Zuma And Zulu Nationalism – OpEd


By William Gumede

For most of the 100 years of the ANC’s history, two distinct strands of Zulu nationalism competed for dominance in the ANC, but especially in the KwaZulu Natal wing of the party, the one conservative, and more closed-off, the other, progressive and more inclusive of other communities.

Since the death of Zulu King Cetshwayo in 1883, the leitmotif of politics in what has become known as Zululand has been how to hold together the different communities within the larger Zulu community as a recognizable unit, following repeated attempts by colonial governments and later apartheid governments to break it up, through divide-and-rule tactics and appointments of pliant chiefs, and civil wars within.

South Africa
South Africa

Within this overarching drive, different approaches emerged over how exactly should Zulu identity be defined within the mosaic of South Africa’s ethnic diversity. Broadly speaking, the conservatives emphasize Zulu-ness as the defining feature of one’s identity, and for the Zulu community to be the dominant one within the broader African and South African community. The progressives sees Zulu-ness as but an element of, not the most defining, of a multiple or layered African and South African identity, and the wider Zulu community as an equal with others.


Jacob Zuma’s election as ANC President at the party’s 2007 Polokwane conference and his possible re-election at Mangaung signifies the triumph of the conservative wing of Zulu nationalism, and the retreat of the progressives. Yet, narrow Zulu nationalism is dangerous to both the ANC and South Africa, as it may unleash ‘the demon of tribalism’ as the ANC’s first general secretary Sol Plaatje, put it, and may undermine efforts to cobble together a common South Africanness.

Former president Nelson Mandela’s 1962 statement in the dock during his political trial for inciting resistance against the apartheid government neatly put it that a common South Africanness must never be defined in relation to a majority community. Neither off course, should it again through one dominant community, as whites dominated during the colonial and apartheid eras.


The ethnic, language and regional diversity bequeathed by both colonialism and apartheid, must mean that modern South Africanness cannot be but a ‘layered’, plural and inclusive one. The fact that South Africa is a country with a multiple identity should be the basis of its shared South Africanness. Furthermore, a common South Africanness will have to be weaved around the new constitution, democratic values, rules and institutions.

The best way forward for South Africa, is not Afrikaner or African nationalism, but what Michael Ignatieff described as ‘civic nationalism’. In ‘civic nationalism’ the glue that hold different communities together is equal rights and shared democratic cultures, values and institutions, rather than ethnic nationalism, whether Zulu, Afrikaner or Coloured.

Immediately after the First World War and into the early 1920s, John Dube, the former ANC President, but also leader of the ANC KwaZulu Natal, held essentially what today can be described as the conservative Zulu nationalist line. However, by the 1926 the rise to prominence of a generation of radical black trade unionists, socialists and communists which formed a new Left lobby within the ANC at a national level, infused a new strand of progressiveness into Zulu nationalism.


The rise of a new more radical grouping of Zulu nationalists included George Champion, who was in 1925 appointed as the Natal regional organizer of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of South Africa (ICU), by the largest black trade union movement in the country.

At the same time a new generation of black communists rose to senior leadership positions in the South African Communist Party (then the Communist Party of South Africa). Josiah Tshangana Gumede, who started his early political career as a conservative, had by the 1920s, after a trip to Moscow, converted to a more inclusive Zulu nationalism and adopted socialism as his political creed.

The new ANC Left pursued a strategy of mass action and strikes against the Union government, while conservatives, including the national leadership of the ANC, preferred negotiations, discussions and petitions with the authorities to express their grievances.


Such was the division between the conservatives and progressives, the two groups of Zulu nationalists in KwaZulu in the 1920s, that the ANC split into two parallel provincial branches, with both groups claiming to be the legitimate ANC provincial branch. Dube was in control of the Natal Native Congress, and Gumede ran a dissident Natal African Congress. Gumede’s Natal African Congress was recognized by the ANC mother body. The battle between the progressives and conservatives in the ANC’s KwaZulu Natal branch would spill over at national level and dominate both the trade union movement and ANC mother body.

In 1926, a conservative leadership takeover of the national ICU, purge communists, including Champion, from his position KwaZulu Natal organizer of the ICU. Champion then retaliated by forming his own KwaZulu Natal ICU, called the ICU yase Natal.

The 1927 ANC national conference was a triumph for the progressive wing of Zulu nationalism, as they, allied with trade unionists, socialists and communists took control of the ANC, with Gumede elected president of the party.

However, conservatives, led by Pixley ka Izaka Seme and Dube, the old veteran, rallied at the ANC’s 1930 national conference, and with the help of key chiefs and traditional leaders, ousted Gumede as ANC president, and elected Seme as the new president. Seme spent a large part of his time as president of the ANC to ‘re-establish the old esprit de corps of the Zulu nation’. However, this strategy naturally alienated other groups, sparked tribalism and was part of the reason for the decline of the ANC in all provinces under his presidency.


Gumede pushed through two new strands into the South African version of African nationalism. Firstly, he emphasized the unity across all African communities, with all groups being equal; and secondly, he stressed the concept of non-racialism, the notion that all groups – whatever their colour, creed or religion, within SA should together fight against colonialism and apartheid. He argued that such a common struggle against oppression would help forge an alternative common South Africanness across tribe, race and colour.

Although Seme won the presidency at national level, the battle between the conservatives and the progressives continued at both national and KwaZulu Natal provincial level. The tussle only abated when Albert Luthuli took over, in 1951 as leader of the ANC KwaZulu Natal, and brought new energy, ideas, and leadership to the province.

