On the eve of the Pan African Conference on Sexual and Gender Based violence that ACORD and seven other like minded partners  deemed necessary in order to re-mobilize energies on ending impunity on SGBV, I would like to engage with the subject through a slightly different lens. The question of violence against women has been a constant pre-occupation of mine; professionally, academically and in the personal space. Perhaps my re-engagement with it was more vivid during the recent post election crisis in Kenya not because the experience unparalleled other contexts but because this was my home and as a woman this became a real fear for me in ways that it never had been before. I would like to concern myself with the young people; those popularly referred to as youth whose Africa’s future is said to rest with.
On the 25th of May 2008, a number of like minded organizations  came together in Nairobi to commemorate Africa liberation day. I was requested to contribute to the discussions through a speech on Africa’s liberation and youth. It serves to reason that on this day (and thereafter), a day that we are aptly reminded crystallized the youthful nature of our continent, given that most of our independence leaders were in their thirties, we should take time to problematise this category called youth and what hope or vision it holds for this continent.
I find ‘youth’ a particularly difficult subject to engage with, despite the fact that the UN officially considers me to fall within this category. This difficulty arises due to the transitional nature of the term youth and its very constituency. Further, the connotations of youth particularly in my context (Kenya) are unsavory to say the least. The term youth has for a very long time been used to refer to unruly groups of young men, mobilized by politicians to bully, steal and harass their opponents often in the run up to elections. These outfits then morph into vigilante groups, who in the absence of quick money and a job description linked to elections find alternative ways to exist and this comes in the form of thuggery.
This is an experience that is not unique to Kenya. Whilst conducting my graduate research in peri-urban Cape Town or what are popularly referred to as the Cape Flats, this is an assertion that often emerged. The emergence of American styled male gangs in this context, with territories, symbols and codes cannot be disconnected from historical, economic and social factors of South Africa. Gangs in Manenberg, the context I was working in were seen as extensions of vigilante groups that were established during the apartheid era to make the country ungovernable; a strategy to break the regime. Gangs, vigilante groups or whatever we want to describe them as, then become an expression of social cohesion in peripheral communities and are an integral aspect of both the cultural and economic reproduction of personhood (See Salo. 2005).
This piece does not seek to abstract itself from the socio-economic and political realities that face African’s and its youth in particular. I seek to question the viability of violence as an option for so called democratization or liberation of this continent. I call for an engagement with the criminal activities that are conducted under the veil of democracy and which are subsequently deemed bona fide.
Allow me to do this through four vignettes: Some of the disturbing pictures that did the rounds on the internet, showed large numbers of what we assume to be young South African men, wrecking massive havoc on ‘foreigners’ in this country. Given Thabo Mbeki’s flowery speeches on African Renaissance the term foreigner need not apply to Africans in African countries - but nonetheless it does. Pictures of this nature are not unique to this situation. One of the pictures distinctly reminded me of a scene I witnessed not too long ago in Kenya on the day that the disputed presidential results were announced. This particular scene involved a group of young men with pangas, rungus and other crude weaponry murmuring discontent and who immediately begun an assault on property that they perceived to be owned or rented by the opposition. If they had not mentioned Soweto, that very scene could be transplanted to various locations across this continent and the world for that matter.
Over the last couple years, a number of young black South African women have been raped and brutally murdered by young men due to their choice of an alternative lifestyle. This alternative is manifested in their decision to love other women. A ‘condition’ that is seen as requiring curative rape and in these instances becomes a palpable indication of rising misogyny in this country and in Africa. These are incidences that fly under the radar unless we are directly involved in this activism or engage with said activists.
Two months ago, on Kenyan television we were treated to a rigorous debate between a human rights activist, human rights lawyer and a Kenyan politician on the question of amnesty. At the heart of this discourse were concerted attempts by all parties to problematise the notion of rule of law and its subsequent application within the context of post election violence. While the politician argued that all ‘youth’ (used to refer to young men) arrested during the post election crisis must be freed unconditionally, the human rights lawyer’s position was that this would be going against due process and the rule of law. The human rights activist on the other hand asserted that if government demanded due process by prosecuting all in its prisons, which they had obviously failed because the Kenya’s penal code stipulates that people must be charged and arraigned in court within 48 hours or released. However, she questioned whether government would apply this same principle to the extra judicial killings conducted by its employees- the police.
The point I seek to speak to through these vignettes is the sites on which these struggles for democracy, nationhood and assertion of cultural identity are waged. One of the primary sites remains women’s bodies. During the post election crisis in Kenya, it did not take long before women became targets, either under the guise of policing their sexuality through dress codes or assertion of power through rape. Femininity, its re-construction and maintenance was seen as one of the ways through which a message would be sent to competing groups. When the locus for the argument for amnesty is based on a struggle for democracy; an assertion of citizenship there is a problem. As a citizen, this is a right that I fully participated in acquiring and asserting by being an active participant in the political process. By supporting a call for blanket amnesty, am I not inadvertently arguing for the pardoning of all those who raped and wantonly abused women thereby seeing them as mere casualties in the struggle for democracy? By calling for amnesty are we not asserting that this is part of the struggle; misogyny and disregard for the sanctity of human dignity and especially that of the so called mothers of the nation, the nurturers and all those words that are used ascertain the importance of women – are after all purely that – rhetoric?
