The Star (Nairobi)

23 February 2013

Kenya: Class and Political Dog-Whistling

opinion

As a Nairobian somewhere dutifully recycles a plastic bag to save the environment, another one somewhere else is saving it for the next time he needs to do a Number Two.

The latter would be unbranded and would save ten shillings and hours queuing at the neighborhood public toilet. Thus is the narrative of Kenya's social inequality that is reaching abysmal indexes in all manner of international ratings.

To quantify the chasm that is the class divide would be an endless exercise in diametric comparisons. The British political theorist Leonard S. Woolf said ...'there is nothing to which men cling more tenaciously than the privileges of class.'

And the grip is certainly tight in Kenya. According to a report by the Society for International Development, The 10% richest households in Kenya control more than 42% of incomes, while the poorest 10% control 0.76% of income. This means that while the top rich Kenyan earns about 56 shillings, the bottom poor earns 1 shilling.

As a result of this broad variance between classes, members of the same class have a constant awareness and perception of their similarity and common interests; a 'class consciousness', as Marx describes it.

Wily Politicians have harnessed this knowledge and incorporated it into their campaign strategies through the simple yet sophisticated tool; Political Dog-Whistling.

The terminology is drawn from Galton's whistle which has an ultrasonic range that people cannot hear, but dogs can. The tactic has been applied from Canberra in Howard's era to Washington by George W. Bush to Caracas by the colorful Chávez.

Even African leaders, who are for the most part known to be more blatant in their deliveries, say one thing and mean another when conveying messages to a target population base.

Kenyan leaders are particularly skilled in avoiding overtly tribalist language while still getting their message across. In a recent article, Joe Adama points out that Raila has seized on and woven a 'dog-whistle politics' narrative around the land issue, with his true audience, his target subgroup, being the Rift Valley grassroots of Uhuru's running mate Ruto.

This election season, we see a hybrid variety of dog whistling, that of creating the 'us versus them' solidarity even without the spoken code. It is about relating.

There's no better time for a Nairobi politician to be rough and rugged, to be from the other side of the tracks, to have lived the tough life, to be sheng-speaking, to be a hustler...even if it means emblazoning the word on your shirt as William Ruto does.

Some politicians have displayed the supernatural ability to belong to more than one class, and polar opposite ones at that. One such endowed candidate is Uhuru Kenyatta, who has managed to reach out to the masses, in oblique wavelengths whose frequencies are intended for a certain demographic to tune into.

Kidero does not have the whistle. Waititu does. Jimnah doesn't. As for Peter Kenneth, who is suspended somewhere between Bahati and Lavington , his whistle either doesn't work, or is being ignored.

The irony is that Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga's whistles are in mint condition. Yet they don't fit the rough and rugged persona. Both men are from exceedingly privileged backgrounds.

They have made the connection through the all-important political rally. Raila for one has a mastery of the oratory; delivering speeches in the African narrative style; story telling, repetition, audience engagement, songs and the riddles for which he is famous.

The Uhuru of the Presidential Debate and the one of the political rally are two different men. The former speaking from a point of privileged articulation, supported by research and preparation. The latter packages himself as a 'hustler'; as wronged by the system as the next man.

So during election time there is an interest to efficiently bridge the gap, but not fill it. Why? There's are a myriad ways you could appeal to a woman whose purchases are supported by the 'kadogo economy'; where commodities are in single serve packages, cooking fat by the spoon scoop and sugar weighed by the gram.

Her vote carries the same weight as the CEO spending her years rent on his casual lunch. The battle lines are drawn at the ballot. The lowest class has the highest numbers. What they lack in social capital they make up for in political indispensability.

What happens they can no longer endure inequality and rise up against it? When they their collective disgruntled state à la French Revolution. How palatable would a lumpen-run Kenyan society be? Maybe then the middle class will rise from it inertia and take its rightful place as the spring of revolution.

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