Ask any child of the 80s what, “Polisi wa kae kama raia” means or why August is called the “ Black month” and the question evokes a chain of memories buried deep in our psyches. The children of the 80s try to forget but we remember.
I started my remembering again after I took my 26-year-old nephew on a trip down my memory road. Didi is the firstborn of my eldest brother John. He is a true blood millennial, born in 1991, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Falklands War, the failed assassination of Ronald Reagan and the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
He was born after the release of ANC’s Nelson Mandela, the end of apartheid, the victory of Museveni’s NRM in Uganda and Sam Njuoma SWAPO in an independent Namibia.
After Said Barre was overthrown in Somalia, the SPLA civil war in Sudan, Jonas Savimbi’s CIA backed war against the Marxist government in Angola, the rise and fall of Samuel Doe in Liberia,
After the assassination of Walter Rodney, Captain Thomas Sankara and the plane crash that killed Samora Machel in South Africa.
After the murder of Dr. Robert Ouko, the mysterious death of Bishop Alexander Muge, and the hanging of Senior Private Hezekiah Ochuka.
After the Wagalla massacre, the devastating Ethiopian famine that killed half a million people, the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing and the unaccounted extermination of young lives to the AIDS virus.
After the July Saba Saba riots, the repealing of the Section 2A of the constitution that made Kenya a multiparty state that promised a future of dignity, liberty and prosperity in a democratic society.
We stood on Menelik Road facing the house where my innocence was lost. Menelik II was the emperor of Ethiopia who repelled an Italian invasion in the great battle of Adowa, a fact I learned years later in a history lesson in high school. There was a high drab wall surrounding the maisonette compound. We could only see the upper part of the house, the rain gutter that peeled and cracked paint under the mouldy black tiled roof. There was a kiosk and vegetable stand right outside what used to be the main access gate now completely sealed. The road was dotted with potholes and marked by high walls. The neighbourhood had changed like the rest of Nairobi. Closed, neglected and cold.
Nairobi of my childhood was a green city in the sun. In the 80s, one had to go to the military barracks or the prisons to find high walls. I conjured up a picture of Menelik Road in the 80s. Red and purple blooms of Bounganvillea hedges, bamboo fences, gated homes with manicured cypress fences, see-through gates, mbwa kali signs where white foreigners lived, mature Jacaranda trees and children taking turns riding a single BMX bicycle. At the closed end of Menelik Road was Kilimani Primary school run by a Goan man known as Mr. Fonseca, fondly known as Fonyi.
The first time I saw President Moi in the flesh was at this school. The President had stopped outside the school gates on the road named after Kenya’s first African lawyer Argwings Kodhek who died in a suspect road accident in 1969. The entire school assembled by the roadside to greet the President who had built a reputation for making surprise public stops to interact with adoring ‘ordinary wananchi’. I do not remember what Moi said but he distributed boxes of tiny biscuits afterwards, leaving us elated and in awe of Presidential power.
Menelik Road fed into Ngong Road from where the KBS buses run on time and the traffic congregated at Adams Arcade shopping centre. Adams Arcade had a timeless design that has endured the onslaught of Nairobi’s mall culture and a history dating back to the 40s. The open verandahs with large walkways, a post office, butcher shop, a bakery, basement bar are still contemporary. The iconic artistic cement slide we darted up and down as kids remains stuck in stone. The star attraction of the arcade was the Metropole cinema. I only ever watched a film there twice as the movies were adult rated but we still showed up at Adams every opportunity to drool over the movie posters and envy lucky movie goers. Adams Arcade is named after its enterprising founder Abdul Habib Adam who acquired the piece of land as payment on debt owed by the colonial government and then went ahead to design East Africa’s first shopping complex even though he was not a trained architect. On the lower level now occupied by Java coffee house was Tumbo’s bar.
Metropole cinema closed down alongside a host of cinema halls in Nairobi some years after the ’82 coup and little did we know that our privileged middle-class bubble was about to burst. My pre-teen worldview was manufactured by a father who kept up the fiction to save his children from the trauma of real world events happening around us. It was an alternative universe, much like Italian director and actor Roberto Benigni’s critically acclaimed film “La vita e bella” (Life is Beautiful). In the film, Benigni plays the role of a Jewish Italian bookshop owner, Guido who embarks on the imaginative game of positivity to shield his young preteen son from the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp while under captivity. Like Guido, I had a father who coped under duress of disruptive post ’82 years by choosing silence or humour because they were the most powerful ways a father could cry during hard times.
