking?
Madonsela won the admiration of many South Africans because of her steely resolve in the face of malfeasance and breaches of the rules of integrity in public office. Her proposal suggested she might be going soft on corruption.
To be effective as the Public Protector Madonsela required many attributes, as I set out in my 2013 book, The Zuma Years. These included independence of mind, a very thick skin and a certain contrarian eccentricity that rendered her far less susceptible to the numerous attempts to intimidate her as she took on then president Jacob Zuma and his state capture network.
Her amnesty idea displays all of these characteristics.
It should be taken seriously, if only to affirm the merit of a diametrically opposed position.
It’s an inherently bad idea.
Madonsela’s timing is especially unfortunate. It is only in very recent times that the Hawks, the priority crimes investigating police unit, and other agencies of the criminal justice system appear to have recovered the institutional capacity to begin prosecuting those responsible for the deep-lying state capture project.
Recent developments have begun to suggest that the net is finally tightening around the bigger fish that are the true architects of systematic corruption in the country.
This has been widely welcomed. Accountability, at last.
Against the grain of this public view, Madonsela, a law professor, entered the fray to suggest that instead of being tough on the perpetrators, an olive branch should be extended.
This is an example of the “independent-mindedness” for which Madonsela was rightly acclaimed during her seven-year term as Public Protector from 2009-2016.
It is also not only contrarian, but also eccentric in that it makes so little sense.
To be fair to her, she tried to clarify later that she did not mean amnesty for every perpetrator, and certainly not the big fish. Her idea is targeted at those whose “status”, she says, “in the food chain is quite junior”.
But the first of a series of fatal flaws in her idea is about where to draw the line: on what basis should one distinguish the smaller from the bigger fish?
Those who had played a “minor but critical” role was how she framed her idea. There is already a problem here: is it possible for something to be both “critical” to a (criminal) enterprise and yet still “minor”?
I think not.
Madonsela confirmed that amnesty should be available on a legal rather than a moral basis. Yet, in a radio interview after she’d floated the idea, and drawn a lot of flak, she added to the confusion.
At first Madonsela spoke of people who may have “bent the rules” unwittingly, in which case, they may well have a legal defence to criminal conduct. Later, she clarified that she intended to cover individuals with “agency”, even to the extent that their palms have been “greased with money” (which, she argued, they would have to pay back in return for amnesty).
If the right to amnesty was indeed to be a legal entitlement, then the terms on which entitlement to amnesty applies have to be very clearly and carefully drawn. This much has been revealed in Constitutional Court decisions concerning the legal rationality of presidential amnesties or pardons in the case of women convicts and perpetrators of apartheid era offences.
Madonsela’s public policy rationale appears to be that without an inducement, the smaller cogs in the bigger wheels of state corruption may seek to hide and avoid prosecution when what is required is that they should come forward with information about the bigger fish.
Perhaps, then, an offer of amnesty – in effect, a legal right to indemnity from prosecution – deserves to be given serious consideration. This, especially if it is the case that the National Prosecuting Authority is struggling to pull together the evidence to bring strong prosecutions against the most powerful perpetrators of state capture corruption.
But there is no evidence that this is the situation. And, moreover, there are major downsides to be weighed in the balance.
The case against amnesty
First of all: deterrence.
The fact that amnesty has been granted in the past may encourage future corrupt actors to take the risk. The corollary is that the successful prosecution of corrupt officials is likely to discourage repetition.
Secondly, the arguments put forward by Madonsela would, in my view, provide grounds for mitigation in sentencing – not for amnesty. One example would be “small fish” cooperating with the investigative authority and providing evidence about the bigger fish. Another example would be if someone could show that they were bullied into bending procurement rules by a superior and more powerful individual in the system.
Another possible avenue – common practice in criminal justice systems around the world – is the use of a “plea bargain”. Here an accused person trades information in return for facing a less serious charge.
Amnesty would, in effect, deprive them of this opportunity and could thereby undermine the integrity of the whole criminal justice system.
The other major consideration is perception – both in the eyes of key stakeholders, such as the investment community and, secondly, the general public.
Investors are especially eager to see if South Africa has the capacity to hold to account those who contaminated the democratic state and so undermined fair competition by enabling a rent-seekers’ paradise. It is about the strength of the rule of law. Investors want to feel confident that this is one destination where the rule of law holds and where, because of state capture prosecutions, there is less risk of a repeat.
And surely, above all else, the public will feel cheated if perpetrators of state capture corruption, however “minor”, get away scot-free. This, more than anything, would encourage a lawless society, steeped in a culture of impunity rather than accountability.
A dangerous path to tread
Attempts to trade amnesty for information about state corruption have caused conflict as well as controversy in other countries. One notable example was in Tunisia in 2017.
But the biggest danger is that it simply sends the wrong message. This was aptly spelt out by esteemed South African artist William Kentridge reflecting on a previous attempt at taking the amnesty road in South Africa through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process.
Admittedly, Madonsela has a different purpose in mind than the national reconciliation ambition of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process. But, no, Advocate Madonsela, a blanket amnesty would send the wrong message at the worst possible time.
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