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Manufacturing Non-Dissent: Is the Media in Kenya Really Free?

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Despite having a reputation of being the freest in Africa, the mainstream media in Kenya remains hostage to state and corporate interests that determine what can and what cannot be published.

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Manufacturing Non-Dissent: Is the Media in Kenya Really Free?
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Shortly after Daniel arap Moi’s death, when most newspaper columnists and editors in Kenya were extolling the virtues of the former president, and praising him for his “kindness” and “humility”, Father Gabriel Dolan, a columnist with the Sunday Standard, submitted an opinion article that talked of why so many Kenyans who had suffered under Moi’s regime could not forgive him. In his column, the Irish Catholic priest/human rights activist wrote:

Too often we say let bygones be bygones or forgive and forget. Those cheap clichés fail to appreciate how some have suffered . . . The first step in any national healing and reconciliation process is public acknowledgement of what happened. That has not taken place in Kenya. The TJRC [Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission] was an effort at uncovering the nation’s ugly past and putting it on record. But its report has been denied, ignored and demeaned by successive regimes . . . How can you forgive when your perpetrators deny their culpability?

The Sunday Standard, predictably, did not publish the article. In protest, Father Dolan submitted his resignation letter, in which he stated: “Mindful of the subject dealt with in the rejected submission, it is sad that not only did the Moi regime silence critics and free-thinking during his reign but even in death his family-owned media house will gag any columnist who questions its sordid treatment of dissenters, opponents and human rights activists. This is a sad requiem for freedom of the press in Kenya”.

Father Dolan and I were among eight columnists who resigned en masse from the Nation two years ago in protest against what we perceived as undue editorial interference and censorship. (The six other columnists were Maina Kiai, Kwamchetsi Makokha, George Kegoro, Nic Cheeseman, Gabrielle Lynch, and Muthoni Wanyeki.) In our statement, we noted that several editors and writers, and the cartoonist Godfrey Mwampembwa (aka Gado), had been dismissed by the newspaper for being critical of the Jubilee administration. Our exit, noted Kwamchesti Makokha, “belies the crisis in Kenyan media”.

Senior managers at the Nation Media Group (NMG) underplayed the significance of our joint resignation. In a front-page editorial published in the Nation a couple of days later, it insisted that it was non-partisan and “committed to telling the truth”.

Maina Kiai, George Kegoro and Gabriel Dolan were subsequently offered columns at the Sunday Standard. (I began writing an op-ed column for The Elephant, as did Wanyeki, Makokha, Cheeseman and Lynch.) When Kiai, Kegoro, and Dolan moved to the Nation’s biggest rival, I did wonder how they would fare there, given that Moi owned the newspaper in partnership with his former private secretary Joshua Kulei. (Despite claims of editorial independence, the Standard had rarely taken a stand that directly challenged Moi’s leadership, though at certain times in the country’s evolution as a multiparty state, the paper did take daring positions that might have offended its owners.)

Moi’s hold on the Standard became clear to me sometime at the end of 1992, almost exactly a year after the president had called for the repeal of Section 2A of the constitution that ushered in multipartyism. At that time, my weekly column at the Sunday Standard’s pull-out magazine section was abruptly discontinued. The column was titled “Straight from the Heart” and had gained a reputation for its frankness and focus on social (soft) issues. I was 29-years-old at the time, arguably one of the youngest columnists in the country, and an Asian woman to boot. I began writing the column at precisely the time when the Kenyan media was opening up and asking hard questions (thanks to multipartyism). Previously gagged columnists and cartoonists were lapping up their new-found freedom and doing what was previously unthinkable – caricaturing Moi and challenging his regime.

Perhaps it was my youthful naiveté that led to me to the office of Ali Hafidh, the then the editor-in-chief of the Standard newspaper. After waiting for a few minutes outside his office at the Standard’s main offices in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, I was ushered in. I had never met Hafidh before (the pull-out magazine I co-edited was managed by a subsidiary of the Standard and was located in the posh Lonrho building in the central business district, so my interaction with my colleagues in Industrial Area was limited). I expected to meet a rude, loud, and arrogant man (because that had been my experience with editors with big egos in Kenya’s media houses). Hafidh, who had worked as chief sub-editor with the Nation newspaper before taking up the position of editor-in-chief at the Standard, appeared to be a quiet, self-effacing and soft-spoken man. I politely asked him why he had decided to discontinue my column. His response? “Some people didn’t like it”.

Now, in those days if an editor told you that “some people” didn’t like your column or story, you knew exactly who those people were. I walked away from his office without further questions.

At that time the Standard was associated with Mark Too—also known as President Moi’s “Mr Fix-It”—who sat on the board of Roland “Tiny” Rowland’s Lonrho Group, which owned the newspaper. (Lonrho PLC sold the newspaper to Moi in 1995.) It was obvious that someone in Moi’s government was not happy with what I had written. The last column I wrote before my dismissal had talked about why privatising Kenya Airways was not such a wise decision. Did Moi or his cronies feel threatened that such an opinion might derail talks on the sale of the national carrier? If so, I found it quite amusing, if not unbelievable, that a columnist of my rather small stature could offend a head of state. After all, in the world of mega-columnists like Philip Ochieng, Wahome Mutahi (aka Whispers), Kwendo Opanga and Tom Mshindi, I was a midget.

