In 2015 students at South African universities rose up in a mass revolt. Young women and men born after the end of apartheid in 1994 demanded free education; they forcefully insisted that tuition fees be scrapped, and also that the contents, methodologies and academic teachers reflect the post-apartheid ‘free’ South Africa.
In the new student movements the legacy of Steve Biko, who was murdered by the apartheid regime on 12 September 1977 became important again. Young students regarded Biko’s call to autonomous Black action as still relevant for contemporary South Africa. Black Consciousness philosophy gained significance again when students insisted upon the reform of curricula, which they said conveyed racist and colonialist forms of knowledge and ignored, even scorned African intellectual experience. Calls on black people to first free their own minds, become conscious of their own, and each other’s conditions and work together to change the material conditions of black students have been the guiding principles of the new South African student movements as they were for the generation of the 1970s.
A brush with the police: Biko’s early politicisation
Stephen Bantu (Steve) Biko was born in what is today the Eastern Cape province of South Africa on 18 December 1946. His father worked as a policeman, and later as a clerk in the King William’s Town Native Affairs office. He was also enrolled for legal studies at the University of South Africa (UNISA), the distance-learning university. Steve’s father died suddenly in 1950, when Steve was four years old. His mother subsequently raised the children on her own, working as a cook at a local hospital.
In 1962 Steve started his senior secondary schooling at the famous mission educational insitutiton in the Eastern Cape, Lovedale college, where his elder brother Khaya was already a student. Khaya, who was politically active with the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), became a major influence on Steve’s introduction to resistance and liberation politics. A few months into Steve’s studies at Lovedale the Biko brothers were taken into custody by the police. Khaya, who was suspected of being involved with Poqo, the armed wing of the PAC, was charged and sentenced to two years imprisonment, with 15 months suspended. Steve was interrogated by the police and though released he was subsequently expelled from the school after only attending it for three months.
Though he was forced to return home he continued going to classes at Lovedale, where he became friends with Barney Pityana, at the time a student at the school. This friendship became significant in the formation of the Black Consciousness movement, and especially the South African Student Organisation (SASO).
Black Consciousness ideology and the formation of SASO
SASO arose out of profound revolts against apartheid and institutional racism, which spread across South African universities from the mid-1960s. In 1968 at Fort Hare, a fairly independent black institution for higher education, students boycotted the installation of the new rector Johannes Marthinus de Wet, a member of the Afrikaner broederbond (a secret society of male white nationalists). Later in the year the university was closed and 23 students, among them Barney Pityana were not allowed to come back. Significantly, a new organisation of student protest arose in the very last days of 1968 when SASO was founded during a meeting, exclusively attended by black students. This event took place at Mariannhill, a Catholic mission west of Durban, and the site of St. Francis College, a coeducational independent secondary school, which was the alma mater of Biko, from which he had matriculated with very good grades in 1965 and subsequently taken up studies at the ‘non-European’ medical school of the University of Natal. Biko became the new organisation’s first President when SASO was officially inaugurated at the Turfloop campus of the University of the North (UNIN) in July of the following year.
The developments that led to the formation of SASO need to be understood in the politics of South Africa’s 1968 moment, a reinvention of the politics of protest. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the emergence of new repertoires of resistance in student protests. Yet SASO’s formation was also due to the complex relations of black students with the country’s long-existing national student organisation NUSAS (National Union of South African Students). NUSAS, which had been founded in 1924, was open to students of all races.
At the ‘black’ universities which had been established as apartheid institutions in the early 1960s small numbers of students joined NUSAS, and at some institutions battles took place for permission to form autonomous Student Representative Councils (SRC) and to affiliate to NUSAS. Yet there also was frustration about racist tendencies within the student association. At issue was that NUSAS despite its multiracial membership was essentially dominated and controlled by white students.
In 1968 Biko and others thus formed SASO, which for political reasons offered membership to students of all ‘black’ sections of the population, which included those assigned to the apartheid categories of ‘African’, ‘Coloured’ and ‘Indian’. In 1971 the SASO Policy Manifesto set out the Black Consciousness doctrine.
On the organisational level, the SASO activists held that to avoid domination by white ‘liberals’ black people had to organise independently. In 1970 Biko wrote in the SASO Newsletter, suggestively signing as ‘Frank Talk’:
The role of the white liberal in the black man’s history in South Africa is a curious one. Very few black organisations were not under white direction. True to their image, the white liberals always knew what was good for the blacks and told them so…
Nowhere is the arrogance of the liberal ideology demonstrated so well as in their insistence that the problems of the country can only be solved by a bilateral approach involving both black and white. This has, by and large, come to be taken in all seriousness as the modus operandi in South Africa by all those who claim they would like a change in the status quo. Hence the multiracial political organisations and parties and the ‘nonracial’ student organisations, all of which insist on integration not only as an end goal but also as a means.
Black Consciousness as SASO’s official ideology was profoundly influenced by the SASO leadership’s reading of Frantz Fanon, particularly the militant philosopher’s Black Skin, White Masks and the African-American Black Power movement. In the early years the focus was on the psychological empowerment of black people; they believed that black people needed to rid themselves of any sense of racial inferiority, an idea they expressed by popularizing the slogan ‘black is beautiful’. As early as 1971, the SASO leadership discussed proposals to cast off the students-only attitude, including the formation of a Black Workers’ Council (later renamed the Black Workers Project) and launched the Black People’s Convention (BPC), a new political movement that would soon run alongside SASO. Practically the activists organised Black Community Programmes (BCPs).
In the early years of its existence, the all-black SASO was allowed space to grow at the black universities, in part because the government regarded the separate black student association and its emphasis on largely psychological-oriented black consciousness as quite compatible with the apartheid ideology. They were to learn soon that SASO, and more generally the ‘black conscious movement’ that Biko promoted, posed a major threat to the regime. But by the time that SASO began to be more active in political campaigns, from about 1972 onwards, the organisation had established already firm structural roots, which made it difficult for the government to entirely suppress it.
