Austil Mathebula
7 minute read
11 May 2016
12:43 pm

When tribalism becomes civil war

Austil Mathebula

Tribalism remains our generally unacknowledged shame that defeats the spirit of a rainbow nation every bit as much as the bigoted attitudes of racist people.

As a young man from the hinterlands of Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga, I landed my first big break in the media in 2012 with an internship. Bursting with excitement, I moved from the villages of Bushbuckridge to the New York of Africa.

Fascinated by the heroic stories my politically minded grandmother used to tell about Soweto, I wanted to “break my rural virginity” and get into Joburg life by staying in Soweto. I’m going to visit all the historic places my grandmother used to talk about, I thought. Bushbuckridge being a multilingual community, I thought I could easily adapt to the Soweto lifestyle, because I could communicate with most linguistic groups, among others isiZulu, TshiVenda, Setswana and isiXhosa speakers.

Members of Amadelakubusa Women's Traditional group during the commemoration of the Battle of Isandlwana on January 22, 2015 in Nquthu, South Africa.

Members of Amadelakubusa Women’s Traditional group during the commemoration of the Battle of Isandlwana on January 22, 2015 in Nquthu, South Africa.

Here was a rural boy in Soweto, rocking his all-white attire – and I felt important. My homeboys in Chiawelo organised a room for me to rent in Dobsonville, a predominantly Zulu and Tswana township. I was now one with the heroic people who had fought apartheid’s gunpowder with stones and burning tyres – or so I thought.

As the first week passed, it seemed my worldview was fantastical, as living in Soweto as a Sotho-Tsonga person was anything but easy. The actual experience of living in this fairly multilingual community was the antithesis of how multilingualism or multiculturalism is perceived in Bushbuckridge. There, it’s sometimes hard to differentiate the linguistic origin of some people. When they speak languages that aren’t theirs, they speak with much respect for the language, and often own the language better than its actual speakers.

Minister of Human Settlement Lindiwe Sisulu receives a Tsonga outfit from dancers during the Govan Mbeki Awards on August 14, 2014 at Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Minister of Human Settlement Lindiwe Sisulu receives a Tsonga outfit from dancers during the Govan Mbeki Awards on August 14, 2014 at Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa.

One very cold and boring winter’s day in February 2012, I decided to leave my shanty room to see my friends in Chiawelo. As I was new in the area, I didn’t know the directions.

As a well-mannered young man, I approached one taxi driver, greeted him and asked in Setswana: Dumelang, ke ne ke kopa go botsa gore di tekisi tsa Chiawelo di tshwarelwa ha kae? (I’d like to ask where I can catch taxis to Chiawelo?) The guy turned around and gave me a violent look, then continued to clean his teeth with a toothpick without saying a word. I repeated myself in Setswana, understanding that a man of his age would no doubt understand the language. He turned around, visibly agitated, saying in isiZulu: “Awuthi sawubona? Angeke ngiku phendule uma unga khulumi isiZulu (I will not respond to you until you speak to me in isiZulu).”

His ignorance paralysed my lips. I was so entranced by the attitude of this man old enough to be my father, and I turned away to look for the right taxi on my own.

After watching an exciting soccer match with my friends, I took another taxi back to Dobsonville. It was filled with people from different linguistic groups, among them Venda, Tswana, Tsonga and Zulu people. As the driver hooted on each street corner looking for customers, he was eventually flagged down by a drunken old man. Once the senior citizen was in the taxi, the driver realised the new passenger didn’t have money to pay for the trip. A war of words erupted between them, and after the driver told the old guy to get out, one Venda passenger offered to pay for him.

Colourful beads used as decoration in Venda culture. Feature text available. (Photo by Gallo Images / GO! / Villiers Steyn)

Colourful beads used as decoration in Venda culture. (Photo by Gallo Images / GO! / Villiers Steyn)

One of the other passengers then told the driver: “You are so inhuman that a Venda had to come to the old man’s rescue.” The driver was Zulu, the old man was Zulu, the Venda man was an outsider. To her, it was an embarrassment that the Zulus were not looking after “their own”.

