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Ideas

The Souls of White Folk Revisited

7 min read.

At another historical inflection point, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized white Americans’ delusions as the property of the West more broadly.

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The Souls of White Folk Revisited

When US Congress members resumed deliberations on the Electoral College vote after a pro-Trump mob violently stormed and temporarily occupied the Capitol building on January 6, many of them expressed shock and dismay that such an event had occurred in the United States. The scene was certainly abominable. More than fifty people were injured, and five people died in the attack, including a Capitol police officer. But the greatest damage had been inflicted upon the feeble facade of American exceptionalism and white innocence.

In a revealing display of historical delusion, the mantra in Congress that evening and throughout the following day was that the barbaric attempt to subvert the outcome of the election was an aberration in US political history and culture. “This is not who we are,” members of congress repeated. Instead of introspection, there was deflection. “This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic—not our democratic republic,” former President George W. Bush related through a formal statement, without any apparent awareness of his own irony and racism.

And there were even boasts. Vice-President Mike Pence, in his address to the reconvened Senate envisioned a world in awe of the US. “The world will once again witness the resilience and strength of our democracy,” he said. New York Senator Chuck Schumer, revealing the limits of his historical literacy, was aghast that this aberrant event will stain America’s image. “Unfortunately,” he said to his colleagues, “we can now add January 6, 2021 to that very short list of dates in American history that will live forever in infamy.”

A half a century ago, at another historical inflection point, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wisely recognised these delusions as the property not simply of the United States, but of the West more broadly. The US, he discovered, shared with European states and their imperialist outposts in Africa and the Caribbean a near pathological determination to dress up labour exploitation, gross materialism, militarism, and white supremacy as democracy. We are at a similar historical moment.

This myth of exceptionalism and white superiority continues to yoke the white working class in the US and elsewhere—France, Britain, Brazil, and in South Africa, among other places—to an economic system that is destroying them. King, in his time, implored us to recognize this fact. Today, he would remind us that what Americans saw on January 6 was a domestic variant of a world problem of persistent adherence to white supremacy casually cloaked in political and economic grievance.

The US, like South Africa, needed collective myths to fuel its national pride, and allow its leaders the self-assurance they displayed. Their myopic sense of exceptionalism fueled their claims to superiority vis-à-vis the rest of the world. The same internal inhibitors to self-reflection allowed Donald Trump to label country’s “shitholes” and former President Bush to dismiss others as “banana republics.” This absence of self-reflection compounded by delusion inspired the pro-Trump white-nationalist mob to attack the US Capitol building in an act of domestic terrorism.

We can learn from King’s prescient admonition for white Americans, Western Europeans generally, to recognise the inevitable calamity that will result from the ease with which they hold aloft the banner of racial superiority, while they trod aggressively toward an all-encompassing conflagration. King offered an alternative path forward borne of his engagement with non-violent movements in Asia and Africa to end of European imperialism, and the movement in the US against racial segregation and economic exploitation.

King’s analysis of global white supremacy grew increasingly astute in the early 1960s, through his involvement in initiatives to end white-minority rule in southern Africa. King was not alone in his thinking. He espoused a philosophy that was in the tradition of the Black social gospel theologians who mentored him, such as Benjamin E. Mays, Howard Thurman, and King’s father, Martin Luther King Sr. The inspiration they derived from Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolence was immense, first in his struggle for Indian rights in British-ruled South Africa and then, after 1915, in India, toward its independence from Britain. Others, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, and South Africa’s Albert Luthuli, shaped the rich, internationally-oriented intellectual and political environment that nurtured King and shaped his political outlook.

King’s goals for the Civil Rights Movement were also consistent with those of his contemporary radical activists who were unsatisfied with arguments for integration into an unaltered American society. His Black social gospel predecessors, as would King himself, insisted that the US social and economic system be understood in its global context, which would evince the necessity of a radical reordering. The global perspective that King and his contemporaries in the Civil Rights Movement gained through their involvement in the struggle against white-minority rule in southern Africa, equipped them to discern the global dimensions of capitalism, white supremacy and resulting forms of creeping authoritarianism.

Part of King’s brilliance and his usefulness for understanding the current political moment was his capacity to link culture, philosophy, and national politics within broad, global economic and political structures. In his speech to the First Conference on New Politics Chicago in 1967, King derided the persistent myth of the US as a paragon of justice, equality, and freedom. He diagnosed America’s social malady as a “triple-prong sickness that has been lurking that is the sickness within our body politic from its very beginning. That is the sickness of racism, excessive materialism and militarism. Not only is this our nation’s dilemma, it is the plague of Western civilisation.”

King did not issue diagnoses without prescriptions for a more healthful body politic. He strove toward the realisation of what he referred to as the “Beloved Community,” built on justice and equality. Toward that end, we must be honest about and learn from our own history.

King warned that it was detrimental to the US to continue to deny that “capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves,” and demanded the acknowledgement that capitalism “continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor, both black and white, both here and abroad.” Again, his antidote for this sickness was not mere social integration, but true social justice, which required a radical remaking of American society. “The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice,” he argued, “cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.” What he called for, in other words, was a social revolution.

King’s internationalism and the deepening sophistication of his social analyses in a global context were most fully displayed in his Human Rights Day address at Hunter College in 1965, in which he warned that the delusion of superiority and exceptionalism among white South Africans was propelling that country toward internal violence, as he feared it would among whites in the US. The prospect of white violence prompted King to muse on the image of the African savage in the European imagination, reinforced by innumerable books, motion pictures, and magazine photos. He lamented that this figment of Africa as home to backward savages had persisted for more than a century despite the nimiety of facts that controverted it.

King contrasted the African-savage narrative with Europe’s well-documented economic and political savagery on the African continent: “Africa does have spectacular savages and brutes today, but they are not black. They are the sophisticated white rulers of South Africa who profess to be cultured, religious, and civilised, but whose conduct on philosophy stamp them unmistakably as modern-day barbarians.”

He feared that the persistence of these brutes, these barbarian white rulers would propel South Africa toward a race war, as Africans exhausted all peaceful routes to liberation and self-determination. To forestall or, even better, prevent such an outcome, King called for an international moral coalition against white-minority rule in southern Africa. “The leaders of South Africa’s openly and virulently racist regime were very specific about their intention to secure and maintain white dominance in the country. Quoting Prime Minister Verwoerd [of South Africa]: ‘We want to keep South Africa white.’ Keeping it white can only mean one thing, namely white domination, not ‘leadership,’ not ‘guidance,’ but control, supremacy.”

King neatly summed up apartheid’s corrosive efficiency for securing white political and economic power in the country, while ensuring a stable reserve of cheap Black labor. Rather than a southern outpost of Western civilization, as many South African leaders claimed, their country’s social and economic system made it, as King put it, “a formidable adversary of human rights.”

