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Election day in Zululand: Some musings on ethnicity, tribalism

I spent election day driving around KwaZulu-Natal visiting polling stations both in Durban and Zululand. I started early and headed north to Ulundi and then onwards to Nongoma before making my way back to Durban stopping at various polling stations along the way.

Election day was rather slow and sleepy despite the media hype about hotspots in Nongoma and Ulundi. Both areas were quiet and people queued up with quiet dignity and a lack of conflict was evident. I saw a man proudly displaying an ANC T-shirt standing between two men wearing their IFP shirts at Ondini (in Ulundi, the site of Cetswayo’s old capital, which has a wonderful little museum and simple accommodation).

I really love the area north of the Tugela and am really annoyed at people who label the area as “tribal”. That outdated and inaccurate discourse is still used to describe the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). While support for the party has clearly declined as shown by this election, I wish to speak out about how this party has been and continues to be labelled as a Zulu traditional party.

That entire discourse of “tribalism” as a means of describing politics of rural KwaZulu-Natal fails to grasp the very real issues that people are faced with in rural spaces. Similar language was used in the 1980s and early 1990s of the so-called “black-on-black” violence.

Such a discourse dismisses and misunderstands that people were and still are engaged in real politics and struggles that have nothing to do with their race or ethnicity. It places the conflict outside of rational understanding and allows for consistently bad analysis and the maintenance of stereotypes.

The horrific conflict of the 1980s and 1990s in KwaZulu-Natal (then Natal) continues to be disregarded as real struggles of the dying days of apartheid. The idea that the fighting was “tribal” or ethnically based still haunts politics in the province. It also feeds into the mantra of the “miracle” of 1994 of the bloodless transition. It makes all those deaths meaningless as if their deaths were not part of the “struggle”, but part of some ancient animosity.

In contemporary South Africa, Zulu people and their concerns need to be stripped from this limited discourse and in doing so one finds really simple concerns such as a lack of water, unemployment and lack of rural development. Keep ethnicity in the picture and their concerns are dismissed as ethnic chauvinism. Labelling the IFP as a Zulu party does much the same. Conflating a support base with their policies and practices does everybody a disservice.

The media are as much at fault with their focus on personalities instead of policies, but perhaps they are just reflecting the political debates that focus on leaders. In that, the media disappointed me during the elections.

So as the day waned I returned to Durban proud of the people of Zululand for defying the crude stereotypes attributed to the region and to the people trying to make lives better in the region, whatever their political affiliation.


  • Michael Francis

    I have returned to South Africa. I now teach Economic History and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am happy to be back after a couple years away. I had been teaching anthropology at a Canadian University, but Africa called and I returned.