Category Archives: African politics

Zambia’s political crisis is not just about democracy


Check out my latest piece on the ongoing Zambian political crisis, published today in Al Jazeera English.

Here are some extracts:

“[Zambia] is the world’s seventh largest copper producer. This metal is essential to economic development in the global North and BRICS. While Chinese investment is growing, the main player in the Zambian mining sector is white capital from South Africa and the West.

There are considerable reserves of uranium, a mineral in high demand with the increase of civilian nuclear energy projects around the world. Uranium is of strategic interest to global superpowers, as fears of global conflict fuel debates about propping up nuclear arsenals.”

“Zambia, like the rest of Africa, needs a new deal to recover its stolen wealth parked in tax havens around the world. Big capital from the West and BRICS have coopted local politicians at the expense of the vast majority of citizens. The priorities should be nationalisation and redistribution programmes.

Zambia cannot go at it alone. There is a need for a strong African Union and regional alliances to fend off the rule of foreign capital. The popularity of similar proposals in the West – for instance, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Manifesto in Britain – can be harnessed to normalise African demands.”


We are all Helen Zille. Or, why the West thinks that colonialism was not all bad

Check out my latest piece in Africa Is A Country on South African prominent white politician Helen Zille’s tweets in defence of colonialism. I talk about southern African whites and Western scholars’ involvement in spreading ideas about Western superiority.

Here is an extract:

“The end of colonialism, apartheid and Jim Crow have marked the global rise of liberal racism – what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls ‘racism without racists’. Even when we do not openly endorse colonialism like Zille does, our works are filled with strategic silences, omissions and erasures that continue to sustain ideas of Western superiority.”



United against Trump

Donald Trump

The poor showing at Trump’s inauguration, and the massive turnout at the Women’s Marches, together with Trump’s popular vote defeat by nearly 3 million votes, prove that chasing Trump supporters is not only ethically problematic, but also strategically wrong. Trump did not win. He got into power thanks to the increasing fragmentation and disunity of its opposition, caused in no minor part by decades of neoliberalism and its co-option of large sections of the left.

The way to fight Trump and the rise of Euro-American fascism is unity, that much is clear.  We need a vision that rejects the unbridled rule of corporations and imperialist states over people’s lives, and the systemic racism and sexism that underpins the current world order. We should strive for models that preserve the planet from the threat of climate change, and stop the pillaging of natural resources and destruction of local livelihoods carried out to fuel an unsustainable and unequal global economy.

We should build on the contribution of queer, feminist and Black activists that showed us that this movement can only be intersectional, taking into account how all forms of oppression and discrimination interact with each other in complex and non-obvious ways. Class is not a primary reality of capital that precedes all other identities, rather it intersects with them in a non-hierarchical fashion. But disagreement with those who continue to believe in the “primacy of class” should not lead to disunity in struggle. We can work together and map a common ground. 

We are led by those who have borne the worst effects of centuries of exploitation and discrimination, well before aggressive neoliberalism eroded the livelihoods of the Western middle classes: people of colour, queer and non-binary people, women, migrants, refugees, indigenous people, people with disabilities, low-income and precarious workers, the unemployed and the underemployed, and other oppressed groups, in no hierarchical order.

We should engage in tough and frank dialogue with leaders like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. They have in different ways softened their stances against nationalist and racist arguments for economic protectionism, in the hope that a compromise would be possible to steer some of the voters who support Trump and the far right towards a progressive alternative. Sanders and Corbyn are mistaken, but we want them to understand this, reverse their positions, and contribute to the emerging anti-Trump movement.

There are a few things we don’t need to do: we don’t need to empathise with Trump supporters and far right voters in Europe; we don’t need to reach to them; we don’t need to give more airtime to their views. It’s up to us. We can claim the democratic right to express our firm rejection of xenophobic and racist nationalism, or let people like Trump and Farage call the shots. We don’t need their voters to win in the ballot box, but they will be welcome if and when they realise they were wrong.

In the world we want to live in, there is space for everybody, including those who voted for Trump. Like everybody else, they will benefit from the progressive policies and collective actions we will deploy in the fight against Trump and his allies.

Dark days ahead for Zambian democracy


In a controversial decision that left many shocked and confused, yesterday the Constitutional Court (ConCourt) judges ruled 3 to 2 that the opposition petition should be dismissed without hearing. This reversed the previous ruling on Friday night that gave the petitioners and the respondents two days each to present their arguments.