He emphasised his endorsement of international sanctions against South Africa, in this speech. Although the push for sanctions in the US would fail to shift the US government’s position on South Africa until the 1980s, King recognised the potential for a sanctions campaign, beyond the specifics of its immediate goal to cripple the apartheid regime, to form the basis of a global movement; what he called an “international alliance of all peoples of all nations against racism.”

As the minister extolled the virtues of sanctions, he singled out the US for its hypocritical and economically gratuitous embrace of South Africa. There had always been quick and deliberate US action in international events when the US believed its interests were at stake. He said that when the US invaded the Dominican Republic, which took place that year, it showed what it was capable of doing if willing. “We inundated that small nation with overwhelming force, shocking the world with our zealousness and naked power.” But toward South Africa, he bemoaned, “our protest is so muted and peripheral, it merely mildly disturbs the sensibilities of the segregationists, while our trade and investments substantially stimulate our economy to greater heights.”

Such is the hypocrisy of exceptionalism. The US would not condemn South Africa at the height of its own hypocrisy on race relations, because to do so would indict both countries. They mirrored each other, with their racist economic and political systems, hyper militarism and historical delusions. “Colonialism and segregation,” he wrote in an essay published that year in the New York Amsterdam News in 1962, “are nearly synonymous; they are children in the same family, for their common end is economic exploitation, political domination and the debasing of human personality.”

King would have recognised the raiding of the US Capitol building as a stark reflection of what America has always been. Like the white rulers of South Africa during the 1950s and 60s “who profess to be cultured, religious, and civilized,” US leaders have conjoined mythology and delusion to blind themselves to the fact that the marauding horde that brought such shame to the US Capitol on January 6 and, indeed, to the US, acted in the long and dependable tradition of white nationalism in America and in the indomitable spirit of global white supremacy.

King endeavoured to steer whites from the course on which their historical delusion had fixed them and that would lead them inevitably toward violence. His legacy inspires a clear-eyed examination of movements like Marine Le Pen’s National Front (National Rally), Boris Johnson’s Brexit, and Trumpism, to understand their deep-rootedness in the ethos and praxis of white supremacy. Naming it, as King counseled, will allow for self-reflection and an opportunity for true exceptionalism. Success within this process will enable US politicians to recognize the marauding horde wandering the corridors of the Capitol building as themselves and a product of their history.

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

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Benjamin Talton is Associate Professor of History at Temple University, Executive Board Member of ASWAD and an Editor on the African Studies Review.

Ideas

Doing Democracy Without Party Politics

Our various peoples had clear democratic practices in their pre-colonial political formations without the inconvenience of political parties. It is high time we learned from our indigenous heritages.

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Doing Democracy Without Party Politics

The formation of factions is part of group dynamics, and is therefore to be found in every society. However, it was 18th century Western Europe and its North American corollary that invented the idea of institutionalising factions into political parties — groups formally constituted by people who share some aspirations and who aim to capture state power in order to use it to put those aspirations into practice. Britain’s Conservative Party and the Democratic Party in the US were the earliest such formations. Thus party politics are an integral part of representative democracy as understood by the Western liberal democratic tradition. Nevertheless, Marxist regimes such as those in China, Cuba, the former Soviet Union and the former East Germany also adopted the idea of political parties, but in those countries single party rule was the norm.

The idea of political parties gained traction in the various colonial territories in Africa beginning with the formation of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa in 1912. The founders of the ANC were influenced by African American political thinkers with whom they associated in their visits to the US.

Political organisations during the colonial period in Kenya

Kenya’s first indigenous political organisation, the East African Association (EAA), formed in 1919, had a leadership comprising different ethnic groups – Kikuyu, Luo, Kamba, the various communities later subsumed under “Luhya”, and some Ugandans, then the dominant ethnic groups in Nairobi. Its political programme entailed protests against the hut-tax, forced labour, and the kipande (passbook). However, following the EAA-led Nairobi mass action of 1922 and the subsequent arrest and deportation of three of EAA’s leaders, Harry Thuku, Waiganjo Ndotono and George Mugekenyi, the colonial government seemed to have resolved not to encourage countrywide African political activity, but rather ethnic associations. The subsequent period thus saw the proliferation of such ethnic bodies as the Kikuyu Central Association, Kikuyu Provincial Association, Kavirondo Tax-payers Association, North Kavirondo Tax-payers Association, Taita Hills Association, and the Ukamba Members Association.

In 1944, the colonial government appointed Eliud Mathu as the African representative to the Legislative Council (LegCo). On the advice of the governor, the Kenya African Study Union (KASU) was formed as a colonywide African body with which the lone African member could consult. However, the Africans changed its name to the Kenya African Union (KAU), insisting that their grievances did not need study but rather organisation.

In 1947, James Gichuru stepped down as chairman of KAU in favour of Jomo Kenyatta whose mandate was to establish it as a countrywide political forum. However, there were serious disparities in political awareness, and the colonial government continued to encourage the masses to think of the welfare of their own ethnic groups rather than that of the country as a whole. Besides, KAU’s links with other communities were often strained because of what was perceived as Kikuyu domination of the organisation. By 1950, KAU was largely moribund because, through the Mau Mau Uprising, Africans challenged the entire basis of colonial rule instead of seeking piecemeal reforms. In June 1953, the colonial government banned KAU after it concluded that radicalisation was inevitable in any countrywide African political organisation.

From 1953 to 1956, the colonial government imposed a total ban on African political organisation. However, with the Lyttelton Constitution — which provided for increased African representation — in the offing, the colonial government decided to permit the formation of district political associations (except in the Central Province which was still under the state of Emergency and where the government would permit nothing more than an advisory council of loyalists). Argwings-Kodhek had formed the Kenya African National Congress to cut across district and ethnic lines, but the government would not register it, so its name was changed to the Nairobi District African Congress.

Consequently, the period leading up to independence in 1963 saw a proliferation of regional, ethnic and even clan-based political organisations: Mombasa African Democratic Union (MADU), Taita African Democratic Union (TADU), Abagussi Association of South Nyanza District (AASND), Maasai United Front Alliance (MA), Kalenjin Peoples Alliance (KPA), Baluhya Political Union (BPU), Rift Valley Peoples Congress (RVPC), Tom Mboya’s Nairobi People Convention (NPC), Argwings-Kodhek’s Nairobi African District Council (NADC), Masinde Muliro’s Kenya Peoples Party (KPP), Paul Ngei’s Akamba Peoples Party (APP) later named African Peoples Party (APP) and others.

However, between 1955 and 1963, there developed a countrywide movement led by non-Mau Mau African politicians who appealed to a vision of Kenya as a single people striving to free themselves from the shackles of colonialism. Nevertheless, it was a fragmented movement, partly because the different peoples of Kenya had an uneven political development, becoming politically active at different times. The difficulties of communication and discouragement from the colonial government also contributed to the weakness of the movement.

