I started following the South African university students’ movement from March this year, when UCT students declared that #RhodesMustFall. I have followed the movement closely and with a lot of excitement, because South African students are demonstrating that they understand the meaning of freedom, not just in its superficial form, but in its deepest and truest form.
The students understand that ending apartheid is not enough, the symbols of apartheid must be destroyed, and they began doing that by demanding the fall of the Rhodes statue at the UCT Campus. They understand that the remnants of apartheid must be destroyed, and they are doing so by using the #FeesMustFall movement to contest exorbitant universiy fees that continue to exclude students from poor backgrounds, most of whom are black.
The South African university students also understand that change of government, and having fellow black men and women in leadership is not necessarily freedom, it can be as binding as apartheid rule. And so they are challenging new forms of apartheid, manifesting in the form of neo-liberalism, class and racial inequalities.
Unlike in the anti-apartheid struggle where the participation of women was largely forgotten, women students have refused to have this erasure repeated, by claiming space and visibility during the entire protests. They led marches, led struggle songs and wore head wraps to ensure their visibility and to make a statement that they would not be erased. LGBTI people also claimed their space and visibility in the protests. This movement clearly understands the concept of inclusion, and how structures of oppression exclude women, people with non-conforming gender and sexual identities, black people, those that are differently abled and the poor among others.
The interconnectedness of race, class and gender issues in the #FeesMustFall Movement demonstrates that the students are aware that the challenges in the education sector are not stand alone issues. They are manifestations of exclusion, injustice and poor representation of the people, rooted in neoliberal ideology. The #FeesMustFall movement seems to have asked the critical question of, whose voice is often unheard? and made deliberate efforts to include the often excluded voices. Evidently, time, effort and ideologically grounded thinking has gone into organizing the movement.
The #FeesMustFall movement demonstrates that when people are pushed to their limits, they will rise up and contest their oppression. History has proven that, time and again. We’ve seen it in North Africa and Middle East with the Arab Spring, and even more violent forms of protest with many of the war torn countries in different parts of the world.
Kenya too has demonstrated this from the colonial period, when the Mau Mau contested foreign rule, to the 90’s when the pro-democracy movement contested dictatorial rule and demanded constitutional reforms, and even in 2008 when Kenyans contested unfair electoral processes. Certainly, there can be no peace where exclusion, injustice, and poor representation of the people abound.
In Kenya we’ve been facing numerous instances of exclusion, injustice and poor representation of the people. This year alone, we’ve had to deal with land grabbing by the political elite, massive looting of public resources at national and county levels. We are seeing commodities purchased by government at exorbitant prices, hate speech left, right and center by those elected and those seeking election in 2017, a government that has run out of money, a bloated legislature that has constantly served its own interest by increasing its salaries, and Kenyans dying inhumanely because the public health care system is a mess.
Our response as Kenyans to these issues has been as irregular as the issues themselves. Every new week there is a hashtag to discuss a new issue. Before that is over, we move on to another hashtag to discuss another issue. Last week alone, there were three hashtags. Our social media is not showing any difference from our mainstream media. We touch, sensationalize and run after the next sensational item. Our ability to understand the connectedness of the problems we are grappling with seems rather limited, and to deal with any issue exhaustively seems equally challenging.
Meanwhile the discontent is growing among the general population, a population that is bearing the brunt of deaths that could be prevented by a decent healthcare system, a population that is going to bed hungry and unable to educate its children despite walking three hours, to work 8-12 hours a day.
How long will it be before this population contests the exclusion, injustice and bloated representation that does not represent the people in ways that changes their lives? How will the contestation be done? Are we preparing ourselves as Kenyans to contest constructively?
The time to begin preparing for constructive contestation is now, and that will not happen by having a new hashtag every day, and forgetting what we were hash tagging about last week. What for instance happened to the 109K wheelbarrow outrage? Yet we went ahead and discussed the 37K bars of soap without remembering the 109K wheelbarrow. How did we forget the NYS scandal? That is now forgotten, we have made noise about it, and it is time to move on to the next thing. We moved on to make noise about Aladwa’s inflammatory remarks, and now we have forgotten about that, and we are ready to move on to the next big thing.
I strongly believe that uncoordinated speaking, or being an “armchair activist”, is better than silence, and so we must continue, and speak even louder. But more than that, we must be able to connect every scandal, every issue, with exclusion, injustice and poor representation. We must organize for contestation, and organize effectively and inclusively for that matter, making sure that the poor, the rural and women are part of the struggle, and not just two or three women.
I say this, having been to forums that intend to be chart a new political path for Kenya, yet I find myself being one out of five or six women, surrounded by educated, well to do urban residing men. The discussions seem ideologically challenged, devoid of new ideas other than the old tired mantra that things are not working and they must change.
This to me seems to be politics as usual and I often find myself asking, “What new political path are you charting, while leaving the poor, the rural and women behind?” “What is the basis for organizing?” “How can a new political path that follows the old political route, expect to lead people to a new destination? “
The revolution will not happen without women, without rural and poor people. Leaving the majority behind is a sure way of maintaining status quo. The revolution will not happen without speaking to the bread and butter issues that the regular Kenyan faces; the hopelessness that comes with living on survival mode and being downtrodden while struggling to survive.
It’s time to prepare for constructive contestation, with understanding that yes, Kenyans will rise to contest what is currently happening. The question is not when, but how. Because how we prepare, or fail to prepare for that contestation determines whether we will be walking the paths of a new and brighter political future or recovering from the aftermath of unprepared contestation.
Nelson Mandela once told the South Africans that should the ANC treat them like the apartheid government did, South Africans should do to the ANC what they did to the apartheid government. I think someone should have told Kenyans that should the Jubilee government treat them like the KANU government did, Kenyans should do to Jubilee what they did to KANU. Perhaps then, we too would rise.