I lost my innocence of a predictable and certain world in 1982 on the first day of August. I was 8 years old. My elder brother returned from a party on the 31st July and had turned on his portable transistor radio to catch the 6 am news. That Sunday morning, the hesitant voice of radio veteran Leonard Mambo Mbotela on VOK’s national service announced that the government of Daniel Arap Moi had been overthrown. On the national broadcaster, an unfamiliar voice pronounced afterwards,
“You are hereby informed that everybody is requested to stay at home. They should be no movement in town. The government has been taken over by the military. There should be no movement of persons and vehicles. The police should now assume their roles as civilians until further notice,”
For the next three days, there was a protracted firefight between the Kenya Airforce soldiers cheered on by University of Nairobi students against the elite General Service Unity and the Kenya army led by General Mahmoud Muhammed. The city of Nairobi shut down, looters broke into shops and the head of state was nowhere to be seen or heard until days later when he appeared on TV looking thoroughly shaken. The poorly organized coup was crushed in 3 days but for the next three weeks, we stayed marooned indoors listening to the radio playing martial music under a dawn to dusk curfew. At the end of the month of August ’82, 100 soldiers and about 200 civilians had died and President Moi was primed to crush any threat to his hold on power.
The men who led the military revolution that never was were in their 20s drawn from low ranking Air force personnel and the public universities. There were sons of the working poor who died for their revolutionary ideals. The leader of the coup was 29-year old Senior Private Hezekiah Ochuka of the Kenya People’s Redemption Council.
Nairobi went through drastic changes after the failed coup attempt and a new kind of silence fell over our house. My parents never discussed politics in our presence. I was never certain what my father, who worked for the Ministry of Health, thought of the president. Media was government controlled and the news for public consumption feted the benevolence of our great leader, Baba Moi. Oblivious of the ongoings, we had no idea how quickly the country was slipping into repression. We watched as the adults stood aside and cheered like frogs placed in a pot of cool water complacently adjusting to the rising temperature until they boiled to death.
Night watchmen started to appear in the Kilimani neighbourhood – typical men from the pastoralist communities, the brave warriors to stand guard at night because house break-ins had reportedly increased. The bamboo fences disappeared replaced by cement block walls. Burglar proofing on windows became a standard house feature. The wooden gates replaced by solid metal ones with small access doors that one had to hunch over to get through. We started to notice ‘chokoras’ roaming through the neighbourhoods scavenging through growing roadside garbage piles that had gone uncollected for months.
The political and economic changes of the 80s and the 90s were disruptive to the lives of hundreds of thousands of government workers and their families who suddenly slipped overnight from the middle classes, no longer able to afford the privilege of security. In just a few years, there was massive flight of former civil servants from Kilimani and Woodley for Eastlands and villages across the country. I became part of the generation defined by what cartoonist Gaddo characterized as the Nyayo error.
The education system changed from 7-4-2-3 to 8-4-4. We became Moi’s guinea pigs, trained in the ethics of loyalty and patriotism. Moi’s hold on the country affairs was iron-fisted and totalitarian. As children, we totally succumbed to the Kool-Aid of the Nyayoism, programmed by the elaborate state propaganda machine, the original Cambridge Analytica. Living under the grip of Moi’s media hegemony had us parroting Nyayoism propaganda slogans.
The free school milk deprogrammed critical thought. Moi benevolence was God inspired and we knew this because TV cameras followed him to church every Sunday. Competing mass choirs emerged in droves singing in chorus in praise of the Great Leader. We memorized the ‘Nyimbo Za Kitamaduni” raising our voices in complete reverence as we sung the words to Mwalimu Thomas Wesonga choral hit song, “Tawala Kenya, Tawala, Rais Moi”, wagging a single finger in the air and unconsciously endorsing the one-party state of affairs indoctrinated with the Nyayo philosophy of Peace, Love and Unity. During the morning assembly, we recited the loyalty pledge with pride.
I pledge my loyalty to the president and the nation of Kenya. My readiness and duty to defend the flag of our republic. My devotion to the words of our national anthem. My life and strength in the task of our nation’s building. In the living spirit embodied in our national motto – Harambee! And perpetuated in the Nyayo philosophy of peace, love and unity.
Moi was the wise leader, the visionary, a man of God and the sole reason Kenya was an island of peace in a sea of conflict. There was civil war in Uganda, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. Any version of events or literature contrary to the official narrative earned one a subversive and dissident tag and the consequences that came with the label. As we sang and danced to patriotic songs in praise of the great leader and the beautiful life he accorded his subjects, our parents bore the brunt of the dismantling social pillars of society.
“The forces of neo-liberalism are on the march, dismantling the historically guaranteed social provisions provided by the welfare state, defining profit-making and market freedoms as the essence of democracy, while diminishing civil liberties” (Henri Giroux, 2004).
The government under pressure from the IMF adopted the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) designed to create rapid and sustainable economic growth but instead, they ushered in unprecedented loss of jobs and income equalities uprooting thousands of families and their dependants from the security of government social services. The state surrendered the economy to market forces, prioritising paying off foreign debt over social services. The social systems collapsed overnight as funding was choked, passing public institutions and services into private hands in the name of efficiency. Cost sharing became mandatory and the inequality grew overnight. The public education standards plummeted. The intellectuals were hounded, undermined, exiled, detained, subdued and turned into puppets.
Peter Oloo Aringo, the then Minister for Education captured the sentiment of the times when he publicly announced in biblical and Shakespearean rhetoric during a Nairobi university graduation ceremony that Moi was the Prince of Peace.
