Thursday, May 12, 2005

A Message to the Kenyan Middle Strata

From Onyango Oloo in Quebec

mid•dle Pronunciation Key (m d l)
1. Equally distant from extremes or limits; central: the middle point on a line.
2. Being at neither one extreme nor the other; intermediate.
stra•ta Pronunciation Key (str t , str t )
A plural of stratum.

Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

stra•tum Pronunciation Key (str t m, str t m)
n. pl. stra•ta (-t ) or stra•tums
1. A level of society composed of people with similar social, cultural, or economic status.
2. One of a number of layers, levels, or divisions in an organized system: a complex poem with many strata of meaning

An online definition of Social Class.

This THIRD essay on mass action has been inspired by a Kenyan sister who goes by the handle,"Tinker Bell" over at the Mashada forum.

In giving feedback to Part TWO of my essay she stated quite matter of factly that she did not believe in mass action.

Now, I am not exactly sure I know exactly where she is coming from beyond that rather cryptic one-liner.

However, I have set myself the task of persuading her otherwise.

I want to convince her that not only is there NOTHING TO BE SCARED ABOUT when it comes to "mass action" but that, in her own way, she has been a "mass action" enthusiast for many years, unbeknownst to herself.

I am just going to hazard a guess and imagine that more often than not, when people conjure up

"Mass Action" in their minds, they are exclusively fretting over ferocious running street battles with riot police. I am going to assume that they are leaning towards my cousins in those mababi sides of Nairobi complaining how the “katikati ya town" was clogged up because of those "stupid University students" who were "busy stoning innocent motorists".

Often, this is the most enduring image that resides in the minds of most people:

"Mass Action" is to their feverish imaginations, a very DRAMATIC, often bloody, face off that is supposed to be accompanied by shoving, shouting, arrest and even death.

Of course, this image is based on many sad and familiar realities.

Within the Kenyan context, you are more likely to hear a "middle class" or "rich" Kenyan denouncing “mass action” because they feel these actions "TARGET" them and other members of their class.

How sad for otherwise sane, intelligent and well-meaning people to be held hostage by such irrational fears!

And speaking of "middle class" or "rich" Kenyans, I think it is time someone challenged those assumptions about who is "rich" and who is "poor" in Kenya.

When I was growing up in the rural countryside in western Kenya in the late sixties and early seventies I used to be amused, even back then as a kid to see what rural dwellers in my neck of the woods regarded who was "rich" and who was "poor". In certain villages, a "rich" person was anyone who had a corrugated iron roofed house with glass windows and stone blocks for walls, with a septic tank sitting just in front of the verandah- especially if they had a vehicle, ANY VEHICLE more sophisticated than a "black mamba" bicycle. We are talking of the homes of retired primary school headmasters, shopkeepers, sugar cane farmers or a very successful former cow thief.

If these rural home owners had sons and daughters "working" in Nairobi as accountants, nurses, railway drivers, middle ranking post office clerks, typists, policemen, factory supervisors and what have you and these sons and daughters traveled "back home" for Xmas, with their school-going kids, then these rural homesteads were considered bastions of the local petit-bourgeoisie.

From the early seventies to the early eighties when I was living in Mombasa, of course the concept of who was "rich" changed. Now it was those kids in my class who lived in neighbourhoods like Nyali, Kizingo, Tudor Nora, Mbaraki, certain parts of Ganjoni, certain parts of Bamburi and their extended relatives who lived in Muthaiga, Hurlingham, Loresho, and other exclusive suburbs of Nairobi.

Again, note that the people who are being referred to as "rich" are mostly members of what is considered in ordinary parlance as "middle class".

The wealth of the Kenyattas, Bayusufs, Biwotts, Mois and others was just whispered about.

Within the last twenty five years, as globalization and the information and technological revolutions caught up with even the most remote parts of rural Kenya, we as a people have come to appreciate that a tiny sliver of the members of Kenya's very wealthy families compared very favourably with some of the really rich people out there.

On the other hand, the VAST MAJORITY of people who are considered "very rich" in Kenya would be hardly acknowledged as "middle-class" if they transplanted themselves to North America, Europe and even some parts of the Middle East and Asia.