An early example of the dialectics of repression and radicalised politicization included the 1972 student protests at ‘Turfloop’ after the Student Representative Council (SRC) President, Onkgopotse Tiro, was expelled after speaking out against Bantu education during a graduation ceremony at the university. 1974 became a crucial year. In January SASO officially condemned the presence of the Apartheid forces in Namibia; the organisation also reaffirmed the non-collaboration stance of the Black Consciousness Movement and condemned the Bantustan leaders. In September of the same year a rally celebrated the ascension of FRELIMO (the Mozambican liberation movement under the leadership of Samora Machel) into power in Mozambique was held despite the refusal to grant permission for the action.
Repression followed suit. Eighty SASO and BPC leaders were detained without trial for their support of the pro-FRELIMO rally and during the following year tried at the Supreme Court in Pretoria, eventually in 1976 they were sentenced and incarcerated on Robben Island. In 1974 SASO was listed as one of the affected organisation under the Affected Organisation Act of 1974. This prohibited it from receiving foreign funding to pursue its objectives. In July 1975 SASO held its annual conference under very difficult conditions. Only one member of the executive committee could attend the meeting. The rest of the executive members were either banned or had been arrested. Finally in October 1977, SASO and other Black Consciousness organisations were banned under the Internal Security Act. The most brutal example of repression of course was the murder of Steve Biko while in detention in September 1977.
The ‘Durban Moment’
As South African student politics radicalised, the protests initially confined to university politics grew beyond campus concerns; they became instrumental in laying the grounds for the new black trade unions that emerged in the 1970s. In some instances, black and white students, and a few younger, radical academics, worked together in these new-left politics. Radical academics were involved particularly in the efforts around strikes and black labour unions. The connection between students, radical academics, workers and other marginalised social groups becomes brilliantly apparent in the ‘Durban moment’, probably the most significant political development ensuing from South Africa’s 1968. The ‘Durban moment’ is often regarded as the beginning of the new wave of resistance that led to the Soweto uprising, the massive uprisings of the 1980s and eventually the demise of the regime.
Early 1973 saw a massive strike wave in the port town of Durban. By the end of March 1973, almost 100,000, mainly African workers, approximately half of the entire African workers employed in Durban, had come out on strike. Through songs and marches, workers made their demands heard – the first public mass action since the political activism of the 1950s. This was political action, and also more immediately a labour revolt; workers exercised the power of factory-based mass action.
What looked like spontaneous strikes, originated in a complex mix: low wages, the humiliation of pass laws and racism, the hardship of migrant labour, forced removals, and significantly the denial of black workers’ right to organize. The strikes signalled the growth of militant non-racial trade unionism, and in a wider sense a revived spirit of rebellion in the country.
There were links between the eruption of workers’ action and the underground liberation movements; the resurgence of Marxist thinking among a new generation came into play. There was however also, though this has sometimes been denied, decisive influence of the recently emerged Black Consciousness movements’ ideas. Of special importance was the links between activist intellectuals, who in different ways embodied South Africa’s 1968 moment, thinking in new ideological perspectives, and having tried out new methods of activism. Most significant here was the special political alliance, intellectual and personal friendship between Steve Biko and Richard (‘Rick’) Turner, a lecturer in political philosophy at the University of Natal, who held a doctorate on the political works of Jean-Paul Sartre, which he had completed at the Sorbonne in Paris. In the early 1970s Turner was a researcher into labour issues, and a community and labour organiser in Durban, deeply influenced by the French Left, including Althusserian readings of Marxism.
Turner’s and Biko’s philosophical and political ideas significantly shaped the massive strikes in Durban in the early 1970s and continued to impact on the resistance movement against apartheid in different ways throughout the 1980s. Biko’s radical emancipatory Black Consciousness ideology in conversation with Turner’s anti-capitalist notion of ‘participatory democracy’ provided a brief glimpse into the possibilities of another South Africa.
The murder of Biko while in police detention in September 1977, and the assassination of Turner a few months later, in January 1978 at his home in Durban were devastating for their families, friends and comrades. They were shattering too for the country’s politics of resistance, closing off new non-authoritarian radical forms of resistance. Biko’s (and Turner’s) imaginative power and creativity, and their reflection on alternatives to apartheid beyond the management of the state by the liberation movement in power remains a tremendous inspiration.
This article was first published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).
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Decolonising Accidental Kenya or How to Transition to a GameB Society
Decolonisation will involve adopting a forward-looking orientation transcending the accidental circumstances of our individual and collective upbringing.
The Berlin Conference of 1886 set the forces responsible for creating the map of modern Africa in motion. This demarcation of the continent by colonial interests resulting in the consolidation of spaces on a map into countries was for the most part an arbitrary exercise. It resulted in the formation of a wide-ranging set of artificial nation states. Kenya and most other African nations are, by this definition, historical accidents.
The colonial cookie cutter changed everything, rerouting resources and labour into new avenues with new beneficiaries, rewiring the system of production and exchange in fundamental ways. All of this had massive consequences for populations falling within their borders, and beyond. Ironically, imposing a Eurocentric version of the central state turned out to be even more disruptive for what were arguably the Greater Horn of Africa’s more organically constituted units like Somalia, the intra-lacustrine region, and the former Kingdoms in Rwanda and Burundi.
Africa’s colonial reorganisation, by the standards of historical conquest and exploitation, was short-lived. In some pockets, it acted as an accelerator where its benefits have outlived its negative impacts, for the most part. In others, the disruption and confusion engendered still appear to be a permanent condition. In all cases, colonialism provided the context for the problems that came afterwards, diverting blame for the continent’s issues to external forces and actors when convenient.
