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‘Crush and Grind Them Like Lice’: Harare Old Guard Feeling Threatened

7 min read.

With the launch of the Citizens Coalition for Change, Zimbabwe’s political landscape has undergone a significant shift, with a younger activist generation increasingly impatient with the unfulfilled promises of liberation.



‘Crush and Grind Them Like Lice’: Harare Old Guard Feeling Threatened

On the 26th of February 2022, Zimbabwe’s Vice President delivered a chilling threat to the opposition. In a speech the “retired” army general Constantino Chiwenga, the chief architect of the November of 2017 putsch that removed Robert Mugabe, threatened that the opposition will be “crushed and ground on a rock like lice”. The General claimed that the ruling party was a “Goliath”; the Biblical imagery of the diminutive David “slaying” the giant Goliath was entirely lost on the Vice President. Here are his words:

“Down with CCC. You see when you crush lice with a rock, you put it on a flat stone and then you grind it to the extent that even flies will not eat it… But we are as big as Goliath we will see it [the opposition] when the time comes”.

The following day violent mayhem broke out in Kwekwe, the very town where the fiery speech was made. By the time the chaos ended, the opposition reported that 16 of their supporters had been hospitalised and it was recorded that a young man was sadistically speared to death. The supporters of the ruling party had taken the threat to “crush” and “grind” the opposition seriously. Details emerged—from the police—that the suspects were from the ruling party and had tried to hide in a property owned by a former minister of intelligence.

The launch of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) has galvanised the opposition. Going by the youthful excitement at the rallies, the violence flaring against its supporters, and the way the police has been clamping down on CCC rallies, the ruling elites have realised they face a serious political threat from what has been called the “yellow” movement.

Exit Mugabe and Tsvangirai: Shifts in opposition and ruling class politics

The death of opposition leader and former prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai in February 2018 came in the wake of the November 2017 coup and other significant political events that followed. The death was a big blow to the opposition; there had been no succession planning, which was rendered more complex by the existence of three vice presidents deputising Tsvangirai. The MDC Alliance succession debacle set in motion a tumultuous contest that splintered the opposition. Court applications followed, and the ruling elites took an active interest. When the court battles ended, the judiciary ensured a “win” for the faction favoured by the ruling class. That faction was formally recognised in parliament, given party assets and provided with financial resources by the Treasury that were meant for the opposition.

As for the ruling party, there has been a shift in the political contests along factional lines, accentuated following the death of Robert Gabriel Mugabe in September of 2019. There is high suspicion that the 2017 coup plotters (generals and commanders) now want their proverbial “pound of flesh”—the presidency. With the presidency as the bull fighter’s prize, the factions are now lining up either behind the president or the behind generals and this is cascading through the ruling party structures. The historical faction known as G40 (Generation 40) that hovered around the then first lady has been practically shut out of political power, with its anchors remaining holed up outside the country. Remnants of the G40 faction in Zimbabwe have been side-lined, with some of them subjected to the endless grind of court processes to ensure they keep their heads down.

Yet another element has emerged, that of a president who feels besieged and is re-building the party and executive positions in the image of his regional ethnic block, bringing into the matrix a potent powder keg waiting to explode in the future.

The ruling party has gone further to entice Morgan Tsvangirai’s political orphans in order to decimate the leadership ranks of the opposition. Patronage is generously dished out: an ambassadorial appointment here, a gender commissioner position there, a seat on the board of a state parastatal…, and so on. These appointments come with extreme state largesse—cars, drivers, state security, free fuel, housing, pensions and the list goes on. The patronage also includes lucrative gold mining claims and farms running into hundreds of acres that come with free agricultural inputs. The former opposition stalwarts must be “re-habilitated” by being taught “patriotism” at a Bolshevik-like ideological school and then paraded at rallies as defectors to ZANU-PF.

Yet another element has emerged, that of a president who feels besieged and is re-building the party and executive positions in the image of his regional ethnic block.

As these political shifts take place and the opposition divorces itself from the succession mess, there are also changes in Zimbabwe’s economy and this has a direct impact on the trajectory of politics in the country.

Transformed political economy: Informality, diaspora and agrarian change  

From about the end of the 1990s and stretching into the subsequent two decades up to 2022, Zimbabwe’s political economy has shifted significantly. Firstly, the fast-track land reform of the early 2000s altered land ownership from white settler “commercial” farmers to include more black people. The white-settler class power was removed as a factor in politics and in its place is a very unstable system of tenure for thousands of black farmers that have been married to the state for tenure security and stability.

