Thursday, September 01, 2005

Societal Tribalism in South Africa

Nyiko Floyd Shivambu (2003)

Discussion paper prepared for the Inter-varsity seminar at the University of Pretoria in September 2003.

African political leaders, experiencing it as destructive to their ideals of national unity, denounced it passionately. Commentators on the Left, recognizing it as a block to the growth of appropriate class awareness, inveighed against it as a case of 'false consciousness'. Apologists for the South African apartheid system welcoming it as an ally of continued white dominance encouraged it. Development theorists, perceiving it as a check to economic growth, deplored it. Journalists, judging it an adequate explanation for a myriad of otherwise puzzling events, deploy it mercilessly. Political scientists, intrigued by its continuing power, probe at it endlessly. If one disapproves of the phenomenon, 'it' is 'tribalism'; if one is less judgmental; 'it' is 'ethnicity'.

Ethnicity and tribalism are highly charged words in contemporary Africa. The terms are often regarded as an auto-explanation for contemporary political conflict, and their ubiquitous use has led to their vagueness. Thus far historians have not devoted much attention to the history of ethnicity, ethnic particularism and ethnic ideologies in Southern Africa. This is somewhat puzzling; especially as many have been aware for some time that ethnicity is not a natural cultural residue, but a consciously crafted ideological creation. Empirical evidence shows that ethnic consciousness is very much a new phenomenon, an ideological construct, usually of the 20th century, and not an anachronistic cultural artefact from the past
[1]. Devoting wider significance to the ideal or rather fact that tribalism or ethnicity is an ideological construct, this paper is meant to explore the nature of tribal divisions and hatred in South Africa, at a societal level. It should be indicated in the outset that this paper is not scrutinising the supposed ‘tribalism’ within specific institutions and organisations in South Africa, which were poked at as showing tendencies of tribalism.

Tribalism or ethnicity is a central concept in South African politics. It was used by the South African apartheid regime to divide the African population, and by some Bantustan politicians like Lucas Mangope (United Christian Democratic Party), Hudson Ntsanwisi (Ximoko Progressive Party) and Mangosuthu Buthelezi (Inkatha Freedom Party) to mobilise opposition to homeland independence. The late 1980’s and early 1990’s witnessed political bloodshed in South Africa, which were largely along ethnic particularism. The bloody hostilities between the Inkhata Freedom Party and supporters of the African National Congress in that period are but a model of ethnic confrontations in South Africa. Most recently, former Bantustan leaders such as Bantu Holomisa and Lucas Mangope employed ethnicity to mobilise voters for the multiparty political system, which is in place in the current South Africa. This is the phenomenon on which the Inkhata Freedom Party continues to mobilise support in the rural sections of Kwazulu Natal.

It is instructive to note that tribalism or ethnic consciousness in South Africa was fundamentally the idea of white supremacists. The Afrikaner National Party held a more static pluralist view of South Africa as a land inhabited by different peoples, each with its own ethos
[2]. The view of ethnic identity as a natural order, as a remnant or atavistic manifestation of a historically concrete social unity, resulted at the ideological level in federal Bantustan political policies. As early as 1913, a government report considered that “inter-tribal” jealousies have always rendered it possible to protect Europeans by utilising one tribe against another. In 1920, the year of the Witwatersrand mineworkers’ strike, the Native Recruiting Corporation of the Chamber of Mines had expressed the fear that unless conditions on the mines were ameliorated, “the different tribes will become more and more in sympathy with one another, with growing disregard of loyalty to their respective tribal chiefs and a fusion of common interests under the guidance of the educated classes of natives irrespective of tribe or place of origin will result”[3]

The apartheid vision, propounded fully in the 1960’s saw South Africa’s population as divided into a series of ethnic groups. Each ethnic group had or was meant to have its own territory where it would develop its inherent potential and become a sovereign ‘nation’. This ideological vision came to maturity only during Hendricks Verwoerd’s leadership of the National Party. Under Verwoerd onward, the then government fostered ethnic nationalism (in this case, tribalism) to divide the African population. They worked ferociously to sow the seed to hatred, rejection, jealousy and strife amidst the African population in a concurrent suppression of class and national awareness.