I am saying this because a lot of the people who think they have something to "lose" from militant mass action turn out to be part of the very masses that they recoil with such snobbery from!

We are all familiar with the kind of transitional shocks that await new Kenyan arrivals in Canada when they trade their upper middle class mansions in Mombasa, Nairobi, Nakuru, Eldoret, Kitale and Kisumu for regular apartment buildings in Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa, Vancouver and elsewhere. There are those who totally fail to cope with all the ramifications of the realization of their new unfortunate "coming down in the world" transformation in the 'belly of the beast'.

And even when we talk about the richest of the very rich in Kenya, how do they compare with America's, Canada's and the rest of the West's superwealthy?

Let us study one of Kenya’s most prominent billionaires for illustration purposes.

Shri Manilal Premchand Chandaria is a tycoon of South Asian heritage who heads one of the few genuinely homegrown MULTI-NATIONAL empires made in Kenya- Comcraft operates in FORTY FIVE DIFFERENT countries in Africa, Asia and Europe.

"Manu", as Shri Manilal Premchand Chandaria is more familiarly known, is among the very richest Kenyans alive today. The Kenyatta and Moi family may or may not be worth much much more, but these two leading looting and land-grabbing families operate more shadily and therefore it is not easy to scrutinize their wealth more transparently.

Apparently, there is another industrial East African tycoon who is also called Chandaria, so you wanna be careful not to mix them up...

Still, how does Manu Chandaria measure up to the real Super Rich in the United States?

Michael Parenti gave us a very illuminating study on these people some years ago. Here is a link to that fascinating Parenti essay.

Now check out Holly Skar's recent article about CEO Pay on Steroids.

If you want to see who really controls our economy, then please explore the following links to find out who is in charge of the lucrative tourist spots and money makers like the flagship Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi, the Mount Kenya Safari Club, the Aberdare Country Club, the Mara Safari Club and the Ark. I would give grudging respect if a local bwanyenye or bepari stepped up to the plate to own these properties, but wapi! We have just sold out to some CANADIAN outfit.

What is this outfit?

Well it is called Fairmont Hotels and Resorts Inc and is currently based in Wellington Street in downtown Toronto which was formed by some powerful Canadian and American corporate forces way back in 1999 and has properties in the Gulf although of late, it has been
losing moolah like crazy.

And one more thing: this "Canadian" corporation is now owned by a member of the House of Saud, the billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, as you can see from this Reuters news report:

Kingdom Hotel buys Lonrho Hotels in Kenya
Thu May 12, 2005 8:19 AM GMT+02:00

RIYADH (Reuters) - Kingdom Hotel Investments (KHI), an entity owned by Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, said on Wednesday it purchased the Lonrho Hotels portfolio in Kenya. KHI said in a statement that $60 million was required to acquire and renovate the five properties, totalling over 400 rooms. Fairmont Hotels and Resorts Inc will manage the portfolio and oversee a $25 million renovation programme, it added. The purchase was made in collaboration with IFA Hotels and Resorts, a unit of Kuwait-based International Financial Advisors, the statement said. "Tourism to Africa is undoubtedly on a strong rebound and we have been monitoring strategic investment opportunities in this particular region for quite some time," Prince Alwaleed said in the statement. KHI owns 14 properties across the Middle East and Africa. The prince has investments in a number of hotel-related firms, including Four Seasons and Fairmont Hotels and Resorts.

Recently I argued that the Kenyan middle class is being increasingly lumpenized by the forces of globalization. Here is the relevant excerpt:

I remember when I was a kid commuting between Mombasa and Nairobi to visit my relatives who lived all over Nairobi- I had cousins living in Landi Mawe and Muthurwa, aunties in Madaraka estate and Jericho, uncles in Lavington; other cousins in Kilimani, Kileleshwa, Parklands and Westlands. I remember visiting my dad when he was a senior prisons officer during my school holidays and seeing his cook, his shamba boy and I do not what other help- and yes, prisons officers had prisoners cutting their lawn and doing other domestic duties. In short it was a very sharp contrast between my working class relatives and my middle to upper middle class relatives. Do those demarcations still exist? I do not live in Kenya- but certainly I saw a remarkable change when I was last in Kenya. More and more "middle class Kenyans" are struggling to remain in the WORKING CLASS in terms of their standard of living while many workers have been retrenched. I have relatives who have never held formal sector employment in over ten years and are forced to the jua kali and other sections of the so called informal economy( more like the REAL ECONOMY) to survive.