Secondly, the follow-on effect of the land reform meant that Zimbabwe’s industrial base was altered, and this has resulted in a highly informalized economy or what others have called the “rubble”. An informal economy is now the new normal across the board for ordinary citizens and this has weakened organized labour as a voice in political contests. In 2020, the World Bank estimated extreme poverty at 49 per cent; this is infusing a sense of urgency for political change and is putting pressure on the political elites in Harare.

Thirdly, the exodus of Zimbabwe’s younger population into the diaspora has introduced another factor into the political matrix. According to official figures, the diaspora transferred about US$1.4 billion in 2021 alone, but this figure doesn’t capture remittances that are moved into Zimbabwe informally; the figure is much higher. The diaspora has actually used its cash to have a political voice, often via the opposition or independent “citizen initiatives”. It is proving to be a significant player in the political matrix to the extent that Nelson Chamisa has appointed a Secretary for Diaspora Affairs. For its part, the ruling party has blocked the diaspora vote.

Fourth, the national political economy has been “captured” by an unproductive crony class to the extent that researchers have estimated that as much as half of Zimbabwe’s GDP is being pilfered:

“It is estimated that Zimbabwe may lose up to half the value of its annual GDP of $21.4bn due to corrupt economic activity that, even if not directly the work of the cartels featured in the report, is the result of their suffocation of honest economic activity through collusion, price fixing and monopolies. Ironically, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has been a public critic of illicit financial transfers, is identified by the report as one of the cartel bosses whose patronage and protection keeps cartels operating.”

Fifthly, and often under-researched, is the substantial role of China across Zimbabwe’s political economy as Harare’s political elites have shifted to Beijing for a closer alliance. This has paid handsomely for China which has almost unrestrained access to Zimbabwe’s natural resources, and the political elites are “comrades in business” with—mostly—Chinese state corporations; China’s influence is pervasive and evident across the country. Put together, the factors above mean that the political economy structure has changed significantly and it is within this landscape that the Citizens Coalition for Change—dubbed the “yellow movement” — that has been launched by the opposition will have to operate and organise.

‘Yellow Movement’: Re-articulating the future beyond the ‘Harare Bubble’? 

Since its launch, the opposition movement has swept into the CCC’s ranks the younger demographic of activists together with some solid veterans who survived the brutal years of Robert Mugabe’s terror. Zimbabwe’s median age is reported to be about 18 years of age; if these young people can register, turn out to vote and defend their vote, there is a whirlwind coming for the old nationalists in Harare.

Some within the ruling party have noticed this reality, with a former minister and ruling party member stating that “Nelson Chamisa is gaining popularity because the ZANU PF old guard is fighting its own young men and women”. This admission is consistent with the words of Temba Mliswa, another “independent” member of parliament and a former leading activist in the ruling party, who stated that:

“The generational approach is like you trying to stop a wave of water with your open hands. You cannot ignore it. It’s a generational issue. You cannot ignore it. You need to look at it. You need to study it… There is no young person in ZANU PF who is as vibrant as Chamisa, who is as charismatic as Nelson Chamisa. Chamisa is going to go straight for ED (President Emmerson Mnangagwa)… There is no gate preventing this.’

These admissions are an indication that the CCC movement poses a serious threat to the ruling party. But beyond the contest of politics, of ideas, of policy platforms, the “yellow movement” will have to divorce itself from the “Harare Bubble”. The ruling nationalists polished a rigid centralised political system inherited from settler-colonialism, and have used this to build a crony network of robbery based in the capital city while impoverishing other regions. But they are not alone in this; even the opposition has often overlooked the fact that “all politics is local” and it has also created a “Harare Bubble” of yesterday’s heroes and gatekeepers who, armed with undynamic analyses, continue to cast their shadows into the arena long after their expiry date.

“Nelson Chamisa is gaining popularity because the ZANU PF old guard is fighting its own young men and women”.

The yellow movement will have to go local and divorce itself from the parochial legacy of previously progressive platforms that have now been cornered by an elite who have become careerist, corrupt, inward-looking and, like civil warlords, only loyal to imported 10-year-old whisky bottles and their kitambis—their visibly ballooning stomachs.