After that experience, I veered away from mainstream journalism and found a career in the United Nations, where I watched Kenya’s pro-democracy movement from a safe distance. Those were the days of Saba Saba rallies, and opposition politicians hiding out in Western embassies. Although the repeal of Section 2A of the constitution had opened up the media space in Kenya, leading to a proliferation of opinion writers and publications, some media houses were less free than others. And Moi’s invisible hand could be felt everywhere.

I only reclaimed my space in mainstream Kenyan journalism many years later, in 2006, when I was offered a weekly op-ed column in the Daily Nation.

How free is free?

Kenya is often lauded by the international community as having one of the freest media on the continent. This is true—but only partially so, as I will explain later. While journalists in countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan were (and are) routinely gagged, jailed or even killed, after 1992 it became increasingly rare to hear about journalists being arrested or tortured.

But then, as Noam Chomsky explains in his brilliant treatise Manufacturing Consent, there is no need to forcibly censor journalists or news organisations that willingly volunteer to censor themselves. Commercial interests and the interests of media owners often determine the content of newspapers. Editors happily give in to these interests because newspapers are for-profit organisations that depend on revenue to survive.

The reason why Kenya’s mainstream traditional media can never be truly independent is that they are part and parcel of what we might refer to as The Establishment. As Denis Galava points out in a chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Kenyan Politics (published in February this year and edited by Nic Cheeseman, Karuti Kanyinga and Gabrielle Lynch), “despite a level of independence and the relatively high quality of investigative journalism that has helped to uncover scandals and bring attention to certain injustices . . . the media in Kenya is part of both ideological state apparatuses and other hegemonic structures that help to ‘manufacture consent’”.

There is no need to forcibly censor journalists or news organisations that willingly volunteer to censor themselves

The Nation Media Group, for instance, has always deferred to the government in power because its biggest shareholder, H.H. The Aga Khan, has various commercial interests in Kenya. Even though it has at various times championed opposition politics, it has always been careful not to topple or irreversibly damage the relationship the Group enjoys with the state.

There is also what could be perceived as an unhealthy relationship between the NMG’s Board of Directors and corporate interests that are not particularly keen on independent journalism. As Herman Wasserman and Jacinta Mwende Maweu point out in their paper, “The freedom to be silent? Market pressures on journalistic normative ideals at the Nation Media Group” (Review of African Political Economy, 2014), quite often the NMG’s Board of Directors (most of whom represent or sit on the boards of other companies) make decisions purely on the basis of profit. They wrote:

It is evident that the top executives of the NMG are not trained journalists, but strategic corporate executives to oversee the business orientation of the Group . . . 16 members of the Board of Directors are handpicked by the main shareholder, the Aga Khan, and they are supposed to act as his ‘eyes and ears’ to ensure business prosperity of the group and subsidiary companies . . . This business orientation of the Group is slowly but surely narrowing the gap between journalists and advertisers, bankers, financiers and industrial business people. . .

Wasserman and Maweu note that quite often the Board of Directors exerts pressure on the NMG’s top management, who in turn exert pressure on individual journalists to promote the owners’ interests.

However, “state capture” of the media still plays a dominant role in how commercial media houses in Kenya operate. In both Moi’s and Jomo Kenyatta’s time, it was quite normal for newspaper editors to receive calls from State House urging them not to publish or to underplay a certain story. For instance, when J.M. Kariuki was assassinated in 1975, the Nation newspaper, under the editorship of George Githii, (in) famously reported that the Nyandurua MP was in Zambia.

In another instance in 1989, when Gray Phombeah (full disclosure: Gray is my husband), the Special Projects Editor at the KANU-owned Kenya Times, unearthed an Italian mafia link in Malindi that had close ties to State House, he, along with Joseph Odindo, the acting editor-in-chief, were fired. (The editor-in-chief, Philip Ochieng, was out of the country at the time. Ochieng had “poached” both Gray and Odindo, among other journalists, from the Nation newspaper.) They only got their jobs back after they wrote a personal apology to Moi. (Odindo has since held various senior editorial management positions at the Nation and the Standard. Gray joined the BBC Africa Service in London, and then returned to the BBC’s Nairobi Office, which he eventually headed until his departure in 2008.)

But that was then, in the cloak-and-dagger Moi days, when all journalists were under intense scrutiny, and when no newspaper, let along the ruling party’s, could get away with being critical of the government. Newspapers had moles in every newsroom, and the dreaded Special Branch did not hesitate to pick up journalists for real or imagined negative reporting. But for this practice to continue in another form, this time with the complicity of editors, shows we have not really embraced the concept of independent journalism.

For instance, it is widely believed that under Tom Mshindi’s editorial leadership, the Jubilee government of Uhuru Kenyatta enjoyed special privileges at the NMG. The departure or dismissal of several columnists, writers, and editors at the Nation occurred during his tenure—which leads many to believe that he took instructions about who to retain and who to fire from State House.

