Organising under curfew
Updated: Jul 28
Perspectives from Kenya
The Covid-19 pandemic has at best exposed the sham of neoliberal capitalism. All the inequalities that existed before the pandemic have been exacerbated. The Kenyan state, has inherited the colonial legacies of marginalization and exclusion and this has been highlighted in several ways in the midst of the pandemic. Governments across the globe have restricted movements in forms of curfews and lockdowns and this has had varying effects. In Kenya, there is a curfew that was imposed on 27th March 2020 from dusk to dawn to contain the spread of the virus. In practice, it means that from 7pm to 5 am all public spaces are off limits. On the 6th of June, the curfew hours were shifted from 9pm to 4am.
Social movements have emerged as an essential service. The hunger and the devastation that is experienced more so by the poor has called for mutual solidarity and aid amongst communities. Social movements have then in turn broadened their communicative practices and new and old ways of organising have merged. This brings in new challenges such as the immediacy of the issues being faced versus the importance of ideological change that is required for systemic transformation. Nonetheless the new social movements that are emerging and the relevance of the existing ones is being reinforced by the pandemic.
The intensified war on the poor
The curfew was unfortunately accompanied by atrocities in its reinforcement. The brutality of the state once again reared its ugly head. Mostly the poor working class were the ones caught up while trying to rush home to beat the hours. In the counties of Nairobi and Mombasa specifically, violence was meted out on the people. That saw crowds being teargassed, and beatings for being outside during curfew hours. For most, it was unrealistic to leave work and walk home without breaching the bounds of the curfew. Furthermore, there were even deaths reported such as the 13-year-old boy, Yassin Moyo, who was standing outside the balcony of their home in Kiamaiko, Nairobi when a stray bullet ended his life. This underpinned the call for justice of social movements that advocate against police brutality.
In at least two other incidents, residents of Nairobi have been left homeless in the midst of the pandemic. On the 4th May 2020, at least 5,000 people were rendered homeless in Kariobangi. House demolitions on the basis that land was public land went ahead, despite a court order preventing this.
In a similarly devastating incident, on 16th May 2020, at least 200 people were left homeless in Ruai. These demolitions took place in the dead of night leaving the victims with no place to shelter. The victims of the tragedy were mostly 'Internally Displaced Persons' from the post-election violence of 2007/8, a double tragedy for the victims. They were allocated that land on which they had settled after the violence and that have been there for the past 12 years.
All these demolitions are taking place not only in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also in the middle of the rainy season in Kenya. At that time the infrastructure and hygiene in informal settlements is even more deplorable.
Communication practices of social movements
Movements have been central in ensuring that social justice prevails despite the novelty of Covid-19. Old and newer innovative methods have emerged in organising practices and communication repertoires. These allowed movements to produce information that is consumed and take a more pro-active role in the narration of their own narratives.
The bigger question of digital inequality has obviously emerged. This meant hierarchies being replicated online in terms of which movements are visible, and arguably what type of activists are on the online public sphere. The Covid-19 pandemic presents a unique situation, because of the physical distancing that is required. Movements and activists were compelled at least in ways that are possible to them, to engage in the online public sphere. This was extremely unequal but in some ways, has broadened the communicative practices of some social movements.
In the case of the extreme brutality by the police, a lot of discussions led by social movements were on social media. Hashtags, along with photographs and videos taken on smart phones were being used for information. This was an opportunity for public education and importantly, gave a deeper understanding on the systemic issue over the immediacy of the problem at hand. What was remarkably outstanding was a single picture shared on social media - which compared the brutality of the colonial state to the current police brutality and how the two parallel each other.
On the other hand, there was a vigil held in Kiamako, Nairobi for the young boy who fell victim to the stray bullet while maintaining physical distancing. In Kariobangi where the demolitions had taken place, a protest followed. The protest did not necessarily adhere to physical distancing and neither were the protesters in protective gear. The protest was characterized by a blocked road and burning of barricades. Police used teargas and water cannons on the protesters and disrupted the protests. Protestors used the only means at their disposal to express their discontent at the brutality of the state.
The reasons given for the dispersal of the protests were allegations they were 'disruptive' and should use the 'correct channels to air their grievances'. This tactic de-legitimizes community struggles. However, within the protest, some video footage taken on smartphones was shared on social media platforms - showing the merging of communication methods.
In terms of public education around Covid-19 one of the more creative ways in which movements are engaging the public has been the use of graffiti on the walls and the spoken word artistes have also been using poetry. Musicians have also composed songs.
Gradual progressive change
It has been a remarkable solidarity that has been experienced by activists coming together. The neo-liberal crisis has further pushed the poor and the vulnerable communities to the brink of mere survival. Social movements pre-occupied with overcoming daily challenges of distributing food and mutual aid and solidarity for the evicted families, may obscure the vision for radical transformation. This is to say, the crisis within the crisis hinders a vision of radical transformation. It remains difficult for social movements to answer because they must practically deal with the immediate problems of communities.
More optimistically, the crisis has also shown that all the crises that are being faced today are intersecting: Patriarchy, climate change, racism among others have been highlighted more deeply with the spread of the virus. This amplifies the voices of social movements and gives them more relevance. Although the pandemic may not see the death of capitalism, more people will be convinced that more human-centric models of production are needed, furthering the call for change.
Hope for the future
Crises always allow room for new social movements to emerge. In the pandemic era, new ideas are already being formulated. What makes me hopeful is that most of the people calling for transformation are young. This is in part because they are more affected by the neo-liberal order, having experienced the deceit of meritocracy and aspiration. They were taught to believe over the years, these were a way of escaping the pangs of poverty, rather than eliminating it.
The immediate hunger experienced by many, exacerbated by the covid-19 pandemic has made budding movements in Kenya link directly to the climate catastrophe in which we are. A movement that is budding around issues of ecological justice has made a radical approach to plant their own food. Using indigenous seeds banked by other small peasant farmers as a way to escape the modern agricultural model. That model is built on multi-national corporations destroying the planet and biodiversity. The movements draw inspiration from the 'Arusha Declaration', articulated by Nyerere. Self-reliance then is seen as an alternative to capitalism. Food directly informs our consciousness. If people can produce and consume their own food - the social movements that are emerging globally as a direct result of the pandemic can be a source of hop. Then not all is bleak. We shall rebuild. We shall restore.
Angela Chukunzira is a scholar-activist from Nairobi. She is currently based at the Centre for Social Change, University of Johannesburg. Her research examines the link between technology and communication practices of social movements.
This piece was first published in Interface: a journal for and about social movements. Reproduced with the author's permission.