This is one way of looking at Africa’s state at this point in time. But what if we look closer, and dig deeper? We are now in the territory of complex systems science, which has demonstrated the influence of initial conditions on any given system’s pathway over time. Colonialism articulated within other parameters such as the natural contours of geography, spatial factors, demographic conditions, and other variables that account for the region’s long-term historical trajectories.
Maybe the accident is not so accidental. A certain regression back to the African mean has been observable over the past several decades, giving rise to the counter-factual hypothesis that a different historical trajectory sans colonial intervention would have likely produced a similar configuration of political units, marked by the same initial conditions in the form of demographic, environmental, and technological parameters.
The localised nature of political organisation and the isolation of many areas of the continent would still have ended up acting as an entry point for outside interference and domination by invaders speaking different languages and representing other civilisations. Computer simulations modelled on the same system parameters would no doubt inscribe developmental pathways not so different from the one now prevailing. The end result would still be the rise of an economic and political elite, albeit perhaps not the product of formal education based on the Western mindset, because the emergence of state organisation is in any case an eventuality that has been occurring in Africa according to its own historical patterning since pharaonic times.
This is one point. The other is that countries sharing a given region or sector tend to converge once during periods of transition. The influence of initial conditions becomes more pronounced during these episodes, which by definition appear chaotic because they involve the break-up and reconfiguration of the system’s units and linkages. This has been occurring in clear sight during the current shift from an agrarian to a diversified, multi-sectoral economy in Kenya.
The process of change is accelerating apace at this juncture, telescoping internal changes that occurred over several centuries in other parts of the world and within several generations in Africa. The significance of Kenya’s transition transcends its borders because, due to whatever accidents of the past hundred years, its transformation will influence developments elevating the synergies of the larger region.
According to this thought experiment, the conventional analyses and the assumptions they are based on are no longer as compelling as they were during the heyday of radical political economy praxis. Despite the revival of the colonialism argument by millennial commentators who are trying to make sense of the economic cul-de-sac they find themselves in, the decolonisation narrative is not an issue for most of the region’s economically active population.
Decolonisation and reorganisation
We can nevertheless carry Franz Fanon’s diagnosis forward with a view towards anticipating the emergence of a new Africa more aligned with the region’s initial conditions, and hosting a distinctively African capitalism. We are actually witnessing these processes occur before our eyes. The turbulence erupting across the Horn will hopefully prove to be a necessary part of the larger transformational dynamic at work.
The process is sufficiently advanced to make some of us believe that countries like Kenya and others on the global periphery are positioned to make a vital contribution to the planet’s salvation. But sorting out the nation’s internal order is a prerequisite for achieving this station, and progress towards this point is in danger of stalling.
During the past two decades, Accidental Kenya has entered the territory of the release phase, as detailed in analyses about the Moi transition and the reorganisation taking form in its wake. The analyses were based on a developmental cycle comprising four phases: exploitation, consolidation, release, and reorganisation leading to a new cycle. There is no guarantee societies undergoing such phase transitions will complete the process. They can retreat to the previous state and stagnate, break-up, or even collapse—as was the fate of previous African civilisations.
After decades of hard-fought effort to decentralise decision-making and redistribute institutional governance, the executive branches of government in this part of the world are doing everything they can to reconcentrate decision-making power in the centre. Rwanda has already become an exemplar of the elite-controlled surveillance state.
The benefits of political decolonisation are typically usurped by other actors, and its role replaced by new forces. The decision to build a railway to the source of the Nile to protect the shipping route to India set in motion a chain of reactions that continues up to the present. A deeper form of decolonisation than self-rule will be needed to initiate a new cycle.
The big fix deception
“If it’s broken, just get under the hood and fix it.” So went the rallying cry for billionaire Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential candidacy (“hood” refers to the bonnet of an automobile). It helped make his on-and-off campaign the most successful third party run in the United States since 1912. More significantly, the notion of “just fixing” the “broken” political system became a meme that has resonated ever since, providing a gaping entry point for the politics of restoration championed by the likes of Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, and Donald Trump.
Systems of governance can be repaired, but can politicians fix them? It seems the more we depend upon them, the bigger the problem. In Kenya, for example, a submission to the recent court of appeal deliberations on the latest scheme to fix Accidental Kenya described our politicians as “job seekers who stand for nothing”. The description, strictly speaking, is not accurate: those often capricious Kenyan “job seekers” actually represent the entrenched tradition of pursuing personal accumulation by any means available.
Rwanda has already become an exemplar of the elite-controlled surveillance state.
This goes to the beating heart of Kenya’s colonial legacy, which endorsed the exploitation of Accidental Kenya by a numerically small elite committed to the creation of a capitalist political order. Small cliques of individuals have been in the business of applying fixes ever since the country’s creation. During the formative period, the administration established this by passing a comprehensive set of statutes limiting preferential access to land and markets for agricultural production.
After independence, Jomo Kenyatta endorsed the primacy of opportunistic accumulation when he castigated former Mau Mau fighter Bildad Kaggia for not grabbing the fruits of political independence like Paul Ngei and many of his other colleagues in the fight for independence. The unbalanced relationship between accumulation and the public good has persisted because the great majority of Kenyans endorsed the unbounded quest for private wealth in both principle and practice.
Independence in 1963 allowed Kenyans to participate in the economy established by colonial exploitation, the accumulation and resulting growth resulting in the consolidation of its accidental formation. The release phase highlighted the breakdown of the colonial-designed, state-centric economic order, and was accompanied by an unprecedented feeding frenzy triggered by World Bank and IMF-mandated privatisation of public land and other resources.
The trauma eventually led to the comprehensive reforms demanded by a mobilised and increasingly militant cross-section of the nation’s citizens. This opened the way for the long and tortuous process of public participation and political deal-making culminating in the 2010 Constitution. Anointed with the blood of citizens, the new charter signalled the onset of a fundamental reorganisation of Kenyan society and an economy attuned to the challenges facing future generations. It opened the door for the nation to seek its real post-colonial destiny.