As Galava notes in his chapter:

Most recently, Tom Mshindi, who was the Nation’s editor-in-chief between 2014 and 2018, was accused by editors and some columnists of engendering self-censorship, uncritical acquiescence to President Kenyatta’s capricious demands, and gatekeeping for the state. During his tenure, Mshindi fired journalists deemed to be too critical of the government, including this author. Also pushed aside was David Ndii, a public intellectual and an ardent critic of the Jubilee government, who wrote a popular fortnightly column in the Saturday Nation. Another low moment for Kenyan journalism was the unprecedented mass resignation of eight independent columnists . . . in March 2018 on the basis of claimed lack of editorial independence. The timing of the columnists’ resignations was critical because it coincided with the hardest clampdown in Kenya’s media history and the most desperate measures of self-preservation that media actors had embraced to survive and profit in the prevailing circumstances.

(Ironically, not long after we resigned from the NMG, Tom Mshindi was offered a retirement package, which included a weekly column in the Sunday Nation.)

It is odd that a newspaper that led a campaign against “brown envelope journalism”—the practice prevalent among many Kenyan journalists of writing stories that are favourable to whoever pays the price—could succumb to government pressure. In the 1980s and ‘90s, when journalists were among the lowest-paid professionals in the country, the bribing of reporters became common practice among politicians, and even among private sector companies. However, as professional standards in newspapers improved, and especially with the advent of commercial TV stations in the late 1990s and the early part of this century, bribery was increasingly not tolerated. (Some journalists even lost their jobs for having taken a bribe.) Top journalists in the country began commanding higher salaries because editors and editorial boards understood the importance of retaining good journalists, news anchors and reporters who could pull in the audiences required to keep profits soaring.

If you can’t buy them, strangle them financially

Under Jubilee, however, the fate of media houses has become increasingly precarious. With the introduction of MyGov, a government pull-out that advertises government jobs and tenders and is essentially a government mouthpiece, revenues in media houses have been plummeting as they no longer benefit from government advertising—a major source of their income. Media houses are cutting back on staff as a result, and some even face imminent closure in the face of declining readership (thanks in part to poor management decisions, such as those made by Mshindi on behalf of the government, which reduced the level of trust that audiences/readers have in the mainstream media—media that not too long ago were rated as among the “most trusted” institutions in the country.) Disgruntled or frustrated journalists are finding livelihoods elsewhere, in PR or in the NGO or private sector.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, when journalists were among the lowest-paid professionals in the country, the bribing of reporters became common practice

The quality of journalism has also declined. The previous practice of “buying” journalists and editors or denying media houses advertising in order to “punish” them has resurfaced. Investigative stories implicating senior officials close to the powers that be are being suppressed. Talk shows that should ideally be asking the hard questions and making leaders accountable have turned into circuses where hosts think their main job is to entertain, not to inform or debate. Censorship is also in full swing. Clear evidence of this was the government-orchestrated blackout of three TV channels in January 2018 to prevent them from airing the “swearing-in” of Raila Odinga as the “People’s President” at a rally in Uhuru Park. We are now back in the bad old Moi days.

The only difference between the Moi days and today is that we have far more journalists willingly toeing the government line than we did in the 1990s. Even die-hard anti-Uhuru columnists, like Makau Mutua, have softened their position. The sanitising of Moi during his funeral, the insanely tedious focus on the rivalry between deputy president William Ruto and Uhuru’s new ally, Raila Odinga, and the celebrity-focused mind-numbing stories that pass off as news obscure the life-and-death issues that ordinary Kenyans have to grapple with on a daily basis.

There is also insufficient interrogation of government edicts, including the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI); those opposing BBI are often portrayed as unpatriotic spoilers. Kenyan stories that make international headlines are also ignored or underplayed. For instance, I believe I am the only Kenyan journalist who questioned the role the now-disgraced Cambridge Analytica played in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections.

Talk shows that should ideally be asking the hard questions and making leaders accountable have turned into circuses

Interestingly, social media, or more specifically Kenyans on Twitter (dubbed KOT), have stepped in to fill the vacuum. It should be noted that it was only when a Kenya Airways employee posted a video on social media of a plane from China landing at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport—despite the government’s stated ban on such flights due to the high number of coronavirus cases in China, where the infection originated—that the Kenyan mainstream media began taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously. And when the Kenya Airways employee was suspended by the airline, it was KOT that defended him, not the media houses. (Kenya Airways, in a press statement, claimed he had breached security at the airport and that they had suspended him so they could carry out investigations. A court later ordered that he be reinstated.)

Similarly, the locust invasion that is devouring parts of this country was first highlighted on social media. The government’s response to this livelihood-threatening disaster has since been poor at best, if not contemptuous.

How the mainstream traditional media tackles such issues in a post-opposition Kenya where the citizenry has been homogenised and neutered by the famous handshake between Raila and Uhuru will be interesting to watch as we approach a tumultuous and unpredictable election in 2022. What will also be interesting to see is what alternative sources of news and information Kenyans will rely on as they head to the polls.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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Why Physical Distancing Should Not Become the New (Ab)Normal

Working from home (WFH) certainly has its advantages, but studies have shown that prolonged isolation can have dire mental health consequences. As societies change their behaviour to adjust to COVID-19, they must take into consideration the innate human need for physical interaction.

