During South Africa’s long struggle for freedom, tribal loyalties were set aside in favour of a united front to conquer Apartheid. But 21 years after the first elections, tribalism, that most taboo of subjects, is back with a vengeance. South Africa needs to talk openly of it.
During the struggle for political freedom there was a deliberate attempt to play down people’s pride in the tribes they belonged to, especially when it meant the denigration of another. The birth of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1912 and the apparent political maturity that preceded the formation of this once glorious movement, points to a conscious realisation that in order to unite the oppressed black majority against the white minority government, it was necessary that tribal differences be put aside. The visionary leaders of this time realised the dangers of tribal divisions and visualised the strength of a mass movement united in spite of its diversity à la tribe, language, culture and belief systems.
The ANC has claimed it “buried the demon of tribalism” long time ago but while this is a good rallying cry, it is not necessarily true. Writings about life in exile and anecdotes from ANC comrades and functionaries, particularly those who were in Lusaka, are evidence of this untruth. It would perhaps be proper to say the ANC did not bury tribalism, but it was able to manage it within its ranks in exile and among the majority of South Africans (in the country) who believed in its ideals. This tactful balancing act can in part be attributed to the diplomatic and almost mythical leadership of Oliver Tambo over three decades of exile.
The ANC at the time was a liberation movement with limited resources for which people would naturally and rigorously compete. Something of value at the time that ANC comrades competed for were positions within the organisation. Because there was not much incentive that came with holding positions in the organisation, there was little contestation and lobbying along tribal lines. But complaints on tribal grounds did occur.
Fast forward to the post-struggle era with the ANC now in government and responsible for the management of state resources; now the demon of tribalism seems to have emerged, particularly in public institutions. Tribalism is visible in almost all government departments, and especially in South African police stations. Prior to the ANC conference in Mangaung, and afterwards, for the first time in the history of South Africa, delegates were seen wearing ANC T-Shirts bearing the ‘100 % Zulu’ slogan in a public domain, and the ANC leadership failed to condemn such behaviour. This tribal-based lobbying yielded a positive outcome for President Jacob Zuma, as he defeated Kgalema Motlanthe. The point to note is that ethnicity in itself creates identifiable divisions within a society that is already divided. Notably, the stigma of categorisation remains a strategy abused by leaders to gain political loyalty on the basis of ethnicity.
Samora Machel once said, “to ensure national unity, there must be no Shonas in Zimbabwe, there must be no Ndebeles in Zimbabwe, there must be Zimbabweans’’.
Lamenting the emergence of this dangerous plaque, former president Thabo Mbeki, speaking at the Bethesda Methodist Church in Johannesburg in 2013, is reported to have remarked, “I am sure all of us need to be very concerned about a regression to tribalism… One hundred years later, this demon is raising its head”. I am sure there are gory stories about tribalism in the post-Apartheid republic that could be told with honesty in a dark chamber where people would not fear being identified and victimised just by being of a particular tribe.
We cannot deny the fact that the ANC of today is keeping our people in ignorance by condoning tribal tendencies in its ranks. Thomas Sankara once said, ‘‘the enemies of a people are those who keep them in ignorance’’. Sankara was a revolutionary leader from Burkina Faso, whose revolution ethos meant that he lived an ordinary life and did not fall into the temptations and luxuries that often come with the occupation of political office.
Since the arrival of democracy, a common determinant among blacks has not been fully achieved. As a result, there is a need to continue to walk on this path to fight the struggle for the unity of the African people until we see it to end.
As the last country to be liberated on the African continent, one would imagine that we have learnt significant lessons from the politicisation of ethnicity or tribal affiliation that has ravaged country after country in post-colonial Africa. Tribal politics continue to derail development and frustrate reconciliation and reconstruction efforts in many African countries. The history of the African continent teaches us that tribal fault lines have been ruthlessly exploited by foreign elements to gain control of parts of or whole countries. The exploitation of these fault lines has also been used by Africans themselves sometimes in collaboration with avaricious and cunning foreign elements to gain control of the extractive economies of African countries at the expense of the majority of the people.
Such lessons should serve as a deterrent to those intent on manipulating tribal extraction for their personal fiefdom and benefit. One hopes that those who run lines of political and resource patronage on the basis of tribal affiliation realise that they are in fact fomenting the ground for tribal confrontation in our country whose freedom we owe to the sacrifices of thousands of our people from the colourful tapestry of tribes that make up this beautiful land. Despite all the evidence or perceptions that we have become a tribalistic people, this subject has become a holy cow. It is a taboo. We only talk about it in our isolated tribal corners. This is wrong and has got to stop before it reverses the hard-fought-for gains of our freedom.
Some people are very proud of their tribes. But we call tribalists ‘reactionary agents of the enemy’. While there is and should be nothing wrong with expressions of pride in one’s cultural practices naturally embraced by people of a particular tribe, this cannot be done to the detriment of other tribes, especially with respect to the distribution of public goods and other resources in the hands of the state. South Africa ought to be a country of equal opportunities for all irrespective of tribal background or affinity, culture, language, religion. This is what our Constitution seeks to achieve and we should stay true to both its spirit and letter and never undermine it for selfish and short-term gains. When this demon comes it will not knock on the door, send an email, or make a phone call to announce its arrival – it will just destroy when we least expect it.
We need not sweep this matter under the carpet, but talk about it openly in Parliament, our places of work and business as well as when we engage in social intercourse be it in the local or long distance bus trip, the taxi to Soweto, Soshanguve, Venda, Seshego, Qwaqwa, Marikana, Nkandla, Mthatha, Malahleni, Polokwane etc, local shebeens, churches, temples, synagogues, sports clubs, the mom and pop store, the Metrorail or the Gautrain (which only caters for the privileged) and even pray for the death of this pestilent demon. Scholars and academics must start writing articles about this subject. A dialogue discussing this topic must be opened at every level. In any case no one tribe has the numbers to entirely win the presidency for one of their own without the vote from other tribes. We are making a call for new stories, a different foundational narrative that can give rise to new expectations and a new imaginative landscape, in which a new Africa can take shape.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has zero tolerance when it comes to tribalism. We will carry on the fight against tribalism – this year, next year, and the following year – because we are a revolutionary movement that is not afraid to dream and plan and work for a better future. We are relatively young, generally and fondly described as ‘a baby born giant’, with the ability to rise against all odds, with fate lying on our hands’. Our assessment of the specific features of the conjuncture in which our organisational building finds itself today is crucial for our structures to avoid mistakes committed by other liberation movements such as ANC and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). One of the aims and objectives of EFF as indicated in its constitution is to resolutely oppose tribalism, regionalism, religious and cultural intolerance. This principle presents a positive situation to fight tribalism, ethical and moral decay and carries the potential of translating into all our members and society at large.
If not addressed while at its nascent stages, this demon will – like a deranged anaconda – swallow us recklessly and destroy the beautiful rainbow nation that we love.
Let us live by the motto in our coat of arms. !ke e:xarra//ke (diverse people unite). Ma-Afrika let’s crush this demon of tribalism and its tendencies! Asijiki! DM
Mvuzo Ka Dlanjwa is an EFF temporary researcher based at the Gauteng Provincial Legislature. He writes in his personal capacity.