A bridge too far
Kenyan political power relations being what they are, it only took one electoral cycle for the job seekers to decide they needed to “get under the hood and fix it” once again. Renewal got sidetracked into the Building Bridges Initiative, launched with the full resources of the government behind it. BBI in turn gave rise to the noise unleashed by the Uthamaki-Hustler narrative, which obscured the fact that the fix was actually a top-heavy Chinese political model clothed in the language of magical developmental thinking.
The circus accompanying these developments attempted to conjure up the illusion that BBI and its quasi-legitimisation by county legislatures were post-reform steps forward needed to resolve, once and for all, the nation’s most fundamental divisions that fall beyond the scope of the new Constitution.
The gambit to fix what is regarded as one of the most well-thought-out constitutions of the contemporary era became the source of one of those dangerous month-of-August Kenyan moments. Once again, a few gallant individuals came to the rescue. The judgements delivered by Kenya’s High Court and Court of Appeal, and Judge Kiage’s critique of executive bad faith rescued another generation from being trapped inside Accidental Kenya.
Small cliques of individuals have been in the business of applying fixes ever since the country’s creation.
Judge Kiage’s deconstruction of the BBI juggernaut bundled together the wisdom of Western jurisprudence with key historical interpretations of society and governance. His robust application of these sources to expose the bad faith characterising Kenya’s top-down fixology was perhaps the most powerful defence of democracy the world has witnessed since the rise of Trumpism.
The Court of Appeal secured the integrity of the 2010 Constitution for the time being, but there is no reason to expect the leadership at the top here and in neighbouring countries to change course in regard to their usual transactional goals and their quest to remain in power.
The nation-state in its current form has proven poorly adapted to the distinctive features of sub-Sahara Africa, and the political class will continue to enjoy the relative autonomy conferred by the state due to its position in the international system of nation states, its relationship to the Western military intelligence networks, and the temporary largesse of Xi Jinping’s Chinese chequebook—for the time being.
The quest for autonomy
The international order based on nation-states is not going away, even though its civilisational operating system has clearly reached its limits with respect to ensuring the planet’s survival over the longue durée. The majority of people on Planet Earth will nevertheless continue to follow their social media, the news fed to them by the usual suspects, and their appetites for material consumption while the signs and omens of the changing climate and its ramifications manifest around them.
The African state may look the same at the top, but it is part of a larger, complex system that has been evolving in the presence of systemic stressors. The sequence of developments over the post-independence period that appears indicative of dysfunction and incapacity and incoherence from without camouflages massive shifts occurring within.
This is the backdrop to Judge Kiage’s reminder that a constitution is “not a mechanical statute but the mirror of a nation’s soul.”
Kenya has progressed through a series of calamities including economic shocks, an attempted military coup, droughts and famines, unprecedented population growth, the politics of secession, ethnic insurgencies, terrorist attacks, grand corruption, devastating El Nino rains, desert locust invasions, privatisation from above and other inappropriate policies, and the HIV and coronavirus pandemics.
The gambit to fix what is regarded as one of the most well-thought-out constitutions of the contemporary era became the source of one of those dangerous month-of-August Kenyan moments.
We all come of age doped up on something. Then we pick up all kinds of baggage as we move on. Decolonisation in this context, involves adopting a forward-looking orientation transcending the accidental circumstances of our individual and collective upbringing.
This form of decolonisation synchs with the growing movement across the world striving to combine our scientific, technological, anthropological, ecological and other knowledge traditions with our direct experience of the sacred in order to transcend the accidents that create a new civilisational operating system. The advocates of this movement in my homeland refer to it as GameB. The content of GameB deserves its own discussion, but for the time being we can note that Kenyan society is already a player in this movement.
The Muslim poet and mystic Rumi said, “In the beginning I wanted to change the world, but then I realised the only thing I can do is change is myself.”
This is where we are right now. Nation-building in Kenya begins with creating a community of diverse communities. Wandia Njoya set the ball rolling in her insightful essay on Kenya’s twisted educational system by telling us we can start “by learning to love our children.”
Black Tax and African Labour in Global Capitalism
Nick Bernards argues that placing African labour in capitalism requires that we think seriously and in historical perspective about the politics of irregular forms of work. In his contribution to ROAPE’s debate on capitalism in Africa, Bernards points out that the kinds of work performed by African workers have often been key reference points in global debates about governing irregular forms of work.
The exploitation of ‘free’ wage labour – in Marx’s double sense of those workers ‘free’ to sell their labour to whom they choose and ‘free’ of any other means of reproducing themselves – is a core characteristic of capitalist relations of production. On more than a few readings, it is the defining trait of capitalism. Wage labourers in this narrow sense have almost always made up a small fraction of the workforce across sub-Saharan Africa. In one estimate from the late 1920s, the proportion of African populations employed in wage labour ranged from 0.4 percent in Nigeria to 8.2 percent in the South African Transkei. The most recent figures from the International Labour Organization (ILO) have 85.8 percent of African workers in ‘informal’ forms of work.
So, comparing African political economies to abstract models of capitalism assuming ever-widening proletarianization would seem unlikely to tell us much. In different ways, Kate Meagher, Stefan Ouma, Horman Chitonge, and Elisio Macamo have (rightly) pointed this out on this debate series on roape.net. Yet, as Pnina Werbner shows in an excellent recent piece in ROAPE, studies of African working classes in particular have a long history of falling into precisely this trap – studying African labour primarily by comparing it to the ‘normal’ trajectories of proletarian labour in Europe.