Unemployment increased as formal employment opportunities shrunk and the jua kali sector mushroomed. Public bus system broke down descending into a matatu culture of urgency and trickery. Potholes started to become familiar, a thing and public facilities sunk into a permanent decrepit state. Freedom of movement and association was curtailed as police officers turned rogue. Beards became profiled as marks of dissidence or Marxist in leaning, as dangerous as a young man in Kenya’s ghettos spotting dreadlocks during in the later day Mungiki crackdown. The politics became a contest of loyalty to the big man and a new cast of uneducated but loyal court jesters filled the ranks of important state positions. After ’82, Moi ran a tight ship silencing protest effectively, with the perpetual dread of the shadowy Special Branch hanging over the population.
The white man is very clever. He came quietly with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.
Chinua Achebe, – Things Fall Apart
Fear and loathing of one’s helplessness is what defined the brand of enforced ‘silence’ of the Moi years. I had little idea that I had inherited my parents’ traumas growing up in an autocratic patronage system. Even during my boldest moments of protest as a university student in the fight for second liberation in the late 1990s, I knew my boundaries. I knew when to reserve comment, speak in code, choose my word carefully and keep my political opinions to myself in public. Stronger, braver and important men had disappeared. I had no illusion what the state was capable of.
The only other thing that rivaled the dread of Moi state repression machinery was a mysterious virus that hunted young lives like Tekayo the cannibal character in Grace Ogot’s “ Land Without Thunder”. On January 15 1985, the Standard newspaper carried a headline “Killer sex disease in Kenya”. HIV AIDS virus compounded by a broken public health system devastated my generation and it became the single biggest contributor of orphaned children. The safe sex and abstinence campaigns coincided with the rise of evangelical churches capitalizing on the despondency that defined the times. By 1988, AIDS had taken on a religious dimension as the curse of our generation. Reinhardt Bonnke, a German preacher arrived to great pomp and razzmatazz to save the souls of Africans and packed stadiums preaching the gospel of healing and miracles. Tens of thousands gathered at his mega-crusade including senior government officials, swept away by the frenzy of spiritual warfare against the demonic forces unleashed on the “Dark” continent.
In traditional Anglican, Catholic and Presbyterian churches, a band of bold men spoke softly and firmly, using their pulpits to preach the gospel of redemption from an oppressive status quo. There was Bishop David Gitari, Alexander Muge, Henry Okullu and Reverend Timothy Njoya. Two years later in 1990 Bishop Muge was dead and Timothy Njoya had been severely beaten in public by state agents outside the parliament buildings.
36 years since the coup of ’82, Kenya remains deeply entrenched in the politics of pilferage and division. The wealth and poverty gap is immoral. The country that the late JM Karuiki once decried as one of “10 millionaires and 10 million beggars” is firmly entrenched. The former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga bluntly called Kenya a bandit economy run by mafia-style cartels. Grand theft has become the enduring characteristic of the historical state and the common denominator co-joining successive generations.
On January 20th, 1961, at the Capitol in Washington DC, newly elected President John F. Kennedy inauguration speech ended with a line that would shape a generation in America,
“Ask not what your country can do for you- ask what you can do for your country”.
The leadership of all progressive nations have demanded the same unwavering patriotism of their citizens and bled the rhetoric of national service to death. However the contrary question is never tabled,
“Ask what your country has done to you?”
Are we willing to talk of the past human rights abuses, the forgotten events of historical injustice, the systemic traumas that we continue to stuff in the storehouse of national amnesia? How can a country that is unable to face and deal with its past move forward?
The millennials I meet ask this question in collective wonderment. How did it go so tragically wrong for a generation that ate the bitter fruits of the Nyayo philosophy? Why did the foot soldiers of the second liberation turn into eager oppressors and ethnic bigots driven by an unprecedented level of greed? If we are to make any sense of our presence and our future we have to go look back to where we lost our way in a Sankofa-esque way. The literal translation of the term Sankofa is,
“ It is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind”.
When I name my defining Kenyan traumas, I start with ’82, the year that I first experienced the existential angst of Kenya’s middle class. I think about the good intentions of my late father, part of the silent generation born between 1924 and 1942. He was defined by the Second World War and the Mau Mau state of emergency. By 1982, he did what any loving father would have done; shield one’s children from the harsh reality and until they were old enough and equipped to deal with it. My own father died in 1989, the year that Berlin Wall came down and it was the same year that I realised that life was not beautiful, aware of my mis-education in a postcolonial reality, I began my own personal journey of consciousness and awareness.
In 2002 after the inauguration of Mwai Kibaki, I made the number of those Kenyans described as the most optimistic population in the world. Moi was gone. My generation was unbwogable. We had survived the repressive years 80s and 90s and gotten rid of our collective problem. The impossible dream achieved and a bright future beckoned.
By 2005, Mwai Kibaki had been in power for three years and already the optimism of the year 2002 had worn thin. The politics of ethnic hegemony that had taken temporary leave returned with fury. It came to a head in disputed 2007 election and I watched my generation fall into line and retreat to the safety of ethnic bastions. Indeed, there are no atheists in the foxholes. The illusion of national unity faded and the same fears that stalked my father to silence had returned.
