Connect with us

Op-Eds

Remembering Walter Rodney’s Invaluable Legacy

9 min read.

For Walter Rodney, underdevelopment is a condition historically produced through capitalist expansion and imperialism. He situates Africa’s underdevelopment within the contradictory process of capitalism, one that both creates value and wealth for the exploiters while immiserating the exploited.

Published

on

Remembering Walter Rodney’s Invaluable Legacy
Download PDFPrint Article

A number of African economies have experienced a massive boom in wealth and investment over the past decade. Yet most ordinary Africans live in dire poverty, with diminished life expectancy and high unemployment and in societies with low levels of industrialisation. For the roots of these conditions of “under-development,” one historical account stands alone in importance: Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972).

Walter Rodney was a scholar, working class militant and revolutionary from Guyana. Influenced by Marxist ideas, he is central to the Pan-Africanist canon for many on the left. In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Rodney situates himself in several theoretical traditions: the writings of Caribbean revolutionary Frantz Fanon, the dependency theories of Andre Gunder Frank and others, the Pan-Africanist tradition, including George Padmore and C.L.R. James, and African socialism as popularised by national leaders such as Tanzania’s Julius Kambarage Nyerere and Guinea’s Ahmed Sékou Touré. As Horace Campbell describes, “His [Rodney’s] numerous writings on the subjects of socialism, imperialism, working class struggles and Pan Africanism and slavery contributed to a body of knowledge that came to be known as the Dar es Salaam School of Thought. Issa Shivji, Mahmood Mamdani, Claude Ake, Archie Mafeje, Yash Tandon, John Saul, Dan Nabudere, O Nnoli, Clive Thomas and countless others participated in the debates on transformation and liberation.”

Rodney’s scholarship and leadership in the working-class movement thus had a long reach, including within the revolutionary movement in his native Guyana. He was assassinated on June 13, 1980, likely by agents of the Guyanese government. The Nigerian novelist, Wole Soyinka, in noting Rodney’s legacy, wrote how “Walter Rodney was no captive intellectual playing to the gallery of local or international radicalism. He was clearly one of the most solidly ideologically situated intellectuals ever to look colonialism and exploitation in the eye and where necessary, spit in it.”

Rodney’s work has assumed a foundational place in understanding the legacies of slavery and colonialism in the underdevelopment that unfolded, over centuries, on the continent. The core of his analysis rests on the assumption that Africa – far from standing outside the world system – has been crucial to the growth of capitalism in the West. What he terms “underdevelopment” was in fact the product of centuries of slavery, exploitation and imperialism. Rodney conclusively shows that “Europe” – that is, the colonial and imperial powers – did not merely enrich their own empires but actually reversed economic and social development in Africa. Thus, in his extensive account of African history, from the early African empires through to the modern day, he shows how the West built immense industrial and colonial empires on the backs of African slave labour, devastating natural resources and African societies in the process. As he emphasises throughout How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, “[i]t would be an act of the most brazen fraud to weigh the social amenities provided during the colonial epoch against the exploitation, and to arrive at the conclusion that the good outweighed the bad.”

Wole Soyinka, in noting Rodney’s legacy, wrote how “Walter Rodney was no captive intellectual playing to the gallery of local or international radicalism. He was clearly one of the most solidly ideologically situated intellectuals ever to look colonialism and exploitation in the eye and where necessary, spit in it.”

For Rodney, underdevelopment is a condition historically produced through capitalist expansion and imperialism, and very clearly not an intrinsic property of Africa itself. He thus situates underdevelopment within the contradictory process of capitalism, one that both creates value and wealth for the exploiters while immiserating the exploited.

Rodney writes:

The peasants and workers of Europe (and eventually the inhabitants of the whole world) paid a huge price so that the capitalists could make their profit from the human labour that always lies behind the machines…There was a period when the capitalist system increased the well-being of significant numbers of people as a by-product of seeking out profits for a few, but today the quest for profits comes into sharp conflict with people’s demands that their material and social needs should be fulfilled.

As Rodney describes, African trade was central to its growth, most importantly through the slave trade from approximately 1445 to 1870, transforming Africa into a source of human raw material for the new colonies in North America and the Caribbean. It was to the three major powers involved in the slave trade – Britain, France and Portugal – that massive profits accrued. Trade with Africa was closely tied up with the growth of European port cities such as England’s Liverpool, with the exchange of slaves for cheap industrial goods established as the primary motor for profits of European firms. Drawing on the work of Eric Williams’s classic Capitalism and Slavery (1944), among others, Rodney concludes that the slave trade provided England with the capital for the Industrial Revolution to take off and with the dominant edge over its rivals.

Yet as Rodney shows, the “development” of African societies was thwarted in this process of capital expansion, first and foremost through the lost labour potential due to the slave trade. From its economic foundation in slavery, the range of exports from Africa narrowed to just a few commodities, undermining the development of productive capacity in Africa itself. These trade relations meant that technological development stagnated, creating a barrier to innovation within Africa itself, even in regions not directly engaged in the slave trade, because of the distorting influence on relations overall. The result, concludes Rodney, was “a loss of development opportunity, and this is of the greatest importance…The lines of economic activity attached to foreign trade were either destructive, as slavery was, or at best purely extractive.”