Yet there is no ignoring it; Zimbabwe’s youth have been emboldened by political change in Zambia and Malawi, and by the rise of younger leaders in South Africa. The winds are blowing heavily against the status quo. In the 2023 general election, the ruling nationalists will face a more tactful, daring and politically solid Nelson Chamisa who has strategically pushed back against “elite pacts”. Added to his eloquence, his speeches are getting more structured, substantially more polished, and he is projecting the CCC movement as a capable alternative government. With the indelible footprints of Morgan Tsvangirai in the background, the next general election, in 2023, will be an existential contest for Harare’s old nationalists—they are facing their Waterloo.

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A Power Crisis

Andre De Ruyter, the former CEO of Eskom, has presented himself as a simple hero trying to save South Africa’s struggling power utility against corrupt forces. But this racially charged narrative is ultimately self-serving.



A Power Crisis
Photo: Hennie Stander on Unsplash.

The South African media has recently been abuzz, yet again, with talk of Andre de Ruyter, the former CEO of embattled power utility Eskom, who, until his recent departure, oversaw the parastatal for three years. Notoriously, Eskom is in what seems to be a state of “permacrisis.” Out-of-date technology, ineffectual maintenance, endemic corruption, and criminal inefficiency have combined to the point that the country is crippled by waves of so-called loadshedding—otherwise known as planned power cuts—designed to forestall total grid collapse.

Amid the national panic and governmental inertia about the failures of Eskom, de Ruyter has emerged as a divisive figure, with some believing he should take responsibility for what happened under his watch and others insisting he was scuppered by shadowy figures within the ruling African National Congress. His newly released tell-all book, Truth to Power: My Three Years at Eskom, has made a series of scathing accusations that have once again pushed him to the top of the news cycle.

But de Ruyter’s attempts at crafting a narrative about his tenure at Eskom began before the book was released. Having announced his resignation in December 2022, and then survived an alleged poisoning attempt, in February this year de Ruyter gave a dramatic exit interview to veteran journalist Annika Larsen on eNCA (South Africa’s most watched 24-hour news channel). The interview is fascinating for what it reveals about how de Ruyter used the interview, and Larsen’s failure to ask critical questions, to influence public opinion and bolster his personal brand. The interview also exhibits a set of assumptions about the morality and competence of white men that remains infuriatingly common in public discourse, where tussles over race and meaning continue. South Africa’s power crisis is also, of course, a crisis of power.

In the best traditions of media spin, de Ruyter uses the interview to “set the record straight,” emphasizing the image that he wants to associate with his name and reputation. Unsurprisingly, he positions himself as the good guy in a bad situation, the one non-rotten apple in the barrel. He uses several metaphors to drive home this message, in language pulled straight from popular TV serials:

  • De Ruyter as doctor, the skilled surgeon trying to operate on the “metastasizing tumor” of corruption, which keeps growing faster than he can cut it out or treat it.
  • De Ruyter as plumber, the knowledgeable artisan trying to fix the leaking taps, to “turn off the spigots” that are pouring public money into private pockets.
  • De Ruyter as honest cop, the lone actor trying to bring down the organized crime network, investigating abuses of power with informants in every corner, “making arrests” and doing a “perp walk.”

His chosen metaphors reveal de Ruyter as a hardworking, admirable, ordinary man. This self-presentation rests also on ideas about the altruistic and honest nature of Afrikaner masculinity: the farmers who just want to feed the nation, the engineers whose only desire is to keep the railways running, understandings of Afrikaans history that ignore the violent exclusions of both farms and trains. Larsen, meanwhile, made a point of reminding viewers that de Ruyter took on the Eskom job out of a sense of public duty, in keeping with his self-branding as trustworthy and straightforward.

Here, de Ruyter is doing a kind of universe-jumping, offering us images of himself in multiple parallel vocations and life positions. But de Ruyter the plumber, de Ruyter the cop and de Ruyter the doctor are also always de Ruyter the CEO, who earned more than R7 million (about 350,000 USD) annually during his time at the helm of a failing public enterprise, and who previously held well-paid CEO positions at other large companies.

De Ruyter skilfully uses the interview to entrench the message that he is a good man, or more specifically a good white man, while also being an abused and vulnerable victim who deserves special protection. Much of his claim of moral uprightness is embedded in ideas about money, consumption, and luxury. De Ruyter, the interview makes clear, is not an obscene conspicuous consumer, like others he mentions who wash their hands in whiskey “because they can,” and who finagle the system so that they can drive their McLarens through the potholed streets of eMalahleni (a town formerly known as Witbank, in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province). He is sensible and frugal, as signaled by his chinos, blue shirt and veldskoen (leather shoes similar to desert boots). An obvious symbolic departure from the CEO uniform of suit, tie, pressed shirts and polished shoes, this new appearance is designed to suggest an ethical orientation of restraint and good sense, as well as taste, so often used to mask class judgments.

