He hurriedly walked away from his stalkers as they quickly circled him, their eyes gleaming with their malevolent intent. The first stalker beat him over the head with a wrench while the three other stalkers frothed at the mouth in gruesome anticipation and unleashed long knives from their pockets. In an instant, he lay amongst plastic papers, rotting food and the rest of Alexandra’s vomit, bleeding from a 2 cm gash to his chest. One of the knives had penetrated his heart. In less than an hour he was dead. The newspaper photographers who captured the entire episode rushed him to hospital ensuring that he didn’t die nameless, as his cellphone was found intact in his pocket. At 7 a.m. on the 19th of April 2015, Emmanuel Sithole from Mozambique became the personification of the ongoing “Makwerekwere” pogrom in South Africa.
The mortified and indignant noises from across the continent have been loud and predictable. The Nigerians, who have had an ongoing diplomatic lover’s tiff with the South Africans over the last two years, were the first to give strong reactions. They summoned the South African High Commissioner to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and let rip their sentiments, no doubt sending warning shots against anything happening to their nationals on the ground. I’ve been trying to connect the dots. Foreigners + hard work = Hate. I just don’t get it. I’m struggling with how hard work can generate hatred and despair. So I tried to bring it home to my own local context. In the late part of the 19th century, a number of ships docked into a fledgling seaside port that had been used for centuries by Arabs. The ships carried British nationals, keen to make a better life for themselves in new lands, as their ancestors had done in the United States centuries before.
They came, they saw and they conquered, pushing native Africans out of their homelands and taking over productive land. The natives were used for cheap labor and prevented from growing cash crops that would provide them with financial freedom. Through the work of the hands of the natives (input), the colonialists were able to produce cash crops (output) using a valuable and scarce resource called land that never belonged to them in the first place. On the sidelines were the Indians, the first group who came to provide skilled labor (input) to produce a railway line that would carry goods into the hinterland and export goods (output) to new markets. The Indian traders, who recognized opportunity when it slapped them in the face, followed the Indians laborers. The Indian traders planted roots in Kenya, bringing in capital and goods to supply (input) against which they sold and made a profit (output). The later generations of the Indian traders undertook vertical integration and used their capital (input) to establish factories to manufacture goods for the Kenyan consumers
(output). The Indians cannot be placed in the same category as the British colonialists from an input and output perspective. One came, took the land and the labor and carted off the output, while the other came, brought his own capital plus sweat and invested the output back in the country.
Hard work and sweat are intangible factors of production. A standing shop, a nice car and a nice house are the very tangible results of successful production. One needs to have the intellectual capacity of connecting the dots to see these results. In a country like ours where blood has been spilt countless times for land, a tangible factor of production, our propensity to fight has historically stemmed from land ownership and perceptions around historical injustices over that ownership.
But as Kenyans we recognize hard work. We recognize the kiosk owner, the Jua Kali furniture fundi who employs three or four artisans to help, we recognize the woman selling roast maize on the side of the road, we recognize the shop owner at a gleaming new mall and the entrepreneur manufacturing soap in industrial area. We recognize them all. The capital to begin their businesses didn’t fall off the Kisumu express train to financial freedom, it came from funds scrimped and saved over a period of time. We don’t have a sense of entitlement over what all these business owners have simply because the narrative of the political class has never been about taking output from sweat that’s not yours. (It goes without saying that the narrative of the political class has largely been about taking land however). And why is that? Is it because much of the political class is in business too? Or is it that the business constituency funds much of the political class?
Entitlement is the key differentiator here. The effect of South Africa’s long walk to freedom was to create a large number of citizens who felt entitled to enjoy the fruits of the struggle that were now constitutionally guaranteed. That has been interpreted by some to mean that hard work (intangible input) translates into good life (tangible output) that should be mine as I’m entitled to anything built in South Africa within the same community that I live in. After all, we have all been thriving in the catacombs of despair and cyclical poverty and I can’t understand why you rose up to be economically better than me.
But I, the ignorant native, cannot connect the dots between hard work and output. I cannot connect the dots between the foreign owned businesses that bring consumer goods to my neighborhood and my uplifted standard of living. I want them gone. And when they’re gone, I’ll struggle to find a place to buy those goods and services because I won’t start a business myself. And I will have to go to a more expensive provider. And then I’ll have less disposable income. And I’ll be poorer. And I’ll be angrier but still feel entitled. So I will turn to the next soft target. Who could that possibly be?