The Scramble for Africa and its aftermath

The nineteenth century “race for Africa” broke out, with European “explorers” seeking out access to raw materials. By the 1870s, colonial powers had expanded into new African territory, primarily through the use of force, further consolidating imperial powers and rivalries. By 1876, on the eve of the “Scramble for Africa”, European powers controlled only 10 per cent of the continent, namely Algeria, Cape Colony, Mozambique and Angola. Yet after the infamous Berlin Conference of 1885 and the partition of Africa, “The number of genuinely independent states outside of Europe and the Americas could be counted on one hand – the remains of the Ottoman Empire, Thailand, Ethiopia and Afghanistan.”

Racist ideology justified and facilitated European imperialism in Africa as a “civilizing mission”. As Rodney remarks, “Revolutionary African thinkers such as Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral…spoke of colonialism having made Africans into objects of history. Colonised Africans, like pre-colonial African chattel slaves, were pushed around into positions which suited European interests and which were damaging to the African continent and its peoples.”

Nonetheless, Africans met European expansion with great resistance, targeting forced labour schemes and taxation, restrictive land ownership laws and later, imposed forced conscription during World War I. Workers went on strike and engaged in boycotts, and nationalist organisations – many of them illegal – were formed from the earliest days of colonial rule.

Yet African resistance during that period was caught between larger forces. The European “Scramble for Africa” subjected independent states to colonial rule, transforming peasant and trading societies within a short span of time into a wage labour and cash crop system. The increasingly intense economic competition in European capitalism that eventually exploded into World War I likewise spilled over into military clashes in Africa. Alliances between and against the various powers attempted to block each other’s rivals, with France and Britain seeking competing axes of control over the continent.

Colonial brutality was the standard practice across virtually the entire continent, with the chief aim of leveraging force to subdue resistance and to extract profits. Turning Africa into a conveyor belt for raw materials and industrial goods required transportation and communication systems and, as Rodney describes, a pacified – and minimally educated – labour force. The major powers on the continent set up administrative apparatuses that in some cases utilised local rulers, but, as Rodney writes, in no instance would the colonisers accept African self-rule. Infrastructure such as roads were built not only to facilitate the movement of commodities and machinery, but also that of the colonial armies and police relied upon to “discipline” the indigenous population – whether through the expulsion of people from their land or the forced cultivation of cash crops. Industrial development was thwarted in Africa itself because manufacturing and the processing of raw materials happened exclusively overseas.

Compradors and sell-outs

Europeans divide-and-conquer tactics allowed a tiny section of African rulers to back the annexation by one power versus another. As Rodney puts it, “One of the decisive features of the colonial system was the presence of Africans serving as economic, political or cultural agents of the European colonialists…. agents or ‘compradors’ already serving [their] interests in the pre-colonial period.” Following Fanon on the role of local elites, Rodney is scathing in his contempt for the “puppets” of “metropolitan” capitalism, where “the presence of a group of African sell-outs is part of the definition of underdevelopment.”

According to Rodney, “The colonisation of Africa and other parts of the world formed an indispensable link in a chain of events which made possible the technological transformation of the base of European capitalism.” Copper from the Congo, iron from West Africa, chrome from Rhodesia and South Africa, and more, took capitalist development to unprecedented heights of what Rodney calls “investible surpluses”. The tendency within the drive for profit towards innovation and scientific advancement built a “massive industrial complex,” as Rodney described it. African trade not only generated economic growth and profits, but created capacity for future growth in what he called the “metropoles”, meaning the global centres of political and economic power located in Europe.

Colonial brutality was the standard practice across virtually the entire continent, with the chief aim of leveraging force to subdue resistance and to extract profits. Turning Africa into a conveyor belt for raw materials and industrial goods required transportation and communication systems and, as Rodney describes, a pacified – and minimally educated – labour force.

Colonial policies heightened exploitation, such as those preventing Africans from growing cash crops, which drove them into forced labour like the building of infrastructure to facilitate extraction. Thus, capital accumulation was derived at the expense of greatly-weakened African states and economies, effectively reversing previous development.

These two processes were dialectically related. As Rodney writes, “The wealth that was created by African labor and from African resources was grabbed by the capitalist countries of Europe; and in the second place, restrictions were placed upon African capacity to make the maximum use of its economic potential.”

This process of underdevelopment only intensified over time: as Rodney points out, investment and “foreign capital” in colonial Africa was derived from past exploitation and provided the historical basis for further expansion. “What was called ‘profits’ in one year came back as ‘capital’ the next…What was foreign about the capital in colonial Africa was its ownership and not its initial source.”

Development by contradiction

Rodney argued that development in the so-called “periphery” was proportional to the degree of independence from the “metropolis”, a central tenet of the dependency theorists. He looked to state-directed, national development in the post-colonial period as a template for growth, a model proven – particularly in the years after Rodney’s death – not to be viable. National development in Africa, as elsewhere, proved unable to overcome the legacy of colonialism and weak economies. The wake of such failures and the onset of global crises pushed many African states into the vice-grip of neoliberal structural adjustment “reforms” that brought only austerity and crushing Third World debt.