On the other hand, it would be hard to dispute that the history of African development has long been profoundly shaped by its place in a world economy that is undeniably capitalist. Indeed, the development of the contemporary capitalist world economy fundamentally depended on the mobilization of African labour through the slave trade and the colonial plunder of African resources. Equally, the present context is marked by, among other things, large-scale land grabbing, extractivist development models, increasingly volatile prices for agricultural commodities, and the vicissitudes of private foreign debt. It would be difficult, in short, to understand contemporary patterns of African political economy without reference to their location in capitalist circuits of accumulation. There’s a danger, then, that in jettisoning ‘capitalism’ altogether from our studies of African political economies we risk missing important dynamics. Yet, as Jörg Wiegratz – the editor of this series – illustrates in a recent post in this series, current debates in African studies have often fallen into this trap as well.
It would be hard to dispute that the history of African development has long been profoundly shaped by its place in a world economy that is undeniably capitalist.
So, we’re left with a paradox: African political economies, and especially their myriad labour regimes, don’t look much like conventional understandings of ‘capitalism’, but capitalism as a system of accumulation couldn’t exist in its current form without Africans and their (often non-proletarian) labour. Moreover, we can’t make much sense of the history and development of African political economies without some reference to capitalism as a system of accumulation on a global scale. I want to suggest in this post that the way forward here is, rather than asking what ‘capitalism’ tells us about Africa, we should be asking: ‘what does African labour tell us about capitalism?’
Placing African labour in capitalism
One promising direction here comes from critical political economists who have, in various ways, sought to place informal and unfree work in sub-Saharan Africa in the circuits of global capital. Marxian writers on unfree labour have pointed to the crucial role played by unfree forms of exploitation in facilitating contemporary global patterns of accumulation, including in Africa. ‘Informal’ work too, as Kate Meagher reminds us in her contribution to this debate series, is still often linked into global production networks through a variety of precarious forms of exploitation. For instance, seasonal agricultural workers play a vital role in producing cash crops for export; and labour brokers employing workers on hyper-casualized, temporary contracts are rife in the construction industry in many urban centres across the region.
Such interventions are vital, in no small part because these perspectives have enabled important critiques of the policy frameworks rolled out by the International Labour Organization (ILO), World Bank, and others around irregular forms – in which African labour has often played a central role. These frameworks have tended to treat informal economies, forced labour, and other forms of non-standard work as the products of the exclusion of certain workers from the normal workings of global capitalism. In 2002, for instance, in an ILO report on Decent Work and the Informal Sector, the relationship between informal work and ‘globalization’, is described as follows: ‘Where the informal sector is linked to globalization, it is often because a developing country has been excluded from integration into the global economy.’ The ILO increasingly suggests that these ‘exclusions’ from the global economy are compounded by ineffective regulation.
The main alternative to the ILO’s perspective in discussions of informal labour is the brand of institutional economics widely adopted by the World Bank. Here ‘informality’ becomes a form of poor people’s empowerment in the face of overregulation by the state, a reflection of entrepreneurial instincts to be encouraged by developing appropriate institutions. Policy initiatives to promote micro-enterprise development, access to credit, skills, and property rights follow logically from this way of thinking about the ‘informal.’ Here again, informality is understood in terms of exclusion from the normal operation of market forces.
African political economies, and especially their myriad labour regimes, don’t look much like conventional understandings of ‘capitalism’, but capitalism as a system of accumulation couldn’t exist in its current form without Africans and their (often non-proletarian) labour
In either case, policies designed without regard for the ways in which ‘informal’ work is embedded in wider capitalist economies are unlikely to be effective – at best they can offer half solutions that treat the symptoms rather than the causes of dispossession. Yet, there is still an important corollary that has often gone under explored. In practice, the lines between, say, ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ labour relations are indeed fluid and irregular forms of work are indeed integral to capitalist accumulation. But, as I argue in my recent book, The Global Governance of Precarity, the drawing of those boundaries themselves, and the implicit relegation of ‘informal’ or violent modes of exploitation to aberrant spaces outside the ‘normal’ workings of capitalism, are not just conceptual questions of concern to scholars of (African) political economy. They are fundamentally political ones, they are the artefacts of specific, historical, patterns of struggle and practices of governance. African labour, notably, has historically long been at the centre of debates around these questions on a global scale.
Placing African labour in capitalism, then, requires that we think seriously and in historical perspective about the politics of irregular forms of work. The kinds of work performed by African workers have often been key reference points in global debates about governing irregular forms of work. The ILO’s first convention on forced labour from 1930, for instance, was debated and negotiated through the 1920s in the context of growing concerns about colonial labour practices in Africa. But, as I show further in the remainder of this piece, such frameworks have always been contested, and often shaped in powerful ways by the unfolding and contingent relationships between the state and various segments of working classes.
The origins of ‘informality’
The concept of ‘informal’ work, to cite a particularly important example, was popularized in no small part by a major ILO mission to Kenya under the auspices of the World Employment Programme (WEP). This WEP mission to Kenya in 1972, relied quite centrally and explicitly on the assumption that the ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ were discrete spheres, the latter defined by its exclusion from the world economy. Hence, the core of the strategy laid out in the ILO report: ‘Our strategy of a redistribution from growth aims at establishing links that are at present absent between the formal and informal sectors.’
It’s worth pointing out that, while the concept of ‘informality’ was new in the 1970s, it clearly echoed colonial dichotomies between ‘modern’ (implicitly urban, capitalist, and Europeanized) and ‘traditional’ (rural, tribal, African) sectors of the economy. The fact that Africans were increasingly moving from supposedly ‘non-capitalist’ spaces in the countryside into ‘capitalist’ ones in the city was the source of much consternation for colonial officials and ILO staffers in the decade after WWII. ‘Development’ and economic growth were increasingly identified with the movement of people from (non-capitalist) ‘traditional’ activities in the countryside into (capitalist) ‘modern’ employment in urban spaces, and the concomitant increase in labour productivity– as in, for instance, W. Arthur Lewis’ seminal work. But colonial policy-makers increasingly fretted about how to manage these transitions, and how to govern those ‘classes of wage-earners who… could no longer rely on the solidarity engendered by the family or tribal community… and were consequently vulnerable to the ordinary risks of life and to the fluctuations of employment’, and about ‘the danger of permitting towns to expand beyond a certain limit; then they became unwieldy to administer and control.’
