The Rise of Africa’s Gen Zs: From TikTok, X to the Streets

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Article by: bird story agency

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Kenya’s creatives take to the streets as Africa’s Gen Z finds its voice on national issues – transforming the face of demonstrations by leveraging the power of technology.

The rise of Africa’s Gen Zs – From X to the streets [Graphic by Vikki Keingati, bird story agency]

by Conrad Onyango, bird story agency

On June 18, 2024, thousands of young Kenyans took to the streets to oppose proposed tax reforms, marking a significant shift in the landscape of youth activism and advocacy in Africa.

Within hours, a colourful image that captures the essence of a youthful crowd in trendy attire protesting on the streets of Nairobi was doing the rounds online, sending a bold message about the growing influence of Gen Z on Africa's political scene; clearly, it seemed to say, things would be done differently, this time round.

Displaying a large placard with the words 'Reject Finance Bill' along with 'GEN Z' emblazoned on their clothing, the image tapped a growing sense of outrage among a generation hit by joblessness, high interest rates and high taxes. But perhaps more importantly, this was the first young peoples' protest in Kenya to usher in a coordinated, social media-friendly visual "look" that symbolises a new era and the determination and energy of a new generation.

Previously, this generation – born between 1995 and 2010 – was known for confining itself to social media platforms and has been largely dismissed as apathetic to national concerns. It's a generation that barely goes out to vote come election day, despite their demographic importance, with Africa's youth population by far the largest in the world.

From the engagement the content has had on social media – and reflective of the "Arab Spring" of an earlier generation – things appear to have changed, overnight. In Kenya, anyway.

The face of advocacy may have changed for good, too. Unlike traditional demonstrations marred by violence and chaos, the new-age protest embodies a peaceful and organised approach, reflecting a departure from the past.

The protest also showcased a decentralised structure, devoid of traditional hierarchical leadership – with previous iterations of political protest in Kenya usually featuring a political figure on the frontline of mobilisation.

Rather, supporters rallied around a young activist, X influencer Hanifa Farsafi, following her arrest. Protestors organically rallied behind her with calls for her release doing the rounds on social media and she was released from police custody the same evening.

The innovative use of technology played a pivotal role in amplifying the protest's impact. Through the lenses of their internet-powered smartphones, married with the latest 360-degree camera apps, the demonstrators captured and shared moments of the event, leveraging the power of modern communication to demand visibility and bring attention to their cause.

“A new generation of demonstrators with a different mindset, who loot nothing, maintain peace and speak boldly, while at it, implementing a new way of media coverage, experiential, immersive and futuristic. 360 degrees it is. Just feel the energy,” @rex_maina posted on X with an immersive, panoramic video of protestors chanting, ‘Ruto must Go.’

On X, previously home to these Gen Zs (older generations favoured Facebook), under fierce brands like ‘Kenyans on Twitter’ or ‘Keyboard warriors’, the Gen Z image featured among other top trends linked to the protest, including #RejectFinanceBill2024, #OccupyParliament, #FreeHanifa, Gen Z and RUTO MUST GO which had garnered at least 64,000 posts and more than 390,000 posts on the day of protests.

The protesters demonstrated incredible coordination in both physical and online spheres. While some were out on the streets, others supported the cause by sharing messages, photos and videos on social media.

This new trend made it challenging for the police to identify and target specific individuals, for, as small groups were dispersed in the streets of Nairobi’s central business district, others would re-appear nearby – despite facing tear gas, water cannons, and numerous arrests – to affirm their resilience.

Videos of the protesters expressing their discontent with government policies also surfaced during arrests by police, with protesters displaying an unwavering commitment by publishing selfies even while in custody, and sending messages cheering on their fellow demonstrators.

By noon, the government had bowed down to the pressure, retracting several controversial tax proposals – including a tax on bread and sanitary pads – that impact Gen Zs the most, marking a significant victory for this new generation of activists.

“We have had a robust public engagement on the proposed Finance Bill. We have adjusted the document accordingly. We are glad we are having conversations about issues and our institutions are working. This is how democracies function,” remarked President William Ruto when he hosted, the Kenya Kwanza Parliamentary Group meeting.

The last major anti-government protest took place just over a year ago. Then, the country's opposition leader, Raila Odinga, called for deadly protests due to the soaring cost of living, tax hikes, and alleged malpractice in the 2022 presidential election.

That protest, under an ‘Occupy Parliament’ banner and styled to influence and pressure legislators to vote against the bill did not receive much support from opposition members of parliament and was characterised by low participation.

The opposition chief, who is actively campaigning for an AU seat, did not show up at the youth protests and was urged by youthful protesters to stay away.

“Agwambo (Raila) this is a message to you, please stay at home, don’t come. We saw your efforts, we saw everything you did for Kenya...Now let us. We miss you, but don't come. We have come out on your behalf,” a TikTok creator, @doitlikeanini posted her plea video.

Later in the day, the opposition leader replied online with a message supportive of the new generation.

“I’m a very proud father today! Hongera sana (congratulations) to the young lady and all those who bravely stood up for their rights,” said Odinga.

Activist Boniface Mwangi said in a local radio interview that it was the civic duty of all citizens to hold their leaders accountable, affirming it was time for a younger generation to take over from Odinga – an opposition leader for the past four decades.

“Raila is old. He has done this for over 40 years, we should be ashamed of ourselves for demanding more from Raila. He has given his best,” said Mwangi.

Several opposition leaders, members of the public as well as journalists who have comprehensively covered past protests, applauded those who took part in the demonstrations.

"Respect for Generation Z. Way to go Generation Z we will support you! The revolution will not be televised it will bite hard!" Narok Senator, Ledama Olekina said on X.

“I have NEVER covered on the news a professional protest like #REJECTFINANCEBILL2024. Gen Z hats off! No looting, no stones only queens language, facts and Maths! Police did not have to use teargas this time,” affirmed Kenyan Journalist, Stephen Letoo.

The events in Kenya highlight the strategic role that social media platforms continue to play in shaping and organising protests and spreading information, just as Facebook and Twitter did during the Arab Spring from 2010 to 2012.

While those uprisings resulted in significant political changes in African countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the young activists who sparked them were unable to generate the consensus required to bring in the future they had desired. Perhaps Gen Z, having witnessed their mistakes, and having bided their time before finally making an entrance, will have better luck.

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