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Many office workers are celebrating working from home (WFH), which has become the “new normal” in the age of coronavirus and lockdowns. Introverts who hate the prospect of making small talk with colleagues they secretly loathe have welcomed the idea of working remotely from home in their pajamas and setting their own work schedules. Those whose working experience was considerably diminished by office politics find that it is much easier to ignore these politics on Zoom.

WFH certainly has its advantages. Time spent commuting to work (which in Nairobi can be as long as two hours due to the city’s horrific traffic jams) can now be spent working. This is good for the environment, which is already choking from vehicular fumes, and for productivity. I have worked from home for several years and find that I am more productive at home because I spend less time getting dressed for work, travelling to work, and conducting idle chitchat with colleagues, time that is essentially wasted. Twitter has already told its employees that they can work from home for the rest of their working life at the company if they choose to do so.

With the advent of WFH, it has also become evident that showing up at work is not the same as working. Many of us have worked in places where it is not clear what work people actually do or why they were hired. Their output appears negligible or insignificant, but because they show up at work, it is assumed that they are working. With WFH, managers might be more diligent about monitoring “deliverables” (NGO-ese for outputs) by employees. After all, if you say you are working from home, and cannot show what you did, then it becomes clear that you are not actually working.

However, before we throw out our office suits and slip permanently into our comfortable bedroom slippers, we might consider this: the majority of essential workers in this world still have to go to work and make physical contact with human beings to earn a living. Doctors, nurses, retail store managers, food vendors, hawkers, need to physically interact with the people they serve. No WFH for them.

For those of us who were already working from home before the pandemic and lockdowns started, the new normal might appear like the old normal, but it is not for one simple reason – this lockdown is enforced; it is not voluntary. People working from home can decide when to go out and socialise to recharge their batteries or to make human contact; now that option no longer exists or is restricted.

Studies have also shown that while many women prefer the flexibility of working from home, a majority find that leaving the house to go to work is actually therapeutic. A survey by Gallup, for instance, found that two-thirds of working women liked the “social aspect” of their jobs. Working from home alone doesn’t provide the social contact and camaraderie that an office can provide.

There are other disadvantages of WFH and using online platforms to communicate with colleagues. As Jennifer Senior wrote in the New York Times recently, “Remote work leaves a terrible feedback vacuum. Communication with colleagues is no longer casual but effortful; no matter how hard you try, you’re going to have less contact – particularly of the casual variety – and with fewer people”.

Senior says that it would also be a mistake to assume that toxic office politics will not find its way into the WFH space. “They [office politics] are much easier to navigate if you can actually see your colleagues – and therefore discern where the power resides, how business gets done and who the kind people are”, she wrote.

When the home becomes a battlefield

The lockdowns around the globe are also testing marriages and giving rise to mental health problems that are breaking up families and leading to increased domestic violence. As the war against the coronavirus pandemic accelerates, another kind of pandemic is raging across the world. Reports indicate that violence against women has increased since lockdowns have been enforced in various countries, and that women are bearing a disproportionate burden of taking care of their families.

United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, raised the alarm recently when he stated: “Over the past weeks as economic and social pressures and fear have grown, we have seen a horrifying global surge in domestic violence”. He noted that “violence is not confined to the battlefield”.

According to a recent UNWomen report, “COVID-19 and Ending Violence against Women”, in France reports of domestic violence increased by 30 per cent since the lockdown on 17 March. In Argentina, emergency calls on domestic violence cases increased by 25 per cent after the lockdown on 20 March. In Cyprus and Singapore, helplines registered an increase in calls by 30 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively. Demands for emergency shelter for domestic violence victims have also been reported in Canada, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

“As stay-at-home orders expand to contain the spread of the virus, women with violent partners increasingly find themselves isolated from the people and resources that can help them”, says the report. “The surge in COVID-19 cases is straining even the most advanced and best-resourced health systems to the breaking point, including those at the front line in violence response”.

“It’s a perfect storm”, said the CEO of one British charity. “Lockdowns will lead to a surge in domestic abuse, but also severely limit the ability of services to help”.

In many countries where there are few services for victims of domestic violence, or where reporting physical abuse, especially by an intimate partner, is difficult, women are trapped in a vicious cycle. In situations where healthcare services are already over-stretched, women victims of domestic violence are also less likely to seek medical attention.

The closure of schools has also placed enormous pressure on women, who tend to be the main caregivers in families. For women who are poor, and who live in cramped housing, the pressures can be overwhelming. With stay-at-home children and a spouse who has either been let go at work, or who cannot work because of the lockdown, the home can become a pressure cooker ready to explode. Men who feel more insecure due to their unemployment status are likely to take out their frustrations on their wives. Sometimes this can result in physical violence, even murder, as has been reported in Kenya, where there appears to be a surge in intimate partner violence, sometimes resulting in death.

