June 16 is marked as Youth Day here in South Africa. It memorialises the day in 1976 when over 500 young people were killed by the apartheid regime police in Soweto, a township in the southwest of Johannesburg.
For many, the date also marks the time when a generation of young people, who until then had been often excluded or overlooked by politicians, became politicised in the name of fighting and overcoming the oppression and inequality of apartheid.
When I think of Youth Day, I cannot help but look back to my own youthful political awakening, which took place in 1982, when as a teenager, I became even more aware of the politics of my own country, Kenya.
Earlier that year, there had been ructions caused in Kenya’s political fabric, when former Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and George Anyona, a former MP and an ex-detainee under the Jomo Kenyatta regime, had announced that they were launching an opposition socialist political party.
Up until then, under the rule of Kanu, the country had been a de facto single party state. The law allowed for other political parties, but since the banning of Odinga’s Kenya People’s Union back in 1969, nobody had bothered to form a new party.
For a little while there, I was very excited. I had been a childish fan of Jaramogi’s; I admired his sartorial statement of khaki shorts and tyre sandals. I was looking forward to seeing my first real political contest at the 1983 elections, but it was not to be.
Kanu swung into action to protect its privileged position as the only party in the land. Rallies were held to question the efficacy of political parties in postcolonial Africa and advocate one-party democracy as the only viable alternative. The party held a seminar in Mombasa where representatives from other African single party states, such as Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia, were invited to preach the gospel that multi-party politics were “a foreign ideology” and “un-African”.
Shortly afterwards, the Kanu government came up with a bill to amend the constitution to make the one-party state official in law, and Odinga and Anyona were expelled from the ruling party.
June 9 this year marked 36 years since that historic day, when after less than an hour of debate, the Kenyan parliament, made up of 170 MPs (including 12 nominated members), voted in favour of the amendment.
I had family members and family friends as well as neighbours on both sides of the political divide, and suddenly the politics of the country became quite personal for me. I couldn’t avoid it.
Soon after, detention without trial for government opponents, which had been shelved in 1978, made a comeback. On August 1, there was a coup attempt by members of the armed forces fighting the onset of political repression, and after this failed, the University of Nairobi was closed and a number of lecturers and students were jailed or forced into exile.
Politics became real for me as a young teen and all these years later I am still hooked. I wonder what teenagers today think and feel about politics?