While there is of course an obvious and important link between consumption and corruption, de Ruyter’s particular employment of these tropes echoes a common racialization of consumption, in which luxury enjoyed by black people is perceived as outrageous, excessive, inappropriate, and fundamentally immoral. De Ruyter does not deliver this critique directly, but foregrounds the horrors of brazen corruption, with excessive consumption provided as evidence. What is important here is not just the enormous problem of corruption at Eskom, but also the fact that black people enjoying luxury lifestyles is represented as inherently immoral, in contrast to the moderation and sense of white men like de Ruyter, who, we must assume, enjoy their wealth in socially acceptable ways. (Let us briefly recall that R7 million annual salary.)

De Ruyter places the entire responsibility for the Eskom disaster onto the (implied black) corruption that ruins everything. He emphasizes how he led investigations and handed information over to the police, who did nothing. State security also did nothing. Indeed, according to the narrative presented, everyone was complicit except for de Ruyter, who alone was trying to save the country from acts of treason. He positions himself as an honest and altruistic servant of the people with no ulterior motive but to do his duty. (Once again, we must gently nod in the direction of the annual Eskom salary, and wonder what the longer-term career consequences will be.)

De Ruyter’s self-branding as a good white man is enhanced throughout the interview by displays of racial self-awareness. He makes starry-eyed mention of one “wise colleague,” implied to be a black woman, who helps him understand his white Afrikaans blindspots. Like a local version of the US mammy stereotype, this generous and supportive black woman seems to have been happy to educate de Ruyter, helping him to bypass the prejudices that are one of the few negative elements of the version of Afrikaner identity on show here.

He also namechecks his personal assistant “Zodwa,” another generous and helpful supporting character, thus putting black femininity into its stereotypical place as servile to the CEO, who is naturalized as male and white. Zodwa has been “educated” to keep the coffee coming to service de Ruyter’s caffeine addiction, which is then implicated in the alleged poisoning attempt. This incident is the central pole for his claims of victimhood, pivoting away from a state of privileged knowing towards one of physical suffering and pain.

De Ruyter seems to claim that the attack on him was also an attack on the state. He argues that the story was reported in major US and European news media, which affected investor confidence, highlighting his own significance as a national asset. In this narrative, he appears as a crucially important public servant who should be protected by the state that he is serving. While of course no public servant should be subjected to violence or threats of violence, the current facts of the South African polity make this disturbingly common. In suggesting that he, and he alone, should be offered special protection by the state, as opposed to the many honest civil servants and whistleblowers who take huge risks to protect South Africa’s failing assets, de Ruyter perhaps unconsciously echoes the hysterical mythos that equates murders of white farmers to a planned genocide. This is a statement of white exceptionalism, insisting that his contribution and presence are unusually significant.

Continuing the thread of his exceptional victimhood, de Ruyter bemoans the neglect and incompetence that characterized his case, as though these are not the absolute norm in police investigations in South Africa. He points out how he was treated with suspicion by powerful people in government, that he was the subject of spy investigations, had tracking devices placed in his car, was called derogatory names by ministers, and so on. The narrative here is that despite being a good guy, a superhero even, trying to single-handedly fix a very, very broken thing, he was victimized and attacked rather than being rewarded for his efforts. The result of all this injustice is a kind of discursive shrug: “Guys, I tried, so now I’m going to lay low in Europe.” Such options were not available to Babita Deokaran.

Curiously, de Ruyter also uses the interview to present himself as an environmentalist. He namedrops his visit to COP27. He emphasizes the importance of wind and solar power, worries about air pollution and water scarcity, and wants to contribute to keeping the planet liveable for future generations. Regardless of any attempts he may have made to push Eskom towards renewables, it is disconcerting to witness someone who was at the helm of one of the world’s filthiest energy companies so unctuously suggest that he is a climate activist. These claims ring hollow. Having departed from a position where he could conceivably influence energy policy, de Ruyter now, conveniently, wants to champion a transition to just energy.