The looming mental health crisis

In my view, the idea that self-isolation and working remotely from home should be accepted as the new normal is terribly misplaced for one simple reason: human beings are wired to be social animals, and depriving them of social contact has dire psychological consequences. WFH advocates fail to consider that humans have an innate need to physically interact with other humans.

There is a famous experiment conducted by the American psychologist Harry Harlow that is often cited to underscore the above point. Harlow’s work with primates, particularly infant rhesus monkeys, showed why isolation can be detrimental to human development. His experiments showed that when baby monkeys are taken away from their mothers and raised in a laboratory setting, they start engaging in disturbing behaviour, including self-mutilation. It didn’t matter how well fed the monkeys were, their need for maternal comfort and love proved more critical to their development than their need for sustenance. The infant monkeys placed in cages did not thrive; some held in prolonged captivity even died. The experiment highlighted the importance of maternal care and touch in infant development. Those who believe that hugs, cuddles and handshakes are gestures that will no longer be tolerated in a post-COVID world might want to refer to Harlow’s groundbreaking work.

Johann Hari also highlights the importance of social contact in his book, Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope. Hari, a journalist who had been on anti-depressants for years (without much success) embarked on a journey to find out why depressed people remained depressed even after years of taking drugs or undergoing therapy.

He found that depression is not so much a clinical condition that can managed with the right medicine, but essentially a social disorder whose cure lies in connecting with other like-minded people. He found that depressed people are not only more likely to feel lonely, but also tend to feel insecure. They have few friends and little social interaction.

Despite the proliferation of social media and the billions of “friends” on Facebook, an alarming number of people around the world are reporting being both lonely and depressed. Hari found that social media cannot compensate for the psychological loss of social life. He quotes the biologist E.O Wilson, who said that “people must belong to a tribe” to thrive. People must feel a sense of community and have friends they can count on. This involves physical interaction.

Unfortunately, our modern world has made connection and a sense of community harder to achieve. Social media has replaced physical contact; online shopping has replaced the pleasure of physically touching an object before buying it; the neoliberal capitalist world order has made it much harder for people to form relationships that have nothing to do with money. This has severely impacted the mental health of societies.

The social cost of rising inequality

The world has also become far more unequal, with a handful of people and corporations owning most of the world’s wealth, and a large majority eking out a living from paycheck to paycheck, and with few prospects of owning a home. An Oxfam report released last year showed that in 2018, the 26 richest people in the world had the same net worth as the poorest half of the world’s population, or 3.8 billion people. In addition, the wealth of 2,200 billionaires increased by 12 per cent in 2018 while the wealth of the poorest half decreased by 11 per cent.

Studies have found that millennials are less likely to own their own homes during their lifetime than their parents and grandparents. This is partly the result of the “gig economy”, which has become the new normal, with young people taking on short-term contractual jobs rather than more secure long-term employment that can provide things like health insurance and pension schemes. While the gig economy has been lauded by some for offering people more flexibility and variety in the kinds of jobs they do, it also has several disadvantages, the primary one being lack of financial security, which has led to mounting uncertainty, particularly among people approaching middle age.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent global recession is likely to increase inequality in an already highly unequal world. With more people losing their jobs or earning less, the gap between rich and poor is likely to widen. This has mental health and social consequences.

In their groundbreaking book on inequality, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket show a strong relationship between inequality and mental illness. The researchers found that highly unequal societies tend to have a higher incidence of depression, obesity, drug addiction, and violent crime than societies that are more equal. One reason for this is that in societies that place a high value on having money and possessions, people who judge themselves through this value system are more at risk of depression and anxiety.

Highly unequal societies also tend to value competition more than cooperation. They tend to be individualistic and materialistic. Hence, they tend not to take care of the “public good”, and so are less likely to invest in good quality and affordable healthcare and education, or in things that have no commercial value, but which are essential for the well-being of societies, such as public parks and social security systems. This affects the overall mental health of people living in these societies.

Human beings need other human beings to survive and thrive. They need to cooperate and make physical contact with others. WFH and self-isolation are already impacting the mental health of people. If physical distancing and self-isolation become the norm in the long term, then hospitals might reduce the number of coronavirus patients, but mental asylums and counselling services will become overwhelmed. In poor countries, where psychological counselling is a luxury, expect more violent crime, suicides and drug and alcohol addiction. The new normal will, in fact, become the new abnormal.

While there is no doubt that social behaviour will be impacted by the pandemic in the short term, it would be a tragedy if human beings shut themselves off permanently from other human beings in the long term. As I have tried to show, long-term self-isolation is neither healthy nor desirable. The emotional and social costs are simply too high.

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My Black Is (Not) Beautiful: The Complex History of Skin Lighteners in Africa

As in other parts of the world colonised by European powers, the politics of skin colour in South Africa have been importantly shaped by the history of white supremacy and institutions of racial slavery, colonialism, and segregation.

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My Black Is (Not) Beautiful: The Complex History of Skin Lighteners in Africa
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Somali-American activists recently scored a victory against Amazon and against colorism, which is prejudice based on preference for people with lighter skin tones. Members of the non-profit The Beautywell Project teamed up with the Sierra Club to convince the online retail giant to stop selling skin lightening products that contain mercury.