On the other hand, we had the National Liberation movement calling for the denial and suppression of ethnic differences in the cause of national unity, and class cohesion beyond race was viewed as a threat to white privileges. Liberation movements such as the African National Congress (ANC), which embraced non-racialism and Black People Convection (BPC), which embraced black consciousness envisaged and strived for this national unity. Yet the apartheid system worked fiercely to sow the seed of tribal hatred, jealousies, and despicable attitudes amidst the black population.

Over and beyond that, the freedom charter, adopted by the Congress of people in Kliptown in 1955, held that: “while we do not encourage tribal pride- in fact we denounce it- we are far from being indifferent to traditions, languages, and culture of individual ethnic groups; we do not propagate ethnic nihilism… Our reality is multi-ethnic society, we respect and strive to develop all local languages and cultures and this help us to combat all forms of reactionary nationalism, chauvinism and ethno-centricity. It also helps us to improve inter-ethnic relations, thus facilitating the drive towards national and social emancipation

The then emerging ethnicity had a contradictory effect on the development of a working class consciousness. While it divided and weakened the labour involvement and cohesion as whole, it strengthened segments of the workforce, for without trade unions to represent their interests; workers often sought political and social solidarity in a shared ethnicity

South Africa, unlike most of the post colonial African states seems to be away from the threat of the scourge of this odious phenomenon, tribalism. Despite dozens of warnings as to a possible threat of tribal hatred in South Africa, the society at large and the authorities in particular are conniving at this issue and its probable plague. There is an unpleasant yet rampant political chicanery employed to obfuscate the issue of tribalism in society and within political organisations.

In his evaluation of the Lessons Learned From the Nigerian civil war, Godfrey Mwakikagile noted: “the Nigerian civil war remind us in a very gruesome way that African countries cannot continue to survive and function as stable political entities if some of their tribes, the very building blocks of a typical African nation, are not guaranteed equal protection and opportunity enjoyed- and some even taken for granted- by members of other ethnic groups.”
[6] It is of no contention that features proscribed and discouraged by Godfrey Mwakikagile above presently typify the South African society. Ethnic groups in South Africa are not guaranteed equal protection and opportunity enjoyed, and most importantly, there are ethnic groups that are taken for granted by members of other ethnic groups. As a consequence we are still far from concluding that South Africa is not under the threat and menace of tribal confrontations and conflicts.

The community at large fails to comprehend and recognize the existence of tribalism in South Africa since it is not mainly an institutional phenomenon, as apartheid racism was. The reason why apartheid was clear to everyone is because it was an institutional phenomenon. Thus tribalism in the current South Africa can be distilled from the society, not necessarily specific legislations or institutes. It is a societal quandary. That might be the reason why it becomes difficult for many in the South African society to diagnose then inveigh against tribalism. This is largely due to general misconceptions as to what tribalism is.

There is a danger in misconstruing or misconceiving the true nature of tribalism in society. Inattention to this phenomenon has led to a misdiagnosis of the true nature of tribalism. It leads to the stifling of mistaken practices or mores, whilst the real culprit is slowly but surely annihilating our society.

The society still ascribes to the belief that satisfaction in one’s language, tribal background and tribal mores is another shape of tribalism. People accept as true that reasserting and conserving one’s unique tribal artefacts, customs, values, norms and notions is another form of tribalism manifestation. Establishments that unite people of common tribal background to unilaterally uplift their unique language, cultural practices and norms are still looked upon as a form of backwardness in the struggle for national unity.

Contrary to almost inherent misconceptions of what tribalism is, it is highly imperative to expound what this writing views tribalism as in South Africa, at a societal level. And imperative as well is a need to expound what tribalism is not.