Further to his narrative of being a good, rational, environmentalist, de Ruyter strategically uses science in his self-promotion. He cites University of the Witwatersrand  climatology expert Professor Francois Engelbrecht, notably favoring a white man’s expertise, as evidence for a coming mega-drought. He talks about the high-tech, artificial intelligence cameras and programs that he implemented in the fight against sabotage within Eskom. He goes into detail about the attempted cyanide poisoning and the medical and toxicological aspects of the testing. His comments suggest that he is comfortable with the science, and more importantly, that he knows all the experts personally. He repeatedly mentions his new environmental stance and actually ends the interview with his desire to fight climate change. He does not say how, or indeed whether, his professional track record might impact meaningful participation.

There are various competing and intersecting claims to power in this text. De Ruyter is at once victim and superhero, both scared and brave, both racially self-aware and emphatic about his authority. He offers himself as a mouthpiece of white middle-class outrage about how Eskom has been allowed to fall apart, deflecting all blame towards the democratic government while strategically ignoring any responsibilities of the apartheid state. He talks about his direct line to government ministers and powerful people high up in intelligence, to professors, to scientists, while criticizing the ANC for its “embarrassing” socialist discourses. The party is, de Ruyter would have us believe, stuck in the 1980s, while he—the very image of a modern, educated, and urbane Afrikaner—looks to the future, obliquely suggesting yet again that white South Africans are better placed to be in charge than those who took over from them.

De Ruyter engages common scaremonger tactics, warning of impending social and environmental catastrophes (mega-droughts, total blackout, and concomitant crime and looting), but is forthright about his plans to leave the country and “lay low” for a while. There is no sense here of the intense irony of this contradictory position: that de Ruyter the man of morals, the superhero who wants to save South Africa, the victim at the mercy of the government, is able to access an easy life in the imagined white citadels of civilized Europe. He is a victim when it is discursively convenient to be one and a figure of authority when it is not. He is patriotic when it suits him, but ready to jet off at any moment. Is he powerful or powerless, or a strategic combination of both? How do we read his position, suspecting as we must that a rich, elite white man with a long corporate history would be skilled in using the media spotlight to his advantage?

Notwithstanding his masterful massaging of the narrative, supported by Larsen’s uncritical approach, there is one point in the interview where the reality of de Ruyter’s worldview creeps through. About midway through he cautions that the country should accept that Eskom can never be returned to “its former glory.” But what glory is this? What glory was there in a state utility that served only white communities, keeping the lights and the pool pumps on all through the decades of apartheid while black communities languished without power under clouds of coal smoke? Eskom was never designed to serve all South Africa’s people. And similarly, it seems that this presentation of de Ruyter as the savior of Eskom, hampered by the evil forces of the ANC, is designed less to serve the nation than to serve himself.

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 every week.

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Does The EAC Regional Force Still Justify Its Presence in DRC?

The operations of the EACRF are bogged down by a poor interpretation of its mandate and the unrealistic expectations of the host country.



Does The EAC Regional Force Still Justify Its Presence in DRC?

June marks six months since the East African Community Heads of State Summit agreed to send an East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) to the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo to help quell the fighting sparked by the re-emergence of the M23 rebel group.

After months of uncertainty and fears over the deployment of the regional force, Kenya was the first country to send troops, followed by Uganda, Burundi and South Sudan. The EACRF was granted a peace enforcement mandate giving them permission to attack and neutralise, in particular, the M23 rebel group and push it out of the territory it had occupied. As the EACRF’s initial mandate period comes to an end, there remain some valid concerns about what exactly has been the impact of the force.

Formed as a trading bloc, this is the first time the EAC is deploying its troops to a member state since its reformation in 1999. There was therefore a lot of pessimism as to whether the EACRF mission would achieve its goals. In addition, as history shows, African Union and United Nations military intervention missions tend to get embroiled in interminable internal conflicts. MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and missions in South Sudan, Central African Republic, Somalia, and Mali are powerful reminders of the pitfalls of such endeavours. No matter how precise and effective the interventions have been, they are never the magic wand to resolve the underlying internal political challenges. In short, these missions tend to prolong their stay, a perfect case being MONUSCO, which was first deployed in 1999 and is still in the DRC.

The M23 rebel group was formed in 2012 as an offspring of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP). Its reason for waging war against the DRC government was to protect the Congolese Tutsi and other ethnic communities in North and South Kivu from persecution and discrimination.  Despite being inactive for a period of almost 10 years following the 2012 peace agreement, the M23 group has continued to be viewed as a security threat to the DRC government, especially in the province of North Kivu. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, over 300,000 Internally Displaced Persons have been forced to flee since March 2022.

