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The danger of Zuma’s Zulu nationalism

I have, to a degree, always struggled with my Zulu identity. To those close to me I have rationalised that this is probably a result of being born and raised in Johannesburg to parents who themselves were born and raised in Soweto. 

When reflecting on the socioeconomic forces that have led my family to call Johannesburg home, I am forced to concede that my existence and perhaps cultural ambiguity is because of the brutal system of migrant labour. 

This does not mean that I am not proud of my tribe’s history. To the contrary, I am proud of Zulu people’s contribution to South Africa and its liberation from colonialism and apartheid. 

My heart beats with pride at a history of defiance, which includes the British’s defeat in the Battle of Isandlwana, Chief Bambatha’s rebellion against colonial domination and the contributions of stalwarts such as Chief Albert Luthuli in their fight against racial domination.

In reflecting on our long-fought attainment of freedom, I am also haunted by the history of bloodshed in KwaZulu-Natal and townships of the Witwatersrand between 1990 and 1994. In the last moments of a dying fascist regime, it sought to preserve itself by inciting tribal nationalism among the Zulu in particular with the sobering result of 14 000 deaths. 

It is perhaps this recent history that is at the root of my hesitation to lean fully into my tribal identity because I know that Zulu nationalism has never really died, it is still there and continues to reinvent itself.

In a democratic South Africa, Zulu nationalism rears its head in mundane ways such as derogatory jokes against members of other ethnic groups and the refusal by some to be addressed in any language that is not Zulu (even in a cosmopolitan setting such as Johannesburg). 

The belief among some Zulus that they are superior to people from other tribes still holds sway and although it may not manifest itself in violence, I would argue that it still poses a problem to our collective future.

In a 2018 editorial headlined “The dangers of Zulu nationalism”, City Press editor Mondli Makhanya reminded us that in the Inkatha Freedom Party-controlled bantustan of KwaZulu, a generation of young people were indoctrinated by a non-examinable subject called ubuntu-botho. The subject was the brainchild of the IFP-affiliated Africa Teachers Union, the Schools Inspectors’ Association of KwaZulu and Inkatha-leaning academics at the University of Zululand.

It included what Makhanya describes as a “raw brand of Zulu nationalism”. The ugly result of this indoctrination was violence seen in the years of transition. The desire by the IFP that KwaZulu should secede and not join a democratic South Africa mirrored the indoctrination in the classrooms, which taught children to pursue the dream of the restoration of the Zulu empire. 

The IFP is not the threat it once was and the ANC has made inroads in KwaZulu-Natal. But, as the balance of forces began to shift toward the ANC, former IFP members who have found a new home in the ANC brought with them a brand of Zulu nationalism. These tendencies were never purged.

That Zulu nationalism began to rear its ugly head in the ANC is illustrated by the rise of former president Jacob Zuma. 

The ANC was founded to unite black Africans above the tribal divisions that were encouraged by colonial policy. The ANC would later broaden this mandate to unite South Africans of all colours against racial domination and towards a nonracial society. 

In contrast to the ANC tradition, Zuma was and is still willing to lean into tribal identity as a way of mobilising support. Nowhere is this perhaps more evident than in the near anarchy that played itself out at Nkandla as the former president attempted to evade the long arm of justice at any cost. We witnessed flashbacks of a violent history through the mobilisation of Zulu regiments, known as amabutho, the blatant display of weapons and appeals to Zulu history and identity by Zuma supporters on social media. 

Perhaps testament to how much the balance of forces have changed in KwaZulu-Natal is that just this week we saw the president of the IFP, emeritus Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, labelling as “treasonous” the mobilisation of amabutho without the incoming king’s approval. 

This is welcome — but we also can’t ignore Buthelezi’s role in exacerbating Zulu nationalism for his political gain more than two decades ago. The ghosts of his decisions reawakened in Nkandla this past week and perhaps it is most appropriate that he should be the one to call it out. 

Although it is true that the madness at Nkandla had a strong factional dynamic, it was supported by an appeal to Zulu nationalism in KwaZulu-Natal that we all should be alarmed by.

Anyone who has monitored the political violence seen in KwaZulu-Natal over the past decade will know that the ghost of the IFP’s decisions looms large. In November 2016, at the end of my undergraduate degree at Stellenbosch University, where I had spent much of my time fighting the ghosts of Afrikaner nationalism, a few of us embarked on a road trip around the country to film the aspirations of young South Africans.

In Durban, we were lucky enough to meet an activist from Abahlali baseMjondolo, the shack-dwellers movement fighting for the right to decent housing. In what perhaps is one of the more insightful conversations of my young life, I listened to a young activist express his worry about the rate at which Zulu nationalism was rising in Durban’s informal settlements. He recounted a terrifying episode when members of other tribal groups were warned they would be attacked if they did not leave the informal settlement along with people from other countries.

Zulu nationalism is not the only chauvinism rearing its ugly head again; appeals to narrow racial and tribal identities are on the rise in South Africa. This is not surprising when you consider a stagnant economy, high levels of inequality and a decay of trust in each other and in the government. During such times, people are more susceptible to the lies of charismatic strongman-leaders who appeal to the worst of our prejudices and judgments. 

I would warn those who are angry about the current state of affairs not to be used to fan the flames of nationalism; they might come back to burn them. 

In 1971, when Idi Amin carried out a military coup in Uganda, his overthrow of Milton Obote was welcomed by progressive students, unionists and peasants alike. Amin’s appeal was that he was a charismatic “man of the people”. Years later, many of those people who clapped for this “son of the soil” would find themselves in the torture chambers or, worse, their bloody bodies washed up on the banks of the Nile. 

There is a warning here — that current frustrations should not lead us to support those who seek to dismantle the very nature of our democratic project and the aspirations of those who fought for our liberation.

As I watched as events in Nkandla played themselves out, I became convinced that cool heads would prevail and that the former president and his supporters would have to eventually face reality. Which Zuma did.

What scares me is that we will continue to ignore the expression of Zulu nationalism recently on display. We should use this moment to admit that we have a problem in this country and that it should be purged once and for all through educational, socioeconomic and cultural interventions that will defeat ethnonationalism and appeal to our common identity as South Africans, bound by a single destiny and an aspiration for equity and justice for all.

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Sikhulekile Duma
Sikhulekile (Khule) Duma is a young professional and a member of the ANC’s Gaby Shapiro Branch’s executive committee. He is also the co-author of the Betrayal of the Promise: How South Africa is Being Stolen

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