These ideas had a distinctive imprint on Rodney’s variant of Marxism and that of many leftists of his day. For Rodney, independence in Africa rested on “development by contradiction”, by which he meant that the contradictions within African society were only resolvable by Africans’ regaining their sovereignty as a people. In his view, the disproportionate weight and importance of even a small African working class offered potentially a more stable base of resistance.

However, he emphasises that this possibility cannot be fully realised as in the “developed” world because production in Africa proceeded on a different path than in Europe. In the latter, the destruction of agrarian and craft economies increased productive capacity through the development of factories and a mass working class. In Africa, he argues, that process was distorted: the local craft industry was destroyed, yet large-scale industry was not developed outside of agriculture and extraction, with workers restricted to the lowest-paid, most unskilled work. “Capitalism in the form of colonialism failed to perform in Africa the tasks which it had performed in Europe in changing social relations and liberating the forces of production. “So, concludes Rodney, the African working class is too small and too weak to play a liberatory role in the current period. Instead, somewhat reluctantly, he identifies the intelligentsia for that role:

Altogether, the educated played a role in African independence struggles far out of proportion to their numbers, because they took it upon themselves and were called upon to articulate the interests of all Africans. They were also required to…focus on the main contradiction, which was between the colony and the metropole…The contradiction between the educated and the colonialists was not the most profound…However, while the differences lasted between the colonizers and the African educated, they were decisive.

Thus, while Rodney sees the “principal divide” within capitalism as that between capitalists and workers, the revolutionary role for the African working class was nonetheless a task for another day. On this score, Rodney was mistaken: mass upheavals by workers across the continent have shown the capacity for struggle, from the colonial period up to the present day.

Crumbs from the colonial table

Yet, however contradictorily, Rodney’s ideas on political leadership and liberation indicate the potential for resistance under today’s conditions. First, as we have seen, Rodney – following Fanon – was keenly aware of the class contradictions embedded in the new African ruling classes, tensions bound to be thrust to the surface with greater clarity. He writes: “Most African leaders of the intelligentsia… were frankly capitalist, and shared fully the ideology of their bourgeois masters…As far as the mass of peasants and workers were concerned, the removal of overt foreign rule actually cleared the way towards a more fundamental appreciation of exploitation and imperialism.” This dynamic has only been accentuated over time.

National development in Africa, as elsewhere, proved unable to overcome the legacy of colonialism and weak economies. The wake of such failures and the onset of global crises pushed many African states into the vice-grip of neoliberal structural adjustment “reforms” that brought only austerity and crushing Third World debt.

Furthermore, Rodney implies that internationalism on a class basis lay in the historical development of capitalism and solidarity as a crucial “political” question. “European workers have paid a great price for the few material benefits which accrued to them as crumbs from the colonial table,” he writes. “The capitalists misinformed and mis-educated workers in the metropoles to the point where they became allies in colonial exploitation. In accepting to be led like sheep, European workers were perpetuating their own enslavement to the capitalists.”

Rodney’s characterisation of European workers “led like sheep” may be too simplistic a description of workers’ understanding of capitalism. But Rodney is correct in stressing that racist ideas undermined their own liberation. The “crumbs” Rodney describes are the products of divisions sown by ruling class ideology, and not of insurmountable material barriers. Actually realising this (future) possibility – that of an international movement of workers of Africa and the West – has much to be gained from Rodney’s invaluable research and analysis.

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy.

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.

Op-Eds

Land Title and Evictions in the Supreme Court of Kenya

Violent evictions of families from their homes are not exceptional events. They go to the heart of Kenya’s political economy and its long history of valorising the rights of those who hold private title.

Published

on

Land Title and Evictions in the Supreme Court of Kenya
Download PDFPrint Article

The Supreme Court of Kenya published its judgment in William Musembi v The Moi Educational Centre Co. Ltd. on the 16th July 2021. The case arose after fourteen families — the residents of two informal settlements, City Cotton and Upendo village in Nairobi — petitioned the High court following their evictions in 2013. They had lived on the land since 1968 when it was public land. The first respondent claimed that they had legitimately acquired title to the land by letters of allotment and that the land was therefore private land. According to Amnesty Kenya, the evictions began in the early morning, without warning. Groups of young men burst into homes. Four hundred homes were demolished and personal possessions were destroyed. Crowbars and sledgehammers were used. The police were present. They fired live ammunition and used teargas canisters during the operation.

In the High Court, Judge Mumbi Ngugi held that the petitioners’ rights to dignity, security, and adequate housing had been infringed. There had been a violation of the rights of children and elderly persons under the constitution. She awarded damages. At the Court of Appeal this judgment was partially set aside. While accepting that there had indeed been violations of the rights to dignity and security, the Court of Appeal nonetheless set aside the order of damages arguing that “there was no material before the court on the basis of which the orders for compensation were made” and that, because it was unable to work out how the damages had been quantified, “the only relief that should have commended itself to the trial Court was a declaration that the forced eviction and demolition of their houses without a Court order is a violation of their right to human dignity and security.” Following this, the petitioners appealed to the Supreme Court.