And this is NOT a cute anecdote from Montreal.

It is the overwhelming reality all over Africa and the Third World. More and more people are becoming lumpenized. The so called "Shanty Towns" are dwarfing the downtowns of Nairobi, Lagos, Johanesburg, you name it...

..Are modern, contemporary realities making us rethink the old demarcations between the proletariat and lumpenproletariat?

Who is a worker today?

Many people talk no longer of East and West, but of North and South. But even this hemispheric shift in terminology is lazy and superficial. Because there IS a NORTH in the South and a SOUTH in the North- in other words, if you go to Nairobi you find the Biwotts, the Delamares, the Sajjads, the Rundas and Mountain Views coexisting with the Ochiengs, Achiengs, Muriuki and Nanjalas in Korogocho, Githurai and Kibera. There are First World lifestyles in the city of Nairobi, just as there is Third World squalor in New York, Toronto, London and Marseilles.

In one of the strangest twists in the brain drain-brain gain saga of African intellectuals in the metropoles of world monopoly capital you find very highly educated academics clutching doctorate degrees subsisting as part-time non-tenured university staff in campuses increasingly driven by the demands of the Pfizers, the Microsofts and the Monsantos. These scholars are being lumpenized, plain and simple. And we know that scores of them thought they were "escaping" to America, Canada, Britain, Australia, Germany, France etc from the lumpenization and proletarianization of their colleagues back in Nairobi, Eldoret,Maseno,Ile Ife, Lusaka, Dar es Salaam, Makerere, Addis Ababa and Witwatersrand.

Anyone who has taken a ride in a taxi in any of the major North American cities has probably spoken to a driver who used to be a top engineer, senior manager, doctor, architect etc back in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, India, Egypt, Senegal, you name it.

How many factory workers in Canada, Italy, Spain,Germany and Norway once lived in Kizingo, Mbaraki, Nyali and other middle to upper middle class suburbs of Mombasa, Nairobi, Nakuru, Kisumu and elsewhere?

All over the world, people of colour migrating from to the "North" to escape the lumpenizing tendencies in the "South" find themselves being welcomed with open arms to the inner cities of the West- with many of these stunned new arrivals wondering whether it was worth all that effort to bribe and cajole their way past the increasingly fortified borders of Fortress Europe and Fortress America.

What is my point exactly?

A very simple one:

The shifts in the structure and nature of world monopoly capitalism are rapidly eroding the historical demarcations between the petit-bourgeoisie and the working class and therefore those Kenyans who still delude themselves that they are "rich" should wake up and smell the kahawa already.

In our national KENYAN context we see that the greedy and ruthless forces of global capitalism are not satisfied with merely superexploiting and brutalizing the workers, the small farmers and other urban poor-and by the way, an unemployed worker is still a worker looking for work. Globalization has launched an all out attack against the middle strata in Kenya. The most vivid example is perhaps the very changed and dire circumstances that Kenya's academics, professionals and recent graduates are today forced to subsist on. It is NOT an accident that many Kenyans who come abroad to study never go back to the squalor that their former classmates confront every day- even if, over here in the West, they too face all kinds of barriers to do with credentials, immigration status and yes, skin colour.

People talk of the brain drain these days a lot on Kenyan forums. And there is a net loss of well-educated Kenyans fleeing the battered neo-colonial basket case that is the Kenya today, especially with additional legacy and reality of Goldenbergs and Anglo-Fleecings plunder from the robber barons in the actual cabinet. In overall terms however, international finance capital wants to reduce most people to contingency workers whose salaries and wages will tend to fall over the years, not rise, if you look at trends in the USA, Canada and elsewhere- especially after adjusting for inflation, the tax cuts to the rich and other Bush like gifts to the millionaires and billionaires.