Nevertheless, on the eve of Kenya’s independence in 1963, the numerous ethnically-based political parties coalesced into two blocks that became the Kenya African National Union (KANU), whose membership mainly came from the Kikuyu and the Luo, and the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) which mainly had support from the pastoralist communities such as the Kalenjin, Maasai, Samburu, and Turkana, as well as the Giriama of the Coast and sections of the Luhya of Western Kenya. During the 1963 elections, on the eve of independence, KADU only secured control over two out of the eight regions, namely, the Rift Valley and the Coast.

KANU under Jomo Kenyatta

Although at his release from detention in 1961 Jomo Kenyatta was not keen to join KANU, he ended up as its leader through the machinations of its operatives. He ascended to state power on its ticket at Kenya’s independence, first as Prime Minister, then as President. As Prime Minister, Kenyatta was directly answerable to Parliament, and it is this accountability that he systematically undermined.

First, the KANU government initiated a series of constitutional amendments and subsidiary legislation that concentrated power in the hands of the central government at the expense of the regional governments entrenched in the Independence Constitution. This KANU easily achieved because KADU was greatly disadvantaged numerically in Parliament. Thus within the first year of independence, KANU undermined the regional governments by withholding funds due to them, passing legislation to circumvent their powers, and forcing major changes to the constitution by threatening and preparing to hold a referendum if the Senate – in which KADU could block the proposals – did not accede to the changes.

It was clear to KADU that it was outnumbered and outmanoeuvred, and that the prospects for enforcing the compromise federalist Independence Constitution were grim. It was also clear to KADU that it was highly unlikely that it would win power through subsequent elections. Consequently, KADU dissolved and joined KANU, resulting in Kenya becoming a de facto single-party state at the beginning of 1964. These amendments produced a strong provincial administration which became an instrument of central control.

Second, with the restraining power of the opposition party KADU out of the way, KANU initiated amendments that produced a hybrid constitution, replacing the parliamentary system of governance in the Independence Constitution with a strong executive presidency without the checks and balances entailed in the separation of powers. Thus KANU quickly created a highly centralised, authoritarian system in the fashion of the colonial state.

In 1966, Oginga Odinga, the Luo leader at the time, who had hitherto been the Vice President of both the country and KANU, lost both posts due to a series of political manoeuvres aimed at his political marginalisation. Odinga responded by forming a political party — the Kenya Peoples Union (KPU) — in April of the same year. KPU was a loose coalition of KANU-B “radicals” and trade-union leaders. Although a fifth of the sitting MPs initially supported it, KPU was widely perceived as a Luo party. This was mainly due to the fact that Kenyatta and his cohorts, using the hegemonic state-owned mass media, waged a highly effective propaganda war against it.

Kenyatta took every opportunity to promote the belief that all his political opponents came from Oginga Odinga’s Luo community. Through a series of state-sponsored machinations, KPU performed dismally in the so-called little elections of 1966 occasioned by the new rule, expediently put in place by KANU, that all MPs who joined KPU had to seek a fresh mandate from the electorate.

During the 1969 General Election, KANU was for the first time unopposed. Those who were nominated by the party in the party primaries — where they were held — were declared automatically elected as MPs, and in the case of Kenyatta, President. Thus during the 1969 general election, Kenyatta also established the practice where only he would be the presidential candidate, and where members of his inner circle would also be unopposed in their bids to recapture parliamentary seats.

During Kenyatta’s visit to Kisumu in October 1969, just three months after the assassination of Thomas Joseph Mboya (Tom Mboya), a large Luo crowd reportedly threatened Kenyatta’s security, and was fired on by the presidential security guards in what later came to be known as the “Kisumu massacre”, resulting in the death of forty-three people. In an explanatory statement, the government accused KPU of being subversive, intentionally stirring up inter-ethnic strife, and of accepting foreign money to promote “anti-national” activities. Soon after this incident, the Attorney-General, Charles Njonjo, banned KPU under Legal Notice No.239 of 30th October 1969, and Kenya again became a de facto one-party state. Several KPU leaders and MPs were immediately apprehended and detained.

In 1973, the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association (GEMA) was formed with Kenyatta’s consent. In a chapter in Ethnicity and Democracy in Africa, the immediate former Attorney-General Prof. Githu Muigai, explains that GEMA had a two-pronged mission: to strengthen the immediate ethnic base of the Kenyatta state by incorporating the Embu and Meru into a union with the Kikuyu, and to circumvent KANU’s party apparatus in the mobilisation of political support among these groups. While posing as a cultural organisation, GEMA virtually replaced KANU as the vehicle for political activity for most of the Kikuyu power elite. Consequently, many other ethnic groups formed “cultural groups” of their own such as the Luo Union and the New Akamba Union. As Prof. Muigai further observes, with the formation of GEMA, the façade of “nationalism” within KANU had broken down irretrievably.

In October 1975, Martin Shikuku, then MP for Butere, declared on the floor of Parliament that “anyone trying to lower the dignity of Parliament is trying to kill it the way KANU has been killed”. When Clement Lubembe, then Assistant Minister for Tourism and Wildlife, demanded that Shikuku substantiate his claim that KANU had been killed, the then Deputy Speaker, Jean-Marie Seroney, stated: “According to Parliamentary procedures, there is no need to substantiate what is obvious.” Consequently, Shikuku and Seroney were detained without trial, and were only released after Kenyatta’s death in 1978.

KANU under Daniel arap Moi

Two years before Kenyatta’s death, more than twenty MPs sought to amend the section of Kenya’s constitution which stipulated that the vice president would become the interim president should the incumbent become incapacitated or die. Although the “Change the Constitution Movement” involved MPs from across the country, members of GEMA were among the most vociferous in seeking to block Daniel arap Moi’s succession in this way. Thus, upon assuming the Presidency, Moi set about reducing the influence of GEMA, especially its leaders who had been closest to his predecessor. Whereas Kenyatta had by-passed KANU, Moi revitalised and mainstreamed it, using it as the institution through which his networks would be built. By so doing, he undercut the power of established ethno-regional political leaders, and made the party an instrument of personal control.

Besides, Moi persecuted advocates of reform among university lecturers, university students, lawyers and religious leaders, many of whom were arrested, tortured, detained without trial, or arraigned in court to answer to tramped up charges and subsequently face long prison sentences, and all this forced some of them into exile.