Importance of the Supreme Court judgment

The importance of this case is, as Gautum Bhatia has written, that it raised the question whether “the right to accessible and adequate housing could be applied inter se between private parties”. It can thus be distinguished from the same Supreme Court’s Mitu-Bell Welfare Society v The Kenya Airports Authority, which ruled on evictions from public land.

Amongst several issues for determination, the petitioners in the present case asked the court to reach a determination of the question whether the letter of allotment held by the first respondent, the Moi Educational Centre, was issued lawfully or legally. Because that question had not been conclusively determined at the High Court or at the Court of Appeal, the petitioners sought “a declaration that the acquisition of the suit property was illegal and unlawful.”

The Supreme Court declined to do this. Arguing that in the High Court Judge Mumbi Ngugi had been right in holding that the question of the propriety of the first respondent’s title was a matter for the National Land Commission and that it is the Land and Environment Court that properly has jurisdiction over this question, the Supreme Court held in William Musembi that “the title of the first respondent remains unimpeached”. Instead, it held, the only question it ought to determine was whether, in evicting the petitioners, the respondents violated the petitioners’ rights to human dignity and security, as well as the rights to housing and health.

It is on the basis of the “unimpeached” title of the first respondent that the court goes on to make its landmark finding. For determination by the court was the question whether the first respondent, being a private party, could nonetheless be responsible for the violation of constitutional rights. Recognising that “the mandate to ensure the realization and protection of social and economic rights does not extend to the first respondent” because it is a private entity which is not under any obligation to ensure the progressive or immediate realisation of those rights, the court found that private parties do nonetheless have a “negative obligation to ensure that it does not violate the rights of the petitioners.”

For Bhatia, the judgment’s significance lies partly in its finding that “a negative obligation not to interfere with socio-economic rights (such as the right to housing), …applies to both public and private parties” although he argues persuasively that “the distinction between negative and positive obligations is doing a lot of work” and that the concrete practice of evictions significantly blurs the boundary between public and private actors. He rightly notes that “evictions invariably involve concert of action between State forces and private landowners, with the latter relying upon the former (either directly, or through forbearance) to accomplish physically removing people from land.”

Public and private

If the distinction between negative and positive obligations is somewhat artificial, I also want to suggest that Kenya’s history of land grabbing shows that so too is the distinction between the state and private landowners. More than just state forces doing the bidding of private landowners, wielding batons and using bullets to break into homes in the early morning, in Kenya the state/private distinction is a mirage. In William Musembi, the court does not elaborate on the important history of letters of allotment in Kenya and the process by which they enabled public land to morph into private land. Instead, it affirms the first respondent’s title – and proceeds to make an important ruling on the obligations of private actors. However, the history of land grabbing and the murky past of letters of allotment is a critical one to keep at the front of our minds.

For determination by the court was the question whether the first respondent, being a private party, could nonetheless be responsible for the violation of constitutional rights.

The report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Illegal/ Irregular Allocation of Public Land established in 2003 set out in forensic detail the illegal and irregular land awards made over the years using the mechanism of the letter of allotment. Awards of land were made to the families of Presidents Kenyatta and Moi, numerous former ministers, members of parliament and civil servants, as well as to individuals in the military and the judiciary. The report sets out how out of proximity to the state, private property owners were created. Public land – land set aside for the building of public health clinics or schools for example – mysteriously turned into private land on which malls, private residences, and diplomatic headquarters appeared. No doubt some individuals acquired perfectly legitimate letters of allotment. But from the 1970s onwards, a thriving market in improper letters of allotment developed. They came to be treated as tradable land documents. Widely but mistakenly used as land titles (with the collusion of lawyers), they changed hands quickly in sales of grabbed land. This was done in order to get the benefit of the principle that an innocent third party for value without notice takes good title. The full extent of this practice is unknown: the Ndung’u Commission warned that its report provided only a snapshot of the illegal/irregular land allocations that had taken place over the years.

I have written elsewhere that land grabbing is sedimented in Kenya’s political economy such that we can describe it as a “grabbed state”. The “normal” economy is founded on accumulation by dispossession. It is not possible to understand Kenya’s political economy without an understanding of how the normal and the supposedly abnormal are pervasively linked. Far from land grabbing being an aberrant phenomenon that can be sharply distinguished from normal business practice, the illegal and irregular appropriation of land structures Kenya’s economy.

Widely but mistakenly used as land titles (with the collusion of lawyers), they changed hands quickly in sales of grabbed land.

There is no operative distinction between the public and the private in Kenya. This makes the judgment in the present case even more consequential: given the history of these murky conversions in title, the judgment’s finding that negative constitutional obligations can attach to private actors is likely to cover a great many potential eviction scenarios. Indeed, I would argue that given the history of land described above, the court should have gone further. Grounding its reasoning in Kenya’s history of land grabbing and the dispossession and discrimination that resulted, it could have held that positive socio-economic obligations (such as providing alternative accommodation) should extend to private parties. Or it might have held that given the extent of land grabbing — which is a matter of public record — the state should not agree to enforce a court order for eviction until it is satisfied that alternative accommodation has been provided.

