/ 18 June 2024

Jacob Zuma’s electoral success in KZN: The complex role of ethnicity and politics

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Former South African President and now uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) leader Jacob Zuma dances on stage at the MK's last rally in eMalahleni on May 26, 2024 ahead of the South African elections. (Photo by MICHELE SPATARI/AFP via Getty Images)

There are many reasons for Jacob Zuma’s electoral success in KwaZulu-Natal and it should not be reduced to the politicisation of ethnicity.

There is, though, a clear ethnic element to the rise of the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party. The impulse to deny or deflect this, or to try to shut down discussion about the politicisation of ethnicity, is not helpful.

Making sense of the new political situation in KwaZulu-Natal requires rational engagement with the politicisation of ethnic identity. Unfortunately, the possibilities for rational engagement with this question continue to be constrained and distorted by the uncritical repetition of colonial ideas. The most damaging of these colonial ideas is probably that of the “tribe” from which the idea of “tribalism” follows.

One writer, in a rushing accumulation of colonial ideas, recently managed to pack “herd-like instinct”, “primordial roots”, “ignorance”, “traditionalist loyalties” and “naked cultural backwardness” into a single sentence. 

European colonialism did not encounter and then describe and try to manage “tribes” in Africa. European colonialism brought the idea of the “tribe” to Africa and imposed on it on political formations, languages, social practices, objects, symbols, myths, art and forms of spirituality that had never been understood as “tribal” by Africans. Academics Carolyn Hamilton and Nessa Leibhammer have, usefully verbing a noun, called this process “tribing”.

In colonial eyes Africans were divided into tribes in which they were locked into primordial, irrational, and isolated forms of life and governed by authoritarian leaders according to unchanging tradition in a world apart from the reason, dynamism and cosmopolitanism imaged to be unique to Western modernity. Precolonial Africa was imagined to be prepolitical and outside of history. 

In reality precolonial Southern Africa was connected to other parts of the world and marked by hybrid and dynamic social formations in which political communities often welcomed new entrants, including those who spoke different languages. The precolonial form of political community, the historian Paul Landau shows, “was an incorporative institution, and its success lay in bridging differences among varied constituencies”. Popular politics took the form of amalgamation and separation. 

Missionaries and colonial administrators turned political communities into “tribes” and, as happened in Europe, drew the lines, often initially through translations of the Bible, between mutually intelligible ways of speaking on continuums of difference to form what are now thought of as separate and ethnically defined languages. 

All this became central to colonial forms of governance. Colonial Natal was the key site for the development of the form of English colonial government in which, as Ugandan intellectual Mahmood Mamdani has shown, the “native is pinned down, localised, thrown out of civilisation as an outcast, confined to custom, and then defined as its product”. 

Mamdani shows that the Indian mutiny in 1857 and the Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica in 1865 led English colonial intellectuals to realise that colonialism could not continue to directly govern colonised people in perpetuity. They would also have been mindful of the Haitian Revolution against slavery that came to its victorious conclusion in 1804 with the defeat of the slave powers and the founding of the first modern black republic. 

They turned to indirect rule in which colonised majorities were turned into “tribal” minorities and governed in the name of traditional authority enabling what Mamdani called “decentralised despotism”. He stresses that “entrenching tradition became a way of entrenching colonial power”.

The apartheid state enthusiastically took up these colonial strategies. In 1954, Hendrik Verwoerd, who was then the minister of “native affairs”, sponsored the first annual celebration of “Shaka Day”, bringing in a white anthropologist to design a “traditional” outfit that neither the king, Cyprian kaSolomon, nor his father Solomon kaDinizulu, had worn before. Apartheid’s primary strategy to sustain white supremacy was to confine African citizenship, such as it was, to “tribal” homelands. 

Anti-colonial nationalism often sought to overcome the identities that colonialism had reified as “tribes” to form nations. In 1911, a year before the formation of what would become the ANC, Pixley ka Isaka Seme wrote against the “demon” of ethnic divisions and jealousies and for the “priceless jewels” that come from cooperation on the road to “national success”. 

Mozambique’s Samora Machel famously insisted that “For the nation to live, the tribe must die.” Amilcar Cabral took a more nuanced position, one that resonates more closely with contemporary sensibilities, arguing that “the tribe exists and it does not exist … We defended these cultural differences with all our strength, but we also fought with all our strength all divisions on a political level.”

In South Africa the ANC, the communists, the Black Consciousness Movement, the trade unionists and the United Democratic Front (UDF) sought to build non-ethnic forms of politics, to build a nation in struggle. Along with direct repression by the state this was also met with ethnically organised violence. 

Following the urban rebellion that began with the Durban strikes in 1973, escalated with the Soweto revolt in 1976 and began to draw in millions of people with the formation of the UDF in 1983 the apartheid state backed Inkatha, an ethnic formation linked to the KwaZulu Bantustan, in a war against the popular movement against apartheid. 

Mamdani and others have shown that, with the notable exception of Tanzania, post-colonial states generally took over colonial forms of indirect rule, confining access to certain rights to specific territories where they could be accessed through claims about origin rather than by residence. 

The ANC took this route and sustained the former Bantu­stans as spaces with a different mode of rule to the rest of the country. 

This was particularly entrenched in KwaZulu-Natal through the Ingonyama Trust, which holds just under a third of the land in the province, but it is also expressed in informal ways. Over the past two decades ANC leaders in Durban have often said that people “from outside the province”, or “from the Eastern Cape”, are responsible for the housing shortage in the city and should “go home” or “go back to Lusikisiki” if they wish to claim rights to land or housing.

Mamdani shows that in the academy some people have continued to see ethnically defined forms of politics as “some sort of primordial carry­over, a traditional or atavistic residue, to be cured or erased with the march of modernity”. 

In recent years these kinds of views have often given way to forms of decolonial thinking that celebrate precolonial and non-Western ways of being, understanding and organising the world. This has taken both emancipatory and deeply reactionary forms. There is a similar shift under way in South African society with a similarly divided political character.

Across the planet political mobilisation of claims centred on ethnic, religious and national identity often speak in the language of primordial continuities with the past but are invariably claims on the present. All ethnic, religious and national identities are dynamic and often largely modern constructions. 

The ethnic dimension of the support for Zuma’s MP party is not a matter of atavism erupting into the present. It is part of a contemporary and global phenomenon in which people have rallied behind the cultivation and mobilisation of ethnic, religious and national identities, often in the form of right-wing authoritarian populism. Given the global support for this kind of politics it is important to keep in mind that, as academic Lucien van der Walt has pointed out, Zuma’s party won the support of a little over 5% of eligible voters in an election where most potential voters stayed away from the polls.

Historian Mbongiseni Buthelezi wrote in a critique of the idea of the “tribe” that: “In a continuation of colonial discourses, the term quickly slips into assumptions about the ‘barbaric’ and ‘civilised’.” He concludes that “we need new vocabularies to better articulate what needs to be wrestled with because we are still struggling to name with clarity what we are trying to overcome and how to overcome it”. 

The work of finding new and better names than those left to us by colonialism is ongoing, and subject to debate and revision. It’s not always clear where the consensus of the future will settle, or if it will settle given the political differences among the protagonists in these discussions. But we do know, for sure, that we should have done away with the ideas of “the tribe” and “tribalism” long ago.

Richard Pithouse is a research associate in the philosophy department at the University of Connecticut.