A lot has been heard about the EACRF, which has been deployed in the eastern part of DRC for the last six months. What has it been doing? As the initial six months draw to a close, several formidable challenges have confronted the EACRF which seriously impinge on its ability to achieve its objectives.

The success of the EACRF was always going to be highly dependent on the effectiveness of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC). This is because at the end of the mission the EACRF is expected to hand over its responsibilities to the DRC security agencies. At the time of writing, DRC security sector reforms remain declarations of intent. It is quite evident that, as constituted today, the FARDC is ineffective. Considering this reality, and with an election in the horizon, an improvement seems unlikely in the short term while the EAC regional force is in place. Already, the EAC secretariat has requested that the mission be granted a three-month extension. The reality is that at the moment there are legitimate doubts as to whether the FARDC has the capacity to hold territory and protect civilians, not just from the M23 but also from other armed groups operating in the eastern DRC.

Furthermore, the proliferation of armed groups in the region makes it difficult to achieve the desired goals as the M23 group is not the only armed group that is fighting in the region. The Kivu Security Tracker Report of 2021, reported that there exist more than 120 armed groups operating in areas of North Kivu, South Kivu, Ituri and Tanganyika. Many of these groups do not have the capacity to hold territory or cause havoc like the M23. As such, they have been left out of the mandate of the EACRF yet they have the capacity to create instability. Therefore, the EACRF was always going to face an uphill task in dealing with not just the M23 but also the other groups. The proliferation of armed groups in the eastern DRC remains a hindrance to any realisation of long-term peace.

The reality is that at the moment there are legitimate doubts as to whether the FARDC has the capacity to hold territory and protect civilians.

The EAC prides itself as being people-centred and built on good neighbourliness. However, the internal politics within the EAC have jolted the operations of the EACRF. The quick admission of the DRC to the EAC has brought with it the perennial bad blood with neighbouring Rwanda. For the longest time, Kinshasa has pointed an accusing finger at Kigali for the chaos that have engulfed the eastern part of the country, a charge Kigali has consistently denied. The continued bitter exchange of words between President Felix Tshisekedi and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has not helped matters.

The EAC is built on the personal friendships between the presidents of the member states and on the spirit of good neighbourliness. Indeed, Tshisekedi lost a key ally in former president Uhuru Kenyatta who handed over power to a candidate that he did not support. It was widely suspected that Tshisekedi had a soft spot for Raila Odinga in the 2022 Kenyan presidential election. William Ruto having won the presidency, it is evident that Tshisekedi has been forced to navigate the relationship with much caution and frustration. Personal friendship among leaders is the sine qua non for the success of EAC regional integration, and thus the continued bad blood between Kagame and Tshisekedi impacts negatively on the mutual trust that is essential in the EAC decision-making processes. From recent events, it is evident that Tshisekedi is pulling in a different direction away from his peers in the bloc.

Tshisekedi has since embarked on forum shopping within the SADC community, hoping to convince the bloc to send troops to fight the M23 rebel group. Tshisekedi believes that his EAC counterparts are too soft on Kigali and this explains why the EACRF has not bloodied Rwanda’s nose as many politicians in Kinshasa would have wished. Instead, the EACRF has chosen to negotiate with the M23 to have them withdraw from the occupied territory without firing a single bullet. Some analysts believe the current push to regionalise the conflict fits into the argument that, by whipping up nationalist sentiment, Tshisekedi aims to score political goals and gain enough legitimacy across the country.

The multiple interests and goals of the troop-contributing countries are not aligned. This is bearing in mind that a number of EAC member states have a history of intervention within the DRC; at least each member state of the EAC has at one time or another deployed troops in the DRC. The Uganda People’s Defence Forces has been operating in Ituri and North Kivu since 2021 in pursuit of the Allied Democratic Forces. Burundi has in the past deployed a contingent to go after the RED-Tabara rebel group. Kenya recently deployed around 200 soldiers to join MONUSCO under the Quick Reaction Force while Tanzania has its troops present under the Force Intervention Brigade which is also part of the MONUSCO peacekeeping force. Therefore, the competing interests among the member states inside the DRC remain a huge risk for the mission. It is highly plausible that the EACRF is just a Trojan Horse for the troop-contributing countries to further their interests in the DRC.