Reasserting African languages, norms, notions, beliefs, and mores is fundamental to the realisation of the African Renaissance. For Africa to remain African, African languages, norms, mores, cultural practices and beliefs ought to be hoisted and promoted to and in the current African generation. This is highly imperative particularly now that the western world is virtually fully extended to Africa, economically and thereof culturally and socially. Imperialism has not only changed property relations in Africa, but socio-cultural relations. This is not to suggest whatsoever that all socio-cultural practices and norms in Africa are progressive, it is instead an acknowledgment rather that opposition to imperialism should not be solely on economic relations, but on values and practices that are necessary for Africa.

The freedom charter captured the importance of reasserting languages when it noted that: “we are far from being indifferent to traditions, languages, and culture of individual ethnic groups; our reality is a multi-ethnic society, we respect and strive to develop all local languages and cultures and this help us to combat all forms of reactionary nationalism, chauvinism and ethno-centricity.” In the 1960’s, Black Consciousness emphasised the importance of feeling of satisfaction of our own languages, cultures and mores or blackness. In the recent past a Constitution of the Republic was adopted by a democratically elected parliament and inter alia it states: Persons belonging to a cultural, religious or linguistic community may not be denied the right, with other members of that community ­
1. to enjoy their culture, practise their religion and use their language; and
2. to form, join and maintain cultural, religious and linguistic associations and other organs of civil society. This shows clearly that the Constitution, like the Freedom Charter is far from being indifferent to diverse cultures, traditions and languages. It recognises the need to enjoy and use cultures, languages in diversity.

Marcus Garvey once presaged that, to paraphrase: “a people without knowledge of their history and origin, is like a tree without roots.”
[7] It is essential to understand where we are from so as to understand where we are going. Let Africa be African, let our norms and mores be upheld, let the establishments which nurture African culture be cherished and encouraged, in order to realise the vision and ideal of the African Renaissance.

With all these substantiations, it is now clear that uplifting one’s culture, language and mores is not tribalistic. The society at large must refrain from suppressing and disheartening establishments which uplift cultural practices, norms, notions, mores and African languages. Yet there is an unquestionable need to improve inter-ethnic relations in South Africa.

As reiterated in the above subsections, tribalism is not satisfaction in one’s language and cultural identity. On the contrary, tribalism arises when members of one tribal group perceives itself and acts as if it is better and so deserving of different treatment or preferential treatment. It is a feeling that members of other ethnic groups are of less importance, intellect, capabilities and thinking as compared to those of yours. It is a belief that members of the other tribe are not as good as members of your own tribe. It is an odious appearance of a nefarious ethnocentricity.

Differences of language, or at least dialect, historical traditions, small differences in material culture and cosmology have been transformed into rigid and self-conscious tribal markers, thus propagating stereotypical and at times irrational perceptions of other tribes or ethnic groups. To demystify, tribalism at a societal level may be denoted as some despicable, fallacious and irrational stereotypes the community has consumed as truths on the issue of ethnic differences.

To maintain a sanguine posture, this paper asserts that there are wider possibilities that diverse tribes can co-exist without any form of tribal hatred and jealousies. What has been made can be unmade.

It is instructive to note that ethnic separatism and establishments that would be described in Africa as ‘tribalistic’, are widespread in some of the oldest western states
[8], and that there is no necessary conflict which cannot be overcome in reconciling local cultural, linguistic and historical differences within the structure of the national scale. This resolution certainly cannot be found by ignoring tribal differences; rather, it is essential to understand their historical evolution and meaning. Thus improving the manner in which ethnic groups relate to each other or inter-ethnic relations.