Furthermore, Moi co-opted into KANU the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU), Maendeleo ya Wanawake (the countrywide women’s organisation), and any other organisation that he viewed as a potential alternative locus of political power. At one point during Moi’s reign, the provincial administration even harassed people who did not have KANU membership cards in their possessions in markets, bus stops and other public places. I remember my father purchasing these cards to give to all his grown-up children in a bid to help them avoid such harassment. MPs lived under the fear of being expelled from KANU — which would mean automatic loss of their parliamentary seats — and so outdid one another in singing Moi’s and KANU’s dubious praises inside and outside Parliament. On the Voice of Kenya (VOK), the state-run radio station which enjoyed a monopoly, songs in praise of Moi and KANU and others castigating dissenters were played after every news broadcast.

Moi only conceded to restore multi-party politics at the end of 1991 due to the effects of his mismanagement of the economy coupled with the end of the Cold War, both of which increased internal and external pressure for reform. Nevertheless, he declared that people would understand that he was a “professor of politics”, and went on to emphasise that he would encourage the formation of as many parties as possible — a clear indication that he was determined to fragment the opposition in order to hang on to power for as long as possible. Indeed, the opposition unity that had influenced the change was not to last, as ethnically-based parties sprang up all over the country, enabling Moi to win both the 1992 and 1997 elections. Furthermore, the Moi regime was reluctant to put in place the legal infrastructure for a truly multiparty democracy, and the same was later to prove true of the Kibaki regime that took over power on 30th December 2002.

Parties as obstacles to democratisation

In a chapter in A Companion to African Philosophy, Makerere University philosophy professor Edward Wamala outlines three shortcomings of the multi-party system of government in Ganda society in particular, and in Africa in general.

First, the party system destroys consensus by de-emphasising the role of the individual in political action. Put simply, the party replaces “the people”. Consequently, a politician holding public office does not really have loyalty to the people whom he or she purportedly represents, but rather to the sponsoring party. The same being true of politicians in opposing parties, no room is left for consensus building. We have often witnessed parties disagreeing for no other reason than that they must appear to hold opposing views, thereby promoting confrontation rather than consensus.

Second, in order to acquire power or retain it, political parties act on the notorious Machiavellian principle that the end justifies the means, thereby draining political practice of ethical considerations that had been a key feature of traditional political practice. We are thus left with materialistic considerations that foster the welfare not of the society at large, but rather of certain suitably aligned individuals and groups.

Third, as only a few members at the top of a party wield power, even the parties that command the majority and therefore form the government are in reality ruled by a handful of persons. As such, personal rule, after seeming to have been eliminated by putting aside monarchs and chiefs, makes a return to the political arena of the Western-type state. Thus the KANU-NDP “co-operation” and ultimate “merger” was the result of the rapprochement between Daniel arap Moi and Raila Odinga; the Grand Coalition Government was formed as a result of the decision of Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga; The Handshake and the Building Bridges Initiative was the result of private consultations between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta. In all these cases, party organs were only convened to ratify what the party leaders had already decided, and dissenters threatened with disciplinary action. We have very recently seen the same approach in the debate on the allocation of revenue, where what was supposed to be the opposition party acquiesced to the ruling party’s view simply because of the Handshake and the Building Bridges Initiative.

In my youth, I was convinced that if only multi-party rule would be restored in Kenya, autocracy would be a thing of the past. With hindsight, however, it is now clear to me that just as middlemen enjoy the bulk of the fruit of the sweat of our small-scale farmers, so party leaders enjoy the massive political capital generated by the people. In short, party politics, whether with one, two or many parties in place, hinder true democratisation by perpetuating political elitism and autocracy.

Towards a no-party system of governance

In Cultural Universals and Particulars, the Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu advances the view that the no-party system has evident advantages over the multi-party system:

When representatives are not constrained by considerations regarding the fortunes of power-driven parties they will be more inclined in council to reason more objectively and listen more open-mindedly. And in any deliberative body in which sensitivity to the merits of ideas is a driving force, circumstances are unlikely to select any one group for consistent marginalisation in the process of decision-making. Apart from anything else, such marginalisation would be an affront to the fundamental human rights of decisional representation.

However, Yoweri Museveni’s “no-party system” which he instituted when he took power in Uganda in 1986 was simply a one-party system in disguise. Indeed, in his Sowing the Mustard Seed, Museveni unintentionally reveals a party orientation in his analysis of his electoral victory in 1996: “Although I was campaigning as an individual, I had been leading the movement for 26 years. Therefore, the success of the NRM and my success were intertwined.”

Our various peoples had clear democratic practices in their pre-colonial political formations without the inconvenience of political parties. For example, Prof. Wamala, in the chapter already cited, informs us that the Kabaka of the Baganda could not go against the decision of the Elders. It is high time we learned from our indigenous heritages.

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Ideas

Life at the End of the American Empire

The poverty of ideas in America’s political arena reflects the barbarism of our historical moment. While Trump’s minions promote authoritarianism and jingoism, their ideological opponents within the Democratic Party offer equally bankrupt solutions, from a return to “civility” to the rebuilding of national “unity” all the while forgetting the critical lesson: White supremacy does not love White folks.

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Life at the End of the American Empire

Americans have a knack for demonstrating, in spectacular fashion, that they possess neither the political language nor the maturity to address the crises of our time.

As the climate catastrophe hurtles past the point of return, US pundits are content to debate “cancel culture.” As levels of economic inequality soar from the obscene to the unfathomable, half the political class obsesses over Russian meddling while the other half nurtures conspiracy theories about the “deep state.”

Critics have long characterised American politics as a form of mass paranoia. Witnessing recent events, one is reminded that American identity itself is an act of self-deception. As a society we remain trapped in petulant adolescence, incapable of and uninterested in developing any real awareness of ourselves.

For decades this willful ignorance made the US an especially dangerous superpower. Now, as the decline of US empire accelerates, our practiced innocence is fueling a sense of collective disorientation and despair.

Critics have long characterised American politics as a form of mass paranoia. Witnessing recent events, one is reminded that American identity itself is an act of self-deception

To grasp our predicament we must recognise modern American politics as a clash between competing delusions. The populist insurgents of the right pursue one set of ideological fantasies while elite apologists for the status quo pursue another. Even as political polarisation increases, both camps embrace the myths of American virtue that perpetuate our national blindness.

The mob that recently stormed the Capitol is a toxic outgrowth of the cult of lies on the right. Among those lies is the assertion that “Blue Lives Matter.” Americans who watched footage of the Capitol invaders pummeling cops with flags and other objects (one officer was bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher) might wonder whether “Blue Lives Matter” is actually a principled declaration of support for police, rather than a cynical effort to subvert Black Lives Matter and justify racist state terror.

Many antiracists have long known the truth. Many of us recognise, as well, something that few Americans will ever discover; namely, that White supremacy does not love White folks. Whiteness is simply a method of conquest. It is a necessarily antihuman mode of domination. When the hordes at the Capitol called for the head of Mike Pence, a great White patriarch, and erected gallows outside the halls of Congress, they were enacting a philosophy not of tribal loyalty but of capricious and unrelenting violence.