So what am I saying again?

That many, many, many, many, many so called "middle class" and allegedly "rich" Kenyans are being proletarianized and lumpenized at such a rate that it is comical to see them express so much abject fear for ordinary working wananchi-not realizing that many of these so called "middle class" and "rich" Kenyans have already joined the ranks of working wananchi. Having worked at McGill University for almost five years now, I know the number of middle to upper middle class Kenyan students whose parents can no longer afford the exorbitant international fees charged by these leeching campuses in Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia, BC, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and elsewhere(and mark you, Canadian universities are way cheaper than their American counterparts).

The rueful irony is that many members of the Kenyan middle strata think that the various Kenyan governments serve their petit-bourgeois class interests and are therefore rabidly pro-establishment, admonishing the Onyango Oloos to "wacha siasa!" and think about "investing in the many wonderful business opportunities". In the meantime, the Mois, Kibakis and their cabinet ministers are busy pimping Mother Kenya, her people and her resources to the rapacious dictates of international finance capital.

Last year David Mwiraria was talking gleefully of retrenching up to 24,000 public sector workers. During this year's Labour Day event, Kibaki's chief nyapara Dr. Newton Kulundu had the nerve to say that in the future, the MINIMUM WAGE would not be raised until Kenyans could prove that they were more productive. In the meantime the same Kulundu wants to make sure that same underpaid Kenyan workers pay for his generous health insurance that includes perks for two spouses and I do not know how many nyithindo. Prof. Anyang' Nyongo, social democratic credentials notwithstanding, is doing everything he can as National Planning minister to make Kenya a paradise for Western exploitation- what with tax holidays, repatriation of profits, low wages and I do not know what else!

This same globalization fueled lumpenization of the Kenyan middle class is what drove a certain cabinet minister to fall so behind with the rent at his Adams Arcade digs that he was facing eviction and is now making the same sudden fat cat accumulate as much wealth as he can while he still has access to the government looting machine. We saw how one of the most powerful tycoons of Kenya, Njenga Karume was shafted in 2002 when East Africa Breweries cut a corporate deal with its South African counterpart and former competitor to shut down the Castle plant leaving poor Karume millions of the muthendi in the red. Here is a link to an essay I wrote on the debacle at the time...

Does the Kenyan government, especially this one under Mwai Kibaki care very much for Kenya's professionals and other elements of the middle strata?

I would argue that they do not give a... fill in the blanks.

These guys only care about lining their own pockets.

Kwani, how come it has taken a docile pro-government outfit like the Kenya Community Abroad almost THREE FRIGGING YEARS to convince NARC MPs to even start thinking of creating a data base for Kenyan professionals abroad? Some of the Kibaki insiders used to be Kenyans abroad just the other day-kwani do they need a special motion in parliament by Subukia MP Koigi wa Wamwere to do the right thing?

What a shame!

The sooner Kenya's middle strata realizes that our neo-colonial swindlers in the Kibaki administration are only interested in serving their imperialist masters and their distended tumbos the better, if you know what I am saying.

This cynical and wilful disregard by the NAK parvenu schemers in Nairobi for the class interests of the Kenyan middle strata is NOT CONFINED to economic matters alone. Check out the way the Kenya government has totally allowed the country's infrastructure to go completely to rot; check out the parlous state of insecurity and the inability to do anything serious about serious crime like the current murder spree on the North Coast of Mombasa City.

We know the kind of cavalier attitude shown to people like Ms. Gladwell Otieno and it does not take an actual genius to figure out who was behind the pink slip political columnist Mutahi Ngunyi received from the NAKTION. Oduor Ong'wen in his weekly Standard commentary this Wednesday exposed the creeping plot that the Kibaki regime has against civil society forces and voices who are critical of NARC's many missteps.

What does this have to do with MASS ACTION for crying out loud, I hear some of you readers crying out very loudly.

In a word:

EVERYTHING, you see.

