Let’s get out of tribalism …
As parts of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal are rocked by violence that is to some extent driven by ethnic considerations, we are faced with a choice: Can we maintain Nelson Mandela’s ‘salad bowl’ of diversity? or should we impose a “melting pot” of tribal identity elimination to forge a unified nation?
During the first French Revolution which gave birth to the French Republic, King Louis XVI, prisoner of the revolutionaries, was tried for trying to escape from France. In the National Assembly, the leader of the revolution, Maximilien Robespierre, declared: “For the republic to live, Louis XVI must die. Thus Louis XVI was condemned to death by the blade 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 colonization and the fall of the kingdom of Gaza, which arose out of the feud between the powerful King Shaka and Soshangane Nxumalo. His goal of forming a united nation was thwarted by the South African-sponsored civil war, catalyzed by warlord and Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama. The antagonism between 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 is not dead and nation-building in Mozambique has historically been characterized by difficulties.
Questions 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 behavior, a composite whole representing the historical experience, aspirations and worldview of a people. Deprive a people of its ethnic origin, of its culture, and you deprive it of its sense of direction or of its purpose. “
Throughout the annals of history war has been fought in the name of ethnicity. During the formation of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, a Georgian at the head of a Russian-dominated country, introduced a program called the National Question, where people were moved in an attempt to “kill the tribe.” The irony of Stalin’s National Question is that a lot of people died, but the tribe lived.
Ethnicity is complex, even within households. In my own house we speak Zulu, but I am a native speaker of Venda. Having studied in the United States and Europe, I find my Venda and South African identities very limited. To be precise, I’m more African than South African and I think the sooner we tear down the colonial borders the better. This is important for liberating productive forces and increasing economies of scale.
A few weeks ago I wrote on Twitter that in South Africa we need to make an African language compulsory, and I suggested it be isiZulu. I have received eerily harsh criticism, ranging from accusations of not being proud of my language, the venda, to a victim of isiZulu hegemony. When I broached the subject with our former president, Thabo Mbeki, he pointed out that I probably would have received less criticism 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 seeking to build a diverse and harmonious society. After all, tribalism was a tool of colonialism used to divide black people according to tribal areas.
In a thought-provoking article on tribalism, Unisa theological scholar Elijah Baloyi writes: “It is through the differences between ethnic groups and tribes, among others, that the government of the he era succeeded in manipulating and entrenching the hatred and mistrust among most black South Africans… Nepotism, which is an integral part of the South African government, is just an extension of tribalism.
We must ask ourselves whether, for the nation to live, the tribes must prosper in their diversity. To use the salad bowl metaphor, should South Africa be a bowl or a melting pot? A salad bowl is where tribes maintain their identity and forge unity in diversity, as advocated by Nelson Mandela. On the other hand, a melting pot is a situation where you forge a unique identity, as advocated by Samora Machel.
Recently, in reaction to the incarceration of former South African President Jacob Zuma, there has been widespread looting and violence, mainly in KwaZulu-Natal and to a lesser extent in Gauteng in the hostels. President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his address to the nation on July 11, 2021, said the violence appeared to be ethnically mobilized. Overnight, looting and violence escalated, effectively shutting down KwaZulu-Natal. These are not isolated events. In recent years, we have witnessed the burning of shops belonging to immigrants from countries like Pakistan and Somalia. Last year, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and Ipsos issued a warning against a marked increase in xenophobic attacks.
Given recent developments, should we be worried? Does the project of unity in diversity turn out to be disunity in diversity? Should we abandon unity in diversity and forge the concept of “tribe must die”? As Ramaphosa said, the ethnic element of the violence is worrying, but it is sporadic.
Where are we going from here as a nation? We absolutely do not want a return to tribalism and false blind barriers to our common humanity. Once again, we are at a time when our choices will determine the future of this country. DM