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So, what tribe are you?

Percy Mabandu

There's a "blacker than thou" attitude that often permeates ethnic identity in post-apartheid South Africa.

There’s a “blacker than thou” attitude that often permeates ethnic identity in post-apartheid South Africa. The often-asked question: “So, what tribe are you?” acts like a touchstone test for tribal purity.

The purer your “tribal identity”, the more legitimate your voice. But, Gauteng’s convergent multi-ethnic makeup can be disruptive of such presumptive ideas of how black identity is defined in South Africa.

For Katlego Mahlangu, a 22-year-old girl from Soshanguve, north of Pretoria, ethnic identity has a post-tribal slant. As with many children born to parents who’ve been in the province for multiple generations, Mahlangu comes from more than one ethnic heritage.

Her mother is Pedi and her father Ndebele. Her mixed culture didn’t cross her mind until she was at university with students from other provinces. There, she found that her mixed identity could make her different.

The usual charge by most people from tribally undifferentiated places, she says, is that they get the notion that they somehow lost their culture because they don’t claim one specific tribe.

Gauteng’s urban black experience is different from most other provinces. It’s unlike the Eastern Cape where the township of Mdantsane has a Xhosa-based unilingual composition. It’s the same with the Zulu-speaking Umlazi township in KwaZulu-Natal, or the Setswana-speaking town of Mafikeng in the North West. But in Gauteng, Soweto’s convergence of all the black languages and ethnicities is represented in its population spread.

Soweto’s mixedness is shared by other townships in the province such as Soshanguve. In fact, Soshanguve was named for it. The word itself, an acronym for all the ethnicities found in the township: SO-tho, SHA-ngaan, NGU-ni and VE-nda.

A walk down the street reveals an organic linguistic subversiveness that continues to mock the intended divisions sought by the apartheid Group Areas Act. Mahlangu describes her lingua franca as a “Sesotho-based mix-mash.” It’s basically Sesotho but there’s Ndebele and Zulu words, everything, all mingled into one.

But Gauteng’s otherness took on a schizophrenic expression with last year’s violence against foreign nationals; in fact, many of the casualties were South Africans accused of having a “different” tribal background to their attackers.

Reflected in these actions, perhaps, is the severity of our collective psychological wounds, a result of a sustained system of tribal divide-and-rule by the old regime.

But the notion of ethnic mixed-ness is not a novelty. It has precedence in Shaka Zulu’s kingdom, an amalgamation of a diversity of Nguni clans: the Khumalos, the Mthethwas and so on. Even the Xhosa language is a hybrid of Khoisan and Nguni dialects, with the same form of hybridity discernable in the click sounds of Setwana or Sesotho.

Gauteng sits at the heart of the country, a microcosm of the nation, offering an illustration of a progressive neo-ethnic and post-tribal flux. It points to ways of thinking about identity as process and not of origin, identity as heterogeneity and not some univocal root.

Percy Mabandu is a Mail & Guardian reporter

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