After more than a year of protests, this coalition of anti-racism, health, and environmental activists persuaded Amazon to remove some 15 products containing toxic levels of mercury from its website. This puts a small but noteworthy dent in the global trade in skin lighteners, estimated to reach US$31.2 billion by 2024.

What are the roots of this sizeable trade? And how might its most toxic elements be curtailed?

The online sale of skin lighteners is relatively new, but the in-person traffic is very old. My book Beneath the Surface: A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners explores this layered history from the vantage point of South Africa.

As in other parts of the world colonized by European powers, the politics of skin color in South Africa have been significantly shaped by the history of white supremacy and institutions of racial slavery, colonialism, and segregation. My book examines that history.

Yet, racism alone cannot explain skin lightening practices. My book also attends to intersecting dynamics of class and gender, changing beauty ideals and the expansion of consumer capitalism.

A deep history of skin whitening and skin lightening

For centuries and even millennia, elites in some parts of the world used paints and powders to create smoother, paler appearances, unblemished by illness and the sun’s darkening and roughening effects.

Cosmetic users in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome created dramatic appearances by pairing skin whiteners containing lead or chalk with black eye makeup and red lip colorants. In China and Japan too, elite women and some men used white lead preparations and rice powder to achieve complexions resembling white jade or fresh lychee.

Melanin is the biochemical compound that makes skin colorful. It serves as the body’s natural sunscreen. Skin lighteners generate a less painted look than skin whiteners by removing rather than concealing blemished or melanin-rich skin.

Active ingredients in skin lighteners have ranged from acidic compounds like lemon juice and milk to harsher chemicals like sulfur, arsenic, and mercury. In parts of precolonial Southern Africa, some people used mineral and botanical preparations to brighten—rather than whiten or lighten—their hair and skin.

During the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, skin color and associated physical differences were used to distinguish enslaved people from the free, and to justify the former’s oppression. Colonizers paired pale skin color with beauty, intelligence, and power while casting melanin-rich hues as the embodiment of ugliness and inferiority. Within this racist political order, where small differences carried great significance, some people sought to whiten and lighten their complexions.

By the twentieth century, mass-produced skin lightening creams ranked among the world’s most popular cosmetics. Consumers of commercial skin lighteners included white, black, and brown women.

In the 1920s and 1930s, many white consumers swapped skin lighteners for tanning lotions as time spent sunbathing and playing outdoors became a sign of a healthy and leisured lifestyle. Seasonal tanning embodied new forms of white privilege.

Skin lighteners became cosmetics primarily associated with people of color. For black and brown consumers, living in places like the United States and South Africa where racism and colorism have flourished, even slight differences in skin color could have substantial social and political consequences.

The mercury effect

Skin lighteners can be physically harmful. Mercury, one of the most common active ingredients, lightens skin in two ways. It inhibits the formation of melanin by rendering inactive the enzyme tyrosinase; and it exfoliates the tanned, outer layers of the skin through the production of hydrochloric acid.

By the early twentieth century, pharmaceutical and medical textbooks recommended mercury—usually in the form of ammoniated mercury—for treating skin infections and dark spots while often warning of its harmful effects. Cosmetic manufacturers marketed creams containing ammoniated mercury as “freckle removers” or “skin bleaches.”

When the US Congress passed the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act in 1938, such creams were among the first to be regulated.

After World War II, the negative environmental and health consequences of mercury became more apparent. The devastating case of mercury poisoning caused by industrial wastewater in Minamata, Japan prompted the Food and Drug Administration to take a closer look at mercury’s toxicity, including in cosmetics. Here was a visceral instance of what environmentalist Rachel Carson meant about small, domestic choices making the world uninhabitable.

In 1973, the FDA banned all but trace amounts of mercury from cosmetics. Other countries followed suit. South Africa banned mercurial cosmetics in 1975, the European Economic Union in 1976, and Nigeria in 1982. The trade in skin lighteners, nonetheless, continued as other active ingredients—most notably hydroquinone—replaced ammoniated mercury.

Meanwhile in South Africa

In apartheid South Africa, the trade was especially robust. Skin lighteners ranked among the most commonly used personal products in black urban households. During the 1980s, activists inspired by Black Consciousness and the “Black is Beautiful” sentiment teamed up to make opposition to skin lighteners a part of the anti-apartheid movement.

In the early 1990s, activists convinced the government to ban all cosmetic skin lighteners containing known depigmenting agents—and to prohibit cosmetic advertisements from making any claims to “bleach,” “lighten” or “whiten” the skin. This prohibition was the first of its kind and the regulations immediately shuttered the in-country manufacture of skin lighteners.

South Africa’s regulations testify to the broader anti-racist political movement from which they emerged. Thirty years on, South Africa again possesses a robust—if now illicit—trade in skin lighteners. An especially disturbing element of the trade is the resurgence of mercurial products.

South African researchers have found that over 40 percent of skin lighteners sold in Durban and Cape Town contain mercury. Mercurial skin lighteners tend to surface in places where regulations are lax and consumers are poor.