Entrenching private property

Welcoming the Supreme Court’s judgment, Bhatia has noted that it “continues the welcome trend of judicial scepticism towards entrenched property rights.” The court demonstrated this scepticism by extending negative constitutional obligations to private actors. However, to do so, the Supreme Court moved to confirm the respondent’s title. That title it described as “unimpeached”. The court used this as the basis for setting out the first respondent’s obligations as a private owner. The extension of constitutional obligations to private actors is to be welcomed. But it is important to recognise also that by refusing jurisdiction to question the first respondent’s title – and ruling that this is a matter for another forum – the Supreme Court effectively sanctioned the enclosure of what the appellants claimed was unalienated public land and potentially legitimated the grabbing of public land.

The court does not elaborate on the important history of letters of allotment in Kenya and the process by which they enabled public land to morph into private land.

Instead, the Supreme Court might have used Art. 23 which provides for the authority of courts to uphold and enforce the Bill of Rights, to try to fashion a remedy. It could have expressly referred the question of the integrity of the first respondent’s title to the National Land Commission rather than state as unequivocally as it did that it is unimpeached. At the very least, given the importance of a letter of allotment and the question of title in the case, the court should have rehearsed Kenya’s history of land grabbing and corruption as revealed by the Ndung’u report so as to give it judicial notice and provide a starting point for the wider task of challenging ill-gotten titles by those who might seek to do so.

Reinstating Judge Mumbi Ngugi judgment in the High Court and in particular her finding that damages should be paid to those evicted, the Supreme Court ordered the first respondents, the Moi Educational Centre, to pay fourteen families KSh150,000 (just over 1000 euros) each in damages. The government will also pay each family KSh100,000. In return, unless the National Land Commission or the Land and Environment Court are asked to rule on the propriety of the first respondent’s title and find against them, the Moi Educational Centre now hold unimpeached title to very valuable land in Nairobi. That is quite a windfall.

Violent evictions of families from their homes are not episodic and exceptional events. They go to the heart of Kenya’s political economy and its long history of valorising the rights of those who hold private title, however acquired. How far can the courts be relied upon to undo accumulation by dispossession?

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

South Africa Has to Heal Its Troubled Past – and the Time Is Now

If there is no material justice and investment in healing the generations of harm enacted onto South Africans, the rot in the country’s wounds will overcome them.

Published

on

South Africa Has to Heal Its Troubled Past – and the Time Is Now
Download PDFPrint Article

Social unrest”—though others may prefer “riots and looting,” “food riots,” or “insurrection”—have swept South Africa since Monday. It’s unsettled an already unsettled nation. And as with all South Africa’s heightened moments, our historic fault lines have been re-exposed. Racial and ethnic divisions, class antagonisms, xenophobia, questions of violence and its use. These are some of our wounds that have never been treated. Over the last decades we’ve covered them with patriotic bandages, unity slogans and surface-level performances of a shared national consciousness. But the wounds have opened again now, and as the country bleeds, the rot is open for all to see. Flashing moments tell an incomplete but tragic story of the reality unfolding in our country.

Impoverished communities with limited prospects, rejoice as they leave megastores with stolen food and essential resources. Elderly women are seen taking medication that they otherwise could not afford. A father exits a store with nappies (diapers) for his child. Families that have struggled with eating daily meals suddenly have food for a month.

Elsewhere, in the historically Indian community of Phoenix, an elderly man is surrounded by people from a nearby  informal settlement. He is commanded that he needs to hand over his home, or otherwise will face attacks on his family in the dead of night. In the night, drive-by shootings claim lives as stray bullets shatter family homes.

Armed Indian and white “vigilantes” drive around shooting African people they assume are looters. Hunting them down while recording vicious videos, beating them with sjamboks as the person begs for their lives.

These videos are shared and watched repeatedly across social media, racially charged viewers salivate with a carnal sense of pleasure as one racial group watches the other suffer and bleed.

At least 15 people are killed by armed community members of Phoenix. They blockade roads entering the community, racially profiling people, preventing them from access to functioning supermarkets. Bodies are found in the night. #PhoenixMassacre trends on twitter echoing disgust and outrage at the anti-black sentiment within the South African Indian community.

The home of Thapelo Mohapi, the spokesperson of Abahlali BaseMjondolo, the shack dwellers movement in KwaZulu-Natal that safeguards working-class interests, has his home burnt down on Wednesday morning. Mohapi, like most in Abahlali, is outspoken against ANC corruption and political violence in the country, with Abahlali members often the targets for political killings.

Shacks burnt down in response to the looting. Reports of xenophobic attacks by the rioters. Families terrified as gunshots break their windows. Small community stores torched. Blood banks and clinics ransacked. Essential foods become scarce, gas stations close.

The excitement of people getting access to expensive TVs, furniture, alcohol, and commodities they would not be able to access otherwise. Because in South Africa we know that nice things are reserved for a minority—and you either have to be crazy lucky and gifted, or crazy devious and connected, to escape the poverty cycle.

This is the status quo of our neocolonial, violent and divided country. Every snapshot from the riots reveals a new layer of a tragedy we’re all too familiar with but have made no substantial material effort to address to this point. And now the rot in our open wound has become septic.

