In the year 1989, American professor and civil rights advocate, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality. Intersectionality has since grown to take center-stage in feminist discourse, laying focus on the fact that the fight to rid the world of structural forms of oppression cannot be undertaken if we do not first recognize the layered ways in which certain people are stripped of their humanity. Intersectionality has been defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ”the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”
The basic premise of intersectionality is that human beings experience the world differently based on their own perceived identities as well as how society perceives them & their identities. It only then follows, that our political motivations are largely influenced by the politics of identity.
In the current Kenyan context, we can list the following economic demographics that majority of people identify with: the lower class (ma-sufferer), lower middle class (ma-hustler), the upper middle class and the wealthy (sonko/barbie). These intersect with identities tied to tribe, religion, gender, sexuality, age and even geographical affiliation such as urban/rural association (Born city/mshamba).
The explicit expression of the politics of identity and representation has ranged from the controversy that has surrounded the one-third gender rule to the outright disrespect, harassment and violence experienced by women contending for/in public office. We have seen this country battle with the question on identity and belonging – through the cessation politics that have consumed the Kenyan Coast (#PwaniSiKenya).
Further, by clawing on artistic expression e.g. banning material they have considered ‘immoral’ – (a shameless ruse to clamp down on minority groups such as LGBTQIA), the government has centered the ideology of identity politics. In a bid to control and define this thing they call “Kenyan” they have othered, ostracized and caused violence to many. And finally, in critiquing ‘social media activism’ which is one of the primary ways in which the Kenyan middle class participates in public politics – we are asking important questions regarding technology and economic access and how these factors are influencing the face of public politics in Kenya. In a nutshell, across all spheres, the politics of identity is one of the most powerful invisible forces within the electoral politics of Kenya.
I am particularly interested in the participation, role, influence and motivations of the Kenyan middle class in public politics in the face of a deteriorating economy and a government riddled with corruption scandals. There is literature and research devoted to the motivations behind participation in public and electoral politics – is it self-driven, social-identification driven or driven by altruism? There has been further research to understand the motivations of Kenyans who participate in the electoral voting system – are they driven by tribe, class or policies? Furthermore, it has been argued well and often that the middle class (due in part to the privileges and levels of political access they enjoy) has a civic duty toward democratization and the election of good leaders who ensure the protection & utilization of public resources and towards sustainable growth that benefits all.
Dear Kenyans, the politicians live in well-guarded houses, have bodyguards & armoured cars…as they whip up your emotions, hamko pamoja.
— Ory Okolloh Mwangi (@kenyanpundit) June 17, 2014
Assuming access to the internet oft comes with class privilege, then most of those shares and likes were presumably by Kenyans who identify as middle-class. In the face of bad governance will middle class Kenyans lay down their ethnic allegiances for their shared class and economic struggles?
On 31st October 2016, I received a message on one of my whatsapp groups, a message I have since seen doing the rounds on various other groups. The message set off with a list of 25 companies that have closed shop/moved headquarters to a different location and retrenched employees in the period between 2014 – 2016. The clincher of the message is a one-liner, an article whose headline calls to attention the grand allegations of graft that the Uhuru government has faced. What’s worse is the president’s admission that he is unable (unwilling?) to tackle corruption.
In addition, The World Bank reports that most job-creation happens in the informal and low-productivity sectors as well as the fact that Kenya’s economy has had lower growth and higher volatility than its peers in the period between 2013-2014. Inflation in the country is at an 8 month high driven by food items.
In middle-class Nairobi neighborhoods like Jamhuri, Madaraka and Lang’ata one comes up against the lost hopes and dreams of a middle-class life that we were birthed on, fed on and raised against. Buildings sprout on top of each other, survival for the fittest imagined only as a fight for space. There is a sense of suffocation. Everybody is trying to rent out whatever extra space they have. Perennial shortages of water, potholes and sewer/drainage problems. And yet- a government that deals in corruption with impunity and without accountability, a government that steals its own livelihood. Najihurumia kuwa Mkenya.
On social media, the rage is articulated eloquently and with some humor but will this translate to any behavioral change? Will this rage be put to work by changing the way in which middle class Kenya directs their political agency?
Bannon, Miguel & Posner question whether urbanization, industrialization, education, political mobilization, and competition for jobs deepen ethnic identities rather than weaken them, as individuals exploit their ethnic group memberships as tools for political, economic, and social advancement. Further, as the election period becomes more imminent ethnicity becomes more salient amongst respondents. Ethnicity becomes most salient were two or more equally sized groups are competing for power – a case obviously apparent in Kenya, where conversation around politics seems to teeter between Luo or Kikuyu.
Cheeseman argues that middle class Kenya acts as the conscience of the country – not in small part due to privileges afforded by good education & wealth. They are more likely to oppose the status quo and support the opposition. His research showed that while ethnicity determines which political party Kenyans pledge allegiance to (regardless of class), support for democracy was differentiated along class lines – with the middle class choosing to support democracy against authoritarian rule.
Given this context, how will middle class Kenya engage with the 2017 elections? Will they choose to wager a better individual livelihood through advantages brought about by tribal association? Or will they choose to seek for a greater common good – leaders who will work for all, govern towards a better Kenya for all Kenyans?
After all, what are we if not the choices we make?
