It is very true that decades of organising in Africa have assumed, quite wrongly, that social problems are discrete challenges only facing specific groups – and that they should be tackled as such.
With the proliferation of NGOs in post-independence Africa and subsequent NG-organising, there is a lack of acknowledgement of the interlocking nature of the factors and systems of oppression and how they continuously work together to produce domination, discrimination and marginalisation in this continent. Indeed as many commentators would agree, all of Africa’s so hyped ‘advancement’ has been founded on pyramids of oppression. In addition various forms of oppression overlap rather than ran parallel in the lives of affected people. Embedded in colonial histories and exacerbated by modern fundamentalist ideologies, the neo-liberal policies and processes in Africa have advanced further doom to already disenfranchised groups.
If one sampled any country in Africa, one would identify multiple local and national organising for change, resisting repression, fighting impunity or demanding transformation of the structures that discriminate. This is definitely a lot of traction and resources to ‘create’ a new order and better life for the citizens of Africa. But a critical question that must be raised is whether these efforts address the symptoms or the structural bases of the social problems they seek to resolve?
The answers to these queries can only be got if we are able to critically analyse the models that have attempted to resolve social problems in Africa. The ‘development’ approaches that have been fronted in the continent to resolve the social challenges have strengthened bureaucratic hierarchies either within governments or NGOs, systematically disempowered populations, strengthened elitist diagnosis of social issues and propagated other forms of oppression more than what they seek to eradicate. It is hard to forget the long-term effects of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) on this continent both socially and economically in the 1990s, which communities have to grapple with to date.
UNMASKING OPPRESSION IN AFRICA
But what do we mean by oppression in Africa? We can only understand what oppression is by putting a face to it, and more importantly, by removing the tint that has been placed on our eyes by the perpetrators of the oppression. A myriad of social problems chart our countries and continent, for example reproductive oppression, peasant farmers exploitation, farm workers’ unfair treatment, asset stripping of widows, destruction of the natural sacred sites by greedy encroachers and denial of rights to indigenous communities.
But how has oppression been manifested in these sites of struggle? The legacy of colonialism best depicts the different origins of the struggle to resist oppression in Africa. Colonialism (Clarke 1991) and neo-colonialism is a new form of slavery after the original slavery reached its saturation point. Its legacy and those of its concomitants such as racism, patriarchy, sexism or any other oppression has created huge inequality gaps between individuals in this continent, marginalisation and exclusion.
Yes oppression can be visible in certain obvious situations but in many more scenarios it isn’t. In Kenya, for example, a systematic and patriarchal structure in government planning has continuously wanted to control woman’s reproductive life as inspired by Malthusian constructs that believe that over-population has led to increased poverty levels. Women, especially those living in the economically disenfranchised communities, have continuously born multiple burdens of oppression starting from control and exploitation of their bodies through to attempts to conform their bodies to what are assumed to be natural, cultural and religious orders. Exploitation proceeds to control of women’s labour on what they should engage in to make livelihoods. The most affected in reproductive oppression are women, as health planning in most countries is removed from other social justice issues that affect women and their communities such as economic justice, environment degradation, refugees’ concerns, disability and discrimination based on ethnicity and sexual orientation and exclusion of women from decision making.
The reaction of civil society organisations to reproduction-related problems in communities has been to drive initiatives that narrow down advocacy for women’s reproductive rights without going further to confront the structures that produce reproduction oppression. This is such a limiting approach that ignores the intersection of these struggles.
DOES OPPRESSION WORK DIFFERENTLY OR COLLABORATIVELY?
African farmers especially those in government sanctioned irrigation schemes have had to shoulder the burden of poverty and exploitation on the altar of neoliberalism. The Mwea Irrigation Scheme in Kenya, a smallholder rice production programme, has born the brunt of an inter-play of oppressive structures, legislation and system. Established in the 1950s by the British settler farmers with massive financial and political support from their government, the scheme has seen decades of peasant farmers’ economic exploitation in low produce prices and loss of farming autonomy. This imperialist structure then transformed to colonial rule exploiting African political detainees in the establishment of irrigation canal networks and rice production. An illegitimate legal regime was established to manage the conduct of the detainees. The independence government and other successive ones, which claimed to have gained power through popular support, have refused to scrap these punitive, colonial and out-dated laws. An uneven structure of global trade processes has not spared the farmers who now have to grapple with market liberalism that has led to cheap rice from all over the world adversely affecting Kenyan rice prices. So, how come these layers of oppressive systems and processes can consistently collude from generations to generations?
One cannot fail to trace the oppressive legacy of colonial occupation when analysing the situation of tea plantations in Kenya. The common assumption is that of worker exploitation in terms of poor pay and working conditions. But beneath these narratives are huge problems that came along with settler occupation. Massive fields were appropriated from native communities, which had strong spiritual, economic and social meanings. This displacement led to overpopulation and the current unresolved land disputes in Kenya’s Rift Valley region. Oppressive land legislation has failed to ensure restitution of land taken away by the colonialist. The current structure of labour management that is highly misogynist and capitalist has heavily borrowed from the way the colonialists treated the African worker, as thousands have worked as casuals for years and with no regard for their rights. The trade unions, which were bastions of worker organising, have been co-opted by governments that heavily support the exploitative corporations, which are British (colonial) owned. So, did the oppressive imperial colonial structure ever end with flag independence?
HOW DO WE CONFRONT THIS INTERMESH OF OPPRESSION?
Oppression must be dismantled. This is not an easy response. My argument as inspired by Paulo Frere’s (1994) beliefs in the ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ is love and dialogue. Organising to dismantle oppressive structures and frameworks has to be grounded in revolutionary love during our struggle. CSOs that claim to represent communities must be by guided this transformative spirit that is driven by love to transform the structure and one that doesn’t view issues as standing alone. Critical dialogues on the historical, political, economic and social contradictions, which form the impetus of oppression and status quo must be entertained in all our organising.
This is not a project-based apolitical work by NGOs; it is a lifelong emancipatory war or work that seeks to question the assumptions underlying rules and systems that propagate oppression. We must wake up as organisers to the fact that we cant homogenise communities. It is an acknowledgement that certain oppressive systems can also privilege certain people. This intermesh of oppression in Africa is strong and needs multi-issues- organising strategies to replace it. It is a matter of system change, not reform! Because it doesn’t work for you!
* George Mwai co-educates with social movements and collectives affiliated with Fahamu Africa.
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