Sabbath Meditation: What is way forward for the Kenyan left?


Sunday! It is a great day. The sunshine is filtering through my window and there is a refreshing gust of wind. This day comes with the Sabbath promise of rest. Sigve Tonstad, the Adventist scholar of Norwegian origin, asserts that in the social and economic sphere, the Sabbath sets the limits to work and exploitation of the worker ensuring each person the right to rest. I would like to go out in nature, sit by a tree, listen to the birds sing, give thanks for the beauty and abundance as I read a book. But that is a luxury most of us cannot afford.

Through my window I can see the wretched of my country toiling away in slave-like conditions at a construction site. They are constructing commercial structures at the same place where police, accompanied by goons, forcefully evicted some of them a few months ago. Houses were demolished late at night for the benefit of private capital. Authorities claim that the buildings will offer entrepreneurial opportunities and jobs in the area and demolishing the slum will improve security for hardworking patriots while also attracting more investment.

I see them work, and cannot stop thinking about how the weight of  capitalist exploitation has kept our people in a constant state of survival and hopelessness, labouring tirelessly to sustain their families. As I stare at the workers, I remember a verse in the bible that says “ …in the grave the weary worker is at rest.” Job 3:17. Our people pay in toil and suffering to satisfy the wealthiest and only rest when they die! 

Nevertheless, this is a great day. Earlier, I had woken up to some great news. The type of things that keep my sanity intact. I had heard on the radio that Ekattera, a multinational tea farm suspended its operations after the workers burnt tea plucking machines and destroyed plantations in Kericho and Bomet counties.. They were protesting the automation and mechanization of their work rolled out by the multi-million firm that exploits them. 

The tea estates in Kericho owned by Unilever (now Ekattera) and James Finlay & Co. were the subject of months of undercover investigative journalism that exposed sexual assault against women there. The women revealed to the broadcaster that the tough economic conditions were what  forced them to give into demands for sex from their bosses to safeguard or get employment in these plantations. According to the investigation, some victims contracted HIV and other sexually transmitted infections while others were forced to terminate pregnancies effectively causing these poor women psychological suffering, as well as violence and breakup in their families when their husbands found out.

These tea plantations are a constant reminder of a painful past. When the British colonial administration forcibly put our people in native reserves to release a considerable amount of land for European use, they occupied the ancestral land of the Talai and Kipsigis people. In the process, they molested women, burnt houses and drove Africans from their homes. The only alternative for the poor landless farmers was to sell their labour as a commodity for meagre wages. On their own, these heroic people in Kericho and Bomet counties have organically identified a relationship between technology, labour and capital as they also struggle for the return of their ancestral lands.

These  valiant actions of our people, reminded me of the Luddite movement and Swing riots that  occurred in the 19th century. By Luddite, I don’t mean the contemporary conception of the term as the ones who hate or are opposed to new technology or ways of working. Rather, I mean the Luddite movement of the skilled weavers and textile workers who rebelled against the introduction of mechanized looms and knitting frames which posed a threat to their livelihood. In the 1830 Swing riots, agricultural workers destroyed workhouses and buildings, burnt crops and destroyed the threshers’ machinery to protest the poor living standards and their impoverishment. Luddites and Swing rioters were against  laissez-faire political economy . They understood that advancement in technology was not supposed to lead them into more misery.

Like it happened with the rioting workers in 19th century England, the government’s reaction in Bomet and Kericho was to brutally suppress the workers for interference with the “sanctity” of private property. Marx correctly analysed that under capitalism, every advance in machinery and technology would only be used to extract more profit for the bosses while condemning workers and their families to unemployment and poverty wages. 

This fighting spirit of our people has continued for decades. During my childhood days in Mathare North, the  masses would often demonstrate  against the high rent prices imposed by the landlords. I recall residents chanting in the streets “Bei ya nyumba chini, wakikataa sare” , to mean that the rent had to go down and if not, they would occupy them for free. Then the state would unleash its apparatus on them and suppress the demonstrations. In the process, some would be arrested and charged with crimes of holding an illegal demonstration and the destruction of property. A few would be permanently crippled as others would pay with their dear lives. 

Occasionally, the owners of these properties would mobilize and facilitate their tribesmen, also suffering from the unbearably high rent prices and  high cost of living, to defend the ‘dignity and wealth’ of their ethnic nation from their ‘enemies’. The issue would thereafter degenerate into an ethnic dispute rather than a discussion of excessive rents. And the police would not be as fast to intervene this time. There is an existing unholy alliance between  state machinery and the holders of capital. That’s why instead of standing in solidarity with the working class majority, they brazenly defend the barbarism of capital and the greed it enables. The political class continues to incite the poor to defend private property and the profits of the ruling class gotten from the labour of the working class. It  becomes clear that the contradictions between workers and the capitalists are irreconcilable.

