A good story to tell at the county

If you have had the good fortune to recently travel to the Rainbow Nation that South Africa is, you would be hard pressed to find any overt vestiges of the apartheid policy that reigned supreme 20 years ago. The first batch of “born frees” (citizens who were born post 1994 when Mandela became the first black president of an apartheid free country) voted for the first time this month in the general election, unburdened by the historical baggage of a politically and socially oppressive apartheid environment. They were voting based on black leaders who had been in power and driven the political economic and social agenda of their country throughout their lifetime. They had no immediate point of reference of life before black rule other than the rambling musings of their parents. The born frees have a self-driven economic lifestyle based on the elasticity of their wallets. But how much financial independence does the average black South African really have?

An opinion piece titled “The Illusion of Good Stories to Tell” by Prince Mashele, an author, in the May 18th 2014 edition of the South African Sunday Independent provides some illuminating insights. He traces the wealth of South Africa starting with the discovery of diamonds in 1867 and gold in 1886 and how the “Randlords” – white mine owners who organized themselves into a powerful cartel – constructed a social hierarchy that remains intact in mining today. Mashele writes that the Randlords decided that a white man would be at the top of the social hierarchy and that a black man must permanently supply cheap labor in the service of the white man. Subsequently, as the English and the Afrikaners did suffer their own internecine conflicts, they united in 1910 toalllow all whites to exploit black labor. The English largely owned the mines and the Afrikaners owned the large farms with economic benefit going primarily to the white people at the expense of cheap labor provided by the blacks. By excluding the blacks from access to good education, Mashele points out, the white men ensured perpetuity in the economic benefit arrangement. But Mashele then challenges the myth that “self rule” has brought prosperity to the blacks. “Since there are now a few BEE millionaires, who made money from minority stakes in white-owned companies, the ANC is misled to see “ a good story” that does not exist. The truth is that Cyril Ramaphosa’s rise to the millionaire’s paradise has done nothing to alter Cecil John Rhode’s logic – that in the mines, black men must work underground untrained and underpaid. It would indeed be hard to find evidence of the contribution of Ramaphosa’s new millionaire status to economic growth in South Africa…..The ANC’s illusion of history is also generated by the palpability of the black middle class, largely a post-1994 phenomenon. It is true that, in the main, members of the black middle class do not work for white men; they work for the state and its extensions. This is what makes black bureaucrats feel they are part of the good story to tell”. The truth story to tell, though, is that bureaucrats do not produce wealth. They, as Walter Rodney points out, “squander the wealth created by the peasants and workers by purchasing cars, whisky and perfume.”

I read and juxtaposed Mashele’s powerful opinion piece to the context of devolution in Kenya’s counties. County citizens are now “empowered” and “self governing” on theoretical constitutional paper. Devolution was marketed as the antithesis to the central government’s historical inefficiency at bringing development to all corners of our sun kissed country. However, a ruling elite has now been replicated 47 times into the devolved counties made up of Governors, their cabal of rent seeking MCA’s and the attendant tenderpreneur purveyors within the county supply chain. Institutionalized corruption over the last thirty years of Kenya’s independence has created an elite of extremely wealthy civil servants who pump their newfound wealth largely into real estate and construction (the story is anecdotally told that the Kenya Revenue Authority’s objective to map out all large rental units will never take off as their own staffers as well as colleagues within the government are the primary landlords in Nairobi).
County citizens wait with bated breath for the development that they were promised, for the big manufacturing companies and service industries that would come to provide employment to the hundreds of unemployed youth that roam the dusty, unpaved streets of upcountry towns. They wait for the tarmacked roads, for the piped water, the electrification of candle lit homes, for the route-to-market for their agricultural produce. After all, the governor is one of them, a son of the soil who knows where the shoe pinches most and how to ease the suffering. There will be county millionaires for sure. They will strut the streets in their genuine leather shoes and two cut single-breasted suits purchased at the air-conditioned Emirates Mall in Dubai. They will do nothing to create employment through value adding industries. How can they? Their offices consist of a briefcase and a wireless printer in the backseats of their cars. The bureaucrats in the red carpeted County Governor’s offices will amass wealth on the back of “taxing” the new found revenue collection from county citizens in the form of licences, cess, rates and fees.
A good story will be told. There will be some roads, health centres and cattle dips built. But at inflated costs that will create wealthy individuals and a relatively unaffected citizenry five years after casting a hopeful ballot. A whole new generation of Kenyans is being created to aspire to public office. That public servants are the face of Kenya’s wealth distribution and real economic benefits is the rapidly unraveling cultural narrative that the next generation of young Kenyans is being unconsciously fed. I hope that this culture will be reversed before it becomes deeply entrenched. But then again, hope is not a strategy.

Twitter: @carolmusyoka