We had become our parents, silenced, cynical of everything political, distrustful of those who did share our story and uncertain about what the future held for our children. It might be 2018, yet 36 years later Moi’s protégés continue playing by the same rule book of economic mismanagement, rampant corruption, political assassinations, electoral theft and violent suppression of dissent. The uncertainty that defined the 80s is still here but the unbwogable generation that came of age in 2002, is invested in personal cultivated bubbles of security, no longer willing to rattle the status quo.
We have morphed into our parents with children living in bubbles and disinclined to sabotage our beautiful lives.
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The Injustice of COVID-19 Apartheid
Now there are vaccines. But many are begging the universe, screams of grief erupting within them, with no one to hear. Elsewhere there are enough vaccines to cover each citizen many times over.
Thousands of people gathered in Wembley, going to the stadium for the Euro 2021 match between England and Denmark.
The fans returned to one of the homes of football, echoing the wider situation in the UK as things return to “normal”.
Many restrictions have been lifted, people can socialise, eat and drink inside pubs and restaurants. Schools are open and so are shops.
All that remains is for the masks to come off collectively, to be able to travel to any part of the world without needing to quarantine upon return and for social distancing to end (although that rule seems to be out of the window without the government’s consent).
The calls and messages from friends and family asking to meet up.
The discussions over which vaccine you had.
The sigh of relief at knowing your parents and other vulnerable loved ones are fully vaccinated and can resume some semblance of a life.
The word formed part of one of the most used phrases during this pandemic; “new-normal” is it not an oxymoron of some sort. How can the ordinary and mundane suddenly be new?
Is it like a celebrity singer making a comeback? New look, new branding, new genre of music?
Or a product which is now packaged differently, shiny wrapping, bold letters: NEW NORMAL, NOW EVEN BETTER THAN BEFORE, GETS RID OF STAINS FASTER THAN EVER!
As I watch people embrace this return to normality (that which existed before the “new normal”, I question how.
My normal has been altered forever as I go out into a world that no longer includes the three family members I lost to the virus and the loved ones who passed away during that time whom I was not able to mourn properly.
I am not the only one.
How to resume life when there are human-shaped holes everywhere we look?
There are so many topics which form part of the “reunion discussions” here as people sit opposite those they have not seen in months, everything from love lives, to what you watched during lockdown, to which vaccine you had.
But there are also those of us who will gather, carrying loss and you wonder, who should offer their condolences first? Will we say in unison, “I am sorry for your loss?”
In September 2020, my younger grandad in Dubai was hospitalised with COVID-19. Days later, my uncle, the one my mother referred to as her “twin”, was also taken in.
For days on end, the family WhatsApp groups were a hive of activity as everyone kept checking in with each other on whether there had been any updates on them.
Getting into bed would leave many of us gripped with terror as we kept the phones right next to us, ringer on, willing it to not ring in fear that the news of loss would arrive.
The days merged into one, phrases and words such as “oxygen level”, “ventilator”, and ”lung function” became a part of everyday conversation.
And we waited.
Because that really is what this pandemic has been about for so many of us.
One big wait.
Waiting in a queue to get into the supermarket.
Waiting to feel like a human being again.
Waiting for (an often inept) government to tell you what next.
Waiting for the international community to act on vaccine nationalism, on supporting the hundreds of millions of people whose lives have been destroyed as a result of problematic pandemic policies, on all the global injustices and oppressions which continue to be ignored or treated with a vile indifference.
Waiting to find out if people you love will make it. If you will ever experience those elements of them that your mind and body have connected to, a unique chemical reaction which can never be replicated.
Every year on the 9th of October, my younger grandad would call my mum to wish her a happy birthday, later in the day a bunch of flowers and a card would arrive.
On the 9th of October 2020 the phone rang, and this time it brought the news of his death.
In the days that followed, I watched my mother wrestle with a creature that was invisible to the rest of us, that which morphs into existence following the death of a parent or a parental figure.
While grief sat gently on our shoulders, we clung on to hope with our hands that my uncle would be ok.
The primary coping mechanism became conversations with family members and friends which would feature anecdotes of other people they knew who had contracted the virus and fallen severely ill and somehow made it through.
On the 3rd of November I met with my best friend for breakfast, it was my birthday, and as I bit into my celebratory waffles, my phone rang.
My uncle had passed away.
In those last hours they tried to get as many people on the phone as possible to say goodbye. When it was my mother’s turn, she simply asked him not to leave. She reminded him of the way they would argue over things as kids and promised that if he just stayed, she would never bicker with him again.
My mother’s posture is different now.
She carries loss on her shoulders.
How to put down that burden?
In my culture, like in many others, coming together and performing certain rituals following the death of a loved one is the norm.
There is the funeral and then during the 12 days after there are communal prayers while people come to offer their condolences.
Some aspects of this coming together can be challenging for some; the copious amounts of tea to be made for the guests, the lack of comfort some get from phrases like “he’s in a better place now” or “it was God’s will”.