The ruling disregards the right to a fair hearing and leaves a huge rift unhealed, as the opposition party UPND and their candidate Hichilema were not allowed to make their case after a hotly contested election characterised by political violence, major curbs on media freedom and striking irregularities in the counting process. The opposition rejected the ruling and Hichilema mentioned yesterday that he might try to move the case to the High Court. The constitution however does not provide any other avenue beyond the ConCourt to challenge the presidential election results.

This leaves a legal and political void, because no due process has taken place to allow the two main parties to begin a process of reconciliation, and to reassure Zambians that a peaceful and democratic environment will be restored.

President Lungu has decided to press on with his systematic attack on the rule of law, and continued to put pressure on the ConCourt judges until they gave in. Lungu was not willing to let the law take its course. He is set on consolidating his grip over state power, and is showing no willingness to negotiate with anybody who disagrees with him, or represents different interests and views.

With the main independent media shut down, the opposition party silenced, and the constant threats sent by State House and the PF supporters in the streets, Zambians who have a different view of how politics should be run will not be able to voice their concerns freely and without fear. The uncertainty and instability that marked the last few months are only likely to increase.

A left vision for basic income


Today Swiss people are voting in a referendum that will determine whether to include a universal basic income in the federal constitution. The constitutional amendment proposes the institution of a basic income to be given for life to the whole population unconditionally, that is, without any specific requirement like income assessment or job status. The basic income should be set at a level that guarantees human dignity and meaningful participation in public life.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, it is a major achievement that the discussion has gone so far in a country like Switzerland that is at the centre of global capitalism.

It is also time however to reflect more critically about the wave of interest basic income has spurred around the world. We need to avoid the misuse of basic income as a tool to dismantle the welfare state in the global North, and legitimise the advance of austerity and free market capitalism. In the global South, the danger is that previous pilots have set basic income at very low levels, reinforcing double standards about what a decent livelihood should be for Southern citizens vis-a-vis people in the North. Here too, the danger is that a low payment that does not cover the basics would be used as a way to avoid building strong states that deliver decent public services to their citizens.

These risks are real. We need more engagement from the left, to make sure that we push for a basic income that complements a strong welfare state. This also means that we can’t uncritically endorse any move towards basic income just on the basis that “it is good for the movement”. Let’s keep our critical minds switched on, and contribute constructively to make sure that basic income works for people, and not against them.

The original vision of the concept stresses the need for a safety net that guarantees a decent living to all. Pushing for a modest cash check as a substitute for welfare provisions and labour rights would work in the opposite direction.

Student protests and the crisis of South African democracy


#FeesMustFall protest in Pretoria, 23 October 2015. Photo: Paul Saad

Click here for our analysis in the Boston Review of the 2015 student protests  in South Africa. We describe the events as one symptom of the deep crisis of the post-apartheid order. We also consider possible future scenarios in what promises to be a hot year for South African politics.

This work is part of my ongoing research in collaboration with Ayanda Manqoyi from UCT. We are grateful to Boston Review managing editor Adam McGee for the excellent editorial work.

Here is an extract:

“The vast majority of black South Africans and other historically disadvantaged groups continue to be excluded from the centers of economic wealth and political power. Whites hold on to their privileged economic position, in alliance with a tiny black elite that controls the government, having benefited from limited ownership transfer deals in the private sector. Majority ownership in mining and other key economic sectors remains in the hands of local whites and investors from Western countries.

Most blacks are de facto segregated in areas that suffer from structural disadvantage and widespread poverty. Moreover, those black citizens living and working in privileged areas still experience the dehumanizing effects of racism. …

It is with a keen awareness of this context that the word ‘decolonization’ has been embraced by some student leaders to contextualize their activism as a facet of a broader strategy to dismantle white privilege in the country.”

My top 5 trends of 2015 – and some predictions for 2016


With best wishes for a healthy and productive 2016!


Debates and struggles around race have taken centre-stage in 2015, with an intensity reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s struggles around civil rights and black power in the US, and the height of the anti-apartheid struggle in 1970s and 1980s in South Africa.

Episodes of blatant racial discrimination and police brutality against black people have been uncovered and exposed like never before in the US. But the debate radically shifted when these concerns have been brought at the heart of the ideological centres of white privilege: wealthy universities in global centres of capital. In April, South African students obtained the removal of the statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town. In October, university students joined mass protests to widen access to higher education and radically transform historically white universities in decolonised places of learning.

Race was also at the centre of various protests erupted across the US towards the end of the year. Finally, Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford is gaining momentum, calling for the removal of a Rhodes statue in Oriel College. The struggle is about much more than a sculpture. The movement wants to open a debate about the legacy of colonialism in Britain, a history that the country has never faced up to in the way Germany and Italy had to deal with the horrors of fascist dictatorships.