In the midst of all this mess and complexity, many are now left trying to make sense of where they stand regarding these riots—with the mask of a shared national consciousness being ruthlessly peeled back — some who thought they understood their political standings are having to rethink their position after being thrust into a violent situation where racial and class perceptions pre-determine their position for them.

Orchestrated or Inevitable?

Acentral question on people’s minds is who is responsible for the unfolding events. How much of it is orchestrated as part of the #FreeZuma campaign that sparked this moment with former President Zuma’s arrest, and how much is simply an overflow from the desperate situation a majority of South Africans find themselves in. The reality is, of course, complex. Reports from activists on the ground and observers indicate the riots are likely made up of multiple forces.

Some are believed to be political agents of the pro-Zuma faction of the African National Congress ANC, using chaos to fight their battle against President Cyril Ramaphosa. These agents are known to have organized the initial demonstrations and are believed by some commentators to continue funding transport for rioters and operating in the background to hamstring the local economy. Some now attribute this orchestrated terror with the targeted burning of key distribution centers, factories, network towers, and trucks.

Others involved are not politically linked to a factional ANC agenda or desire to destabilize the country. They are there because the moment has presented families with access to food under dire circumstances and the opportunity for temporary relief from the dredges of poverty. One may say that their situation is being purposefully manipulated by political agendas, but the material reality of their situation is no less real. Individuals from well-known working class organizations that are strongly anti-ANC in all forms have reported taking part in looting as the moment allowed for sorely needed aid to struggling communities.

And of course, with any mass gathering, there are simply those criminal elements who use the moment with malicious intent, stirred by past and present grudges, looking to impose power and fear on those they see as “other.” Yet, these malicious sentiments exist on both the “sides” of the rioters and those responding to them. It is every person’s right and entitlement to defend themselves, their family, and personal property from harm against malicious forces. But much of this defence and protection of what is dear  has morphed into older desires to harm, dehumanize, and kill those considered “other.” How much of our violence in the name of defence is rooted in the historic rot we’ve left untreated from colonialism, apartheid, and a world that hates poor people?

Military intervention

Many are in support of the President Cyril Ramaphosa’s position that the army be deployed to quell the riots, looting, and violence. They argue for an armed, militant, and potentially lethal response.

Part of this rationale is in response to the signs of orchestration and mobilization by pro-Zuma political forces. As some of the actions show signs of being organized and targeted strikes, they will not subside organically and so the use of intelligence and organized force would be necessary to intervene. This tactical move acts in support of the President Cyril Ramaphosa and preserving the current status quo of South Africa.

The other reason is that the racial conflict between communities has reached such a heightened state that many fear an echo of the Durban Riots of 1949. With armed vigilantes enacting destruction, racial profiling, and vicious killing onto those they brand “looters”—  and the responsive revenge cycles this opens up—there can be no road that does not lead to further death. And right now there is no Steve Bantu Biko and his dear friend Strini Moodley to lead us back on the path towards a more human face.

However, even in the face of this leadership vacuum, military intervention is short sighted, ahistoric, and temporary at best. The wounds are all open now, the military cannot heal, only repress.

Ultimately the scale and intensity of these riots have very little to do with political infighting within the ANC and the tensions between communities could not be set alight if there was not already kindling of unresolved tensions. The material conditions of South Africa indicate that it’s been ripe for mass political uprising for years now. With grants cut under lockdown, youth unemployment over 70%, service delivery a mess or none existent, trust in government, media and political parties at record lows—there seems to be meagre hope for South Africans on the wrong side of the poverty line—and very little to lose.

Whether it’s an orchestrated plot by devious political agendas, a student throwing poop on a colonial statue or an increase in bread prices as was seen in South America—a spark is all that’s needed to set alight a desperate people.

The best case scenario with military intervention this time is further repression of people’s material frustrations. If people die, the situation becomes further inflamed. When the next spark goes off the riots will be more organized, with living memory of the injustices of this moment. And if not organized by our dysfunctional Left, it will be led by reactionary forces. Most dangerous of all is, as with other examples from history, as military forces play a greater role in a country’s internal policing, they become more used to enacting power over its populace, and ambitious autocrats rise up their ranks in military command.

With military intervention, we admit that the violence and death that will be enacted on the working class populace is worth a return to South Africa’s abnormal normal. The violence of this moment simply transferred back to those who held it silently a week ago.

Repression and military enforcement of a violent status quo is not the answer. Material conditions need to change, people need to be fed, grants need to be returned and our septic wounds that have laid open for centuries need urgent attention.

If there is no material justice and investment in healing the generations of harm enacted onto us—and by us—the rot in our wounds will overcome us. And we will become the rot.

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

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

They Are Watching You: Israeli-Made Spyware Used to Monitor Journalists and Activists Worldwide

The use of spyware to surveil, harass, and intimidate journalists and activists — and those close to them has become a key activity for many governments worldwide.

Published

on

By

They Are Watching You: Israeli-Made Spyware Used to Monitor Journalists and Activists Worldwide
Download PDFPrint Article

In Hungary, Szabolcs Panyi exposed spy intrigue and murky arms deals. In India, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta probed the ties between business and political interests. In Azerbaijan, Sevinj Vaqifqizi caught vote-rigging on tape.