The preparatory work for the ILO mission to Kenya very clearly echoed similar concerns: ‘Perhaps more important than all the rest, there seems to exist, in Kenya, a very notorious dualism between the prosperous basis of certain aspects of the economic picture, highly productive farm units, relatively good infrastructure, sophisticated financial services, high-quality education, by European standards, in some schools, and the majority of the population.’ The concept of the ‘informal’ economy perhaps broke down the strict rural-urban dualism often implicit in these older statements – pointing, in effect, to ‘non-capitalist’ forms of work in urban spaces. However, it still very much framed the reduction of urban poverty in terms of finding ways of progressively incorporating African workers into global capitalism.
These perspectives were problematic. As a host of critics at the time – including figures like Colin Leys and Richard Sandbrook – pointed out, ‘informal’ economies often subsidized social reproduction in the context of low wages in the ‘formal’ sector. Among other things: street vendors provided cheap food and clothing, informal domestic labour directly enabled the reproduction of wage work, and ‘informal’ employment often supplemented the incomes for ‘formal’ workers and their households in the context of declining real wages. And in the region more broadly, dichotomies between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’, or ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ economies, or ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ sectors, tended to occlude the ways in which individual workers and households often relied on livelihood strategies that cut across these areas of activity. In short, the concept of the ‘informal’ neatly excluded the ways in which irregular forms of work in Kenya were already linked with properly ‘capitalist’ accumulation in Kenya, particularly in subsidizing the very low wages paid by multinational firms operating in Kenya.
The preparatory work for the ILO mission to Kenya very clearly echoed similar concerns: ‘Perhaps more important than all the rest, there seems to exist, in Kenya, a very notorious dualism between the prosperous basis of certain aspects of the economic picture, highly productive farm units, relatively good infrastructure, sophisticated financial services, high-quality education, by European standards, in some schools, and the majority of the population
But, contemporary critics, like present-day political economists, too often stopped the argument there. The very things that made governing the ‘informal’ an inadequate means of addressing poverty also made it an effective political tool – it blocked any serious consideration of the structural roots of poverty, focusing instead on a relatively narrow set of technical responses aimed at fostering ‘links’ between formal and informal activity. Framing urban poverty in terms of ‘informality’ dovetailed with and helped reinforce a structure of state authority that sought to restrict any independent voice for labour in shaping development strategy. The WEP mission, it is worth noting, followed a period of consolidation and depoliticization of the labour movement. Kenya’s Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU) had been formed in 1965 when the government dissolved the Kenya Federation of Labour (KFL) and the rival Kenyan African Workers’ Congress. The KFL had split over interlinked personal disagreements among the leadership, questions of international affiliation, and the ‘political’ independence of trade unions. The new COTU was led by the factions aligned to the government, and it was prevented from pursuing ‘political’ action. The government also identified unions the primary cause of unemployment in the 1970 report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Unemployment in 1970 – high levels of wage disparity between urban and rural areas, partly ‘as a result of the trade union activities’ were blamed for excessive rural-urban migration and the resort of capital to labour-saving technologies. The diagnosis of urban poverty as the result of the (non-capitalist) informal character of the forms of work performed by most Kenyans dovetailed well with this set of political dynamics.
Irregular work in neoliberal Africa
Irregular forms of labour have increased in numbers and political salience across much of sub-Saharan Africa in the neoliberal era. Structural adjustment brutally undercut working class livelihoods across the region, often prompting widespread protests and undercutting the legitimacy of many single-party governments. At the same time, the means through which postcolonial states had often disciplined strategically important segments of working classes – close links between trade unions and ruling parties in particular – were often severely damaged by structural adjustment. This pattern of failure, backlash, and state restructuring is crucial to understanding the re-articulation of policies towards ‘informal’ economies and ‘forced labour’ from the 1990s onwards. On one hand, neoliberal strategies of governance often shifted towards more localized, community-level interventions dealing with health, education, microfinance as mechanisms for poverty reduction in the aftermath of the failures of structural adjustment. On the other, the growth of irregular work and dismantling of postcolonial institutions often raised the strategic importance of finding new means of governing informal economies for African states. These dynamics have often dovetailed in the ILO’s work.
A useful example here comes via the ILO’s increasing promotion of ‘microinsurance’ policies as a means of providing social protection to ‘informal’ workers. Microinsurance refers to a range of simplified insurance products with very low premiums, targeted primarily at ‘informal’ workers lacking conventional social security. Officials in the Social Protection Department of the ILO initially used the concept of ‘microinsurance’ in the late 1990s to refer to means of providing alternative modes of social protection to informal workers left out of both state provision and market-based schemes, through ‘community-based’ forms of social protection. Since the early 2000s, microinsurance is increasingly promoted by a broader complex of organizations, including financial regulators, and framed in terms of ‘financial inclusion’, a shift that has been accompanied by a growing emphasis on promoting the development of commercial markets.
On a basic level, microinsurance boils down to an alternative, privatized means of providing social protection and healthcare, to informal workers not covered by conventional contributory social security. Making a market for small-scale, simplified insurance products, then, is a way of bringing excluded workers into the ‘normal’ workings of the state and market. It serves to deepen the commodification of labour insofar as it requires workers to find means of paying premiums on an ongoing basis even for the management of the vulnerabilities implicit in deregulated labour markets themselves.