Simultaneously however, for many people there is comfort to be found in being surrounded by loved ones. Some bring food, others give well-meaning words of comfort, stories are shared about the person who has passed away and there are moments when the touch of an aunt or uncle or cousin provides momentary respite.
Due to travel bans, limits on the number of people allowed at a funeral and the risks around holding large gatherings, people were denied the opportunity to partake in this communal grieving, the pandemic not only taking our loved ones, but also denying us access to spaces of comfort.
The “zoom funeral” has been among the most peculiar experiences for me.
Watching the last rites being performed and swinging between gratitude for technology and utter disbelief that this last goodbye involves you sitting in front of a screen as if you are watching a film or a Netflix show.
And then. It’s all over.
As other people begin to logout, you stare at the “leave” button, daring yourself to click it.
The decision gets taken out of your hands as a notification pops up, telling you that the “meeting” has ended.
What next? You switch off the laptop, go put the washing machine on, open the mail, call the mechanic to book an MOT and start preparing lunch, while swallowing down a grief that burns the back of your throat?
How can someone just no longer exist?
In the months that followed, I lost more loved ones and loved ones lost loved ones and on and on it went.
Login to social media and there were posts every day in which people shared that someone they love had just died of the virus, and in between these would be those featuring headlines stating, “xxxxxxx number of Covid-19 deaths recorded today”.
These formed some kind of pattern, a reminder that people are not statistics and that behind each number was a living, breathing human being whose death had felt like the end of the world for someone.
Grief laid bare, tears spilling out into the social media feeds, all of us drowning in sorrow.
Amid all this, a number of countries began rolling out Covid-19 vaccines. At home in the UK, those in the high-risk category began to receive their first shots in early 2021. Suddenly, hope was in the air.
The start of the pandemic saw the slogan “we’re all in this together” being bandied about worldwide. However, the perceived exit point, a vaccine, revealed that this not to be the case.
As countries like the UK return to “normal”, many countries in the global south, including those on the African continent are experiencing the opposite as they once more go into lockdown.
Mortuaries in Namibia are at full capacity, 16 doctors in Uganda have died from the virus in the space of 14 days, lockdowns in countries including South Africa and Rwanda mean that people’s lives and livelihoods are once more severely affected.
Addressing a media briefing on the 1st of July 2021, World Health Organisation Regional Direction for Africa Dr Matshidiso Moeti said, “The speed and scale of Africa’s third wave is like nothing we’ve seen before.”
That same week World Health Organisation Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was asked about vaccine hesitancy in Africa and that his response was “there is no vaccine so why do we even talk about vaccine hesitancy. Those who have vaccines are getting better and opening up their society, those who don’t are facing serious Covid-19 situations. We need vaccines in Africa now.”
Speaking at the Milken Institute Future of Health Summit on the 22nd of June 2021, Strive Masiyiwa, African Union Special Envoy to the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team, said that when he approached vaccine manufacturers in December 2020, he was told all capacity for 2021 was sold, “The people who bought the vaccines and the people who sold them the vaccines knew that there would be nothing for us.”
Ironically, in December 2020, Business Insider reported that Canada “has enough COVID-19 vaccine doses to cover each citizen five times over”.
18-months-ago the global sentiment being pedalled was one of “standing shoulder to shoulder” in facing the pandemic, but it has become increasingly clear that there is a group of entities for whom preserving global inequalities which allow them to stand on a self-created pedestal is far too important.
As Kenyan writer and activist Nanjala Nyabola tweeted in response to an announcement that the United States will purchase and donate half a billion Pfizer vaccines to 92 low- and lower-middle-income countries and the African Union, over two years, “We asked for justice. They are giving us charity.”
Vaccine consignments through the COVAX facility and other donors arrive in dribs and drabs, the International Monetary Fund saying, “The vaccine rollout in sub-Saharan Africa remains the slowest in the world. Less than 1 adult in every hundred is fully vaccinated, compared to an average of over 30 in more advanced economies”.
There has been another pandemic running parallel with COVID-19, that of injustice.
I think back to those anguish-filled days when my uncle and my grandad were in hospital, the numerous moments of bargaining with the universe to just make them ok and the feeling of the floor falling away from me when I was told they had gone.
At that time, talk of vaccines and rollouts was not widespread.
Now, there are vaccines.
Yet there are many begging the universe as I did back then. There are those sat in front of a screen being forced to say a final goodbye with the click of a button, screams of grief erupting from within them, with no one to listen.
And there are those, double-vaccinated, who walked into a football stadium, their screams in unison with a thousand others, heard all over the world.
South Africa: No One Should Use Our Rage Against Us. We Own Our Rage.
To riff off James Baldwin, there will be a fire next time in South Africa. The embers and kindling are in place. What matters is what South Africans do between this fire and the next.