Mass action, or as I would prefer it, MASS MOBILIZATION is a political imperative and duty for every patriotic Kenyan irrepective of their class background and ideological beliefs.

When I talk of mass mobilization I am talking of unity in action of millions of organized, conscious and democracy loving Kenyans coming together to take back their country from these thieves, these swindlers, these conmen, these land grabbers and yes, these arrogant killers and rapists.

Mass mobilization may or may not involve a determined march on parliament; it may or may not involve a collective hunger strike; it may or may not involve a series of countrywide rallies- but that is not all that mass mobilization entails.

Mass mobilization just means a permanent standing army of patriotic Kenyans who no longer have to await the electoral season to storm the national political stages and barricades.

You know something?

Tell you what...

Instead of crippling my shoulders writing for the next two hours, let me just reproduce, verbatim an article that describes how some other African people created the kind of structures and formations that I think are crucial for mass mobilization in our country.

We can not, of course, just copy things blindly-that much is obvious.

Anyways, here is the piece:

People's Power - the 20th Anniversary of the UDF

By Blade Nzimande, SACP General Secretary

This week we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the launch of the United Democratic Front. The UDF played an absolutely critical role in our transition to democracy. The political culture and traditions it helped to nurture continue to impact significantly on the present.

Launched on August 20th 1983, the UDF was a front of some 700 civic, workers, women's, student, youth, faith-based, sporting and cultural affiliates. Its initial objective was to organise a massive boycott of the apartheid regime's constitutional reform measures, designed to include Coloured and Indians in junior parliaments within a "tricameral" system, and to provide for some dummy representation for urban Africans at the township level. The boycotts in 1984 succeeded dramatically, putting the regime's "reformist" agenda completely off-balance.

But if the UDF was a front of hundreds of affiliates, it was also a front for the banned ANC and its alliance partners, the SACP and SACTU. The overwhelming majority of UDF activists saw themselves as ANC-aligned. Following the success of the boycott campaign, the UDF increasingly occupied the vacuum of above-board national political organisation and mobilisation. However, not all ANC supporters within the country immediately accepted the UDF. Key progressive trade unions remained outside of the UDF, although after the 1985 launch of COSATU, the working relationship became very close.

People's Power

It was in the course of 1985 that the UDF, propelled by events on the ground in numerous townships, made perhaps its most significant contribution. Following the successful election boycott in April 1984, the UDF was uncertain of a precise way forward.

Then a new wave of popular struggle, beginning in the Vaal Triangle in September 1984, provided fresh challenges. This new upsurge was not initially directed by the UDF, it emerged out of the social crises in the townships of the Vaal, in Tumahole, Atteridgeville, the East Rand, and Cradock. Absolutely critical to these developments were thousands of activists, one of the most outstanding was Matthew Goniwe, a school teacher in Cradock, an underground SACP cadre, and soon thereafter a martyr.

In townships like these, the struggle moved up a gear from boycott to ungovernability, rendering key townships semi-liberated zones, at least for months at a time. And then, organically, these struggles began to address the challenge of moving from relative ungovernability (by the apartheid regime) to self-governance, people's power. This grass-roots popular power organised street committees, people's courts, alternative education, people's parks, rubbish removal, and, later, self-defence units.

Much of this happened organically, more or less spontaneously in the context of township crises and struggles. However, the UDF increasingly provided a strategic theoretical perspective to these developments. It helped to popularise the idea of people's power, using its web of affiliate networks, it spread the example of one township to other townships. ANC and SACP underground structures, and media from our formations, including the very influential role of Radio Freedom, were also central to advancing these strategic perspectives.

It is interesting to note how the UDF began to understand this emergent people's power at the time. The official journal of the UDF, Isizwe, wrote:

"It is true that the fullest consolidation of people's power is still in the future. It is true that control over central state power is the key to many things…Nevertheless, the building of people's power is something that is already beginning to happen in the course of our struggle. It is not for us to sit back and merely dream of the day that the people shall govern. It is our task to realise that goal now."