If the forces on the right wing are driven by lies, the moderate defenders of liberal democracy are no less devoted to deception. Business and political elites condemned the Capitol siege in the wake of the attack. Yet they routinely launch their own “raids” on the commons through the practice of corporate sovereignty and unrestrained capitalism. Some members of the ruling class have framed Trump’s departure from the White House as an opportunity to restore the rule of law and the prestige of American democratic institutions. They cannot be serious. The net worth of US billionaires has risen by a trillion dollars since the pandemic began. Precisely which democracy are Americans supposed to reclaim?

In reality, US plutocrats can offer only a more polished racial capitalism as a remedy for the vulgarity of Trumpism. Their revitalized America will continue to imprison legions of black people, hunt undocumented immigrants, and wage unrelenting war on brown populations abroad. But it will do so under an African American woman vice president and a rainbow cabinet. Voila. White supremacy lite.

If the forces on the right wing are driven by lies, the moderate defenders of liberal democracy are no less devoted to deception. Business and political elites condemned the Capitol siege in the wake of the attack. Yet they routinely launch their own “raids” on the commons through the practice of corporate sovereignty and unrestrained capitalism.

The poverty of ideas in the political arena reflects the barbarism of our historical moment. While Trump’s minions promote authoritarianism and jingoism, many of their ideological opponents within the Democratic Party offer equally bankrupt solutions, from a return to “civility” to the rebuilding of national “unity.” (We are asked to forget that it was decades of “unity” between the Democrats and the billionaire class that helped produce the social and economic dystopia we now inhabit.)

Thus do the reigning forces in American political life—the populist right and the liberal center—sustain their crusades of disinformation. Both factions brandish the bloody flag of patriotism. Both long for the revival of a glorious order. Both preach fundamentalist creeds, whether they use the jargon of White evangelicalism or that of underregulated markets. And both are doomed. They are combatants on the deck of a sinking ship.

In truth, the disintegration of American civilisation has been evident for some time. The perverse murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were symptoms of deeper pathologies. Our trillion dollar military budget, our gleeful binge of fossil fuels, our support for the occupation and degradation of the Palestinian people—all signal the malignancy of a decadent and cruel nation.

In reality, US plutocrats can offer only a more polished racial capitalism as a remedy for the vulgarity of Trumpism. Their revitalized America will continue to imprison legions of black people, hunt undocumented immigrants, and wage unrelenting war on brown populations abroad.

Meanwhile our intellectual decay intensifies. Capitalism was never going to be satisfied with just seising our social wealth. It has gutted our cultural and educational institutions as well. Small wonder most Americans are strangers to critical thought, and are unable to perceive or meaningfully address the social contradictions that shape their lives. Absorbing the ideas of their religious and political leaders, they find themselves searching for meaning in gospels of prosperity and theories of lizard men.

There may still be an alternative to bewilderment and depravity for the American masses. Recent months and years have witnessed promising countersigns. Popular antiracist and environmental movements reinvigorated our traditions of dissent. Attempts to organize Amazon warehouses, fast food chains, the ridesharing and tech industries and other stubbornly antiunion establishments raised the prospect of renewed worker power. Despite the social devastation of the coronavirus, a period of extreme isolation and anxiety spawned mutual aid projects and tenant struggles.

Progressive dissidents and workers may yet draw on these expressions of solidarity to reconstruct a fractured republic. As feckless Joe Biden takes office, he and his administration should be greeted by waves of radical agitation. We should expand resistance to austerity and endless war, even as we escalate campaigns for climate repair, Medicare for all, living wages, student debt cancellation, and equitable vaccine distribution. Quests for human rights and dignity may not heal America, but they may well preserve some semblance of grace as our society collapses under the weight of its lies.

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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African Economies, Societies and Natures in a Time of COVID-19

Reginald Cline-Cole provides an analytically rigorous understanding of the differentiated spread and impact of Covid-19 around the world. In so doing he returns us to what ought to be our core concern: the political economy of uneven incorporation of African economies, societies and natures into the world economy.

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African Economies, Societies and Natures in a Time of COVID-19

Several correspondents of mine have suggested that it makes a nice and welcome change that something this big, this bad, this scary and this seemingly predictable is not coming out of Africa. ‘This’ and ’it’ being, of course, the all-encompassing and still evolving phenomenon of Covid-19 or coronavirus, which ROAPE has been covering in the journal and online. And with good reason for, as others have already observed, the time of coronavirus is not just leaving an indelible mark on the year 2020 but might well be transforming neoliberal capitalism in previously unimaginable ways. The virus continues its inexorable advance  and, having taken some time to reach Africa from Europe and Asia, has spread rapidly since its reported arrival in mid-February, with confirmed cases numbering some 4300 people spread across  (African Arguments 2020), and more than 9000 people in  (ACSS 2020). As elsewhere, increasing infection numbers (and, sometimes, rates), imploding economies and disrupted social interactions have fuelled mutually reinforcing health and economic crises, precipitating sometimes.

And this despite, or sometimes because of, high-level policy and other discussions about, and adoption of, frequently exceptional measures which aim to slow the transmission and spread of the virus and prevent the worsening of what is already considered by many as a global crisis of unprecedented threat, impact and uncertainty In the process, as Bird and Ironstone note, ‘[p]ower structures are being radically re-arranged in our societ[ies] right now and if we lose our capacity to criticize the future may be beset by new, even more damning ones.’

It is thus vital that Theophanidis clarifies that his call for ‘distancing’ aims to create space for critical thinking and careful reflection, notably in a context in which digital, mostly social, media connectivity is helping to counter the isolation of ‘physical social distancing’. As numerous and varied examples of radical digital activism and solidarity which have emerged demonstrate, it would be regrettable if far-reaching lessons were not learned from crises precipitated by the pandemic and the varied responses to them.

Does Covid-19 discriminate?

Available data on age–sex distribution of confirmed cases for the WHO African Region indicate that, overall, older men would appear to be disproportionately affected by Covid-19 with a preponderance of males (1.7:1 male-to-female infection ratio) across all age groups and a median age of 36 years (range of 0–105). Further instances of disproportionate impact based on religion, class, occupation or ethnicity will no doubt emerge in time, notably as readily available details on the demographics of coronavirus victims extend beyond the fundamentals of age, sex, nationality, residence and travel history. In the UK and USA, of course, such metrics have been invaluable in identifying the overrepresentation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) health and care workers and volunteers among coronavirus fatalities. Similar racial and ethnic disparities characterise wider BAME community and hospital in-patient infection and death data from coronavirus, with black people (four times), Bangladeshi and Pakistani (three and a half times) and Indians (two and a half times) more likely to succumb to Covid-19 than white people in England and Wales. The phenomenon has attracted extensive media and other coverage which has focused on health inequalities and risk factors, deprivation, affluence and racial discrimination, and in the absence of acceptable causal explanations for the overrepresentation.