Brenda Wakiagi is a shoemaker who reads while balancing anxieties about her bank account balance. Find her on twitter @notyourkato
 Time period: 2014- 2016
- Fluorspar laid off workers as Kenya Fluorspar company closed down in April. http://www.nation.co.ke/news/1056-3096142-7jv5q9z/index.html
- East Africa’s biggest broadcaster to close radio and TV stations in Kenya. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/30/nation-media-group-kenya-close-radio-and-tv-station
- Sameer tyre factory closure http://www.businessdailyafrica.com/Corporate-News/Sameer-mulls-tyre-factory-closure-as-cheap-imports-hit-market/539550-3153442-y9r0hgz/index.html
- Cadbury Kenya closed shop http://www.businessdailyafrica.com/Corporate-News/Cadbury-to-shut-Nairobi-factory-this-month/539550-2472588-c92n6/index.html
- Eveready East Africa, the biggest dry-cell battery maker in the region, shut its Nakuru factory. http://www.nation.co.ke/business/Eveready-finally-shuts-down-due-to-cheap-batteries/996-2469276-x2kcma/index.html
- Banking giant Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) formally exited Nairobi. http://www.businessdailyafrica.com/HSBC-shuts-down-Nairobi-office-in-global-reorganisation/539552-2399560-4fbm1hz/index.html
- Reckitt & Benkiser, Procter & Gamble, Bridgestone, Colgate Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson and Unilever have all relocated or restructured their operations mostly to Egypt or South Africa
- Tata Chemicals Magadi closed down its main factory in Kenya. http://info.shine.com/article/tata-chemicals-to-lay-off-200-employees-in-kenyan-soda-ash-plant/3603.html
- Coca-Cola Company downgraded its massive regional headquarters in Nairobi and relocated most of its operations to South Africa and Nigeria. http://www.nation.co.ke/news/Shake-up-in-Coca-Cola-leaves-trail-of-anxiety/1056-3297660-9b4hhez/index.html
- Barclays Africa shuts down Nairobi office over redundancy and moves to South Africa. http://www.nation.co.ke/business/Barclays-Africa-to-shut-down-Nairobi-office-over-redundancy/996-3034094-12sl196z/index.html
- Royal media lays off over 100 employees to cut costs. http://www.thespotlightnews.net/uncategorized/breaking-news-royal-media-sacks-100-employees-including/
- Sidian Bank staff layoffs point to a bigger issue with the Kenyan economy. http://www.businessdailyafrica.com/Corporate-News/Sidian-Bank-staff-layoffs-pointer-to-looming-turmoil/539550-3428588-151f209z/
- Family Bank will lay off unspecified number of workers in a bid to cut costs. http://www.standardmedia.co.ke/sports/article/2000218304/family-bank-turns-to-layoffs-to-manage-costs
- StanChart Kenya lays off 167 as parent firm orders cost-cutting. http://www.businessdailyafrica.com/Corporate-News/StanChart-Kenya-lays-off-167-parent-firm-orders-cost-cutting/539550-3186366-11anaxj/index.html
- EABL to lay off 100 staff at main Kenya subsidiary due to high costs of operations. http://www.nation.co.ke/business/corporates/EABL-lay-off-100-staff-Kenya-subsidiary/-/1954162/2248840/-/15i3ckx/-/index.html
- Ericsson Kenya staff demand to know retrenchment terms (However this affected larger sub-saharan Africa). http://www.businessdailyafrica.com/Corporate-News/Ericsson-Kenya-staff-demand-to-know-retrenchment-terms/539550-3233736-aqhpucz/index.html
- Telkom Kenya to lay off 500 employees in fresh retrenchment wave Read more at: http://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2000185589/telkom-kenya-to-lay-off-500-employees-in-fresh-retrenchment-wave.
- Kenya Airways cuts 80 jobs in first phase of layoffs. http://www.businessdailyafrica.com/Corporate-News/Kenya-Airways-says-to-lay-off-80-staff/539550-3284688-vicg4c/index.html
- Kenya Meat Commission lays off 119 employees in it’s rationalization of staff. http://kbctv.co.ke/blog/2016/07/07/kmc-lays-off-119-employees-in-its-staff-rationalization-plan/
- Mumias lays off 100 staff at closed water bottling plant. http://www.businessdailyafrica.com/Corporate-News/Mumias-lays-off-100-staff-at-closed-water-bottling-plant/-/539550/2684890/-/k3yigb/-/index.html
- Equity Bank reports drop in staff costs as 660 workers exit. http://www.businessdailyafrica.com/Equity-Bank-reports-drop-in-staff-costs-as-660-workers-exit/539552-3108438-1b3wht/index.html
- Co-op Bank sends 160 managers packing in cost-cutting measure. http://www.nation.co.ke/business/Coop-Bank-fires-160-in-cost-cutting-measure/996-2553174-vus32dz/index.html
- Agony for 2,600 workers as Karuturi flower firm shuts down Read more at: http://www.standardmedia.co.ke/business/article/2000200916/agony-for-2-600-workers-as-karuturi-flower-firm-shuts-down-amid-debts
- Oserian flower farm lays off 400 employees. http://www.the-star.co.ke/news/2016/09/07/oserian-fl-ower-farm-to-lay-off-400-employees_c1415669
- Airtel lays off 60 employees. https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/ktn/m/video/2000102477/kenyas-second-largest-telecommunications-operator-airtel-kenya-lays-off-at-least-60-employees