Gen Z revolution: You can’t imprison minds of people who carry own beds to school

Saturday July 06 2024
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Middle class kids, who one MP mocked as arriving to protest in Ubers and with iPhones and left to go away with chicken nuggets from KFC, linked up with upper working-class youngsters, and stood up to their parents – basically. ILLUSTRATION | JOSEPH NYAGAH | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The Kenyan political class just had its major reckoning with Generation Z. After several days of protests against what they saw as obnoxious taxes in the Finance Bill, and “budgeted corruption”, they got the government to withdraw the law. President William Ruto also announced a series of cutbacks on items the Gen Z protesters had highlighted as wasteful.

The political elite seemed to have been blind-sided. Understandably, because in the early days, it was a protest like Africa hasn’t seen.

Middle class kids, who one MP mocked as arriving to protest in Ubers and with iPhones and left to go away with chicken nuggets from KFC, linked up with upper working-class youngsters, and stood up to their parents – basically. With many (not all) people who should otherwise be content taking to the streets to face The Man, the formbook was upended.

Stories swirled in Nairobi of big men and women in government and business running around police stations in the evening in their expensive cars and bodyguards, looking for their rebellious children in their tear-gas-smelling clothes. The tales were probably exaggerated, but the point was made.

Read: BUWEMBO: Kenya could still push Africa economic integration

Yet, the Kenyan Gen Z were not an exception. They are part of the long arc of the 21st century African reform movement, driven by social media, dating back more recently from Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa of 2011; the Sudanese Revolution that ousted General Omar al-Bashir in 2019; to the 2020 Nigerian #EndSARS protests against the abuse, extortion, and killing of young people by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (Sars) that had gone rogue.


The Gen Z protests were the 3.0 version of the early uprisings. In common, all these were about what Jared Diamond, author of the wonderful “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies”, and “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”, calls “cargo” – material goods, the means to deliver them, and the freedom that comes with them.

One’s own roof over the head, a job that makes it possible to pay for them, and the dignity that comes with not having to beg – even your rich parents – for Uber fare or pizza money.

Looked at that way, there was a time when young Africans had a lot of cargo, in the pre-independence and early post-independence era. Consider for example that at the time, all you carried to boarding state schools was your suitcase with your clothes, shoes, and, in some cases, bed sheets and bath towels.

You went to school on a state bursary. The school also gave you a free mattress, a blanket, school uniform, socks, textbooks, exercise books, and at university, they paid you what at Makerere University in Kampala was called “boom” — an allowance. The taxpayers bribed you to go to college. You went to the cafeteria and there were plates, cups, cutlery, a sweet drink, and you had a choice of what to eat.

Independence went off the rails, and by the end of the 1970s, this cargo was disappearing, and by the mid-1980s, it was history. Except for a few of the most elite, mostly international, private schools, in the past 30 or so years students pay for a bed, carry mattresses, plates, cups, cutlery, all bedding, pay all their fees, uniforms, carry iron sheets, charcoal, cement, bags of rice or maize flour, curry powder, salt, cough up building fund, and contribute a “top-up” to teachers’ salaries. It is total madness.

Read: BUWEMBO: Power might belong to the Ugandan people, after all

Even for someone like me who went to school at the tail end of this post-independence largesse, by the 1990s I had forgotten how it felt.

In 1994, I went to visit the then newly opened private Martyrs’ University in Nkozi, southwestern Uganda, which was funded by European Catholic money. I went to the cafeteria, that was being prepared for the students’ dinner. The tables had cloth, and were set like a restaurant with plates, all the cutlery, napkins, tomato sauce, and a jar of orange. I was so taken aback and left the café feeling dizzy and confused. Impossible, I said to myself. It was a small start-up university then, so most of that is probably no more.

This form of provisioning formed important social, economic, and political functions. It was a big transfer of the nation’s “matunda” to its young, a huge social bribe, and in return they bought into the national project, and even acquiesced to the elite of the time.

The African youth dissent of the period was largely ideological; mostly radical left, driven by internationalism and the solidarity of people’s emerging out of colonial oppression. But they remained largely nationalist, patriotic, and accepted the rule of independence leaders.

There were a few annoying writers, and some restless ones who had read too much Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and were besotted with a freshly triumphant and bearded Fidel Castro in Cuba, but those stubborn types will always be there.

Looking at the Arab Spring and now the Gen Z Kenyan revolt, if there is one thing the power elite can do to buy peace, it would have to be cargo. Catch them young. Give the young people their social bribe. You can’t control a person who had to carry his or her own bed, mattress, cement, curry powder, and maize flour to school. To channel Mahatma Gandhi, you can chain them, you can torture them, you can even destroy their bodies, but you will never imprison their minds.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. X@cobbo3