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Reflections

Open Letter to President Uhuru Kenyatta

8 min read.

Mr. President, you need to get your act together for this. This is our last big ask from you. It’s also your last scene on the big stage. God knows your performance has not lived up to its billing—and that’s being polite about it. It is your chance for public redemption. It may not matter to you, but it matters to us— to the thousands, maybe millions of lives at stake.

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Open Letter to President Uhuru Kenyatta
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Re: COVID-19 in Kenya

Your Excellency,

COVID-19 is here. Fatal errors have been made. People from Italy managed to travel to western Kenya when Italy was already the global epicentre of the pandemic. One of them was infected. This is unacceptable.

Last Sunday, the government suspended international flights and imposed mandatory quarantine. Passengers did not find quarantine plans in place. They were held up for hours, and then allowed to go home and report back the following day. The following day, they were shuttled from place to place for hours. Yet, the Government had given assurance that a contingency plan for every scenario was in place. This is not true. It was the usual public relations, then shambles. Unfortunately, we are accustomed to this.

Last week, in only your second address on the pandemic, you launched an Internet service. This was a serious error of judgment on your part, and distasteful opportunism on the part of Google. People are worried about food, and you call the nation to attention to launch balloons? Many Kenyans have accused you of being a prisoner of your privileged upbringing. Yet you continue to reinforce that perception. This was yet another one of many let them eat cake moment. It is one too many. Learn from it.

I do not know what your analysts and advisors are telling you but here is the low-down I think you need to have.

If the pandemic progresses to Europe level, we are sitting ducks.

The data we are observing shows that availability of intensive care (i.e ICU) beds is the most critical survival factor. Germany has 1.5 times more infections than France, 30,000 and 20,000 respectively as I write, but France has seven times (860) the fatalities in Germany (130). But it is also the case that Germany has 29 ICU beds per 100,000 people, three times France with 11.6 beds per 100,000 people, that is a 40/100 ratio. What this means is, for 100 people needing ICU beds at the same time, Germany will save most of them, but France could lose all 60 who fail to get ICU beds. In every country, deaths have risen sharply once intensive care capacity is exhausted. The UK delayed its emergency response. With only 6650 confirmed cases, a fifth of Germany’s, they already have two and a half times the number of deaths. But the UK has only 6.6 ICU beds per 100,000 people, less than a quarter of Germany’s capacity.

I gather that we have a total national ICU capacity of 200 beds. That works out to 0.4 beds per 100,000 people, or one bed for every 250,000 people. The global critical illness rate is at 4%. To exhaust our 200 ICU beds at this rate requires only 5000 infections. But many of these beds are already occupied; therefore the actual capacity that will be available is much less. We cannot afford 1,000 infections let alone 5,000.

Allow me to turn to the economy. As Kenyans watch other, mostly European governments roll out economic mitigation and social protection measures, they are wondering when their government will come to the rescue.

We could not be more ill-prepared.

You will no doubt recall that as Finance Minister, you rolled out an Economic Stimulus Package (ESP) to aid recovery from the 2007 global financial crisis and 2007/8 post-election violence shocks. You may also recall that the budget deficit at the time was running at below 4% of GDP, which left plenty of headroom to borrow and spend without risking macroeconomic stability. You will probably also be aware of a fiscal prudence rule of thumb, a deficit “red line” if you like, of 5 – 6 percent of GDP that should not be crossed for too long. You will certainly know that your government has been running a deficit in the order of 7-8 percent of GDP for six years now.

What this means then, is that we do not have the fiscal space for a borrow-and-spend fiscal stimulus. This year, your government has revised domestic borrowing upwards by more than Sh200b from a target of Sh300b at the start of the financial year, to the latest figure of Sh514b. The going just got infinitely tougher. Tax revenue performance which has been in decline throughout your tenure, is about to go in free fall. The deficit will rise regardless.

Ten days ago, I expressed the opinion that fiscal or monetary economic stimulus—what we call demand management instruments in economics— are not the appropriate response and argued instead for a “lifeline fund” to protect jobs. Several countries including UK, Denmark and the Netherlands have since adopted this approach.

What do I mean by “lifeline fund?” Let me use the simplest of examples — a hair salon or barber shop. Hair grooming is the very opposite of social distancing— and it can certainly wait. But thousands of people depend on it for their daily bread (ugali and githeri more like it). Most live day to day. How are they surviving?

The lifeline fund is first and foremost, a safety net for workers like these whose sectors are most badly affected. This is the government’s responsibility just as it provides relief to drought and natural disaster victims. These people, particularly those in the urban informal sector, have nowhere to turn.

Secondly, the lifeline fund aims to keep businesses, especially those that are providing essential goods and services open instead of closing because of low business. We want to avoid shortages that could encourage hoarding, heighten social stress, and drive up prices. Third, the more businesses we keep alive, the faster the recovery will be.

For people in Nairobi’s crowded informal settlements and elsewhere, who do not know where their next meal will come from, the language of social distance and on-line working comes across as a cruel joke. We already have volatile powder keg of gross inequality and social exclusion, and as I already remarked, you personally have reputation for elitist insensitivity. If people get hungry, the soldiers you love to turn to will not help you. Let us not tempt fate.

I have estimated in an op-ed published today on The Elephant that a lifeline fund in the order of 0.5 – 1% of GDP or Sh50-100b would be sufficient to save the situation. But having already argued that it is not prudent to borrow-and-spend, I am obliged to offer suggestions on how else this might be funded. I see two options.

