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Thursday, 21 December 2017

Mining in Kyrgyzstan: Unearthing Solidarity

Amongst some scholars a falsehood persists centred on a static, insular and perhaps vacuous, Central Asia; a region mysteriously extricated from global processes and politics.
In this worldview, Central Asia remains categorized simultaneously as intransigently stuck between the Soviet experience and the 21st century. Indeed, Central Asia and its communities are presented as remarkably operating external to globalization, similar to the ways in which indigenous peoples are often framed as existing outside of modernity. We ought to consider this through the lenses of extractive processes.
Other observers note the revival or development of a so-called new Great Game or geopolitical scramble for influence as well as access to the region’s wealth and markets. Kyrgyzstan has experienced a growth of Turkish investment, owes 50%of its national debt to China while previously hosting both American and Russian military installations. A single Canadian-based company, Centerra Gold, operates the Kumtor gold mine which has contributed as much as 6 percent  of the country’s Gross Domestic Product.
The Kumtor mine has an extensive history of accidents as well as flagrant contravention of regulation including operation without appropriate licenses for waste disposal. At present, the mine extracts gold beneath the Davydov and Lysi glaciers. This practice both risks damaging the glacial ice sheets while local communities have reported losses in nearby fish populations.
All of this is occurring within a context wherein access to information related to mining activities and the sector more generally, is limited; a few years ago a tape emerged wherein local activists allegedly attempted to extort the company for a pay-off. The veracity of this tape is unclear, though many Kyrgyz have shared with me that while the details of back-door corruption to ensure stability may not be fully clear, the perception is that such deals exist.  If the tape is authentic then it reflects corruption by local leadership similar to co-opted unions, if fake, it may have been designed to delegitimize organic protests. These suspicions are credible as there is a history of deep-seated corruption in the sector.
Unfortunately, the mine’s poor record of environmental stewardship may lead to international ramifications. The waters from Kumtor feed the Naryn River later to become the Syr Darya in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan heavily relies on its agricultural sector (including the use of forced labour in cotton production) and has previously warned that disruptions to its access to water could lead to a violent confrontation. This is not unusual; many observers consider environmental devastation, growing demand and an increasingly unpredictable climate as key elements behind future wars. Globally, we face a cocktail of population growth, increased demands for freshwater, ecological disaster and a natural world thrown out of the patterns we have grown accustomed to. The threat Kumtor poses to Kyrgyzstan’s glaciers may be a precipice in regional conflict amidst these global risk factors.
Local activists face intimidation, a familiar story from Standing Rock to Xolobeni and Chihuahua. Meanwhile, much of the profits from Kumtor flow overseas with little-to-no knowledge outside of the region of the mine’s existence. Amidst this, local communities echo concerns of those elsewhere, how will the site be maintained following the mines closure? To which one Bishkek resident proclaimed “no one will care.”
Globally, the extraction industry operates on sites hidden from scrutiny, disproportionately directly affecting the lives of those considered disposable or of little value, their pain, cultural, environment and material destruction deemed the cost of industrial progress. Unsurprisingly, this process devalues and displaces the lives of the poor, of traditional and indigenous communities, of people of colour; those lamentably but ostensibly, normatively, left behind, pushed out of the frame. Few consumers of Kumtor’s gold may be able to place Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan on a map but all of our fates are tied together. When the resources have been depleted, when further conflict has been sowed, capital will move to the next frontier and it will be closer to home.
If we are to build an empathic and compassionate society, we must recognize the material ties that weave through Central Asia to the rest of the globe and extend these ties into meaningful solidarity; sites of both extraction and accumulation ought to be considered and challenged in practice.
Like the rest of us, Central Asia and Central Asians cannot simply step outside of the yoke of globalized capital, rising securitization and ecological catastrophe, however mutual recognition, identification and resistance efforts may play some role in articulating an alternative, just and common vision.
*This piece was first published by rabble.ca 

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Settler Amnesia in the Age of Canada 150

Will much-hyped birthday bring consequential action, or more nausea-inducing revisionism?

After almost two months, the premier of South Africa’s Western Cape finally apologized for a set of tweets alluding to positive aspects of colonialism.

These sentiments would ring familiar to many Canadians as the two nations share a common history of pass laws and legalized racial separations. Canadian policy served as a guide for the architects of apartheid. Moreover, the arrogance and narcissism demonstrated by the delayed apology is reflective of a malady that is very much alive in both countries, settler amnesia.