The trade union movement’s silence on the crisis in Bomet and Kericho was too deafening to ignore; they have continued to auction the sweat and blood of Kenyan workers. For instance, in 2019 the government and the Central Orgazation of Trade Unions (COTU) purported to enter into an agreement to impose a 1.5% housing levy on employers which was suspended by the Court. The same resurfaced in the Finance Bill 2023 that was passed by our dishonorable legislators. Recently, during demonstrations led by the opposition against the rising cost of living, COTU called on workers not to participate in them and instead attend to their jobs. COTU said this on  the excuse that most workers depend on daily meagre earnings to sustain their families and that the demonstrations were bad for the economy. To them, the trade unions should never challenge capital but remain confined to protection of income and employees’ rights within the existing structures of globalized capital. A task they have also terribly failed at. We must question whose interests these “leaders of the workers” are serving when they are against the interests of the same workers they purport to serve.

It was not always like this! As Kenyan workers fight against punitive taxes, extrajudicial killings, food insecurity, privatized education and failed health care system, I reminisce Shujaa Makhan Sigh and Fred Kubai. They formed the East African Trade Union Congress, the first Central Organization of Trade Unions in Kenya. These great men laid the foundation  for the militant trade union movement in the country. They showed us the importance of an organized trade union and the significance of linking trade union matters to politics.

Our labor movement was robust during the clamour for independence . It was Tom Mboya who aided in centralising the labour movement to prevent it from holding the government accountable and to ensure the state had oversight of their activities. He attempted to balance unionism with capitalism. He would be extremely proud of the current crop of trade union leaders who have continuously strengthened the same structures that have weakened the trade unions since independence. A great teacher and political theorist, V.I Lenin,  argued in his pamphlet, What is to be done?, that trade union activity, left to itself, would lead only to trade union consciousness. A narrow focus on wages and benefits absent from the broader political struggles leads to economism and effective capitulation to reformism.

Fighting for reforms is an essential feature of the battle against the system. These struggles give the working class valuable organizing experience and when successful, they show workers that qualitative change is possible. However, when approached as an end in itself,  it becomes an endless merry-go-round of not only minor but often ineffective changes that maintains this inhumane system. These union struggles and other human rights issues, like housing, killings by police, education and  health care when engaged only in their individual sphere of  activity, important as they are, make our organizations unable to see beyond their narrow orbit and address material needs.

Frequently, the Kenyan masses have been ahead of the Kenyan left. They have been reacting to these objective conditions facing them on their own. It is true that hungry people have no respect for authority.  Recently, a majority turned up for a march organized by the Social justice movement on Saba Saba day dubbed #PeoplesMarchToStateHouse. One of the placards read , “ We are marching to state house since it is the only place with food”. Political and community organizers,  should not trail behind the political consciousness of our people.

The spontaneous action by members of our class in response to contradictions between big plantation and plantation workers, developers and construction workers, state and landless people, landlords and tenants, factory owners and industrial workers must be organized so that workers rage is directed at the right enemy. To the parasites that appropriate the surplus they produce. Those who  have  made the working class battle tooth and nail to survive.

More than ever,  our people need to go from mass action, reaction and spontaneity to sustained campaigns. When  the people come together to create a barrier to capital through demonstrations, trade union struggle, workers cooperatives, among other means of organizing, this contributes to their self-realization as a class. Such radicalization can ultimately lead to a revolutionary process. 

The movements and people against oppression must be under the leadership of a revolutionary working-class organization. The responsibility of the revolutionary organization is to infuse class consciousness within these movements in all ways available. We must therefore participate and conduct our organizing within these movements. Our mass work will form the basis for strengthening the revolutionary organizations among the masses. 

The Kenyan workers and peasants want to change the status quo but have given up hope of seeing any change in their lifetime. However, like Karimi Nduthu taught us, change like death is inevitable. It  could happen in our lifetime or not, but the wheels of change cannot be stopped.  Pro-poor people political organizations like the Communist Party of Kenya(CPK) , Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL) and the Social Justice Movement that want to change this society in their lifetime must not only move as a unit but also act like catalysts, to ensure that majority conceive the world the way it should be. They must inspire more revolutionaries who can inspire anger towards the enemy . This is possible through political education in our mass movements. With proper education, our masses will strangle the enemy.

A united front of all progressive organizations with a clear political programme led by the revolutionary organization of workers and peasants is the only silver lining to the dark clouds now bearing down on Kenyans whose majority have been extremely impoverished by this system. These dark clouds brings to view the failing capitalist economy. There will be more and more battles to be fought to midwife a humane system and we must be fighting with workers everywhere. The revolution is the only hope we can cling on, for ourselves, our children and the coming generation.

As the Sunday sun sets and I return to my shack after a hard day’s labour, I look around and all I see is the glaring hopelessness in the faces of men and women on the street. They are harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. I then remember prophet Amos who was particularly vocal in his support for social justice. According to him, God had seen the hypocrisy of the religious and political leaders of Israel (read Kenya). He had seen them cheating and exploiting the poor. I then regain the impetus to fight on through Galatians 5:1 calling us to “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” Garvey reminds us that we have a beautiful history and we shall create another that shall astonish the world. Time is on us now. Organize, not agonize!


*Kinuthia Ndung’u is a member of  the Communist Party of Kenya (CPK),  Kasarani Social Justice Center (KSJC) and Organic Intellectuals Network.

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