As COVID hit Kenya and South Africa, Race and Class Fears were Amplified on Twitter

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By Dr Job Mwaura and Dr. Ufuoma Akpojivi

It’s common in both Kenya and South Africa for there to be everyday conversations about inequalities in power relations and between “races”, classes and ethnic groups. Kenya, in East Africa, and South Africa, in southern Africa, share a history of British colonial divisions. In both countries, social movements and protest have sought to address these social injustices – like #FeesMustFall#MenAreTrash#SabaSabaMarchForOurLives#OccupyParliamentKE.

Socio-economic and political divides were further exacerbated by the global COVID-19 pandemic and the responses of the Kenyan and South African governments. As countries went into lockdowns, citizens used social media platforms to voice their concerns.

During the first weeks of COVID-19 cases reported in Kenya and South Africa, there were hundreds of thousands of tweets posted by distressed citizens. Our study of these tweets was undertaken in order to see what kind of conversations were happening – and if they reinforced postcolonial social inequalities in the countries.

Over 129,541 tweets were collected from Kenya and 237,528 from South Africa between 5 March and 31 March 2020 using Twitter Archiving Google Sheet (TAGS). The tweets, from ordinary citizens, were then grouped into themes and the major themes were used to produce a research report.

Our study revealed several issues raised. These were divided into four themes: racialised politics, classism, privilege and panic buying, and ethnicity and ‘othering’ (or prejudice against certain groups). These themes, outlined below, echoed issues of discrimination that have characterised postcolonial states.

In short, we found that the first recorded cases of COVID-19 in South Africa and Kenya in March 2020 spawned a maelstrom of tweets reflecting fears and anxieties about the virus, as well as other deeply rooted prejudices. The rage towards white communities and the powerful and privileged class can be read as fatigue with the existing postcolonial issues.

Racialised politics

Power and the racialised politics of the pandemic dominated the Twitter conversations in both countries. At the beginning of 2020, media reports had indicated that black communities in the US were hardest hit by the pandemic due to continued institutionalised discrimination.

The first cases of COVID were reported on 5 March and 13 March 2020 in South Africa and Kenya, respectively. These first reports indicated the virus had been brought into both countries by “privileged” citizens.

The first case of COVID in South Africa was a white South African from KwaZulu-Natal province, who had travelled back from Europe. In Kenya, 239 passengers who had arrived from China were blamed for bringing in COVID. This resulted in a strong resentment in South Africa towards the white communities, and a resentment towards the Chinese in Kenya.

Racial conversations worsened when some Kenyans and South Africans regarded COVID-19 as a foreign disease. As one South African tweet stated:

Imagine dying from an overseas disease when you don’t even own a passport, let alone being in a plane or ship, except for a relationship. Watseba these travellers di na le mahlale (You know, these travellers are silly) #COVID19SouthAfrica

And another, in Kenya:

We can confidently report that part of China mega loans agreement (initially negotiated by Raila as PM) was to allow illegal infiltration of Chinese into KE (Kenya), that’s why these despots continue to allow coronavirus infected Chinese to enter KE. #UhuruKenyatta #coronavirusInkenya”

Classism, privilege and panic buying

When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March 2020, it led to drastic changes in public and social life. These were accompanied by perceived and sometimes real shortages of resources. There were reported cases of long queues in the stores with individuals stockpiling essential goods.

Class issues dominated the conversations on panic buying in both Kenya and South Africa. While privileged white communities in South Africa were accused of participating in panic buying, Kenyan tweeters regarded those who participated in panic buying as a selfish and ignorant middle class:

The only people who have panicked and started panic buying of goods are the wannabe middle class. The rest of us live on FAITH. One day at a time #StayHome #lockdown #COVID19KE

Those who could panic buy had the resources to do so. Those who could not afford to, as Twitter users noted, could only panic:

To the selfish assholes black and white. Stop hoarding stock on retail shops, just because you can afford to purchase 15 loaves of bread doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t want to eat. You have clearly demonstrated if there was a deadly epidemic, you’d do the same #COVID19SouthAfrica

Ethnicity and othering

Propagation of ‘othering’ in Twitter conversations was also noticed in both South Africa and Kenya. Apart from the resentment towards white and Chinese communities, ethnic stereotyping was evident in online conversations. These were linked to the ability to survive the pandemic due to behaviours associated with certain ethnic stereotypes. Ethnic stereotypes and prejudices are divisive and generally show an unfavourable attitude towards certain groups. As one Kenyan Twitter user put it:

BREAKING NEWS! We need 2 Kikuyu’s to go to China waibe dawa ya coronavirus, 2 Kalenjins watoroke nayo mbio, 2 luos warushe mawe in case kuharibike, 2 maasai waruke nayo border, 2 kamba and 3 kisii for supernatural powers for protection and 2 Luyhas wakule evidence #covid19kenya’

(We need two individuals from the Kikuyu community to go and steal medicine from China, two from the Kalenjin communities to run with it, two from the Maasai community to cross the border with it, two from Kamba and Kisii communities to use their supernatural powers for protection and two from the Luhya community to eat the evidence afterwards)

And a South African tweet read:

Worry yam is watching all those rich South Africans (majority white) who bought more than they needed throw these away once the outbreak is brought under control on the back of many preventable deaths. #COVID19SouthAfrica”

The colonial lives on in the postcolonial

These Twitter conversations in the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya and South Africa reveal a range of unique experiences and biases shaped by postcolonial legacies of power. They represent ongoing racial and ethnic issues that are highly contested and deep-seated in the historical antecedents of both countries.

In building a post-COVID society, government policies must systematically address these postcolonial issues and legacies of power and racial and ethnic identity in order to shape a society that is responsive to the needs of all its citizens.

This article was originally published in The Conversation on 18 April 2022. It can be accessed here: https://theconversation.com/as-covid-hit-kenya-and-south-africa-race-and-class-fears-were-amplified-on-twitter-179790

About the Authors

Job MwauraDr Job Mwaura is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA) at the University of Cape Town. He is working on a project on Publishing and Knowledge Activism in Africa. He completed his Doctoral studies at the Department of Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. He researches about Digital media in Africa, Media studies, Data Activism, Digital Cultures, Social Justice issues, African studies and Media and Politics. He has a growing publication record. He is an alumnus of the prestigious ‘Next Generation of Social Scientist in Africa’ through the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) in New York, United States. He is an Executive Member of the Association of Internet Researchers, Affiliate member of African Studies Center (Leiden University) and an affiliate of The Center for Critical Race & Digital Studies (CR+DS) at New York University Institute of Human Development & Social Change.

Ufuoma AkpojiviDr. Ufuoma Akpojivi is an Associate Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. He holds a Ph.D and M.A. in Communications Studies from the University of Leeds, United Kingdom, B.A. in Mass Communication from Delta State University, Nigeria and a Postgraduate Diploma in Higher Education from the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. He is a C2 rated researcher from the National Research Foundation (NRF) South Africa and received both the Vice Chancellor’s Individual teaching and learning award and the Faculty of Humanities Individual teaching and learning award in 2017.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.