But it has been left to organised labour and popular mobilisation to extract hard-won concessions from state actors and the public–private healthcare complex to institute an official enquiry, provide adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline health, care and allied workers and expand coronavirus testing opportunities for these workers and their families (NHS Confederation 2020). Special compensation programmes for families of NHS staff (and, in England, social care workers) who die from coronavirus have also been announced, although the level of compensation is considered inadequate by some, and labour unions, among others, have called for the scheme to be extended to cover all key workers who die from the disease.

And yet, as tardy, reluctant, inadequate and reactive as these state interventions have undoubtedly been, it is social mobilisations which have ‘forced the state to take on its responsibilities’. These have included medical professionals and cross-party campaign MPs ‘breaking silence’ over Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on particular sections of society, which itself speaks to the promise of social action and emancipatory politics in influencing (post-) Covid-19 politics and realities.

But as the coronavirus BAME casualties and fatalities include Africans and people of African descent whose remittances are often integral to the livelihoods and survival strategies of family at home, their existential struggles have not been lost on Africans at home and in the diaspora. Indeed, as social media exchanges were quick to indicate, for countries like Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, among others, the earliest known coronavirus deaths were of their (often dual) nationals in the diaspora rather than at home, where the continent’s first fatality was a German tourist in Egypt. For many, family, friends, colleagues and casual acquaintances would eventually succumb to the virus, in my case across three continents.

Thus one of my acquaintances regretted what he saw as a ‘lamentable waste’ of African medical and health expertise which was going to be both sorely needed and badly missed on the continent, if the worst predictions of Covid-19 were ever realised. A second drew a comparison between these coronavirus deaths and the often tragic demise of undocumented migrants along trans-Saharan and Mediterranean routes to Europe, suggesting that both groups had paid the ultimate price in their respective attempts to escape the poverty of opportunity in Africa.

These have included medical professionals and cross-party campaign MPs ‘breaking silence’ over Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on particular sections of society, which itself speaks to the promise of social action and emancipatory politics in influencing (post-)Covid-19 politics and realities

Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe, frontline medical staff followed up on a protest strike which had been observed jointly by the Hospital Doctors Association (ZHDA) and Professional Nurses Union (ZPNU) in mid-March to highlight the shortage of PPE for health workers in the country’s hospitals. The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) sued the government in the High Court in early April to compel it to provide adequate equipment and supplies to enable frontline medical practitioners and healthcare workers to tackle the Covid-19 crisis safely and professionally and, in the process, to significantly improve public access to functioning quarantine and isolation facilities.

Similar protests have been widespread across the continent, many representing a continuation of long-running dissatisfaction with public health provision predating coronavirus. In one of the more recent of these, coronavirus frontline workers in Sierra Leone who announced they were going on strike in early June were joined at the start of July by doctors refusing to treat coronavirus patients in quarantine or isolation facilities in protesting government failure to pay outstanding bonuses, ‘hazard pay’, promised as incentive to persuade health workers to agree to treat Covid-19 patients during the outbreak, often with inadequate PPE, diagnostic and therapeutic equipment and supplies.

Thus, a government with the foresight and presence of mind to draw up a Covid-19 response plan before the outbreak of the pandemic, and probably earlier than anybody else on the continent, stands accused of not only reneging on the memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed in April with the Sierra Leone Medical and Dental Association (SLMDA) to facilitate this Covid-19 response, but also of failing to renew the MOU before it lapsed three months later (Inveen 2020a). Recalling that disasters like pandemics are influenced by human ‘decisions, attitudes, values, behaviour, and activities’ one cannot but wonder whether there is indeed merit to the SLMDA’s claim that the government does not appear to be particularly interested in resolving the dispute, and if so what the political reasoning behind such a choice might be.

Protests have been widespread across the continent, many representing a continuation of long-running dissatisfaction with public health provision predating coronavirus

Clearly, the ZHDA/ZPNU, SLMDA and NHS struggles share more than just a generic similarity. There are recognisably Zimbabwean and Sierra Leonean names on published lists of NHS and care worker coronavirus fatalities. And in all three cases, albeit in noticeably different ways, the struggle to pressure the state to assume its responsibility in relation to public health and wellbeing is rooted in austerity, long predates Covid-19 and is fuelled by perceptions of official inefficiency, neglect and corruption. In addition, as recent SARS and Ebola epidemics have shown, potential risks and opportunities for corruption are significantly increased during major health crises, most commonly in drug and equipment procurement, leading to calls for increased oversight, accountability and transparency during the coronavirus pandemic

Thus, a major grievance of the SLMDA, for example, is a perceived ‘misuse of funds for the coronavirus response’, a reaction to official procurement priorities which have seen 20% of Sierra Leone’s total coronavirus budget being spent on new SUVs and motorbikes, with only a tenth as much on medical equipment or drugs, leaving PPE in constant short supply and contact tracers seemingly unaffordable. The national Coronavirus Response Team, for its part, justifies the delay in disbursing promised bonuses by citing the necessity to both establish the identity of frontline health workers and ensure that hazard pay went only to those entitled to receive it But as improperly disbursed hazard pay was one of several examples of mismanagement of funds by public officials during the Ebola crisis with its high health worker mortality rates SLMDA impatience and suspicion do not appear entirely unfounded. And, at nearly 11%, Sierra Leone’s ratio of health worker infection to total reported infections is among the highest on the continent.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwean health professionals have also embarked on the latest in a series of strikes, partly to protest at the erosion of local purchasing power and living standards by hyperinflation and demand payment of their salaries in US dollars, but also to highlight both police harassment of striking nurses and the perennial shortage of PPE at a time of rising incidence of Covid-19.

But whereas SLMDA appear to be contending with seemingly misplaced procurement priorities, their Zimbabwean counterparts are confronted with alleged criminality, which has seen the sacking of the country’s minister of health, who has also been charged with corruption and abuse of office for the illegal award of a large contract (since revoked by government) for PPE, testing kits and drugs to a company which would deliver these supplies at hugely inflated cost.

The combination of a worsening economic crisis and sharply increasing coronavirus infection totals (including of health workers) has seen opposition politicians make common cause with the media and popular forces to decry corruption and demand greater accountability, while calling for a national day of protest against ‘corruption and political challenges’ at the end of July.

The authorities refused permission for the 31 July protests to take place, on the grounds that it would be subversive, unconstitutional and anti-democratic (BBC 2020d), as well as violating Covid-19 pandemic regulations at a time when there has been a spike in coronavirus infections. As a result, they claimed, a dusk-to-dawn curfew and tighter restrictions on movement had to be imposed.

It is presumably also in the common good that leading organisers/supporters of the proposed protest have been arrested, charged to court and refused bail.The example of state officials rewriting coronavirus reality to suit a favoured narrative is a recurrent and intensely political one, to which we return later.