It is possible to discern in this passage an identical logic (although, of course, referring to a related but different content), to the logic that informs the SACP's current slogan, "Socialism is the Future, Build it Now". Struggle on the ground enabled the UDF to understand that the future had to be built in the present. Mass mobilisation is not just a tap to be turned on and off, depending on some national political objective. Mass mobilisation is not just directed instrumentally at a single objective - the capture of state power (whether by insurrection or election). The character and quality of the future is determined, in considerable measure, by the form and content, the transformative nature of tens of thousands of actual, present-day struggles of working people and the poor.

Social Movements

The 20th anniversary of the UDF comes at a time when debate about the role and trajectory of social movements is again an important and contested subject. This past weekend's Secretariat Political Report to the Central Committee, devoted considerable attention to the topic of social movements.

In our discussions as the CC we agreed that there were two tendencies that need to be avoided when approaching social movements in our current situation. The one tendency is over-bureaucratisation, which can occur from within or from without. There is a danger that social movements will be captured by elite gate-keepers, transforming them from vibrant localised activities and struggles, into national formations that act as interlocutors with government "on behalf of" a real or claimed constituency. A related, but converse tendency, occurs when there is simple irritation and dismissiveness on the part of authorities when social movements are not easily funnelled into this kind of tame bureaucratic compliance, acting as transmission belts for government.

On the other hand, there is the very real danger that social movements will increasingly appropriate what is, in fact, a liberal perspective on state power. This is the danger that they will increasingly develop an anti-politics politics, seeing themselves as, by definition, oppositionist. "Ungovernability" becomes an end in itself. This latter danger gravely underestimates the significance of our democratic, popular breakthrough in 1994. It abandons the possibilities opened up by a range of new potential sites of popular power - from localised community policing forums and ward committees to national structures like parliament and government departments. Needless to say, where social movements neglect active engagement with the state, they contribute to the bureaucratisation of the state, rather than helping to transform it.

For all of these reasons, it is important how we remember the UDF in the present, how we draw lessons from this important chapter of our struggle history. In some quarters, there is a tendency to present the UDF experience as an "alternative" to the ANC, or to draw a crude division (as if it were possible to do this) between comrades emerging from the UDF experience and those "from exile". This is dangerous, divisive and historically inaccurate. It is, therefore, very correct that cde Frank Chikane, once a key UDF leader and now the most senior official in the Presidency, should write that the UDF was "the direct result of a strategic decision of the liberation movement to intensify the levels of mass resistance inside the country."

Cde Chikane is right to assert this. Just as it would be right to assert that the UDF was the direct result of relatively autonomous, township based struggles against repression. The UDF was also the direct consequence and inheritor of a long tradition of communal and solidaristic struggles, ranging from village izimbizo, to stokvels and burial societies, through to the more overtly political traditions of the Congress of the People, and the defiance campaigns. The UDF was also the direct result of the 1976 semi-insurrectionary struggles of township students, and of a growing sense of black solidarity among African, Coloured and Indian youth. It was the direct result of the growing urbanisation and proletarianisation of African people, and the re-emergence of radical trade-unionism. It was a direct response, also, to the apartheid regime's repressive-reform strategy.

The UDF was inspired by the ANC-led liberation movement. But the UDF also inspired the liberation movement, helping to develop in practice a qualitatively new element (organs of popular power) within our struggle, and in the concrete conditions of South Africa .

In 2003, we must not fall behind the achievements of the mid-1980s, by seeking to bureaucratise, manipulate or even demobilise social movements. Equally, in 2003, we must not fall behind the breakthrough of 1994, conducting ourselves as if we had no access to, or responsibility for state power. As last weekend's Central Committee affirmed, we must continuously fuse state power and popular power. We must build an active, effective developmental state and vibrant social and community based formations rooted amongst the working class.


Article from Umsebenzi Online, Vol.2, No.17, 20 August 2003

Also check out this essay Jeremy Cronin wrote in 1991 on how to set up wananchi's Self Defence Units - you never know when we may need those in Kenya, ama?

So, my sister Tinker Bell of Mashada, do you still hate "Mass Action"?

Onyango Oloo

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