Two of South Africa’s most populous provinces are on fire. Others teeter on the brink. Together with many others who are observing this iteration of the smoldering blaze, I am caught in the confluence of all kinds of emotions. My sisters and their children live at the center of the fire that is raging in Pietermaritzburg. They are terrified. Even though I am observing the fires from Maputo, their horror at the destruction is an affect that they have drawn me into as well. Social media is flush with the devastating images. Acquaintances have lost businesses that they remain mired in debt over. I have internalized the fear of my family and others whose terror I watch on Twitter. In moments of life altering change, we are usually counseled to sit respectfully and to learn from the experience. For this reason and because I am depleted by the effects of COVID-19 on African lives, and as a consequence of the conflicting emotions jostling within me, I had decided to be quiet and to learn.
Over the past decade, I have been thinking of the rogue emotion of collective rage that occasionally surfaces and sweeps us in its wake. For this reason, Pumla Gqola tweeted asking that I remind tweeps about the work of collective rage in this moment. I write in response to this invitation to think through the lessons of rage and its fires. To begin with, we might think of rage as intentional and networked anger rather than as a free standing emotion. Rage builds on sedimented anger but it is not reducible to anger. It transforms individual grievances into shared problems and structures anger into collective action. In the words of Fred Motem, rage is love and care under duress. This is because it forces the downtrodden to choose themselves and assert their presence even when the world has blotted them out.
To rage is to say, “fuck it, I love myself too much to allow this.” Steve Biko reminded us that we are either alive or dead and when we die, we don’t care anyway. Rage is patterned on history because the grievances build up over time and their expression finds resonance with old and evolving forms of protest. I do not have to remind the reader of just how deep South Africa’s protest history goes and how it folds into and out of social sanction and respectability—attributions of good and bad. Following the old feminist adage, the personal (anger) becomes political (rage). Because of what it represents and does, property has always been the target of rage.
These protests and looting bare the hallmarks of rage. Unemployment sits between 60 and 80 percent among black youth. Many are unemployable. They watch us live comfortably and they see the excess of jet setting Moet lives. Businesses come to squarely represent excess. They’ll never get jobs at a shopping centre or mall from which they are routinely chased out and seen—with justification at times—as potential thieves. In Pietermaritzburg there are tons of young men that sleep on the streets, in parks, under shop awnings, bridges, road overpasses, and the city’s cemeteries. Everyone knows to look out for the “paras” despite this being the seat of the unseeing provincial government. The “paras” broke into my sister’s house twice while the family slept. The children are traumatized. The “paras”want food. Some take drugs to numb the pain. And then they need money to buy the drugs. Because they already live in the street, their fate is not tied to the cashiers and waiters who work at the burning shopping centers. This is to say that if their mothers and cousins lose their jobs as a consequence of a burned shop, this will not have material bearing on their overlooked lives. And those who are not homeless already live precarious lives. They see the dimness of their futures.
When someone strikes a match and invites them to take from the shops, the young people are more than ready to rage and eat. Even if for a day or two. The feeling of fleeting control is priceless. To watch the things that taunt and mock you go up in flames is to finally experience the adrenaline of living. It is to turn the world upside down so that we can all feel the destabilizing effects of marginality. With or without shops in the neighborhood, they will always experience hunger and humiliation. So they don’t believe that they are cutting their own noses. Today is their day. For today, it is we who are terrified and uncertain. Tomorrow they will watch us rummage through the ashes. They know the feeling too well. They live in urine stained ashes.
With reference to the Vietnam war, Spike Lee’s protagonist in Da 5 Bloods says “No one should use our rage against us. We own our rage.” It is apt here. Jacob Zuma and his children have attempted to own the rage of the unemployed. Those they forsook and overlooked when they led the rampant feeding at the trough of political patronage. Now they seek to use the rage of the forsaken to fight the reckoning that must follow reckless and wanton corruption that robbed the poor and swelled the ranks of the unemployed. They lit the match and tossed it. It has landed on dry tinder. Now the flames are engulfing us.
On this precipice, we too have to sit with the warning. “No one should use our rage against us.” As the middle classes and the tenuously employed working classes, do we hit out at the raging youth or do we help in closing the growing gulf between the poor and the wealthy. Not through slogans about old Stellenbosch money, but our own money, political decisions, and privilege that we use to build walls around our properties. Even if we got our hands on all the white Stellenbosch money and imprisoned apartheid generals and war mongers, our problems will not be overcome. Not to use the rage of the unemployed calls on us to end our problematic relationship to property and to recenter the public good. It is insufficient to take care of our families and to complain about black tax. It is to take seriously that the raging youth own their rage and that it is an expression of their self-love under duress. We might condemn their destruction of property but to take rage seriously is to reconsider the social role of property not as enrichment but as public good. This moment is one of reckoning. It shines the spotlight on the government’s ineptness, the fissures between us, and the violence of property.
Perhaps the rage will die down in a few days. Rage always burns itself out. But all it needs are reckless political feeders who thrive on attention and self-importance to light the kindling. Proxy political battles, xenophobes, fascists and others will fill the yawning fissures of inequality. We will return to this place again. We have been here before. Those old enough to remember the fires of the 1980s and the transition years know the fires of rage. Those who came of age in the 1970s nurse the burns of the Soweto and Langa uprisings. The Durban strikes. And earlier still, in the 1960s, the Mpondo revolt and Sharpeville massacre had their own fires. The women who marched on the Union Buildings know the heat of rage.
