146. The National Question: For the sake of the nation and nation-building, kill the tribe

Author: Stephen Phiri
Date: 2 August 2021
Publication: Daily Maverick
Image courtesy of: Andre Swart via Outlookindia.com

Over the past few weeks, South Africa has suffered rampant looting and destruction in KwaZulu-Natal and some parts of Gauteng. President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his recent address to the nation, described this as an “insurrection”.

The major event that stimulated this mayhem was the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma. This was echoed by everyone involved in this violence and looting spree. The level of violence and destruction invited a lot of speculation among different groups. Those who seemingly supported Zuma blamed the looting on “monopoly capital” for creating the gap between the rich and the poor in South Africa. They further blamed the post-apartheid government for jailing Zuma, while apartheid “thugs” are roaming around freely.

Those within the political realm, especially the opposition, jumped on the opportunity to promote their political standpoints by criticising the ANC government as incompetent and failing to put its house in order.

The other dominant factor, which was also directly related to Zuma’s arrest, is “the ethnic factor”. In as much as this unfortunate event might not be exclusively a “tribal” affair, there was sufficient evidence that the “tribal question” was central. The latter is not just a South African problem but also an African problem. As a Zimbabwean radical pan-Africanist, I am terribly concerned about the prevalence of this “tribal-essentialist phenomenon”.

When I read a few articles and responses written during the peak of this period, one article stood out for me: it was written by Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg to which I am affiliated, and titled “The tribe has spoken: Let’s move away from tribalism for South Africa’s sake”. This article highlights the resilience of the “tribe” among many attempts to kill it. Marwala called this phenomenon of attempting to kill the “tribe” for the sake of the nation “the melting pot model”.

The latter can be traced back to the 1789 French Revolution and Maximilien Robespierre’s objective of killing the monarchy; and to the former president of Mozambique Samora Machel’s attempt to build a tribeless state in Mozambique from 1975. Machel paraphrased Robespierre’s “For the Republic to live, Louis XVI must die” into “For the nation to live, the tribe must die”.

Within the confines of those who subscribe to communism and, to some extent, socialism, the issue of the “National Question” seems to be prevalent. It is therefore no wonder that the likes of Samora Machel and Joseph Stalin, a Georgian revolutionary and a former general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, are inevitably implicated in the “killing of the tribe” phenomenon.

According to Marwala, “the issues of ethnicity have long been central to the formation of nations”. In other words, a nation cannot be conceived without the “tribe”, because it constitutes the heartbeat of a people’s identity. Hence, if the “tribe” resists death, for the state to survive, we need to think of an alternative model that will save both the nation and the “tribe” lest the “tribe” survives at the expense of the nation.

Marwala attributes what he called “a salad bowl” metaphor to Nelson Mandela as an alternative model. He describes this alternative model as “a situation where the tribes maintain their identities and forge unity in diversity… [as opposed to a melting pot] where we forge a single identity”.

From my reading of this article, I think Marwala’s main objective was to highlight the complexity of forming a nation, and not necessarily how the nation can be created amidst such a complexity. The “National Question” has been central to nation-building, but the present conception of the National Question has evolved beyond both the “melting pot” and the “salad bowl” metaphors.

These two components cannot be understood quantitatively as separate entities, but only qualitatively as intimately related in a way that one cannot be adequately understood without the other. We cannot expect the “tribe” to die for the nation to live, because the nation or a state is nothing more than a negotiated entity born out of the “tribes”. This sounds more like the salad bowl metaphor, but there is a catch: whatever is agreed as values that are pivotal in uniting the nation must always take priority over specific “tribal” affairs.

Hence, a nation is a constituent of agreed values, derived from “tribal” negotiations. In this understanding, a nation cannot be a fixed entity, but an entity built on continuous negotiations. In other words, a nation is an idea that is only realised through continuous “tribal” negotiations. By highlighting this, I am not assuming that “tribes” do not evolve, hence the complexity.

African states are a product of an involuntary “tribal” unity, where a “tribe” may even be cut into two by colonial boundaries. Whatever was left of the “tribes” was used by colonial regimes to sow division between them: in South Africa this was called “separate development”.

Inasmuch as African “tribes” were not “innocent” before colonialism, we cannot deny that some hatred between them is not based on natural human differences, but on an intentional architectural strategy used by the colonisers. A reading of Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani can caution us to distinguish whether “tribal” conflicts are based on human differences and weakness, or whether they are a product of colonial strategic seeds.

In contrast to Walter Rodney, a Guyanese historian and author of the iconic 1972 book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, which focused on the economic underdevelopment of Africa by the West, Mahmood Mamdani focuses on the politics – on how Africa was ruled by Europe – in his seminal 1996 book, Citizens and Subjects: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Colonialism. He looks, specifically, at the nature of “tribal” conflicts and “tribal persona” created during colonial periods. Interestingly, South Africa constitutes part of his case study.

For a nation to live is beyond the “tribe’s” death, but what is crucial is the nature of leadership that can navigate around party politics and ethnicity. The colonial “tribal persona” thus needs to be identified and killed too through astute leadership.

Dr Stephen Phiri is a Senior Researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.