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Why you shouldn't start writing the obituary of Kenya's complex elitism

Xn Iraki


One of the unintended consequences of capitalism or the market system is the emergence of elitism. Not surprisingly, elitism thrives in communist countries too. We had elites in our traditional societies as well.

Simply put, elitism is about a few groups of people having a near monopoly on power, prestige, and influence in all spheres of our lives: politics, economics, security, culture, and even our views about life.

The masses are awed by the elite and hope to join them one day. Many never do. Elitists often cherry-pick new members through vetting, for example, in clubs or through natural selection via marriage, exams, or other filters.

In many countries, heredity confers elitism. Think of monarchies. Even in the absence of monarchies, your parents make a big difference in your journey to elitism. Consider a young boy celebrating being the first in his primary school to be admitted to Alliance High School. Compare him to a classmate whose grandfather attended. Compare the two students in ten years.

British, American, Japanese, French, and other nationalities have their elite schools. Think of the Ivies in the US or Oxbridge in the UK. Under them are elite high schools like Eton, St. Philips Exeter, or Hotchkiss. Which are our Ivies and Etons?

Other indicators of elitism include churches, surprisingly. Do you attend a local church, a cathedral, or even a chapel? What about your residence? Is it leafy? Which animals are found there, cockroaches or monkeys?

Going abroad is another indicator, not for seminars or work, but for holidays or visiting relatives. What is your first language, and do you speak it with an accent or not? Even elitist jokes are coded.

Even complexion matters; notice how we are converging in appearance? It’s hard to pigeonhole elites into their tribes from their appearance. They are likely to intermarry across tribes and races. Who you marry and where you meet is another sign of elitism. It may sound old-fashioned, but genetics seem to ring-fence elitism. Elites do not work just anywhere. They are typically shielded from frontline jobs.

Their social circles are ring-fenced too. Be it clubs, residences, restaurants, games, or other leisure activities. How many Kenyans play polo? Archery? Or own a horse? How many frequent game parks? Horse racing or "concours d'elegance"? Do not ask me why I am leaving out golf.

Given this background, can we write an obituary for elitism in Kenya? Did the election of Kenya Kwanza start slowly puncturing elitism? Will elitism die as we know it, or will a new form of elitism emerge?

Heredity will not go away as a conveyor belt of elitism. Read the obituaries of prominent people or follow their court cases, and you will hear echoes of genetically transmitted elitism. The hustler government might not do much about that.

Public schools have been muted as conveyors of elitism. By expanding the number of national schools, public elitism was diluted. Putting all universities under one law diluted public elitism further. Have you noted the number of cars with stickers of prestigious Western universities?

Private elitism has remained intact with high-end schools and their non-local curriculum. Public elites long to be admitted into private elitism. Their money, education, and influence may get them in, but never as core members. Some think politics has become the “back door” route to elitism. But it’s probably pseudo-elitism. Beyond money, many politicians would fail the elitism test.

Why else do they join hands when threatened politically? Coalitions and handshakes are not random! Real elites are not that easily shaken.

Remember, at the core of elitism is an extraordinary achievement, sometimes defined by the same elite. Elites must justify their elitism! That's why professions and elitism often go together.

Residency is another badge of elitism. Anyone can now live in Lavington, Kilimani, and other formerly high-end suburbs. Even Karen is under threat from pseudo-elites. Muthaiga has held well. Out of curiosity, where do real elites live in Kenya? Where is our Martha’s Vineyard?

With the hustler government, we expected from their pronouncement that the floodgates of elitism would open and anyone could become an elite. That was the coded message in replacing dynasties with hustlers.

We have been there before. President Moi did that by removing “A” level exams. It became “easier” to acquire higher education, and a degree, which is another badge of elitism. 

How did Kenyatta, Kibaki, and Uhuru perpetuate elitism? Did they allow it to grow organically? A keen observer will note that the hustler government has not dealt a death blow to both public and private elitism (a mixture is rare). Politics is one rare space where public and private elitism meet, usually out of convenience.

Like Romans adopting the cultures of the conquered nations, the new government is slowly adopting the elitism of its predecessors with few variations and entrants. It’s the new entrants who will catalyse the adoption of old elitism.

Remember, elitism gets its strength from longevity and a privileged position. Who would hate that? Elitism has been tested and evolved to withstand shocks like elections and even revolutions. Its mutation mirrors that of the coronavirus.

Did the new political dispensation (2010 constitution) spawn a new public elite in the counties? What do you think? Some pundits think we have some fake elites while others are forcing themselves into elitism. I will leave it to you to find out how.

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