To riff off James Baldwin, there will be a fire next time. The embers and kindling are in place. What matters is what we do between this fire and the next.
The Voyage of Life: The “Zapatista Invasion” Has Begun
Welcome, compañeroas, compañeras and compañeros zapatistas, to the diverse geographies of the continent that will soon be renamed Slumil K’ajxemk’op.
After months of preparations, and weeks at sea, a delegation of the Zapatistas has touched down in Europe. The “reversed conquest” has well and truly begun.
It was a genuine surprise when the Zapatistas published their communiqué “A Mountain on the High Seas” on October 5, 2020, announcing a tour of the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) across five continents, starting with Europe. Even though the Zapatistas have not shied away from organizing initiatives in Chiapas and across Mexico — the March of the Color of the Earth just 20 years ago is a case in point — it is basically the first time since 1994 that they are leaving the borders of their homeland behind.
Then, on January 1 of this year, they published a Declaration for Life, co-signed with hundreds of individuals, collectives and organizations, outlining the objective of this voyage: making a contribution to the effort for anti-capitalist struggles — which are inseparable from the struggles for life — to converge in full consciousness of their differences and unhampered by homogenizing or hegemonizing forces.
In the past six months, extensive organizing has taken place at the European level, as well as in each individual country or “geography,” according to the Zapatista vocabulary. For instance, a francophone coordinating body has been established, which includes eight regional federations of collectives and local initiatives.
Meanwhile, the EZLN confirmed that a large delegation of more than a hundred members, three-quarters of which are women, was getting ready. The delegation is also said to be accompanied by members of the National Indigenous Congress–Indigenous Council of Government which unites Indigenous struggles across Mexico, as well as a contingent of the People’s Front in Defense of Land and Water of Puebla, Morelos and Tlaxcala which is fighting against the installation of a massive power plant that is threatening to divert water resources indispensable to the peasants in the region.
The Voyage for Life — Europe Chapter
On April 10, the anniversary of Emiliano Zapata’s assassination, they announced the departure of the first party of the Zapatista delegation, destined to make its voyage by sea. We had expected to see them leave the caracol of Morelia that day, where the members had been preparing themselves for months. A formal ritual was performed for the occasion, with traditional music, incense and purifying acts (“limpia”), upon a life-size model of a ship’s prow.
But the group did not set out on their journey right away: first they went into a 15-day quarantine to ensure that no one leaves the Zapatista territory carrying any other virus than that of rebellion. This decision is in line with the EZLN’s resolution to take all the required precautionary sanitary measures to avoid the spread of COVID-19 upon themselves and outside of state mandates. This had led them to issue a red alert and close off access to all Zapatista caracoles since March 15, 2020.
The maritime delegation was baptized “Escuadrón 421” because it is composed of four women, two men and one transgender person (“unoa otroa” in the Zapatista lexicon), who were individually introduced in a communique of Subcomandante Galeano.
After another farewell party on Sunday, April 25, accompanied by the exhibition of numerous paintings and sculptures, encouraging speeches by the Council of Good Government and a communal ball, the delegation departed the next day from Morelia. From there they reached the Mexican harbor at Isla Mujeres where a ship named “La Montaña” was awaiting them and they set sail for the Atlantic crossing on May 2.
The Escadron 421 is now at the mercy of the ocean’s wiles, under the capable seamanship of the ship’s crew. They should be within sight of the European coast at the port of Vigo in Spain in the second half of June.
Simultaneously smaller celebrations were organized by the sound of drums and all sorts of encouragements to accompany the departure of other members of the Zapatista delegation, leaving their villages in the Lacandon jungle, at times using canoes to descent the rivers of this tropical region close to the Guatemalan border. They are part of different groups of the Zapatista delegation, which will reach the old continent, by air travel this time, from the beginning of July onwards.
So will begin months of intensive activities, meetings and exchanges all over Europa for the Zapatistas. Thus far they have received and accepted invitations from a great number of “geographies”: Austria, Basque Country, Belgium, Bulgaria, Catalonia, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Sardinia, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, UK and Ukraine.
Hundreds of meetings and activities have been proposed to the Zapatistas, which are currently being coordinated. These events will be made public by the organizing collectives when the time comes. This might also include larger gatherings/rallies, around all current struggles: from the Gilets Jaunes to ZAD’s, in the case of France, and other resistance groups fighting destructive mega projects; feminist collectives, migrant support initiatives, groups struggling against police violence, as well as movements aiming to undo colonial forms of domination; mutual aid networks based in cities and rural areas as well as those involved in building alternative ways of living; not forgetting the critical mobilizing efforts compelled by, as the Zapatistas emphasize, the bloody tragedies of our wounded planet. The list — incomplete here — is long in the vast constellation of rebellions against capitalist brutality and struggles for other, more desirable worlds.