Philanthro-capitalism in coronavirus times

An earlier prolonged doctors’ strike over pay and conditions in Zimbabwe had been called off only in January this year, when the ZHDA accepted an offer of funding for a fellowship programme for its members which would guarantee a monthly subsistence allowance of up to three times their salary for a period of six months from Strive Masiyiwa, the country’s wealthiest individual.

Following the PPE protests in March, funding to cover the cost of PPE for doctors and other health workers was added to the original offer, which was also extended to all nurses, as well as doctors in non-state hospitals, and expanded to include health and life insurance cover with cash or lump-sum benefit in the event of ‘hospitali[sation], … permanent disability or death from the virus’. Although he is Zimbabwean born, Strive Masiyiwa presides over his Econet Group from London, where he currently lives and from where he has undoubtedly been monitoring the wide variety of local responses to the pandemic worldwide, or at least in those world regions in which Econet has a presence.

But while nothing in the way of private donations to Sierra Leone’s coronavirus response effort is likely to have come anywhere near the sums certain to have been involved above, reports from Nigeria indicate that Masiyiwa’s fellow billionaires have also been making substantial donations to the (federal) Nigerian Private Sector Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID) and their state equivalents, as have corporate entities (often fronted by the same individuals). Is it likely, then, that we might have a case of transnational capital ostensibly contesting state in/action as part of a wider coalition while still acting in its own long-term interest?

Masiyiwa’s conglomerate Econet, for example, combines telecom, mobile phone, fintech and power distribution enterprises which operate across large parts of Africa, but also in the Americas, Asia Pacific, Middle East and Europe. The funding/fellowship programme for health workers is to be established and run by the Higherlife philanthropic family foundation, while Ecosure, the insurance arm of one of the Econet Group companies, will underwrite the insurance component of the offer.

Similarly, Nigerian media reporting of the private coronavirus response donations by individuals and corporate entities gives as much prominence to the identities of donors and their net worth as to the size/purpose of their donations and sources of wealth, thereby fulfilling invaluable public relations and/or corporate social responsibility (CSR) functions, as well as playing a commercial advertising role. Consequently, while donor state of origin or residence tends to be the primary beneficiary of private philanthropy, corporate donations often favour populations and institutions in states and regions of direct commercial importance. Thus Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest individual, has provided a fully-equipped and staffed Covid-19 testing facility, as well as part-funding a wide range of vital public interventions in coronavirus prevention and containment via private and corporate donations in his home state of Kano (and, to a lesser extent, Lagos State, where the Dangote Industries group has its head office).

He also assumed shared national leadership of CACOVID’s quest to raise funds from private and corporate sources for federal and state Covid-19 response; and, by making the largest corporate donation to the fund to date via the Aliko Dangote Foundation (ADF), triggered something of a ‘giving war’ of donations and pledges among his fellow billionaire donors. He also made a further multi-million-dollar donation to the Nigeria UN COVID-19 Basket Fund which aims to provide support to individuals and households trying to rebuild livelihoods disrupted and/or undermined by the coronavirus pandemic.

In the end he and his fellow donors are publicly thanked by President Muhammadu Buhari (who encourages other high-net-worth individuals – HNWIs – to follow their example). Dangote is also thanked by the governor of Kano State for his services to coronavirus prevention and response, with which his name becomes inextricably linked in media reports, which almost invariably also mention his equally sterling contributions during the earlier Ebola epidemic. Like Strive Masiyiwa, with whom he earlier collaborated on regional and continent-wide Ebola response efforts, then, this enhances his reputation as one of Africa’s biggest philanthropists and, as CEO of ‘Nigeria’s most profitable company’ (Augie 2020), one of the continent’s most successful business people. Is this what capitalist philanthropy in a time of coronavirus looks like? And is it as accommodating in its business practices as it is in its public giving?

Zimbabwean health professionals have also embarked on the latest in a series of strikes, partly to protest at the erosion of local purchasing power and living standards by hyperinflation and demand payment of their salaries in US dollars, but also to highlight both police harassment of striking nurses and the perennial shortage of PPE at a time of rising incidence of Covid-19.

While philanthropy is not restricted to wealthy individuals and profitable corporations, their role can be strategic and decisive. UBS and TrustAfrica (2014), in a jointly published study, document and seek to analyse how and why this is the case for African philanthropists/philanthropy during ‘normal’ times. But as the Dangote and Masiyiwa examples and numerous others like them illustrate, this is also largely the case during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, with its varied, changing and often expanding demands/appeals and frequently inadequate – if improving – philanthropic responses (Julien 2020). Experience with previous epidemics and pandemics, supplemented by emerging insights from Covid-19, have informed the design and implementation of emergency coronavirus plans and strategies worldwide, including for dealing with voluntarism and managing donations (Alexander 2020). In emergency coronavirus planning scenarios, responsibility for external donations and government/state resource commitments is routinely combined with administrative oversight for internal donations of various kinds.

In practice, this creates a pressing, possibly overwhelming, need to coordinate appeals for assistance while managing a diversity of resources earmarked for coronavirus response in an accountable and transparent way (Transparency International 2020). Notably, the circumstances surrounding the previously mentioned sacking of Zimbabwe’s minister of health, and ongoing legal and media challenges to UK government officials against the lack of transparent and competitive tendering in the award of Covid-19 related contracts (Monbiot 2020) remind us that expectations of resource governance, transparency and accountability are not just ethical and moral, but frequently political and legal too.

And that, like the good governance agenda as a whole, these expectations can be heavily neoliberal in tone and intent, and as process. Significantly, however, expectations of transparency and accountability in how donations are managed or used have not historically been routinely extended to how the wealth which makes corporate and HNWI Covid-19 philanthropy possible is generated in the first place. How best to explain such imbalances in what has been described as the power of process and practice in philanthropy (Mahomed and Moyo 2013)? And how best to prevent its use in, say, ‘offset[ing] reputational damage or exploitative practice’ (Mahomed 2014)?

The point is that African philanthropy is increasingly seen as indispensable to the emergence of a self-reliant continent, with corporate philanthropists looking to strengthen links between business and philanthropy, considering ‘investments with a social impact’ a suitable means for achieving this. Aliko Dangote Foundation  and Higherlife Foundation, for example, thus function as CSR units of Dangote Industries Ltd and Econet, respectively. Their donations or pledges in both cash and kind undoubtedly give a significant boost to the overall coronavirus response effort, to include staff recruitment, training and remuneration. Equally, and particularly noticeably, they also impact directly on local and import markets in specialised medical equipment and supplies, as well as in two- and four-wheeled motor vehicles, among other commodities. Yet, these markets might well be dominated by manufacturers and/or intermediary suppliers which are subsidiaries of corporate partner organisations to the charity foundations through which philanthropy is dispensed by conglomerates in the first place.