Separated by thousands of miles, these journalists have one thing in common: their governments considered them a threat.

All three were among dozens of journalists and activists around the world whose smartphones were infected by Pegasus: spyware made by Israeli firm NSO Group that is able to secretly steal personal data, read conversations, and switch on microphones and cameras at will.

The attacks were revealed by The Pegasus Project, an international collaboration of more than 80 journalists from 17 media organizations, including OCCRP, and coordinated by Forbidden Stories.

What Does ‘Selected for Targeting’ Mean?

The phones of Panyi, Thakurta, and Vaqifqizi were analyzed by Amnesty International’s Security Lab and found to be infected after their numbers appeared on a list of over 50,000 numbers that were allegedly selected for targeting by governments using NSO software. Reporters were able to identify the owners of hundreds of those numbers, and Amnesty conducted forensic analysis on as many of their phones as possible, confirming infection in dozens of cases. The reporting was backed up with interviews, documents, and other materials.

The strongest evidence that the list really does represent Pegasus targets came through forensic analysis.

Amnesty International’s Security Lab examined data from 67 phones whose numbers were in the list. Thirty-seven phones showed traces of Pegasus activity: 23 phones were successfully infected, and 14 showed signs of attempted targeting. For the remaining 30 phones, the tests were inconclusive, in several cases because the phones had been replaced.

Fifteen of the phones in the data were Android devices. Unlike iPhones, Androids do not log the kinds of information required for Amnesty’s detective work. However, three Android phones showed signs of targeting, such as Pegasus-linked SMS messages.

In a subset of 27 analyzed phones, Amnesty International researchers found 84 separate traces of Pegasus activity that closely corresponded to the numbers’ appearance on the leaked list. In 59 of these cases, the Pegasus traces appeared within 20 minutes of selection. In 15 cases, the trace appeared within one minute of selection.

The strongest evidence that the list really does represent Pegasus targets came through forensic analysis.

Amnesty International’s Security Lab examined data from 67 phones whose numbers were in the list. Thirty-seven phones showed traces of Pegasus activity: 23 phones were successfully infected, and 14 showed signs of attempted targeting. For the remaining 30 phones, the tests were inconclusive, in several cases because the phones had been replaced.

Fifteen of the phones in the data were Android devices. Unlike iPhones, Androids do not log the kinds of information required for Amnesty’s detective work. However, three Android phones showed signs of targeting, such as Pegasus-linked SMS messages.

In a subset of 27 analyzed phones, Amnesty International researchers found 84 separate traces of Pegasus activity that closely corresponded to the numbers’ appearance on the leaked list. In 59 of these cases, the Pegasus traces appeared within 20 minutes of selection. In 15 cases, the trace appeared within one minute of selection.

In a series of responses, NSO Group denied that its spyware was systematically misused and challenged the validity of data obtained by reporters. It argued that Pegasus is sold to governments to go after criminals and terrorists, and has saved many lives. The company, which enjoys close ties to Israel’s security services, says it implements stringent controls to prevent misuse. NSO Group also specifically denies that it created or could create this type of list.

But instead of targeting only criminals, governments in more than 10 countries appear to have also selected political opponents, academics, reporters, human rights defenders, doctors, and religious leaders. NSO clients may have also used the company’s software to conduct espionage by targeting foreign officials, diplomats, and even heads of state.

Based on the geographical clustering of the numbers on the leaked list, reporters identified potential NSO Group clients from more than 10 countries, including: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Togo, and the United Arab Emirates.

Journalists and Activists in the Crosshairs

In the coming days, OCCRP and other Pegasus Project partners will release stories highlighting the threat of surveillance through misuse of NSO Group software around the world. But to start with, we will focus on some of the most egregious cases: the use of spyware to surveil, harass, and intimidate journalists and activists — and those close to them.

Among those on the list were multiple close relations of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was murdered and dismembered by Saudi operatives in the country’s Istanbul consulate. Forensic analyses show that Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, and other loved ones and colleagues were successfully compromised with NSO Group software both before and after Khashoggi’s 2018 killing. (NSO Group said that it has investigated this claim and has denied its software was used in connection with the Khashoggi case.)

Sandra Nogales, the assistant of star Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui, was also targeted with Pegasus through a malicious text message, according to a forensic analysis of her phone.

Aristegui had already known that she was a Pegasus target. Her case was featured in a 2017 report by Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary laboratory at the University of Toronto. Still, “it was a huge shock to see others close to me on the list,” Aristegui told The Pegasus Project.

“My assistant, Sandra Nogales, who knew everything about me — who had access to my schedule, all of my contacts, my day-to-day, my hour-to-hour — was also entered into the system.”

Several reporters in OCCRP’s network were among the at least 188 journalists on the list of potential targets. They include Khadija Ismayilova, an OCCRP investigative journalist whose uncompromising reporting has made her a target of the kleptocratic regime of the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev. Independent forensic analysis of Ismayilova’s Apple iPhone shows that Pegasus was used consistently from 2019 to 2021 to penetrate her device, primarily by using an exploit in the iMessage app.