In addition, the EAC member states contributing troops to the regional force will need to harmonise their various interests if the EACRF is to achieve its goals. The initial agreement to have Kenya assume the command is increasingly questioned. The DRC is unhappy with the way the EACRF under Kenyan command has been undertaking its mission; the EACRF has opted for diplomacy instead of waging war and shelling the M23. In a video that circulated online after a Heads of State summit in Bujumbura, a visibly angry President Tshisekedi was seen lecturing the force Commander Gen. Jeff Nyagah who has since resigned from his post. In a quick rejoinder, Kinshasa went ahead and rejected the replacement that Kenya had appointed. The DRC wants the force commander to rotate among the member states or be placed under FARDC command. There is a need to address some of these problems if the regional force is to achieve its mandate.

Funding of the EACRF remains a challenge. At the moment, each troop-contributing country is catering for its own troops. The EAC has for a long time been plagued by late payment of contributions by the member states. There was expected additional support from partners like the EU and the US but so far none has been committal in footing the bill. There is a high possibility that some troop-contributing countries may struggle to fund their troops in the long run as the EACRF mission is enormously expensive.

The initial agreement to have Kenya assume the command is increasingly questioned.

Lastly, a military victory over the M23 is not sufficient to bring peace to the restive eastern part of the DRC. There is a need for a parallel political process to accompany the military operation. So far Kinshasa has refused to speak to the M23 whom they have declared as terrorists. Previous peace agreements signed in 2013 between M23 and the DRC authorities continue to gather dust as none has been honoured by either of the parties. Despite there being the Nairobi Process led by former president Uhuru Kenyatta, the continued isolation of the M23 from the talks is proving to be counterproductive.

In the eyes of many observers and the citizens of the DRC, the EACRF has proven to be ineffective since its deployment. This is because the M23 seems to have taken more territory while the EACRF has been place. Moreover, despite the failure by the M23 to respect multiple ceasefires, the EACRF remains cautious, unwilling to engage in an offensive.

According to one analyst, the reason why the EACRF has been cautious is because several governments that have contributed troops to EACRF have given their troops strict instructions not to put themselves at any risk; they will therefore not defend territory. The danger with this directive is that the EACRF has been caught in the crosshairs of a restive population that wants action and tangible results and a leadership that wants to use the force as a private army. The goodwill that the EACRF initially enjoyed has quickly dissipated as the constant attacks on the mission by Tshisekedi and his allies have to a large extent incited the locals to protest against it.

With a looming election, attacks against the mission will go a notch higher as the EACRF forms the perfect bogeyman for the ineffective FARDC and the DRC government.

The deployment of the EACRF was never going to address the security situation in the eastern DRC in a flash. Six months down the line, the mission is still bogged down by a poor interpretation of its mandate and the sometimes unrealistic expectations of the host country.  Already, the DRC has embarked on a shopping spree for new troops from the SADC bloc to come to the rescue of the fledgling EACRF mission. As the relationship between Tshisekedi and Kagame deteriorates further, the big task for the EAC remains to try and rescue the mission from total collapse and spare the bloc some embarrassment.

It is clear that whatever the positions of the troop-contributing countries might be, there is increasing frustration within the DRC that the EAC has in its possession a potent weapon with which to confront M23 that is not being properly utilised. This potentially effective EACRF is being hamstrung by EAC politics and its inability to use force in its peace operations.

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Understanding Africa’s Middle Class

The middle classes of Africa are often idealized as spearheads of democratization and opponents of corrupt regimes. But what does the research actually say?



Understanding Africa’s Middle Class
Photo: Loresho Crescent, suburban Nairobi. Image credit Susan MacMillan for ILRI via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Since the early 2010s, development actors, financial experts, and academics have been discussing the “middle classes” in Africa. The rising income of considerable shares of the populations in many countries triggered a focus on a so-called “indispensable” middle class and was eagerly promoted by the African Development Bank. It had an aura of success in “development” and counteracted the long-cultivated perception in the Global North of Africa as a “lost continent.” Not surprisingly, the discourse received considerable attention.

Middle classes are defined mainly by daily income or expenditure. But the concept seemed to stand for much more than a slight financial improvement. Many of the ascriptions of middle classes in Africa were either hopes promising a better future, or unconsciously taken over mostly from middle class descriptions in North America and Europe since the 1950s. However, measurable empirical evidence was mostly weak with regard to middle class criteria, such as financial stability and well-paid employment or entrepreneurism, a lifestyle with consumption and leisure time, and a pro-democratic political orientation.

