ISSN 2330-717X

Rising Tribalism In South Africa – OpEd


By William Gumede

A new wave of tribalism is threatening to unravel South Africa’s infant democracy, destroy economic development and unleash devastating ethnic violence if not stopped decisively.

This apparent new upsurge in tribalism in South Africa appears to be driven by a number of factors. There has been appallingly poor political leadership at the helm of South Africa. A perception has now taken root that to be successful in South Africa, whether securing a job or a tender in the public and private sectors depends mostly about whom you, rather than one’s talents.

South Africa appears to have now become a patronage based society, which fuels tribalism, rather than a merit-based one.

The ANC’s cadre deployment policy has in some instances gone horribly wrong and has often been abused for opportunistic, factional and tribal ends. Leaders’ sometimes deploying family, friends and allies from their own region or ethnic community, to key positions in government and business – rather than based on talent, skills and capability.

Rampant public sector corruption, poor public service delivery and unaccountable public servants has also led to people either not trusting government or arguing the only way to secure services is through lobbying their ethnic compatriots who are in senior ANC or government positions.

The perception has taken root that the Jacob Zuma presidency is only looking after his “own” and is not using the talents of all the talent within the ANC, let alone all South Africans, which is absolutely necessary to create wealth for all, rather than the few.

Recently some people have whispered about the ‘Zulufication’ of appointments because of the perception that the president is mostly appointing individuals in key posts, especially those in the security networks, from KwaZulu Natal. Zuma’s perceived silence during his campaign to oust former President Thabo Mbeki as leader of the ANC, when some supporters wore ‘100% Zulu’ has created the impression that the president approves the politics of ethnically centered patronage.

Sadly, some individuals are starting to turn what should be purely political differences into ‘ethnic’ differences. It appears that some KwaZulu ANC members although they may not happy with the record of the Zuma presidency, want to call ranks and support the re-election of the President solely on the basis of he is ‘one of us’, rather than purely on the merits of Zuma’s performance in the presidency. They apparently feel not to vote for Zuma at the ANC’s December 2012 Manguang national conference would be a ‘betrayal’ of ‘their’ community.

Under former President Thabo Mbeki those whom he sidelined from posts in the ANC and government accused him of ‘Xhosa-nostra’ because of the perception that he surrounded himself by key individuals from the Eastern Cape. Again, although Mbeki publicly lambasted narrow tribalism, he was not perceived to translate this anti-tribalism sentiment into making sure that all public appointments at all times are seen to be from a broad range of communities.

There is a real danger that the ANC’s internal provincial, regional and branch elections in some provinces where there is a diverse ethnic or regional spread, will turn into ethnic votes, with people voting for someone from ‘their’ ethnic group, to provide services for ‘their’ group, giving the fact that they perceive the government not to deliver, ANC deployment committees to be controlled by, and tenders awarded by, specific ‘ethnic’ factions. The other danger is that the ANC’s 2012 Manguang national conference will turn into ethnic camps, with people voting along ethnic lines for leaders on the basis that would be the only way – by supposedly getting someone from ‘their’ group into the ANC leadership – for patronage, public services and appointments to government from ‘their’ communities.

Tribalism can also now been seen in the private sector. It appears that some organised (white) business – if white English-speaking South African sectors, give preference to ‘their’ community, especially those who went to particular schools and universities. In some cases it appears that white Afrikaans-speaking businesses also give preference to ‘their’ community. It appears that some South Africans of Indian-descent also feel they have to rally around ‘their’ community. Some South Africans of ‘coloured’ background again say they are now being marginalized because they are not black ‘enough’.

In some areas in Limpopo and the North West provinces, again particularly in the mining sector, there are reports that some locals say only those from ‘their’ tribal community should benefit in deals. In some parts of the country it is alleged that a business deal or tender will not be approved, unless the local chief or king gets a cut. The civil services of some provincial governments looks like Bantustans in their ethnic make-up. In some parts of the Eastern Cape some argue that only locals should be appointed to public sector jobs. Sadly, this Bantustan patronage system pattern in the appointments and tenders in the public sector appears to be replicated across the country.

In some cases, some white South African professionals specifically joined the ANC because they fear that their talents would be totally marginalized, and by being an ANC member, they at least stand a better chance of being appointed to senior positions in the state. Some white businessmen have also joined the ANC’s business forum, hoping that at least that would give them access, since they perceive themselves to be outside the politically favoured ‘ethnic’ group. Yet, other white businesses appears to appoint politically connected blacks with connections with the ‘right’ group as an insurance policy, to their boards and as senior executives.

These actions appear to be a protective mechanism amid the perception (in the case of some white, Indian or Coloured South Africans) that the state only delivers for ‘blacks (Africans)’. Ironically, many of the very blacks the state is supposedly favouring are also feeling marginalized; and some (of the supposedly favoured ‘blacks’) blame their wrong tribal affiliation for their marginalization. The tragic story in Africa since independence is that in almost every African liberation and independence movement that came to power, only a small elite have benefited from the end of colonialism or white-minority rule. Sadly, many of those who got rich after independence and liberation were mostly those who were connected to dominant leaders, factions, families, regional or ethnic groups of the liberation or independence movements.

The benefits of ethnic pork-barreling will always be short-term, yet the consequences to the health of the wider society pernicious.

The developing countries that have been successful since the Second World War, particularly those from the East Asian developmental states, have done so by empowering the widest number of people at the same time, not just one ethnic group or an elite. Those developing countries where only a small elite, whether based on ethnicity, region or political faction, became prosperous, have as countries stagnated, became corrupt and sometimes even de-industrialized.

Even the post-Second World War Western European reconstruction was premised on a social contract which was based on lifting everyone from poverty together, and not only a few lucky ‘ethnic’ ones. In fact that has been the basis of the Western European welfare state: it was based on the fact that everyone in society must be looked after, whatever their ethnic or political affiliation.

Colonialism and apartheid bequeathed South Africa an ethnically diverse society, which will always need wise leadership to forge an inclusive society. In an ethnically diverse society, the basis of governing must be to lift everyone, no matter their ethnicity, region or language, collectively out of poverty.

Appointments must be on reasonable merit, balancing out racial injustices, and must be seen to be fair. The basis of the ANC’s policy of deployment should be about head-hunting for the best talent across the country – and outside – that would have fallen through the cracks.

Effective public services, accountable and responsible leaders that serve all – and are perceived to do so – and policies and their implementation that aim to lift the largest amount of people out of poverty, no matter their ethnicity, colour or political affiliation; using all the talents of South Africa, are the best guarantees against tribalism.

Lastly, the constitution and democratic institutions, are the glue that binds all the diverse South African communities together. Attacks on the constitution and democratic institutions, the manipulation of them and appointments to such institutions that is narrow politically, ethnically and regionally based, will only encourage people to seek refuge in tribalism as protection.

Ultimately, a solidarity for the vulnerable that cuts across the ethnic, regional and political divide – this means that social justice must underpin governing – is the final counter-balance against tribalism.

William Gumede is honorary associate professor, Graduate School of Public and Development Management, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg; and author of the bestselling ‘Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC’.

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