The activists’ recent victory against Amazon suggests one way forward. They took out a full-page ad in a local newspaper denouncing Amazon’s sale of mercurial skin lighteners as “dangerous, racist, and illegal.” A petition with 23,000 signatures was hand-delivered to the company’s Minnesota office.

By combining anti-racist, health, and environmentalist arguments, activists held one of the world’s most powerful companies accountable. They also brought the toxic presence of mercurial skin lighteners to public awareness and made them more difficult to purchase.

This post is from a new 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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Not Yet Uhuru: Why Postcolonialism Doesn’t Exist in France

It is no longer shocking to witness the prejudice among French institutions and intelligentsia against Africa and Africans.

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Not Yet Uhuru: Why Postcolonialism Doesn’t Exist in France
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Racism and exclusion have always been at the heart of France’s neocolonial project in Africa. What is new, however, is the pervasive and active discursive process of making invisible, and therefore containment, of the violent reality of France’s policies and its devastating consequences for France’s racialised citizens as well as the African populations on the other side of the Mediterranean. Today it is important to consider what France has become: to slightly stretch the words of philosopher Herbert Marcuse, a one-dimensional society where repressive and exploitative forces of domination and injustice that have been at the heart of France’s national consciousness challenge any possibility of a genuine vision of change.

It is no longer shocking to witness the prejudice among French institutions and intelligentsia against Africa and Africans. The state, the media, and the academy in France actively embody the role of new agents of state neocolonialism to reject any resistance against racism and Islamophobia through complex methods of containment and abstraction.

Race blindness for instance becomes an effective tool to safeguard the neocolonialist foundation of France’s state apparatus and contain any possible threats to its national consciousness. As writer Lauren Collins observes, “There is a common belief that there cannot be racism in France because in France there is, officially, no such thing as race. The state, operating under a policy of “absolute equality,” does not collect any statistics on race or ethnicity.” By doing so, the state apparatus in France ignores its racialised and ethnic citizens and represses their rights to be fully acknowledged.

State neocolonialism in France has been impregnated in its national consciousness to the extent that its networks of domination and dehumanization have blurred the traditional distinctions that are made on the basis of colour and between racialised and ethnic citizens emigrating from Africa. In France, to draw upon Fanon’s analysis that racism is fundamental to the economic structures of capitalism, the political infrastructure is also a superstructure: you are French because you embody France’s state neocolonialism, you embody France’s state neocolonialism because you are French. The French state no longer presupposes certain racial and aesthetic characteristics of the ideal citizen: Black African intellectuals and brown Maghrebi media pundits can also be incorporated as new agents of state neocolonialism. In contemporary France, Africans are not othered and excluded on the basis of race, ethnicity, or colour, but rather on the basis of their politics, culture, and religion.

When Emmanuel Macron, the French president, decided in October 2019 to share his views on immigration and Islamophobia, he chose the far-right magazine Valeurs Actuellesdeclaring that “the failure of our (economic) model coincides with the crisis of Islam” and adding that this crisis leads to the emergence of more radical forms of political Islam. Macron criticized a demonstration in support of the right to wear veils as “non-aligned Third-Worldism with Marxist tendencies” (he used the word “relents,” which can be translated to hint or trace, but also to stink or stench). This interview was published a few days after a mosque shooting in Bayonne, in south-west France. No terrorism offenses were brought by the French government against the white shooter.

The media’s complicity overwhelms any possibility of a meaningful public debate. At its basic form, the process of invisibilisation in a one-dimensional society involves the dispersal of productive energies through diversion and abstraction so to ensure that a revolutionary momentum is as unattainable as the end of capitalism itself.

This complicit relationship between the media and the state in France is carefully exposed in Serge Halimi’s Les Nouveaux Chiens de Garde (translated to The New Watch Dogs, 1997-2005). Halimi, the chief editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, lays down a seething critique of a “capitalist” press and media in France that are heavily influenced by the elite interests of politicians and powerful corporations and likely to manufacture propaganda to serve their agenda.

This is exemplified by the controversial debate in France around returning works of African art, stolen during colonial times, to the continent after the publication of the report by the French historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese economist and writer Felwine Sarr, and commissioned by Macron, which recommends to cancel the project of long-term loan of items to African museums and to support the full and unconditional restitution of the looted heritage back to Africa. The glaring discrepancies in reporting the ambivalent position of the French Minister of Culture, Franck Riester, a right wing politician, regarding the return of the stolen artifacts to Africa highlight the dangerous complicity between state institutions and the media in France. There were two opposing reports of this event: on the one hand, major French media outlets celebrated the efforts of the French government to return 26 works of art to Benin. Radio France International, for example, chose the title: “Restitution of works of art in Benin: France goes a step further” while Libération opted for: “Restitution of works in Benin: Paris says it works for a quick return.” But once we dive into these articles, we are faced with the many approximations and “possible scenarios” under which France will actually return the art. The conditional supplants the affirmative, and what remains is the strong belief that much has been left unsaid.

