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Why South Africa chaos offers lessons for Kenya’s 2022 polls

Members of the military patrol past looted shops as the country deploys army to quell unrest linked to jailing of former President Jacob Zuma, in Soweto, South Africa, July 13, 2021.[Reuters, Siphiwe Sibeko]

A keen observer would have noticed that the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya was swiftly and routinely replicated in several other African countries.

In South Africa, the violence assumed a xenophobic flavour, with the black populace - propelled by an apparent illusion of exceptionalism - attacking black migrant workers from neighbouring countries, whom they accused of taking away their women, jobs and economic opportunities. These events showed the ease with which violence can metastasise around the continent, especially in this era of global interconnectivity and instant messaging.

Following the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma on corruption charges, protests and riots of a scale never seen before in independent South Africa erupted on July 9. They were characterised by widespread and massive arson, malicious damage to property and the collapse of the rule of law. Substantial looting was reportedly visited upon the Kenyan business community who have for long held a dim view of indigenous South Africans’ work ethic. 

The spectre of a modern nation which had every reason to be the beacon of peace and tolerance sliding into anarchy is painfully discomfiting. Having survived brutal apartheid, South Africans would be expected to have a deeply inculcated respect for the neighbouring nations and their citizens who were the de facto hosts of the exiled African National Congress (ANC) freedom fighters in the heat of anti-apartheid action, besides refined respect for human life. But lo and behold, by the time of writing this article, over 337 people had died in the riots, besides the 3,500 arrested.

Outside the Zuma factor, a consistent subtext of the violence has been social class disparities and economic inequality. With an unemployment rate of 32 per cent, and more than 50 per cent of citizens living in poverty, it is no surprise that the World Bank in 2019 categorised South Africa as the most economically unequal society in the world. As such, we infer strong convergences between violence in South Africa and the potential situation in Kenya during the upcoming 2022 General Election.

One, as we have warned here before, both Kenya and South Africa share a history of collective and repressed memory, and announcement of election results could realistically open a Pandora’s box of widespread unrest. 

Two, as observed during the South African protest, violence has now metamorphosed from being raced-based, and assumed a distinctly economic tinge. The pervasive looting was clearly perpetuated by those who ‘don’t have’ on those perceived as ‘haves’ regardless of colour, ethnicity or religion. It was as if the misery of the former was an invention of the latter.

Thirdly, the dangerous ultra-national Hustlers vs Dynasties quasi-ideology being bandied around, subtly seeks to amplify this treacherous narrative of disenfranchisement of poor Kenyans by the rich. Against the backdrop of the fact that Kenyan elections always have a historical undertone of violence, and that cells of armed pseudo-political gangs are still lie awaiting activation by tribal kingpins, this ideology is perfect fodder for a class war, and looting on a massive scale.

Fourthly, we observe in Kenya a rising sense of hopelessness, despair and stress associated with inequality, Covid-19 effects and economic recession.

Simultaneously, socio-economic marginalisation has drastically collapsed the quality of schooling and the ability to access higher education. Moreover, in a country where powerful patriarchy, now indistinguishable from political privilege, is highly valued, and where only a few people have the wherewithal to attain that ‘alpha’ status, frustrated masculinity is also bound to incentivise violence on multiple fronts. 

Fifth, and contrary to what everyone thought, the world-class economy and the post-modern vibe of South African cities has barely regulated the visceral trajectory of that country’s politics. As one honest columnist dolefully wrote in the Sowetan, “We must all thank Zuma for revealing our true African character; that the idea of rule of law is not part of who we are and that constitutionalism is a concept far ahead of us as a people… what Zuma has done is to make us come to the realisation that ours is just another African country, not some exceptional country on the southern tip of the continent.”

Therefore, despite a deceptive aura of modernity characterised by a progressive education system, online civilisation and zealous religiosity, most Kenyans will predictably shed their disguises and unfailingly turn into monsters whenever election campaigns are pronounced.

Apparently, most of us still live in the metaphorical past, and will have no compunction of turning on one another’s jugular if the occasion allows. 


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