As a means of reducing poverty and managing insecurity for ‘informal’ workers, microinsurance thus leaves a good deal to be desired. It is a quintessentially neoliberal solution which downloads responsibility for the provision of social protection onto poor individuals and communities, and again relies on an understanding of ‘informal’ workers as being excluded from the ‘normal’ workings of proletarian labour relations. It thus shares many of the same shortcomings as the related promotion of microcredit (expertly dismantled in Milford Bateman’s recent contribution to this debate). At best, this kind of scheme risks reinforcing a decidedly two-tiered system of social protection, with shrinking state pensions supporting a shrinking core of salaried workers and the remainder of the population covered by a privatized system partially underwritten by state subsidies.
Microinsurance makes sense as a political intervention in a context in which a growing proportion of the working population is involved in irregular forms of work. The rigid political distinction between formal and informal work implicit in the model of ‘responsible participation’ is no longer viable in the context of deindustrialization, privatization, and the casualization of work in a number of key industries. As with the Kenyan mission, the promotion of microinsurance diagnoses ‘informality’ as a result of exclusion from the normal workings of global capitalism and seeks to reduce poverty by forging new kinds of links. In obscuring the ways in which urban informality remains bound up with wider patterns of neoliberalization and capitalist restructuring, it similarly lends itself to depoliticized solutions.
I have two big points to underline here. First, debates about African labour and its links to global capitalism are never simply abstract or conceptual debates of purely academic interest. A big task for critical political economy needs to be confronting the ways in which the links between the irregular forms of work that are predominant in Africa (and increasingly elsewhere) and the global circuits of capital accumulation are governed and understood. These are crucial sites of political contestation and are closely entangled with broader patterns of political authority and state restructuring.
Second, and more broadly, if our frameworks for understanding ‘capitalism’ don’t allow us to make sense of African political economies, we should be reflecting on how African experiences push us to rethink those frameworks, rather than necessarily debating the value of ‘capitalism’ as a concept. One initial way of doing this, I think, is to suggest that the history of irregular work in Africa highlights the deeply political nature of our understandings of capitalism, and the contested understandings of the placement of irregular forms of labour performed by African workers in relation to global circuits of accumulation.
This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).
The Limits of Modern Human Rights Crusades
There is a need ‘to address the challenges people actually face, looking beyond narrow political rights to address the deeper causes of economic and social exclusion.’ This will be the key factor that will determine whether the faith of people in human rights will deepen or suffer further erosion in the years to come.
In a recent opinion editorial published on Project Syndicate, the President of the Open Societies Foundation, Mark Malloch-Brown highlighted two of the major flaws in human rights that need to be addressed urgently. First, he pointed out that ‘[w]hereas strong states were the sole or leading human-rights violators during the Cold War, today’s world is one of multidimensional human-rights menaces.’
Explaining this point further, he notes that, ‘[i]nequalities, exacerbated by unregulated transnational financial and corporate power, together with dramatic shifts in individual states’ fortunes, are creating an ever more challenging landscape. The world is becoming more unequal – and angrier.’
Second, ‘many view the renewed attention to deep-seated institutional racism in the United States and around the world – and the recognition that marginalization based on race, gender, religion, and class is often mutually reinforcing – as exposing the limits of a human rights agenda. Human rights remedies, victims argue, have scratched the surface, not reached the roots.’
COVID19’s quartet of major human rights issues in Africa
The experience on our continent in the context of the COVID19 lend more than enough support to these observations highlighting the flaws of the mainstream approach to human rights. For us on the continent enduring the trinity of burdens even during the Cold War, as I pointed out in a previous essay, the state has not been the only source of threat to human rights.
In terms of the picture that emerges in Africa in the context of the COVID19 pandemic, our analysis in the African human rights system, as gathered from the monitoring work of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the various reports our Commission received, shows that COVID-19 relates to four broad issues of human rights.
First, COVID-19 is of and on itself a human rights issue. The morbidity and mortality that pandemic precipitates pose the most serious threat to fundamental human rights, most notably the right to health, the right to personal safety and the right to life. It is a human rights necessity that States in pursuit of discharging their human rights obligations under Article 1 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the founding treaty of the African human rights system, take appropriate measures for safeguarding the public from the threat that this pandemic poses to health, safety and life.
Our Commission issued the first statement highlighting these points on 28 February 2020 at a time when only a handful of cases in a couple of countries were reported and before COVID19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. Considering the weak state of the health systems of many States Parties to the African Charter, we put particular emphasis on prevention measures, including with emphasis on the right to access to information on the pandemic.
Second, the vulnerabilities, structural deficiencies and inequalities that COVID-19 brought to the fore are also products of governance and policy failures in implementing human rights commitments. In particularly, they highlight the neglect by the social and economic policies of our societies as well as by the human rights system of the centrality of socio-economic rights and the resultant gap between the promise of these rights and the lived realities of the masses of the people on our continent. This is reflected in the lack of due regard to human development in the GDP growth driven economic policies of countries on the continent. Even at a time when high levels of economic growth are reported resulting in the ‘Africa rising’ narrative, this has never been accompanied by significant improvement in the standard of living of the vast majority of people in our societies. Indeed, as the GDP based economic development paradigm facilitates splendid levels of accumulation of power by global private actors and their local associates, majority of people continue to languish in poverty with no access to water, sanitation, health care, housing, sustainable livelihood and income and food.
This state of affair, facilitated by the weaknesses of the structure of the economies of many countries on the continent and the commodification of access to socio-economic rights due to the dominant neo-liberal economic policy prescriptions, has left those without access to these basic necessities to be without even the most basic means of protection to the threats of COVID-19. For all these categories of people hand washing, sanitizing, social distancing and self-isolation became luxury beyond their reach. Under these conditions, even those who thought of themselves as being capable of fending for themselves by buying from the market have found themselves unprotected from COVID-19. After all, the market lacks both the incentive and structure for availing protection from pandemics like COVID-19.
For us in the African human rights system, this has highlighted two concerns. The first is the existence of a gaping hole in the socio-economic systems and the governance of the States Parties to the African Charter. The second is the pervasiveness and gravity of the deprivation of rights, which are central to not only the wellbeing of human beings but also our societies.