It is just the beginning. These struggles are likely to intensify in 2016. Predictions about outcomes would be premature, but there is no doubt that once the issue is on the table, it won’t disappear quite as easily as it resurfaced after decades of denial.


The refugee crisis clearly exposed the injustices and violence of the global capitalist system, with razor wire fences erected across Europe uncannily evoking the dark past of Nazi concentration camps. We’ve been hit by a constant stream of news reporting thousands of deaths of refugees fleeing their homes in the Middle East and other parts of Asia and Africa. The Mediterranean Sea is now the geographic symbol of the catastrophe.

Europe has been at the forefront of waging war and producing mass deaths and displacement in the Middle East and elsewhere, but reacted in brutal self-defence when it came to help those in need. A pan-European wave of xenophobic nationalism dictated policy, with border closures resulting in the killing of people desperately searching for safety. A few decades from now, this will be remembered as another genocide by Europeans on people outside their borders marked as cultural and racial others.

In 2015 the idea that Europeans should “come first” in Europe has regained legitimacy for the first time since the conscious rejection of racism in the aftermath of WWII. Far right populist movements are advancing nearly everywhere in Europe – a case in point is the Front National becoming first party in France in the regional elections in early December. Meanwhile, many left-wing leaders and cynical technocrats try to counter xenophobic revolts by giving in to their demands.

More war in the Middle East is justified by ill-conceived plans to quash the much feared Islamic State, an enemy that nobody really understands or knows how to fight. War is used as a diversion to prop up technocratic governments about to be swallowed by the rise of the far right.

The crisis is likely to intensify. We should expect more border closures and more wars. Large parts of the globe are entering a state of semi-permanent conflict, fuelled by the declining hegemony of a Western bloc that is unwilling to accept that its time in history has passed. Within Europe and the US, xenophobic nationalism and white supremacy will continue to rise among the middle classes, turning renegade ideologies into acceptable mainstream.


The African continent has been hard hit by the slow down of the global commodity markets, caused by an ongoing oil war between US and OPEC, declining growth in China, and the lack of a strong recovery in Europe and the US.

After a boom that lasted more than a decade across Africa, the harsh reality is laid bare. High growth levels have not been accompanied by strong infrastructure development and investment in key public goods like health and education. Profits ended in the hands of multinational capital and tiny local elites. States acted as cartels owned by a few multinationals, and negotiated unfavourable deals with various foreign superpowers.

In 2016 the full weight of the economic downturn will unfold, and the convergence of multiple crises – political, economic, social and environmental – is likely to bring major waves of mass unrest across the continent, and more instability in areas already marred by civil conflict and war.

The key issue for African governments, foreign investors and development agencies will be how to deal with masses of discontented and hungry people, calling for radical change and immediate action to address their suffering.


Aside from the refugee crisis, in Europe 2015 was the year the rule of technocracy came under attack by popular anti-austerity movements. Greek people led the charge, with the historic election victory in January of Syriza, running on an anti-austerity left agenda.

Pressed into a corner by international creditors who punished Greece for its refusal to comply, Syriza’s leader and Greek PM Tsipras did his best to deflate one of the most promising anti-austerity movements in recent times. He betrayed the mandate of the January election, and of a national referendum in July that saw a landslide “no” vote against the draconian bailout terms offered by Brussels. With Tsipras’ approval, the much hated bailout was imposed over Greece.

After fresh elections in September, Syriza completed its transformation into a centrist formation talking left and walking right. The new government enforced the worst bailout conditions in the history of Greece, passing laws stripping the country of its assets, imposing further cuts to an already crumbling welfare state, and diminishing protection for home owners unable to pay their mortgages. Harsh pension and labour market reforms are yet to come.

Tsipras’ U-turn had a devastating effect on the morale and prospects of new left movements across Europe, especially in southern countries. New anti-austerity left movement Podemos in Spain did well in the December general election, but lowered expectations by reiterating their support for Tsipras’ transition from radical leftist to austerity technocrat. In Portugal, a shaky alliance between pro-austerity centre-left and the anti-austerity left came to power a few weeks ago, and is already showing major signs of crisis.

A hopeful counterpoint to Syriza’s disappointing trajectory was the election of Jeremy Corbyn as British Labour leader in September. He is in favour of wealth redistribution from corporations and the upper-middle classes to the vast majority of people, and opposes a senseless and costly British war in Syria. His popular policy positions have made him into the main target of attacks by mainstream politicians and big capital. His worst enemies sit in his own party: the ever-green Blairites have no consensus among the wider public, but continue to occupy some of the most influential positions within Labour.