This middle-class concept came under critique and posed the question “Where and what (for) is the Middle?” Nevertheless, many of these connotations drew much attention to the “narrative of the African middle class.” Idealized as political actors, middle classes were turned into fictitious spearheads of democratization and opponents of corrupt regimes. The idea of middle-classes as political actors received increasing attention in reaction to the Arab Spring that began around 2011. North African and Middle Eastern countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Turkey saw massive protests against authoritarian regimes. These protests were frequently labeled as “middle-class.”

Yet, the discussion about the middle class as political actors in Africa remained arbitrary. Although many referred to an economic definition of middle class, they added a range of characteristics, such as a certain political consciousness. The empirical foundation of middle classes in Africa, their political positions, and the theoretical explanations remained thin. They could be considered a kind of distraction from and a caricature of class analysis. We engaged, therefore, with some of the main arguments about middle classes and protest and have been discussing them more systematically with colleagues.

The starting point was a 2017 conference in Stellenbosch funded by the German Research Foundation´s Point Sud program. Scholars from a wide range of African countries and other parts of the world identified crucial questions and examined the relationship between middle classes in Africa and protest. Many of the presentations focused on South Africa, but other speakers discussed the situation in countries such as Kenya and Namibia. As a follow-up, we initiated a guest-edited special issue of the Journal for Contemporary African Studies on African middle classes and social protest now published. It offers a range of case studies from Ghana, Cameroun, Kenya, South Africa, and Namibia. In our introduction, we summed up four major difficulties in the transfer of the middle-class category from Europe and North America to African societies.

African societies are not only heterogeneous in comparison to each other, but also they have different historical trajectories from Europe and North America, where the concept of the middle class originated. There, merchants and self-employed craftsmen began to advance their positions in the 19th century, when overwhelming numbers of people were working on farms and in burgeoning industry (with North American settler colonies still a different case). In the 20th century, better education and demanding physical work led to higher wages in the industrial societies of the Global North. Households became mostly identical to the nuclear family, workers had one qualified occupation, and families benefited from several public and private security systems. This was the foundation of the middle class as a social group and way of life. Can we compare the situation of these middle-income groups with middle-income earners in colonial and postcolonial African societies? The innocent use of the term “middle class” suggests that.

There is no compelling connection between a middle-income position and a pro-democratic orientation. Again, the progressive European and North American “middle classes” were the outcome of a specific historical context with certain economic and cultural conditions. Even in Europe, the association of middle-class and pro-democratic worldviews has only been true for certain episodes of the 20th century. Consequently, a transfer of the concept to African settings must consider the divergent backgrounds. As history suggests, middle classes were as often displaying conservative if not reactionary tendencies as liberal democratic ones and were active participants in right-wing policies. By all standards, they were never homogenous politically.

In the international academic division of labor, European and North American research is still hegemonic. This is problematic on many levels: African contexts have been marginalized for decades and are still marginal in empirical research and theory building. The knowledge about Africa is limited and social structures in Africa are not a common topic of theoretical explanation. To date, research on Africa is in the mainstream of many disciplines in international academia considered merely area studies or knowledge about “exotic” contexts. The lack of data and expertise in international disciplinary debates such as sociology and political sciences is a major factor because we must rely on potentially misleading terms like “middle classes” to describe social strata in Africa.

In spite of the aforementioned critique, we think it is highly promising to study “middle classes” and protest in Africa. New groups of middle-income earners are part of ongoing political and economic changes. Urbanization, economic growth, and new ways of life are a matter of fact in most parts of the continent. It is crucial to develop a more nuanced concept of “middle-class,” rather than the overstretched but rather empty notion that persists. There are many questions: How do individuals arrive at their middle-income position? How stable is their situation? How can we study different groups in the same income range?

We, therefore, opt for a multi-dimensional and intersectional approach. Socio-cultural features such as the extended family as a household unit, ethnicity (as well as gender and religion) as a relevant factor, and the specific shape of political networks are significant influences. Middle classes and protest have to be investigated in relation to culture, lifestyle, ethnicity, and/or “race” and religion, as well as gender and other sociocultural positioning.

These and many other aspects must be understood in a mix of empirical research and theorization to get to an appropriate understanding of middle classes and politics in Africa. Our published thoughts and arguments, in company with many others, are a modest effort to contribute to a more nuanced, less Eurocentric debate to challenge the hegemonic status of Western scholarship.

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 every week.

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