In South Africa, it is beyond doubt that there are minority ethnic groups that are on the receiving end of the despicable stereotypes noted above. These groups are largely looked upon as of sub-standard value, thinking and general capabilities. These stereotypes are perpetuated or intensified by many diverse issues in South Africa. Amongst these is some pathological self-absorption which characterise some elements within the larger ethnic groups in South Africa. This self-absorption makes these elements to believe that they are superior and much important as compared to the minority ethnic groups.
Another reason why these minority groups are on the receiving end of these despicable stereotypes is a perpetual societal conception that they have and will always remain on the margins. It is, at best, a societal illness, which ought to be tackled by tactics and vigour with which racism and some other social intolerance are inveighed against.
Important amidst issues which suppose that these minority groups are of substandard value is the manner in which the minority groups view themselves in the South African society at large. They tend to illustrate that they had been inculcated by the sense of lowliness. This is highly manifested by the manner they interact with members of other ethnic groups. They largely masquerade as if they are not members of their ethnic groups. They conceal their true identity. Some even go to the extent of changing their names, so that they may sound more to be belonging to groupings that are majority in the South African society. To demystify, they take resentment and umbrage to the insults displayed towards them by accepting that sense of lowliness, which is reprehensible and blameworthy. Then it difficult to address these kinds of conducts, particularly that these are psychological attitudes, which the minority ethnic groups adopted because of the stigma plucked on them by the society at large.
I have argued that ethnicity should be seen in processual terms as the historical product of internal colonialism. But it has been stressed that ethnicity should not be seen in simple terms as the response, within South Africa, of a uniform class with identical interests to a situation of core-periphery exploitation and underdevelopment. Ethnicity has emerged out of the acceptance and propagation by various classes of cultural symbols that cut across class barriers and distinguish and unite people as 'Tsonga' ‘Zulu’ Sotho, ‘Venda’ etc. Ethnicity is thus a fluctuating, situational expression of group identity aimed at the achievement of specific political ends. The expression of an ethnic consciousness does not eradicate narrower loyalties to culture and traditional mores; these can coexist with other feelings of class, national or religious consciousness. The individual will adopt, in response to a specific situation, any one of these identities for the purpose of group mobilization. Nor is ethnicity merely a product of Bantustan politics, and it is unlikely that the abandonment of apartheid and the Bantustan system never ended the regional underdevelopment which, through the politicisation of cultural differences, is one of the major causes of ethnic exclusivism.
After outlining the basis and derivation of tribalism in South Africa and some misconceptions around it, this paper recognizes the existence of ethnic consciousness as a real phenomenon which cannot be denied or otherwise wished away in the South African society. Tribalism in South Africa should not be viewed in residual or at best non-transitional terms, but as a phenomenon which will no vanish unless given special attention. Where there is competition for ethnic prestige or for societal standing as a tribal group, and where competing factions are able to stake out their claims in ethnic terms, such rival factions might seize on almost any aspect of language, history, culture or physical type and turn it into the criterion of ethnic difference. The writing subsequently presents a definition of what societal tribalism is not and is, with due reference to the South African context. It encapsulated the manner in which particular ethnic groups are subjected to disgrace in the South African context and the tentative reasons for that. In wrapping up, this writing notes that the African population still have a huge capacity to reconcile past inter-ethnic jealousies then unite, and unity does not mean the absence of differences and diversity.

[1] Vail, Leroy, editor. The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa. London: Currey; 1989, page 3.[2] Ibid, page 34[3] P. Bonner, "The black mineworkers' strike: a preliminary account', in B. Bozzoli, ed., Labour, Townships and Protest (Johannesburg, 1979), pp.287-8[4] Freedom (Kliptown) Charter, p.6. break[5] P. Harris ‘Exclusion, Classification and Internal Colonialism: The emergence of ethnicity among the Tsonga-speakers of South Africa’ in Vail, Leroy, ed, The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa, London: Currey, 1989, page 102. [6] Mwakikagile, Godfrey, Ethnic politics in Kenya and Nigeria, Huntington, NY : Nova Science Publishers, 2001.[7] Discussion forum.[8] For example, Welsh, Friesian and Occitan ethnic consciousness and languages co-exist, occasionally abrasively with the British, Dutch, and French national states respectively. Robert Papstein “From Ethnic Identity to Tribalism: The Upper Zambezi Region of Zambia, 1830–1981, in Vail, Leroy, ed, The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa, London: Currey, 1989, page 388.


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