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On December 14, a worrisome incident occurred during the annual Mapungubwe Arts Festival at the Peter Mokaba Stadium in the Limpopo province administrative centre of Polokwane.
At midnight and shortly after he took to the stage, the esteemed member of the Order of Ikhamanga, musician Thomas Chauke, was abruptly stopped by one of the stage managers while in performance. A widely circulated video shows a man moving towards the performance area, unplugging a microphone from a tri-leg stand, and running his hand across an electronic piano, causing a sound distortion. Chauke turns to the man and brings his performance to a halt.
Before reaching the stage, the man’s left hand is seen gesturing a cut-off sign as though posing a question, while another person’s hand signals a go-ahead.
The incident triggered a public outcry and demands for the sacking of Limpopo MEC for Sport, Arts and Culture Thandi Moraka, who was publicly accused of ordering the stoppage on the grounds of her supposed disdain for Tsonga music.
The fact, however, is that there was a symbolic lighting of firecrackers at midnight, which necessitated a pause on the musical performance. Whether the decision was prudent is another matter altogether. The point is that there was no reason for not getting Chauke back on stage after the fireworks.
Ethnic murmurings in Limpopo suggest the province is susceptible to a regressive ethnic consciousness that should feature on the country’s radar screen of political risk estimates, lest we be caught completely unawares.
Their sociological push and pull factors lie in the complex intersection between our history and the successes and challenges of the post-1994 nation formation project.
The inevitable decision of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa in the early 1990s to make Polokwane the administrative centre of Limpopo meant that most of the civil service – the elite who constituted the purchasing power in the various bits and pieces of the Bantustan administrative seats – would conglomerate in Polokwane.
For the migration of their life blood, towns such as Thohoyandou, Giyani and Lebowakgomo began to feel the pinch by mid-1995. And the artificial industrial incentives – which precipitated light industries in the Bantustans – brought about by the Promotion of Economic Development of the Homelands Act fell away in 1994.
The rudimentary business elite in these towns – who were integrally connected to the Bantustan political establishment – began to complain of marginalisation. In Thohoyandou and Giyani, the complaint was given an ethnic dimension, with conversations often involving ethnic bean-counting.
At the heart of the complaint was an economic grievance by a section of the community whose political outlook did not, in any event, sit completely in tandem with the new political regime.
The grievance did not gain traction primarily because it lacked institutional political and superstructural support.
Fast-forward to two decades later, July 2015, and you have the monumental disaster of Vuwani and Malamulele occasioned by a demand for and resistance against a municipal border demarcation – and marinated by effervescent ethnic narratives.
The driving factors were once again economic: a jostle for access to state resources by elements among the local power brokers in cahoots with provincial and national elites in a social setting in which the state is the only source through which to eke out a living.
A South African Police Service “Case study on Vuwani Demarcation Protests” dated June 30, 2016, cites several “factors impacting on the behaviour of the protestors”, among them “anticipation of losing business opportunities”.
But there were at least two discernible qualitative differences. The first was that the political pedigree of the cadreship of the governing ANC had morphed substantially from the 1994-1995 period. In its belly were carcasses from the old Bantustan social base whose outlook cannot be relied upon to fashion the kind of South Africa envisaged in the national constitution.
Secondly, the ANC was by then led by a president who self-identified ethnically, which inadvertently – or was it? – facilitated the politicisation of narrow ethnic identity by the similarly minded in and outside the party.
In a province like Limpopo, a hotchpotch of former Bantustans where at least three generations were brought up on a diet of colonial and apartheid race, ethnic, gender and other forms of othering, ethnic consciousness is bound to ensconce itself firmer and ramify widely when none other than the liberation movement from whence it is least expected promotes anything remotely resembling it.
To borrow from Frantz Fanon’s Pitfalls of National Consciousness, the ANC was itself actively participating in a process of “send[ing] the people back to the caves” – “speak[ing] in the name of the totality of the people” and “sometimes even openly organis[ing] an authentic ethnic dictatorship” even if figuratively or in the form of ambiguous optics.
Thirdly, since 1994, the economy has not grown at a pace that absorbs sufficient numbers of people into employment, and peripheral provinces face this challenge the most.
“In such a context, a self-centred and shortsighted elite can easily stir people into a stew of desperate and divisive narratives.”
The demon of tribalism having eluded its exorcists, the utility and efficacy of every conceivable commonality is brought into question. Integrative social features and characteristics such as the long history of intermarriage and shared common spaces in places like Malamulele and Vuwani cease to be a guarantor of social cohesion.
The worrisome and scary bit is that an inattentive, otherwise busy and self-exhausting society may not discern the moment of rupture when the protective sheaths and social bonds that keep communities together have been completely worn.
So, if anything, the Chauke incident underscores the need for open conversations about the dangers of the demon of ethnic consciousness and for a leadership that appreciates how such identities can be fuelled by underdevelopment, leading to the slow but steady process of the ethnic balkanisation of the country.
In this regard, it would help a great deal if government and political parties’ statements on such matters can be subjected to the political quality assurance which assists in solving, rather than exacerbating, problems.
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