Defend Truth


The tribe has spoken: Let’s move away from tribalism for South Africa’s sake


Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the seventh Rector of the United Nations (UN) University and UN Under Secretary-General.

As parts of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal are racked by violence that is in some measure being mobilised by ethnic considerations, we face a choice: can we maintain Nelson Mandela’s ‘salad bowl’ of diversity or do we need to enforce a ‘melting pot’ elimination of tribal identity to forge a unified nation?

During the first French Revolution that gave birth to the French Republic, King Louis XVI, a prisoner of the revolutionaries, was put on trial for attempting to escape from France. At the National Assembly, the leader of the revolution, Maximillian Robespierre, declared, “For the republic to live, Louis XVI must die.” Thus was Louis XVI condemned to death through the blade that he had designed — the guillotine. Eight years later, the French Republic was overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte. 

The formation of nations is often a bloody affair.

In Mozambique, Samora Machel sought to form a strong nation from the remnants of Portuguese colonisation and the fall of the Gaza kingdom that was birthed by the feud between the mighty King Shaka and Soshangane Nxumalo. His goal of forming a united nation was thwarted by the South African-sponsored civil war, catalysed by warlord and Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama. The antagonism among the 14 ethnic groups derailed the formation of the unitary state. Paraphrasing Robespierre, Machel said, “For the nation to live, the tribe must die.” The tribe did not die, and nation formation in Mozambique has historically been characterised by difficulties.

Issues of ethnicity have long been central to the formation of nations. As Francis M Deng of the Brookings Institution defines it, “Ethnicity is more than skin color or physical characteristics, more than language, song, and dance. It is the embodiment of values, institutions, and patterns of behaviour, a composite whole representing a people’s historical experience, aspirations, and world view. Deprive a people of their ethnicity, their culture, and you deprive them of their sense of direction or purpose.”

Throughout the annals of history, war has been waged in the name of ethnicity. In the formation of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, a Georgian leading a country that Russians dominate, introduced a programme called the National Question, where people were moved in an attempt to “kill the tribe”. The irony of Stalin’s National Question is that many people died, but the tribe lived.

Ethnicity is complex, even within households. In my own house, we are Zulu-speaking, yet I am a native Venda-speaker. Having been educated in the United States and Europe, I find my Venda and South African identities very limited. To be precise, I am more African than South African and believe that the sooner we bring down the colonial borders, the better. This is important to liberate productive forces and increase economies of scale.

A few weeks back, I wrote on Twitter that in South Africa, we must make one African language compulsory, and I suggested that it should be isiZulu. I received strangely heavy criticism, ranging from accusations of not being proud of my language, Venda, to being a victim of isiZulu hegemony. When I broached the topic with our former president, Thabo Mbeki, he remarked that I probably would have received fewer critics if I had suggested Swahili rather than any South African language.

It is important to ask whether South Africa should reduce diversity through something akin to Stalin’s concept of killing the tribe or seek to build a diverse and harmonious society. After all, tribalism was a tool of colonialism that was used to divide black people according to tribal zones. 

In a thought-provoking piece on tribalism, Unisa theology academic Elijah Baloyi writes, “It was through the differences between ethnic groups and tribes, among other things, that the government of the time managed to manipulate and entrench hatred and a lack of trust among most black South Africans… Nepotism, which is part and parcel of the South African government, is just an extension of tribalism.”

We should question whether, for the nation to live, the tribes should thrive in their variety. To use the salad bowl metaphor, should South Africa be a salad bowl or a melting pot? A salad bowl is where the tribes maintain their identities and forge unity in diversity, as advocated by Nelson Mandela. In contrast, a melting pot is a situation where we forge a single identity, as advocated by Samora Machel.     

Recently, as a reaction to the incarceration of the former president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, there has been widespread looting and violence, primarily in KwaZulu-Natal and to a lesser extent in Gauteng in the hostels. President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his address to the nation on 11 July 2021, indicated that the violence seemed to be ethnically mobilised. Overnight, the looting and violence intensified, leading to the effective shutting down of KwaZulu-Natal. These are not isolated events. In recent years, we have witnessed the burning of shops owned by immigrants from countries such as Pakistan or Somalia. Last year, the Human Sciences Research Council and Ipsos sounded a warning that there could be a marked rise in xenophobic attacks.

Given recent developments, should we be worried? Is the unity-in-diversity project turning out to be disunity in diversity? Should we abandon the unity in diversity and forge the “tribe must die” concept? As Ramaphosa stated, the ethnic element to the violence is worrying, but it is sporadic.  

Where do we go from here as a nation? We definitely do not want a return to tribalism and false barriers that are blind to our common humanity. Once again, we are poised at a moment when our choices will determine the future of this country. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • John Weinkove says:

    The concept of a tribe is a colonialist invention. What we have is a host of clans who speak a similar language. Hence it was no problem for the Msholozi clan to fight with the British forces against the other Zulu speaking clans. The clan is more antipathetic to the nation than the tribe. So each looter is enriching his own clan and endangering the livelihoods of other clans is meaningless.

  • Grenville Smith says:

    “… believe that the sooner we bring down the colonial borders, the better.”

    Bringing down the colonial borders is a wonderful slogan, but it’s a political slogan. And here’s another one Politics “… abhors a vacuum.” Bringing down colonial borders gets my support in principle. But in the absence of a viable alternative to the colonialist legacies, what do you propose as administrative polities? A United States of Africa?

    Ja man! That will DEFINITELY work!

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