Ismayilova is no stranger to government surveillance. Roughly a decade ago, her reporting led her to be threatened with compromising videos that she learned to her horror had been shot with hidden cameras installed in her home. She refused to back down, and as a result had the footage broadcast across the internet.

But even after this, Ismayilova was shocked by the all-consuming nature of her surveillance by Pegasus.

“It’s horrifying, because you think that this tool is encrypted, you can use it… but then you realize that no, the moment you are on the internet they [can] watch you,” Ismayilova said. “I’m angry with the governments who produce all of these tools and sell it to the bad guys like [the] Aliyev regime.”

Panyi and his colleague András Szabó, both OCCRP partner journalists in Hungary, also had their phones successfully hijacked by Pegasus, potentially granting their attackers access to sensitive data like encrypted chats and story drafts. As investigative journalists at one of the country’s few remaining independent outlets, Direkt36, they had spent years investigating corruption and intrigue as their country became increasingly authoritarian under the rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Now they found out that they were the story.

For Panyi, the descendant of Jewish Holocaust survivors, something stung in particular: that the software had been developed in Israel, and exported to a country whose leadership regularly flirts with antisemitism.

“According to my family memory, after surviving Auschwitz, my grandmother’s brother left to Israel, where he became a soldier and soon died during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948,” Panyi wrote in a first-person account of learning he had been hacked. “I know it is silly and makes no difference at all, but probably I would feel slightly different if it turned out that my surveillance was assisted by any other state, like Russia or China.”

The alleged surveillance list includes more than 15,000 potential targets in Mexico during the previous government of President Enrique Peña Nieto. Many were journalists, like Alejandro Sicairos, a reporter from Sinaloa state who co-founded the journalism site RíoDoce. Data seen by The Pegasus Project show Sicairos’ phone was selected as a target for NSO Group’s software in 2017 shortly after his colleague, prominent journalist Javier Valdéz, was shot dead near RíoDoce’s office.

Others on the list were regular people thrust into activism by Mexico’s chaos and violence. Cristina Bautista is a poor farmer whose son, Benjamin Ascencio Bautista, was one of 43 students abducted in Iguala, in the Mexican state of Guerrero, in 2014 and remains missing until this day. The case shook Mexican society to its core and prompted Bautista and other parents to take to the streets in protest, and to assist independent experts in their own investigations.

The vocal stance taken by Bautista and other parents put them directly in the sights of Mexican authorities and Peña Nieto, who denounced the protests as destabilizing the country.

“Oh yeah, they were watching us! Whenever we went, a patrol followed us,” she said.

“They were chasing us.”

A “Natural Tool” for Autocrats

While The Pegasus Project exposes clear cases of misuse of NSO Group’s software, the company is just one player in a global, multi-billion-dollar spyware industry.

Estimated by NSO managers to be worth approximately $12 billion, the mobile spyware market has democratized access to cutting-edge technology for intelligence agencies and police forces that, in years past, could only dream of having it.

“You’re giving lots more regimes an intelligence service,” said John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab. “Like a foreign intelligence service in a box.”

Like many private spyware companies, NSO Group’s stock in trade is so-called “zero-day exploits” — previously undiscovered flaws in commercial software that can allow third parties to gain access to devices, such as mobile phones. Pegasus and other top tools enjoy a particular strength: They are often able to infect devices silently, without the user even having to click a link.

Such tools have given governments the edge amid the widespread adoption of encrypted messaging applications, such as WhatsApp and Signal, which otherwise supposedly allow for users to communicate beyond the reach of state surveillance. Once devices are successfully compromised, however, the contents of such apps become readily available, along with other sensitive data like messages, photographs, and calls. Meanwhile, the ubiquity of mobile phone cameras and microphones means they can be easily accessed by spyware clients as remote recording devices.

While The Pegasus Project exposes clear cases of misuse of NSO Group’s software, the company is just one player in a global, multi-billion-dollar spyware industry.

“In order to bypass [encrypted messaging] you just need to get to the device at one or the other end of that communication,” said Claudio Guarnieri, head of Amnesty International’s Security Lab. Pegasus does just that. “Pegasus can do more [with the device] than the owner can. If Signal, for example, encrypts the message… [an attacker] can just record using the microphone, or take screenshots of the phone so you can read [the conversation]. There is virtually nothing from an encryption standpoint to protect against this.”

In fact, there isn’t much anyone can do to protect themselves from a Pegasus attack. Guarnieri is skeptical of applications that claim they are completely secure, and instead recommends mitigating the risks of spyware by practicing good cybersecurity hygiene. “Make sure to compartmentalize things and divide your information in such a way that even if an attack is successful, the damage can be minimized.”

At its heart, The Pegasus Project reveals a disturbing truth: In a world where smartphones are ubiquitous, governments have a simple, commercial solution that allows them to spy on virtually whoever they want, wherever they want.

“I think it’s very clear: Autocrats fear the truth and autocrats fear criticism,” said Scott-Railton of Citizen Lab.

“They see journalists as a threat, and Pegasus is a natural tool for them to target their threats.”

Continue Reading

Trending