Sanitizing history
Premier Zille’s tweets sanitized the violence of colonial dispossession by employing a progressive or linear understanding of history. Colonialism brought innovative technology thus justifying the horrors of the colonial project. This worldview lacks imagination for the past and present. Such perspectives not only hide the shared horrors of the past but also the contributions of Indigenous and African people.
Zille’s delayed apology demonstrates an intransigence, a refusal to hear out other worldviews or experiences. In Canada, denial persists even after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. One does not have to look very far. In the reaches of high-level government power, we have a Senator who recently felt the need to highlight the “good deeds” of the residential school system, while others feel the need to defend residential schools as providing comparable or better treatment for Indigenous students than for those not in the schools.
Denialism comes in many forms
Similarly, we have all heard calls that the past is the past and so Indigenous folks ought to simply get over it — it* being the horrors of dispossession, residential schools and the ongoing violence of the settler state. All of these narratives simply accept the inevitability and permanence of the Canadian state as well as the dispossession of Indigenous communities.
This inability to accept the immoralities undergirding our nation’s very existence shields us from accepting the emotional and tangible responsibility required to build a truly inclusive society. It also enables settler society to continue to set the national agenda.
Another seemingly innocent form of denialism came to the forefront during the recent so-called appropriation prize scandal. Following criticism of Hal Niedzviecki’s proposal for a prize, and his resignation as editor of the magazine that published it, individuals from leading media outlets pledged to support the prize under the auspices of free speech. While Niedzviecki and his supporters ought to have the right to suggest (and even offer) such a prize, the rhetoric in defense of the prize wreaked of an arrogance and narcissism; complaints of racism and insensitivity were belittled by a community accustomed to being right, to setting common norms.
The lessons from this episode are two-fold. First, settler-hood conditions us to sideline competing opinions as we are used to occupying the center. Second, as Eusebius McKaiserrecently argued, complaints of racism, like sexism, ought to be acknowledged at face value. Outside of the courts, legal standards need not apply to such grievances due to the pervasive nature of racism and misogyny in our society.
This common amnesia and refusal to come to term with our nations’ colonial pasts is actually an implicit admission. Deep down, settler communities know that, to put it mildly, something is not kosher. As settlers we must come to terms with our own historical and contemporary dominance, or privilege we enjoy in society. We have two options: we can follow a path of honest engagement, introspection and consequential action guided by humility or we can further try to sweep the very-much-alive past under the carpet through nausea-inducing revisionism.
The first option is one of expanded community and dialogue, requiring patience, the valuation of the pain and experiences of others, and an understanding that not everything needs to revolve around settler-hood. Fundamentally, this is a path to maturity, to adulthood. The second route is one of stubbornness, an unwillingness to accept alternatives, an inability to pause and listen, and a fundamental aversion and incapacity to adapt to a meaningfully transformative society.
As Canada 150 approaches, it’s high-time settler society pursues a coming-of-age.

****Please note this piece first appeared in Ricochet

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Progress and Making the Native Disappear in South Africa

In the name of modernity and capital expansion, indigenous peoples across the globe have been slaughtered, dispossessed and made to be invisible. Through the writing out of history or blotting out of popular culture, indigenous people are often relegated to a state of pre-modernity or tradition; this continues to underpin policy.

We have seen this narrative countless times as manifest destiny, the empty-land myth and the like; gross human rights violations justified as the price of Progress. In this way, Progress is considered through the lens of the inevitability of capital. Some proponents of this notion of Progress may claim to lament the cultural, familial and economic attack on local communities. If taken at face value, such sentiments speak less to personal immorality but rather point to a crisis of imagination. Progress is bestowed with inevitability, simply pitted against Tradition, leaving little room for intellectual alternatives. Lacking options, proponents remedy Progress by painting it as ethical advancement while distancing it from its colonial origins. Extraction industry apologetics demonstrate this trend through buzzwords such as energy independence or exaggerated claims of job creation.

In an act of colonial continuity, the government of South Africa is incessantly trying to put forward the Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill. Amongst other issues, the Bill would increase the authority of Traditional Leadership in the nation's former Bantustans including the ability to unilaterally enter their communities into agreements with third parties. This would sanction an existing reality in many communities wherein Traditional Leadership personally benefits from extorting or at least preventing community resistance against the arrival of extraction or tourism industries. As I have covered before,Traditional Leadership has sold land that is not theirs to sell, while others have acquiesced to the intimidation of their community members. In this way, the Bill would further institutionalize Traditional Leadership and rural patronage as a fulcrum for capitalist exploitation.