Luthuli belonged to the Christian liberation theology wing or the Christian socialist wing of the ANC, which was pursued by James Calata, when he was elected ANC general secretary in 1936. Luthuli brought a new dimension to Zulu and African nationalism, arguing a common belief in the social justice, human rights and solidarity message of the Gospel could be the glue that holds communities together and the source of a common identity, across ethnic, racial and colour differences.


The dimensions of the battle between the Zulu conservatives and progressives changed when the ANC was exiled. By the 1980s, what would be described as the conservative wing of Zulu nationalism was embedded in the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). The UDF-ANC internal wing in KwaZulu Natal had now mostly taken over the mantle of progressives. One aspect of the violent confrontation between the UDF-ANC and the Inkatha in the 1980s was essentially a battle between a conservative, and more closed-off Zulu-ness – represented by Inkatha; and the other, progressive and more inclusive, represented by the UDF-ANC. At the time Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the IFP president, and Harry Gwala, the underground ANC KwaZulu leader represented the leadership faces of these two forces.

With the electoral defeat of the Inkatha Freedom Party in the late 1990s it appeared that the inclusive vision of Zulu nationalism had triumphed. Or at least, the space was opened up for individuals to mold their own Zulu-ness, without one single version to be the ‘accepted’ version – which should be the way things must be in a democracy. Furthermore, by the early 2000s, a split emerged in the IFP with the likes of Ziba Jiyane, began to argue that the IFP must embrace a more inclusive Zulu nationalism, to come to terms with the dramatic social, demographic and democratic changes in South Africa.

Many of the traditional leaders in KwaZulu Natal subscribe to the conservative tradition of Zulu nationalism. The leadership, moral and values crises in South African society, has not only affected politics, but traditional leaders and institutions also. Many traditional kings, chiefs and leaders – from whatever community – are morally corrupt, are living ‘bling’ lifestyles on public money, and have on many occasions abuse their traditional power for personal enrichment – and have resisted democratic efforts to hold them accountable. Some appear to fear that South Africa’s new constitutional democracy, laws and institutions were eroding their power.


Kings, traditional leaders and chiefs hold a powerful sway over communities in the rural areas. Zuma appears to have based his campaign to grab the ANC presidency from former ANC President Thabo Mbeki at the party’s 2007 Polokwane conference on portraying opposition to his (Zuma’s) bid for the ANC president as part of a conspiracy against a ‘Zulu’ to become president, on securing the support of traditional leaders fearful that the new democratic dispensation is eroding their power, and on portraying himself as the defender of the black ‘poor, rural and the vulnerable, against a conspiracy between the white establishment and the black middle class .

In the run-up to the 2007 Polokwane ANC conference, and again in the run-up to Mangaung, Zuma mobilized traditional leaders fearful of being held publicly accountable for their personal behavior, public decisions and performance, to his side. In his fight with former President Thabo Mbeki over the leadership of the ANC, Zuma explicitly appeared to portray Mbeki as part of the ‘educated’ elite, who were waging a ‘war’ against African traditions, institutions and traditional leadership. Recently Zuma has expressed his support for the Traditional Courts Bill, which Patrick Mashego in his 2008 submission to Parliament rightly said, if adopted, will ‘instead of making rural people equal citizens in a unitary South Africa’, make them ‘subjects of chiefs who are given the coercive power to get rid of those who try to hold them to account.’


In his battle with former President Thabo Mbeki, for control of the ANC ahead of the ANC’s Polokwane conference, Zuma’s used a thinly-veiled strategy of corralling Zulu speakers behind him – and then use them as the launch pad for his bid for the presidency of the ANC. Ahead of Mangaung Zuma has used the same strategy to secure re-election. At Polokwane and ahead of Mangaung, Zuma have explicitly mobilized voters in KwaZulu Natal to support him on the basis of his Zulu-ness – rather than performance in government and in the party. Zuma have casted the investigation of corruption charges against him and the opposition to his election as ANC and South African president as a conspiracy against a ‘Zulu’ being elected to the highest office in the ANC and country – which it is not. Even Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the IFP leader, in 2006 warned that ‘it was a dangerous thing’ to use ethnicity for purely political and personal enrichment ends.


Zuma has skillfully used Zulu or African ‘traditions’ to cover-up poor personal choices, indiscretions and wrong behavior – and portraying those who oppose such poor behavior of being opposed to African ‘traditions’ or ‘culture’. Zuma appear to have selectively elevated the elements of African and Zulu ‘traditions’ (some which authenticity can be contested, or which was introduced as a defence for problems in a different social context) – which go against the democratic constitutional precepts, for example those against gender equality or those that give ordinary citizens the power to hold their kings and chiefs accountable. This strategy has also brought conservative elements of Inkatha, which was already electorally defeated by the ANC, into the ANC, and has emboldened the conservative Zulu nationalism strand in the ANC and KwaZulu Natal, and has beaten back the progressives.

A core part of the covenant of the foundations of South Africa’s 1994 democratic and nation-building project is for leaders not use ethnicity to secure political power or for self-enrichment. Zuma has broken that covenant, and in so doing undermined his very positive contribution to bring peace in KwaZulu Natal and South Africa in the post-1994 period – and persisting with this strategy may fuel the flames of tribalisation which may destabilize the ANC and South Africa, and may yet break-up the 100-year old ANC.

William Gumede is author of the recently released bestselling Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg). He is Honorary Associate Professor, Graduate School of Public and Development Management, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

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