Above all, the Zapatistas have explained that they are coming to exchange with — that is, to speak, and even more so, to listen to — all those that have invited them “to talk about our mutual histories, our sufferings, our rages, our successes and our failures.” Especially in grassroots meetings so there is enough time to get to know and learn from one another.
The Zapatistas have long since argued for our struggles not to remain isolated from each other, and have underlined the importance of constructing global networks of resistance and rebellion. There is no need to enumerate all the international events that they have organized in Chiapas from the First Intercontinental Encounter for Humanity and against Neoliberalism (also referred to as “Intergalactic”) in 1996 until the Critical Thought in the Face of the Capitalist Hydra seminar in 2015. But in August 2019, while announcing the recent advancement in local self-government with the establishment of four new autonomous communes and seven new Councils of Good Government, the Zapatistas had made it clear not to be organizing any large events anymore. Instead they were planning to take part in “meetings with groups, collectives, and organizations that work [struggle] within their geographies.”
There was no question back then of touring the five continents, but it could be — among many other reasons to set out on such a journey — a way to initiate this very process. If such an approach may indeed resonate with the widely felt need to weave stronger bonds between existing struggles, this requires not only an exchange to identify the commonalities and differences but especially a human-to-human encounter that can forge interconnection.
The Zapatistas are calling this journey the “Voyage for Life,” and it will present an opportunity for a vast number of people to meet the Zapatistas and learn more from their experiment in autonomy and dignity, persevered against overwhelming odds for over a quarter century. And, hopefully, many will allow themselves to be won over by the virus of rebellion of which the Zapatista are contagious carriers.
Let’s also hope that all those who identify with the Declaration for Life and for whom the autonomy of the Zapatista is a shining source of aspiration and inspiration will be ready to welcome them, support their itinerant initiative and participate in a manner best suited to each and every one on this Voyage for Life.
The Continent Renamed “Slumil K’Ajxemk’Op”
Returning to the Escadron 421. Since the first announcement, the Zapatistas have talked about their voyage towards Europe as a reversed process of conquest. The idea of the inversed invasion — this time with consent — amuses them. Obviously, it is said in jest — but are we entirely sure? When the delegation left, scale models ironically alluded to the caravels of Christopher Columbus: “No soy una Niña” and “Santa Maria La Revancha”; but it was also clarified that it is only if the members of Squadron 421 manage to land on European soil that it can be truly said that “the invasion has started.” If all goes well, they will be in Madrid on August 13, 2021, to celebrate in their own way the quincentenary of the conquest of Mexico-Tenochtitlan by the army of Hernan Cortés.
The Indigenous population of Chiapas, like all those on the American continent, have for five centuries suffered the implications of colonization, including all the forms of internal colonialism and racism that extend it. The Zapatistas have made it clear, however, that they are not coming to Madrid to get a formal apology from the Spanish state or the Catholic church. They reject the essentialist condemnation of the “West” as evil and fully assimilated to the colonizers, as well as the attitude that relegates the colonized to the role of victim. On the contrary, they are intending to tell the Spaniards “that they have not conquered us [and] that we are still resisting and in fact in open rebellion.”
To make this voyage in reverse is to nuance a history that has assigned deeply entrenched and unambiguous positions to the vanquisher and the vanquished, and unlock the possibility for an alternative history.
When the maritime Zapatista delegation reaches Europe it is Marijose, “unoa otroa” of the Escadron 421 that will go ashore first. The following is how Subcomandante Galeano described the scene in advance; an inversion of the gesture by which Christopher Columbus — who disembarked on October 12, 1492, neither as a conqueror nor as a discoverer, since he was only seeking to find the already known lands of Japan and China — rushed to plant his cross and impose the name San Salvador on the island of Guanahaní:
Thus, the first foot that will set on European soil (that is, if they let us disembark) will not be that of man or a woman. It will be the foot of another.
With what the deceased SupMarcos would have described as “a slap with a black stocking in the face of all the heteropatriarchal left,” it has been decided that the first person to disembark will be Marijose.
As soon as they will have planted both feet firmly on European ground and recovered from seasickness, Marijose will shout out:
“Surrender, pale heteropatriarchal faces who persecute that which is different!”
Nah, I’m joking. But wouldn’t it be good if they did?
No, on stepping out on land the Zapatista compa Marijose will solemnly declare:
“In the name of women, of children, of men, of elders and, of course, of other Zapatistas, I declare that the name of this land, which its natives today call
“Europe” will henceforth be known as: SLUMIL K’AJXEMK’OP, which means “Rebel Land,” or, “Land that doesn’t yield, that doesn’t fail.”
And thus it will be known by its inhabitants as well as by strangers as long as there is someone who will not abandon, who will not sell out, and who will not capitulate.”
Welcome, compañeroas, compañeras and compañeros zapatistas, to the diverse geographies of the continent that will soon be renamed Slumil K’ajxemk’op.
Editors Note: This is an edited version of an article first published by ROAR magazine. It is republished here as part of our partnership with Progressive international.
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