The proposed legislation is the next descendent in a long line of rural patronage used to manage and exploit the nation's black majority. The Bill would directly affect roughly 18 million people . While it would be unfair to paint every Traditional Leader with the same brush, we must question their histories and relationship to the title. Many contemporary Traditional Leaders do not fit into the great lineage of anti-colonial resistance embodied by Chief Albert Luthuli or King Langalibelele but rather fall into a line of collaboration. For instance, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini legitimized Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), armed by the regime, the IFP engaged in a ravenous civil war with the African National Congress across today's KwaZulu-Natal and the townships of Gauteng. It should be noted that Zwelithini also faces accusations of stoking the xenophobic violence plaguing the nation.

During the transition process, the IFP harnessed its ability to withhold peace by threatening to boycott the 1994 election. In exchange for their participation, the IFP was awarded a major concession and pre-cursor to the TKLB, the Ingonyama Trust Act. Passed days before the historic election, the Act stipulates that much of the land belonging to the former KwaZulu homeland is to be administered by the Zulu King. As I have argued before, the nature of the relationship between the national state and citizens on this land has remained largely unchanged since the colonial era. The Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill would further reify these borders and this relationship.

Considering the magnitude in terms of those directly affected by the Bill, there has been relatively little coverage of it. This falls into a long pattern of externalizing the experiences as well as plight of rural communities. Further, as I have noted before, much of the popular discourse surrounding rural people taking place outside of rural areas often frames these folks and by extension their communities within two stereotypes. The first label is stupid or lazy while the second is rural people as the proverbial gate-keepers of tradition, seemingly left-behind by modernity. A consultation process mired in inadequacies speaks to the first perception as rural people are to be spoken to, never heard, to be led rather than to lead. The relative silence in major English language media speaks to the perceived irrelevance of rural matters.

Much like its colonial forbearers, the Traditional Khoisan Leadership Bill is a tool to overlook the experiences, ambitions, opinions and indeed, dignity, of rural black South Africans. If enacted, this Bill will further empower corrupted Traditional Leadership while capital freely exploits the local soil. Progress is often understood as innovation, the easing of life. For capital this Bill effectively solves the problem or removes the barrier of rural people and their ability to politically participate, resist exploitation and direct their own destiny.

Please note this piece was first published by the Hampton Institute

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Rural Patronage, Dehumanisation and the Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill

As the government continues to march forward with the Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill, we must consider the nature of power it wishes to further instill. In my last piece I wrote about the nexus between corrupt traditional leadership, the tourism industry and rural dispossession. Here, the moral and historical thread lacing the Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill will be examined.
Presently the government continues its efforts to pass the Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill, a piece of legislation riddled with continuities from apartheid and further tainted by (among other issues) an inadequate consultation process. Perhaps we should consider how the communities directly affected are conceived of as well as the institutions involved. 
Recently I wrote about the destruction of rural livelihoods and homes in an attempt to dispossess and remove rural persons. Traditional leadership was complicit in the burning of the homes of two men on land which they administered. Meanwhile the local tourism industry expanded. In that case, as in many others, capital framed indigenous rural people simply as problems or obstructions to industrial or commercial development. This led to steps being taken to try to remove these communities from the land. This is not a new phenomenon. 
Dating back to the initial stages of colonialism we see this line of thought at work. In North America, manifest destiny was utilised as the ideological tool for the westward expansion of a seemingly inevitable progress at the time framed primarily in white, agrarian terms. Inherent in this thinking was a notion “… that the natives could be made to simply disappear.” In South Africa, San people were legally hunted until 1927. 
In considering rural indigenous persons as problems, this ethic of problematisation transforms rural persons from subjects into objects; to be spoken for and to, but never to be heard. 
Let us consider how such ideas lend themselves to further abuse through the potential enacting of the Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill. In his recent piece, Thiyane Duda noted that the Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill would empower traditional leadership to act unilaterallyin entering communities into agreements with third parties. Rather than decolonisation, this Bill wreaks of a continuation of rural patronage guided by the ethic elaborated. This is not a naive or misguided step but a very intentional move to continue a consolidation of political power while lining the pockets of the powerful. 
During the transition to the new dispensation, many of the state’s institutions were carried forward. This includes the system of rural patronage long used to control much of the black majority. The continuation of such a system may be best signified by the Ingonyama Trust Act, passed just days before the 1994 election. This was designed to install an ally of the old regime in the new dispensation while appeasing the Inkatha Freedom Party, guaranteeing their participation in the election.
The Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill is the next generation in the lineage of rural patronage. If passed, it will further entrench the power of the often corrupt traditional leadership installed by the colonial and apartheid regimes. Such figures will be able to continue to undemocratically make life-altering decisions for communities, however if passed, the Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill will make such abuses legal. This will negatively affect roughly 18-million people. Unsurprisingly, many of those who will be directly affected have been inadequately consulted. 
Moving forward, we must seek to decolonise our institutions. Further empowering traditional leadership without meaningful reconsideration of the institution’s operations would not only be harmful but also tarnish the legacies of Inkosi Albert Luthuli, King Langalibalele and other traditional leaders reflective of a history of resistance rather than collaboration.
While it can be challenging to make sense of often senseless times, the worst we can do is retrench ourselves in ideas and institutions that are simply stable. The Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill reflects the continuation of capital expansion at the expense of the humanity of the most marginalised while utilising a colonial system of rural patronage. Let us expand our imaginations and craft an alternative system of rural uplift and decolonised governance.