On the other hand, The Art Newspaper, a leading global art magazine, commented differently on the same event: “France retreats from report recommending automatic restitutions of looted African artefacts” ran the article. Here, what is emphasized is the strong opposition of France’s powerful gallery owners and art collectors against any form of permanent restitution and the pressure they put to change the “restoration without delay” decision into a “temporary return.” The new scenario, according to the minister’s comments, refers now to a temporary “exhibition dedicated to the diversity, complexity and aesthetic richness of these works” that will be held, not in Africa, but across France this summer as part of Macron’s highly publicized event entitled “Africa 2020.”

While most news outlets in France continue to briefly comment on the ongoing debate between supporters and critics of Savoy-Sarr report on the restitution of African art, The Art Newspaper insisted that “the report made international headlines, recommending the restitution of African artifacts in French museums, but the country has not returned a single item to Africa.” A year after the publication of Savoy-Sarr recommendations and Macron’s promise for a quick return, “neither the 26 pieces from Benin nor indeed the 90,000 other Sub-Saharan artifacts in French museums” have been returned to Africa.

What is often dismissed from the debate on the restitution of African heritage is the capacity of the French president to secure political and economic gains while asserting the hegemonic power of France over its neo-colonies. Macron accepted to temporarily return El Hadj Omar Tall’s sword to Senegal for a period of five years during another highly publicized ceremony, and at the same time he persuaded Macky Sall, the Senegalese President, to sign a new, multi-hundred million euro contract “for the construction of three offshore patrol vessels for the Senegalese Navy.” Again, there is nothing new here: as Sally Price reports, “[R]estitution is part of a two-way interaction, based on inequality and demanding something in return.” However, Macron successfully manages to obscure this inequality through a highly-calculated, affective, and Africa-friendly communicative strategy.

In France, as the old world is dying and the new is waiting to be born again, a specific breed of pseudo-intellectuals highjacks the public discourse to further promote a republicanism of inequality and exclusion. Among white French intellectuals, the complexity of the postcolonial field is often reduced to a corrupt discursive technology of deceptive arguments, false readings, and deliberate confusion. It is unconceivable to think of a public debate about, say, the case for reparations.

Whenever I am faced with the abysmal state of postcolonialism in France, I remember how Carina Ray, associate professor at Brandeis University, at a panel on the racial politics of knowledge production in November 2018, described the state of African studies in Europe: There are still issues that are “so 1940s and 1950s.” “White Europeness” has made it difficult to bring new perspectives on the postcolonial question. As she put it blatantly: it is a disaster.

The dangerous pseudo-intellectualism of Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut, Éric Zemmour, Raphaël Enthoven, Michel Houellebecq, Renaud Camus, Robert Ménard, and others – the list is absurdly long – has caused a permanent damage to any possibility of a qualitative change. There is no pause here: these figures have always been central to France’s neocolonial project of domination and exploitation.

As Marcuse writes, “The most effective and enduring form of warfare against liberation is the implanting of material and intellectual needs that perpetuate obsolete forms of the struggle for existence.” The omnipresence of Lévy, Finkielkraut, and Zemmour in public discourse in France is meant to turn meaningful propositions of liberation into obsolete forms of insignificant punditry.

In an infamous manifesto signed by 80 figures of the French intelligentsia such as the reactionary Alain Finkielkraut and published in 2018 postcolonialism was deemed “a hegemonic strategy” that attacks the ideals of republican universalism, and it involves “the use of methods of intellectual terrorism reminiscent and far exceeds what Stalinism once did to European intellectuals.”

What is often recurring in these incendiary attacks on postcolonialism among the white French elite is this amalgam of postcolonialism with the North American scholarship. There is the tendency to believe that postcolonial studies, an interdisciplinary field of inquiry and activism, is due above all to the contributions of the American and Anglo-Saxon schools to the developments of its theories and practices. When the existing tensions between France (and Europe) and the United States on issues of knowledge production and cultural superiority is taken into consideration, one is inclined to consider that their attacks against postcolonialism are a deep and irrational fear of hegemonic American interventionism.

The view of postcolonial thought as a universal, progressive praxis that has been forged by the struggles of the peoples of the South is dismissed. The fundamental thrust of postcolonialism as moving beyond racial and identity issues to rethink also political, cultural, and utopian ideals is attacked. While the Americans and others have grasped that, in a world in flux, we cannot afford not to be postcolonial, France’s established networks of neocolonial power continue to dismiss postcolonialism as unpatriotic and as a homogeneous threat.

Faced with Finkielkraut’s racist and misogynist attacks during a televised debate, Maboula Soumahoro, the activist and chair of the Black History Month in France, was succinct in her reply: “Your world is ending! You can be panic struck as long as you want, it’s over!”

Meanwhile, the complicity between the political, media and cultural institutions in France continues to silently enforce the state neocolonialism against the African diaspora. The death of Zineb Redouane, the islamophobic attack against a French Muslim women by a white far-right politician during a school trip with her son and other children to the regional parliament in eastern France, the outrageous and ignorant falsehoods made-up by a white French writer about slavery, the racist mural of Hervé Di Rosa in the National Assembly, the decision of the French government to backtrack on the full and permanent restitution of stolen works of African art, and France’s murky role in Libya’s ongoing civil war are all visible signs of a pervasive state of neocolonialism that dictates the violent relationship between France and Africa.

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