That day changed how I saw the world. My “we are a multicultural utopia” mind-set changed drastically. I hadn’t seen the much-vaunted humanism of a place with a street that gave the world two Nobel peace prize winners – there was only tribalism. I wanted to call my grandmother and tell her that Soweto was brutal towards its children, the sons and daughters of African soil.

I was shocked by the amount of tribalism I’d witnessed in just one day, and it hasn’t shown many signs of improving. The level of tribalism and how commonly ingrained it was seemed insurmountable.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines tribalism as “loyalty to a tribe or other social group, especially when combined with strong negative feelings for people outside the group”.

And Soweto, unfortunately, is a microcosm (big as it is) of the rest of South Africa. The tribal lines are replicated on a far bigger scale among and between our provinces and all their cities and towns.

Vuwani, which means “wake up” in TshiVenda, is a community in Limpopo where more than 20 schools were burnt down last week partly because the Venda community of Vuwani doesn’t want to be merged with the Tsonga community of Malamulele. The education department has estimated that it may cost more than R400 million to repair the torched schools. It’s been declared a disaster area. A disaster of petrol-bombing, hatred and anger.

Vhudzani Secondary School in Vuwani. Picture: Steven Tau

Vhudzani Secondary School in Vuwani. Picture: Steven Tau

The problem of tribalism hasn’t been mentioned very much when it comes to Vuwani yet, but it has come up often enough – it’s an uncomfortable fact, and among all of our protestations over the racism of white estate agents and high court judges, tribalism remains our generally unacknowledged shame that defeats the spirit of a rainbow nation every bit as much as the bigoted attitudes of racist people.

In an interview with eNCA, one community member of Vuwani can be heard saying they don’t want to share a municipality with Shangaans, a word sometimes used in a pejorative way to refer to Tsonga people. It must be acknowledged that the Tsongas in the area are not saints, and the same or similar amounts of tribalism are evident on their side. They in turn don’t want to merge with the Venda people. What’s happening in Vuwani is a small-scale conflict that echoes the greater, bloody wars between Africa’s unfortunate countries and its hundreds of tribes, who were bundled together or driven apart by arbitrary borders drawn by Europeans standing around a map and cutting up their colonial cake.

This is not to downplay the other reasons why the community of Vuwani refuses to be merged with a Tsonga municipality, with allegations, perceptions and point-blank facts of and about cronyism, nepotism, corruption and tribal favouritism all playing their part.

Amid all this mess, let’s not forget how the apartheid government contributed. The notion that black people are not equal and not the same – just because they speak different languages or come from different tribes – was hammered into the philosophies of the old Bantustans. It’s what Steve Biko tried to undo with Black Consciousness.

The apartheid Bantustan Act required that black people be grouped and apportioned land on the basis of the languages they spoke or tribes they came from. The two homelands of Ciskei and Transkei were created only for the Xhosa people, Bophuthatswana for the Tswana people, KwaZulu for the Zulu people, Lebowa for the Pedis and Northern Ndebele, Venda for the Vendas, Gazankulu for Shangaan and Tsonga people and QwaQwa for Sotho people not resident in Lesotho. It was divide and conquer. And oh, how did they conquer. We are still mentally conquered in some respects today.

The apartheid government is not the only culprit. Other institutions and ideologies in society are also to blame, such as the family, the media, religion, and so on. Tribalism is driven by old practices and prejudices that are passed down to the next generation by their elders (which is also how racism is maintained and perpetuated). Media coverage is not equal for all tribes. Even the religious beliefs we practice preach that people should not marry out of their tribes. The divisions are deep, old and, ultimately, all in our heads.

In any form of discrimination, be it racism, sexism, tribalism, homophobia and so on, it’s the duty of every young person to unlearn the hatred that was passed on to them in an unbroken chain from the days of Vilakazi, Moshoeshoe and Shaka.

Senior content producer Austil Mathebula

Senior content producer Austil Mathebula