Despite the challenges, there’s still some hope for the European left. 2016 will be the year when new left movements will show their true worth. Corbyn is heading towards a stand-off with the Blairites; the popular anti-technocracy former finance minister of Greece Yanis Varoufakis will launch his own pan-European movement to “democratise the EU”; and Podemos might be able to gain ground with the strategic openings offered by the Spanish political crisis opened by an indecisive election.

We will see whether a new brand of left populism will be able to rally mass discontent against technocracy, and counter the advance of the far right. If Corbyn and Podemos end up like Tsipras, it could be a deadly blow for a viable left alternative to the devastating mix of austerity and war imposed by European technocrats.


If 2014 was the year of inequality – remember Piketty? – 2015 was marked by the increasing realisation that unemployment and precarious work have become a permanent feature of the current capitalist system. With stuttering growth across the global North, the few countries that are experiencing significant GDP expansion like Britain and Spain have seen no improvement for the vast majority of people. In the global South, there is a growing awareness that there is no magical “trickle down” effect that will lift people out of poverty.

Basic income was until recently a niche concept developed in the 1980s by a small group of enlightened philosophers and political scientists with the rare gift of foresight. In 2015 it hit the mainstream, raising hopes across many quarters that it could become an effective policy tool to counter the structural decline of formal employment across the globe. In its “pure” form, a basic income is a grant given to everybody for life, should cover the basics for decent living, and comes with no conditions attached – it’s not means-tested, and you receive it even if you are not unemployed, or you don’t fit in other conventional categories of welfare recipients like children or the elderly.

In practice, the increasing attention by mainstream political parties and technocrats means that the concept has already been changed and adapted to suit disparate agendas, and sometimes conflicting views of the economy. The right likes the idea as a potential quick fix to escalating welfare costs, i.e. give everybody a low basic income, and cut all other benefits. Sections of the left which are more attuned to the changing configurations of capitalism, see it as a necessary measure to guarantee livelihoods and individual freedom in a world marked by exploitative work and rising unemployment.

Europe is leading the conversation: a national basic income pilot was announced by the new centre-right government in Finland; the possibility of city-level experiments is under discussion in several Dutch municipalities; and a national referendum in Switzerland will be held in June 2016, when Swiss people will decide whether an unconditional basic income should be enshrined in the federal constitution.

The debate has also advanced further elsewhere, with Namibia leading the flock in the global South: after a successful pilot carried out between 2008 and 2009, the government has unleashed new plans for some form of basic income grant rolled out at national level as part of an ambitious poverty eradication strategy.

2016 will no doubt puts to the test the potential of this far-reaching measure and its nascent grassroots movement of supporters. With enthusiastic endorsements across the political spectrum, from the free market libertarians of the Adam Smith Institute, to left-leaning thinker and activist David Graeber, the idea has the potential to explode in a global social movement with mass support. It catches the public imagination with its visionary simplicity and pragmatism, and could become one of the essential tools to counter poverty, and free up human resources and social creativity at a time of deep material and existential crisis.

South Africa’s student movement could be catalyst for wider social change

A major wave of protests has brought to a halt several universities in South Africa – Witwatersrand University, University of Cape Town, Fort Hare, Rhodes and Stellenbosch have all been affected. The issue of student fee increases, and more generally the exorbitant cost of higher education for the average South African, have become the catalyst for these protests. Demands for racial justice and concerns about economic inequality are coming together in a powerful call for change that cannot be ignored or easily dismissed.

This movement emerges from sustained efforts in the last months to build a wider social movement to bring about transformation of university staff and students, and widening access to higher education to include most South Africans – especially the black majority who continue to be excluded and discriminated.

Wits Professor Achille Mbembe has been a source of wisdom and guidance in these months, and makes an important point about the need for protesters to focus not just on universities’ management, and to shift the attention towards the state, envisaged as the key locus of decision-making in these crucial areas.

One question however seems to be less debated, at least in the mainstream reporting on these protests: are we sure that it is just a matter of identifying the “right” institutional structures in order to address the crisis? Why would the state be any more effective than universities’ management in addressing the root causes of the protesters’ demands? Government elites’ collusion with big capital and white interests can hardly be disputed. After all, this was the basis of the negotiated transition to a post-apartheid order in the early 1990s.

There is a great potential in these protests, which might or might not be harnessed by those who are participating in this mass movement: the opportunity to bring together people from different sectors of society who feel the brunt of discrimination and disadvantage, and yet have been unable to break through a sophisticated governance system that privileges “divide and rule” tactics, and fosters fragmentation along racial, ethnic, class and religious lines.