More directly, how have corporate philanthropists reacted to the disruptive effects of Covid-19 and the varied responses to it on the factory floor, behind the bank counter, at the plantation gate and in front of the computer screen? Specifically, were business practices adequately adjusted to reflect the new normal in a time of coronavirus? Did they readily and effectively incorporate workplace Covid-19 preparedness planning and response strategies, including testing facilities where appropriate? Were adequate supplies of PPE, relevant equipment, water, soap, sanitisers, etc. made available to employees? And where, as with several of the corporate donors in question, their businesses operate across national boundaries, were common standards maintained across the board or did arrangements differ between ‘home’ and ‘foreign’ sites and workforces (and, if so, why and with what consequences for workers)? Overall, do philanthro-capitalists lead by example here in a way reminiscent of their public giving and pledging? As Mahomed (2014) notes, ‘the ethics of how philanthropy money is made (especially if made in an endeavour that disadvantages those it now seeks to support) must be called into question.’ That we are in the middle of a pandemic is no reason not to at least raise the question of the often differentiated nature of the process by which donated wealth is made or, indeed, of how coronavirus has been (or is likely to be) exploited for capitalist investment and profit accumulation.

But the lesson of Covid-19 need not involve either depoliticising philanthropy (it has after all contributed actively to the long-term process of privatising and commercialising formerly public health systems on the continent) or underestimating the complex dynamics of emergent solidarity between often conflicting and competing class interests. Take the following two parallel and competing but interrelated phenomena. On the one hand we had Donald Trump’s largely futile attempts to encourage wider use of the labels ‘Wuhan Virus’ and ‘Chinese Virus’; his still unfounded but periodically repeated claim that SARS-CoV-2 was developed in a Wuhan laboratory; his insistence that the WHO is so severely compromised by links to China that its handling of the pandemic was tardy, grossly inadequate and ineffective, as well as lacking transparency; and his threat to withhold American funding for the organisation – a political stance which has not won widespread or unqualified support from other major WHO donors who have publicly supported the agency and its director-general, if not necessarily China’s reported handling of the initial stages of the virus outbreak.

On the other hand, there are official Chinese state objections, denials and counter-accusations; and the skilful ‘weaponisation’ of the material and symbolic significance of its carefully cultivated (self-)image of generosity to, and solidarity with the world’s needy and oppressed, particularly in coronavirus times. So, alongside Chinese government support in cash, kind and personnel provided to selected African and other countries under threat from coronavirus, we also have worldwide donations of medical equipment and supplies in support of Covid-19 response efforts by private philanthropic foundations linked to Jack Ma, China’s wealthiest man, and member of the Chinese Communist Party.

Ma’s corporate philanthropy has extended to donations to New York authorities and the WHO in the wake of Trump’s de-funding threat, as well as to all of Africa, and has included an online training manual for clinical treatment of coronavirus based on first-hand experience of doctors in Zhejiang and the Global MediXchange for Combating Covid-19 programme with its International Medical Expert Communication Platform. But while Jack Ma’s donations have been widely celebrated in Africa as promptly and efficiently delivered, Chinese government donations have not been universally welcome, partly because of reported poor quality and questionable reliability of donated supplies and equipment.

Ma’s philanthropy has made him as newsworthy at home and abroad as President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party leadership, who see Chinese state and private Covid-19 philanthropy as part of a wider coronavirus diplomatic strategy designed to distract attention from Chinese state contribution to the initial ‘escape’ or spread of the virus, while positioning their country as champion of the fight against the pandemic. This assumes heightened significance in places like Europe and Africa where, in contrast to Jack Ma and his private foundations, the Chinese state has suffered Covid-19-related reputational damage. Indeed, the arrival of Nigeria’s allocation from Jack Ma’s Covid-19 donation to African countries via the African Union’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention was a major prompt to local media and popular commentators to challenge local HNWIs to emulate Ma’s philanthropy. In contrast, the Nigerian Medical Association, Trade Union Congress and main opposition party strongly opposed federal government approval for a team of Chinese medical professionals funded by the state-owned China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation to provide direct support for the government’s Covid-19 response efforts, citing rumours of an upsurge in coronavirus infection and mortality in other countries following the arrival of Chinese medical personnel.

While Jack Ma’s donations have been widely celebrated in Africa as promptly and efficiently delivered, Chinese government donations have not been universally welcome, partly because of reported poor quality and questionable reliability of donated supplies and equipment

There was also residual popular resentment at the widely reported scapegoating of African migrants in China at the outbreak of the pandemic which had drawn official protests from the Nigerian and other African governments. But as the donation which also included a consignment of medical equipment and supplies had been announced as a fait accompli, government officials and spokespersons would spend media appearances trying to justify the decision, pacify local doctors, rebut opposition claims and win public support through a fascinating mix of obfuscation, mendacity, petulance, deflection and insinuation in a desperate attempt to deliberately downplay Chinese state involvement and thus avoid a diplomatic incident. So in their different ways, and like the Zimbabwe government’s desperate bid to silence internal dissent and protest which we encountered earlier, Trump’s assault on WHO handling of the pandemic, official Chinese and Nigerian government public relations and propaganda assaults on their respective (and wider) publics indicate active involvement in what Carrie Gracie has described, with specific reference to the Chinese ruling class, as rewriting Covid-19 facts to suit their narrative.

Politics must not be allowed to stand

The world is still in the grip of a coronavirus pandemic; that Africa might or might not be its current epicentre; and that nobody knows for sure how Africa’s many ‘other’ or local epidemics will evolve over the next few weeks, months or even years. Yet this has not stopped multilateral institutions and multinational corporations from outlining a variety of options for exiting lockdowns and, ultimately, the entire or whole pandemic; or indeed predicting and modelling the contours of post-coronavirus ‘new normal’ continental and/or global economies. As an increasing number of countries exit lockdowns (and enter new ones), this should awaken an urgent desire among progressive forces to redirect the focus of attention to a determined pursuit of an analytically rigorous understanding of the differentiated spread and impact of, and state and other responses to Covid-19 – and in so doing to return also to what ought to be our core concern: the political economy of uneven incorporation of African economies, societies and natures into the world economy, the accompanying implications for social, spatial, structural and other forms of differentiation, and the latter’s manifestation within and between population, place and space/territory. For, as Philip Alston reminds us, ‘[t]he coronavirus has merely lifted the lid off the pre-existing pandemic of poverty. Covid-19 arrived in a world where poverty, extreme inequality and disregard for human life are thriving, and in which legal and economic policies are designed to create and sustain wealth for the powerful, but not end poverty. This is the political choice that has been made.’  It is a political choice that cannot and must not be allowed to stand unchallenged either in the current coronavirus times or in a post-Covid-19 world.

This article was first published in The Review of Africa Political Economy journal

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