Third, despite the necessity for adopting measures for addressing the pandemic, which by their nature may necessitate restriction of rights, COVID-19 response measures have also given rise to a wide range of human rights problems. As states adopt various measures including lockdowns, curfews, suspension of various activities, border closures, by declaring a state of emergency or state of disaster, the conditions for flouting a wide range of rights also mushroomed. First, some of the measures adopted by their very nature happen to be not in line with established human rights principles, including most notably that of proportionality and legality. Second, heavy securitization of the approach for enforcing COVID-19 regulations and the disruption that the regulations caused to access to basic necessities, particularly for the most vulnerable among us, have led to major increase in violations and in people being deprived of their rights.
In this context we have witnessed, among others, excessive use of force by security forces have led to arbitrary deprivation of lives, liberty and personal security and inhuman and degrading treatment, in some cases conditions amounting to torture. These violations and deprivations mostly affecting the poor and most vulnerable among us also highlighted the discriminatory consequences of the security heavy approach to the enforcement of COVID19 measures.
Some of the COVID19 response measures such as, the abuses and violations by members of state security agents, the multidimensional issues facing women and girls, the massive digital surveillance, the emergency power of the executive branch of government and the corruption in the use of public resources assigned for fighting the pandemic, if not contained and remedied, can lead to the emergence of serious human rights crises.
It was in appreciation and anticipation of these plethora of human rights issues (arising from COVID-19 regulations and their enforcement) that the African Commission issued a comprehensive statement on human rights based effective response to COVID19 in Africa on 24 March 2020. The statement, which is divided into 12 operative sections, outlines the human rights principles and standards that States Parties to the African Charter and other applicable treaties such as the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa are expected to follow in designing and implementing their COVID-19 response regulations.
The African Commission through its country rapporteurs and special mechanism holders have continued to monitor and respond to the various country specific and thematic human rights issues that continue to unfold in the context of COVID19. Accordingly, various statements and urgent letters of appeal have been issued and national consultations held. The Commission also convened its 66th Ordinary Session with particular focus on human and peoples’ rights in the context of COVID19, which presented a unique opportunity for receiving updates through public statements from States, national human rights institutions and civil society organizations. All of these underscored that the most vulnerable among us, notably women and girls, minorities, persons with disabilities and the poor bear the brunt of the pandemic and its grave consequences.
Forth, it has become clear that the unprecedented nature of the impact of COVID-19 not only on health but also other areas of life means that this pandemic is not a temporary event that will easily pass in a short time. Most notably, the socio-economic and humanitarian fall out of COVID-19 is widespread and severe. For us, the African Commission, perhaps this is one of the most serious and more enduring challenges that can have catastrophic human rights consequences as tens of millions are pushed to extreme poverty and many others face hunger and starvation.
It was in recognition of this that myself and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a joint statement on 20 May 2020 expressing major concern about the situation and calling for global solidarity by way of affording countries on the continent the fiscal space, through among others debt restructuring or relief measures, in order to enable the countries take appropriate fiscal and economic relief measures to mitigate the worst socio-economic impacts of the pandemic.
The hard lesson for human rights
There are a number of observations that emerge from COVDI19’s quartet of major human rights issues for the human rights system in general.
Certainly, COVID19 – in the way it both laid bare the fallacies and falsehoods, to borrow from Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s 18 July 2020 Nelson Mandela Lecture, in the narrative of progress and development and brought to the fore the vulnerabilities and inequalities that pervade our societies and the deficiencies of our systems of governance and economic development paradigm – has also presented a serious challenge to the international and regional system of human rights.
It can be said that COVID-19 has presented the foremost challenge to and revealed the shortfalls of the entire human rights movement. Indeed, the pandemic has become an indictment of our human rights work. As the boss of the Open Societies Foundation rightly pointed out, ‘the traditional models of advancing democratic values and institutions (human rights) are struggling.’ The human rights movement has generally focused on making its trademark feature of loud reaction to events rather than on proactive action for addressing the structural issues that make those events possible. The seriousness of the limits of this has now become evident for all to recognize, a silver lining from the pandemic.
Viewed through the prism of so called three generations of rights, COVID19 has demonstrated the continuing marginalization and neglect of socio-economic rights. Despite the normative position of the interdependence and indivisibility of rights, in practice civil and political rights continue to dominate much of the practice and discourse of human rights. With COVID19, it has become clear that water, sanitation, health care, housing and education are fundamental rights to which everyone should have access not only because these rights are pre-requisite to live a life of dignity as human being but also because access to these rights by all is a condition for the safety and health of all.
This moment presents us with an invitation to rethink both the approach of the human rights movement and its priority issues of concern. There is a need to expand the approach to human rights work beyond court litigation and reactive expression of outrage. Equally important is prioritizing the focus on the promotion and fulfillment of socio-economic rights.
Will the human rights movement recognize the limitations and weaknesses that this pandemic has highlighted? Will it recognize that what COVID-19 represents is a qualitatively unprecedented challenge, which is in part are attributable to the human rights issues long neglected? Will the opportunity it affords the human rights system for changing course be seized?
The choice in front of the human rights system is stark – continue in a business-as-usual fashion and face irrelevance in the effort to overcome the structural conditions of oppression affecting the vast majority of people in the world? Or reprioritize its focus, its approach and sense of urgency to deal with the human rights issues which have, in the context of COVID19, become the defining human rights issues of our time: massive poverty, widening inequality, gender oppression, racism, the democratic governance crisis and the climate emergency.
I wholeheartedly agree with Malloch-Brown that there is a need ‘to address the challenges people actually face, looking beyond narrow political rights to address the deeper causes of economic and social exclusion.’ This will be the key factor that will determine whether the faith of people in human rights will deepen or suffer further erosion in the years to come.
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