*Please note this piece first appeared in Daily Maverick

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Self-Sufficient Communities are Being Forced into Becoming Capital-Dependent

Commercial interests in South Africa continue to view rural people as problems to be removed to the peripheries while their plight remains invisible in the public eye.
Near the South African borders with Swaziland and Mozambique rests gorgeous, pristine land. Communities here often find themselves residing inside of nature reserves – with or without consent and consultation. The plethora of nature reserves in the region is testament to the environmental stewardship of local communities. 
One community organiser relayed to me that, while growing up, “we would swim in the rivers and grandmothers would warn us that if we killed snails, frogs or snakes, we would switch genders”. Such fables continue to be passed along to instil an ethic of connectivity and respect for the environment; to damage the environment is to permanently alter one’s self. 
In this context of natural beauty, cultural and economic devastation is ever-present – continued attempts are being made to dispossess rural people of their ancestral lands and livelihoods. Here I spoke to two men, one 44, the other 35. Both recall growing up and coming of age in vibrant, autonomous communities. Living on lands formally administered by Ingonyama Trust – an institutional vestige of apartheid – these men were told by the local traditional leadership that they could do what they pleased with their homes. However, as these leaders became entrenched in dealings of local reserves-- some even sit on their boards – this changed. 
In 2010 between these two men, 11 homes as well as an external shower and toilet facility were burned and bulldozed. Accordingly, these two suspect that this was out of fear of competition by the local tourism industry; one of them hosted an American couple annually for a few weeks at a time. Moreover, the local reserve took them to the local magistrate, and while the traditional leadership was present at the hearing, they remained neutral rather than explaining that individuals had been permitted to do what they pleased with allocated land. One of these men was fined R2,000 for “refusing” to state who built those homes but the judge refused to believe his capabilities in this regard. 
Following this, local rangers arrived, supplied an English language document (which neither could read) and proceeded to burn and bulldoze their homes. They did not even have time to gather their belongings. Presently, the home of one of them is rotting and he fears retribution if he were to build a new one. 
These two men were also told that the homes they had built were on a hill too close to the ocean; meanwhile a luxury lodge sits metres from the shore that the hill overlooks. After demolition of the homes, these two men have very few economic prospects. The reserve has offered them sporadic work cleaning beaches. Evidently, attempts are being made to transform self-sufficient communities into becoming capital-dependent. The outcome of this inevitably would be migrancy and departure from ancestral lands, leading to dispossession. These folks are clearly viewed as a blot on the canvass of commercial tourism development.
This phenomenon is not unique to deep, remote rural areas. Recently a widow in her 60s was evicted from her home resting on Ingonyama Trust Land a stone’s throw north of Durban. Without anywhere to go, this woman has lost her right to a home as suburban development encroaches further and further north. Once again, the process in which she, like many others, came to live on land under this legal structure must be reiterated; lands presently administered by Ingonyama Trust constitute part of the former KwaZulu homeland; the Bill initiating the Trust was passed days before the 1994 election. This continued the colonial capture of traditional governance and land allocation. We must ask, what is the constitutionality of this institutionalised apartheid-era structure? 
Such questions need to be investigated as the government incessantly continues to promote and attempt to push through the Traditional and Khoi-San Leadership Bill – a piece of legislation that not only infringes on the right of freedom of association, while reifying apartheid borders, but perhaps most important, strengthens an often unproductive and corrupted governance system. Last, this legislation fits into a narrative of further marginalisation insofar as both media and national government are concerned; concerns over human and constitutional rights are decentred and reduced to simply static, rural, traditional matters.

*Please note this piece was first published by Daily Maverick