Watch: The Political Economy of Coronavirus: Dr David Ndii Speaks

The first is budget reallocation within the existing deficit by (a) drastic cutback on development projects and (b) mothballing non-essential functions thereby freeing up some non-wage recurrent budget. Certainly, monies budgeted for international travel; workshops and public events can be redeployed immediately. This will require political resolve and execution discipline, the lack of which has been the bane of your government. Time and again, austerity plans are announced, but not followed through. You do not have that luxury anymore. You can no longer kick the can and hope that we will muddle along until it becomes someone else’s problem. Mr. President, your luck has finally run out. If you do not impose financial discipline, you are looking at a financial meltdown in a few months, if not sooner. That will be your legacy.

The second is external finance. The IMF has stated it can avail $57b quickly to low income and emerging markets. If it was shared pro-rata between low and middle countries based on GDP, our share would be in the order of Sh18b ($180m), significant but inadequate in the context of the revenue shock referred to earlier. The Prime Minister of Ethiopia has appealed to the G-20 to advance Africa $150b in emergency funds and to write off debts. I am of the view that African leaders should unite around a moratoriam on debt repayment to official creditors (i.e. multilateral and bilateral lenders). New money even if it could be made available, which I doubt, couldn’t come fast enough, and all sorts of paper work would have to be prepared. The same applies to debt write-offs.

A debt service moratorium on the other hand is equivalent to budget support with money we already have. It is a case of a bird in hand being worth two in the bush. Moreover, on this, it is we the debtors who have the leverage because we can’t pay. Won’t pay is an option.

Our foreign debt service budget to official creditors for the coming financial year is in the order of Sh220b. I propose you reach out to Prime Minister Abiy and work together to champion this alternative.

The next question is how would the lifeline be delivered. The western countries are offering partial salary subsidies, up to 80 percent in UK to companies that keep workers on payroll. I think we should do it differently, for two reasons. First, I need not belabour that the government is broke. Simply put, they are rich, and we are poor. Second, and to my mind more importantly, it will be very difficult to target grants efficiently and fairly in our predominantly informal economy. If money is free, demand will overwhelm supply, and if truth be told, the corruption opportunities are beyond measure.

For these reasons, I propose that the lifeline fund be in the form of a very soft loan with long grace period (6 – 12 months) and reasonable tenure (3 – 5 years). The amount should be a fixed sum per employee and disbursed monthly over a fixed term. Should be entirely linked to the number of employees to the loans should be made available to both workers (as check-off loans) and businesses (business loans). To illustrate, working with a figure of Sh30,000 per worker per month for four months, a restaurant with 10 workers would be entitled to borrow Sh1.2 million. If shared equally between the business and workers, and is interest-free over five years, the business would repay Sh10,000, and the workers Sh500 a month each once the crisis is over. The screening of eligible businesses and actual nitty-gritty of loan administration should be left to banks.

In conclusion Mr. President, allow me proffer what I think are your leadership imperatives:

  1. Broaden your leadership team by establishing a National Covid-19 Response Task Force that includes the other arms of government (Judiciary, Legislature, and Council of Governors) as well as private sector, private healthcare providers, professionals and other leaders in society, with you as Chair. The task force should meet at least twice a week, daily if necessary and update the public on a weekly basis. May I propose you personally take charge of this by way of a weekly press conference.
  2. Establish an independent scientific advisory panel, along the lines of the UKs Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) to advice you and the National Response Task Force. You need doers (the taskforce) and thinkers (the advisory panel). What we don’t need is provincial administration enforcers donning fatigues and issuing edicts like they have done since colonial times. If we don’t adapt, we will die.
  3. Task the health authorities to mount an aggressive testing effort of high exposed people and clusters (airline and international hotel staff, tourism centres e.g Malindi and Diani etc) to establish the extent, if any, of local transmission. This is imperative because many urban Kenyans have travelled back to rural homes, and they, as well as the Government, needs to know whether they and their families are at risk so that the appropriate response can be mounted.
  4. Task the Treasury, Central Bank and the Kenya Bankers Association to set up a Lifeline Fund along the lines proposed. Task the cabinet to craft an austerity plan within the next seven days with a target of identifying (a) development projects that will be frozen and (b) non-essential functions that can be mothballed with immediate effect.
  5. In addition to the lifeline fund, it may become necessary to provide a social safety net at the community level in the near future. In this regard, may I propose that Ward Level response teams comprising of political (MCA), county and relevant government officials (ward administrators, chiefs, social workers) and community leaders be established, and tasked the responsibility of identifying vulnerable households that may need assistance, if and when that time comes.

Mr. President, you need to get your act together for this. This is our last big ask from you. It’s also your last scene on the big stage. God knows your performance has not lived up to its billing—and that’s being polite about it. It is your chance for public redemption. It many not matter to you, but it matters to us— to the thousands, maybe millions of lives at stake. Stop listening to your buddies, sycophants and frontmen for commercial interests. You will not get away with throwing up your hands and asking the public what they expect you to do.

The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor wealth to men of understanding, nor favour to men of skill; but time and chance happens to them all. For surely no man knows his time. Like fish caught in a cruel net or birds trapped in a snare, so men are ensared in an evil time than suddenly falls upon them. (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12)

Godspeed

Most respectfully,

David Ndii DPhil(OXON)

Nairobi, 25 March 2020

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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

Reflections

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.

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The Injustice of COVID-19 Apartheid
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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).

Normal.

The calls and messages from friends and family asking to meet up.

Normal.

The discussions over which vaccine you had.

Normal.

The sigh of relief at knowing your parents and other vulnerable loved ones are fully vaccinated and can resume some semblance of a life.

Normal.

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?”

Death

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.

Just waiting.

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?

Grief

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.

And now.

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.

Normal?

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Reflections

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.

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South Africa: No One Should Use Our Rage Against Us. We Own Our Rage.
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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.

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

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Reflections

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.

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The Voyage of Life: The “Zapatista Invasion” Has Begun
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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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