I am not Zulu

I have to admit to a censorious streak despite being part of a media establishment that fights for a free flow of information and always pushes the boundaries of freedom of expression.

But I lose all sense of balance and fairness when we have to give a platform to those who cry tribalism.

I feel strongly that black South Africans have been spectacular in how they have so quickly rejected the tribal labels that the apartheid government attached to them.

These tribal designations were supposed to inform a peculiar outlook on life, which necessitated that we stay in our separate areas with like-minded fellows of our “tribes”.

It gave me immense pride that no one rose to Mosiuoa Lekota’s bait when he sought to equate his and fellow comrades’ loss of power in the ANC as being due to a developing tribalism within the movement.

Those who supported his new party (Congress of the People) did so not because they feared some Zulu nationalism, but for a variety of reasons related mainly to anxiety about how a government comprised of Jacob Zuma, Julius Malema, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party would rule South Africa.

I take joy in the fact that those political parties which have, in the past, positioned themselves as defenders of Zulu nationalism are battling to fit into our new society and are now falling apart.

Just before the elections we were treated to headlines such as “Zuma to rule South Africa like Zulu king”, “Zulu warrior takes charge of South Africa”, “Polygamous Zulu set to be president”, and I shook my head in disbelief.

But it was almost a relief that this was coming from the international media who still choose to “understand” us through the tribal epithet that the National Party government had promoted for years.

It is something I have never understood, but have always experienced. When travelling overseas I have been asked if I am Zulu. I have always answered no. This is commonly followed by silence. Maybe next time I should say yes and see what happens.

It is important to remember that one of the cornerstones of apartheid was the segregation of tribes, as well as races. Tribes were seen as separate nations that could not and should not co-exist, hence the creation of Bantustans where “homogenous” tribes would live together in harmony.

And hence were my grandparents, who had never been to Mafikeng, transported in 1977 for tens of kilometres to be part of the new “Bophuthatswana Republic” where they were allocated sites.

They accepted the (enforced) site but thankfully never lived there. But even when the apartheid government could not escape the inevitable phenomenon of migration and urbanisation, it still sought to carve up our townships according to those tribal designations.

But show me any township in the last 20 years where tribal war has flared up and I will show you to be a liar. We have had Azapo-UDF, Inkatha-UDF, township versus hostel dwellers and all other forms of conflict but, thanks to Steve Biko, our people have refused to be told who they were.

At this point you are probably thinking that I am engaged in wishful thinking and should get real. What about a letter that the Mail & Guardian published a few weeks ago in which one Philip Mhlongo warned of the “Zulufication” of government?

Or what about former president Nelson Mandela’s insistence that on his retirement he should not be succeeded by another Xhosa-speaking president?

Or of comments that ANC veteran Zola Skweyiya made to me that the ANC should be careful that it does not create an impression that it is Nguni-dominated?

Well, the answer is that no one could honestly say that none of 48-million South Africans harbour tribal prejudices—not so soon after only 15 years of democracy. After all, the apartheid government had worked for decades to drum it into our minds and especially the minds our grandparents, the majority of whom were illiterate.

In my 30-something years of existence I have been more conscious of my blackness than I could ever be of some tribal affiliation.

In his autobiography Martin Luther King Jr writes: “I was well aware of the typical stereotype of the black man that he’s always late, that he’s loud and always laughing, that he’s dirty and messy; and for a while I was terribly conscious of trying to avoid identification with it. Rather than be thought of as always laughing, I’m afraid I was grimly serious for a time. I had a tendency to overdress, to keep my room spotless, my shoes perfectly shined and my clothes immaculately pressed.”

He made these observations in 1948, when he was starting his tertiary studies in theology. More than 60 years later, many black people still feel these invisible, universal chains of blackness wherever they go. Obama or no Obama.

Rapule Tabane is the deputy editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane is the Mail & Guardian's politics editor. He sometimes worries that he is a sports fanatic, but is in fact just crazy about Orlando Pirates. While he used to love reading only fiction, he is now gradually starting to enjoy political biographies. He was a big fan of Barack Obama, but now accepts that even he is only mortal. Read more from Rapule Tabane


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