When one of the continent’s most progressive nations (and this is debatable), with one of the most progressive constitutions for all intents and purposes ‘condones’ the murder of a section of its population because they are viewed as deviants even though they are acknowledged constitutionally. Surely, there is need to question what democracy we are speaking about and who the next generation represents in terms of its politics and agenda when these events are occurring under their watch and due to them? I have not seen the ANC youth league, COSATU nor the ANC women’s league rise up in large numbers to defend the rights of their lesbian workers and youth whose lives are being taken indiscriminately. Instead, we see these protests occurring within a very limited community that is asking the government to honour one of the fundamental tenets of its social contract with the citizens; to ensure security. I question whether this is the so-called liberation of the African continent that we desire and whether we are willing to append our names and legacy to this.
Social science research points to the fact that the approach to national and communal struggles has always been to focus on the master narrative, the ‘oppressor’. During the colonial era it was the colonialist whether they were British, French or German, in South Africa this manifested itself in the form of the apartheid regime, recently in Kenya it manifested itself in the various institutions and groups that were seen to represent the ‘stolen elections’ and with the current violent xenophobic wave in South Africa it is an attack on the government through an easy target; the ‘foreigners’. The focus as you will notice is rarely on the ‘sub issues’, which are critical to the master narrative.
I remember an acquaintance at the height of the Kenya crisis, admonishing a new woman member of parliament for prioritizing the need to enact pending gender bills. Her contention was that there are other ‘serious’ issues that need to be dealt with. As shocked as I was that she said this in my presence, this was a statement I anticipated. The fact that it was coming from a young woman only encapsulated the class and not gender dynamics within which we exist in, in cosmopolitan cities like Nairobi. I doubt that a survivor of violence from Kibera, Kondele or Kaloleni who was unable to access adequate care or continues to live with the deep scars of sexual and gender based violence because of a stolen election would share that opinion. Women’s rights as a ‘sub-issue’ within the master narrative are often silenced both at a macro level and the trend continues to the micro level. This is witnessed in the current construction of masculinity on the peripheries of our cities that hinges on violence and territorial warfare as a means of survival. The legacy that young women (in the Manenberg’s, Kibera’s and Kaloleni’s as well as our modern day inhabitants of leafy suburbs such as the Kileleshwa’s and Sandton’s) inherit is a culture of violence; a culture where their voices compete unequally in ongoing discourses; a culture that sanctions rape and abuse as part of the process of democratization; a culture where the so called master narrative continues to supersede other issues that are deemed ‘non-important’.
Fifty years later, I question whether we can fully rely on our young people (women and men alike) to re-invent the nature of politics, governance and leadership on this continent when they have bought into what our fore bearers have sanctioned as how politics and liberation needs to be conducted and won. Our political and unfortunately civil society spaces continue to use African culture and tradition, to thwart and suppress dissenting voices and energies that go against the grain. The deference to age, wisdom and the creation of political dynasties where leadership is seen as automatically passing on from one son to another do not in any way represent potential for change on this continent.
I argue that there are very few public role models. The nostalgia with which some will speak about the Nkrumah’s, Nyerere’s and Lumumba’s of the latter day does not hold with our leaders or immediate former leaders today. We can attempt to deal with the socio economic realities but this is highly improbable when our governments are populated by thugs and individuals who easily resort to thuggery and under hand tactics including but not limited to waging war on women’s bodies ‘to send a message’ and to hang onto leadership. If African youth represent the next generation that will liberate this continent, I dare say our colleagues in the corporate sector are doing much more, whether they will alter political leadership is questionable. If that task is left to the massive social movement that exists across this continent, then we must engage in a much more nuanced way with the principles, values and role models that our youth (read young men and women) are lapping up without scrutiny.
*Awino Okech is a feminist researcher and activist living in Nairobi, Kenya.
1"> Great lakes parliamentary forum on peace – Amani Forum, Kenya Human Rights Commission, Fahamu, Action Aid International – Africa, Urgent Action Fund – Africa, African Women’s Development Fund and International Planned Parenthood Federation.
2"> Including but not limited to the Forum for African Affairs, UN Millennium Campaign, Niaje Youth and Fahamu
Salo, E. 2004. Respectable Mothers, Tough Men and Good Daughters. Making Persons in Manenberg Township, South Africa. Doctoral dissertation submitted to the Anthropology Department, Emory University.
Salo, E. 2005. Mans is Ma Soe. Ganging Practices in Manenberg South Africa and the Ideologies of Masculinity, Gender and Generational relations. A paper prepared for the Criminal Justice Conference. 7- 8 February.