This alliance would give university students the role of ‘spokespersons’, articulating demands for racial and economic justice which people across the country, from informal settlements and townships to disenfranchised rural areas, are making everyday in their own specific ways and contexts. These calls remain largely unheard in a national debate dominated by a strong bias towards university-educated citizens – that’s why university protests attract widespread media attention and can have an impact on policy-making.

A narrow path focusing on representation in current state structures is certainly desirable as a first step towards systemic change. But it is not enough to address the root problem: the vast majority of South Africans are excluded from meaningful participation in the national economy and society, through a mix of racial and class discrimination that is often covered up under the guises of apparently democratic and inclusive structures.

The student movement can contribute to the formation of the grassroots participatory structures that are needed to build a new dispensation from the ashes of the apartheid system and its neoliberal post-apartheid successor. The inability of the current state-capital deal to deliver for most people will be increasingly exposed, especially with the ongoing economic slow-down that is affecting the country.

It might be time to bring together debates that mainstream media have conveniently kept separate, i.e. land reform, public control of the mining sector, access to and transformation of higher education. Ideas about resource nationalism could be easily extended to the realm of higher education. A new agenda for an “intellectual” resource nationalism that brings universities under public control would be one way out of the current impasse.

Public control cannot however be reduced to top down intervention by state structures that are hijacked by the same private interests that hinder transformation and access at the level of universities’ management. Efforts at widening access to and transforming universities should work in parallel with a sustained transformation of state structures. This can only be carried out by a wider social movement that pursues the interests of the excluded majority, and is willing to stand up to the attempts by big capital and the upper-middle classes to keep things as they are.

Neoliberal policies and principles around black economic empowerment have clearly failed to deliver change and cannot be the blueprint for future higher education policies. It is time to rethink the relationship between state and capital, and to reclaim the space for a participatory democracy that puts public control and regulation of markets and services above private interests.

Entangled in/equalities in African societies

Check out my academic commentary recently published by the Finnish journal Suomen Antropologi, as part of a forum on anthropologist Harri Englund’s insightful book Human Rights and African Airwaves: Mediating Equality on the Chichewa Radio (Indiana University Press, 2011). The article’s title is “Entangled In/Equalities in African Societies”.

Englund’s masterful ethnography focuses on a popular radio programme that collects listeners’ stories about rights and wrongs of everyday life in rural Malawi. In my response, I engage with his careful exploration of alternative conceptions of equality in Malawi.

The gist of this piece is that Western conceptions cannot be uncritically transposed to southern African contexts, especially when it comes to development interventions and human rights initiatives. Many development practitioners and policy makers tend to gloss over the local entanglements of equality and inequality in African societies.

Englund’s book is part of a wider body of scholarship in southern African anthropology that has much to contribute to the recent surge of interest in inequality following the Piketty phenomenon, and to the design and implementation of effective anti-poverty measures.

Here is an extract from my article:

“The publics Englund engages with do not condemn inequality per se, but rather the excesses of individuals in position of authority who do not fulfil their obligations towards their weaker dependents. Employers are not expected to redistribute their wealth according to some abstract measure of equality, but moral outrage is expressed when they are not able to provide for the basic needs of their employees. Schoolteachers enjoy the benefit of high social status and are widely respected, but they are expected in exchange to make sure that they provide children with an excellent education.

Englund’s highly original argument is that such moral claims and disciplining by the poor … of figures of power and authority are only possible because a relationship of equality holds between the two. Equality then is not a goal to be achieved through specific policies, but rather a pre-condition of any social relation worthy of the name. This existential condition of equality is constantly fostered and nurtured in multiple ways, from sharing food, drinks and familial affects in conviviality to bodily and symbolic communion and exchange in ritual and religion.”

Negative growth in 2nd quarter, tough times ahead for South Africa

The South African economy shrank by 1.3% in the second quarter of this year, with major contractions in mining and agriculture. Tough times ahead for the country, as the slowing down of China and general lack of recovery in Northern markets are not going to be reverted any soon.

This will further exacerbate the basic contradiction behind South Africa’s economic system. Most growth in recent years has come from investment in the rest of Africa, that remains in the hands of few – with a dominant position of white capital – and doesn’t trickle down to the rest of South Africans. Meanwhile restructuring and decline at home means even less jobs in the mining sector and elsewhere.

Considering the bottleneck many graduates are finding themselves in, these pressures will not only be on the poorest, but also on all those who had high expectations that university education would lift them out of poverty towards a better and fairer future.

It is in this context that the rising social movement towards transformation – but also the worrying rise of xenophobia across lower and middle classes – should be understood. South Africa is in for more social unrest, worsening living conditions and economic and political instability if unequal economic and social structures are not addressed head on.