Recent debates on tribalism and other related matters have generated more heat than light.

Agang SA leader Mamphela Ramphele has reportedly accused the government of sponsoring tribalism to divide the country.

At an address to students at Unisa in April this year former president Thabo Mbeki uttered similar remarks that rang alarm bells on the resurgence of tribalism and its related dangers.

There is no doubt that we need a critical dialogue and informed exchanges instead of these alarmist utterances that distort the actual picture on ethnic identity and related issues in the country.

Pointing out car stickers and a few political T-shirts that read 100% Zulu or 100% Venda do not take us very far in understanding how South African citizens define their identity or the meaning of ethnic identity in the context of our constitutional democracy.

Much as tribal or ethnic identity is perceived to be real, the last 20 years have marked a turning point in the use of tribe or language to define one’s identity. In fact, the issue of tribal identity has grown more complex and difficult to pin down. What makes a Zulu a Zulu?

A cursory glance at a South African identity document, for example, reveals that it does not cite or reflect ethnic identity as a feature of a person’s identity or description. Also, much as this is found in some government forms, this is not featured in travel documents. This marks a significant development in the evolution of a new South African identity that neither promotes ethnicity nor is based on tribal origins or language.

Much as there is a long way to go in defining what makes a South African, great strides have been made towards establishing a common identity that does not include ethnic or tribal identity as a criterion.

Yet we have high-profile leaders like Ramphele and Mbeki who use platforms to create a misleading picture about the state of tribalism in the country.

Again, in order to shatter these myths that are presented as facts, we must begin to create awareness and popularise the 2012 development indicators that reveal developments and trends on social cohesion. These findings were revealed by Minister in the Presidency for Performance Monitoring and Evaluation Collins Chabane with little fan-fare at a special seminar held at the Wanderers Club in Johannesburg recently.

Under social cohesion, the survey specifically looked at self-descriptors by South Africa’s adult population as a form of primary identity.

Few people use language group (4.1%) or tribe to define their identity. Thus we have to acknowledge and recognise that, increasingly, ethnic or tribal identity is not considered an important element of how citizens define themselves.

Much as this lowly figure marked an increase from 2011 (3.7%), it is a big drop from 2004 (13.6%).

South Africans are moving away from language group, tribe or race (8.8%) as a basis of self-identity or description.

Instead, the percentage of people who identify themselves as simply proud South Africans has remained consistent at about 52% between 2004 (52.8%) and 2012 (52.4%). This constitutes a giant stride in the efforts towards social cohesion and nation-building. Race and tribe are used less as a basis of self-identity.

The great concern expressed by Ramphele and Mbeki at the resurgence of tribalism is to be welcomed but it must be based on factual reality and not perception. The citation of 100% Zulu stickers and T-shirts and linking those to President Jacob Zuma feeds on stereotypes of amaZulu as villainous transgressors of the founding principle of non-tribalism in the African National Congress. No doubt, there are cultural chauvinists and bigots who use their tribal identity or origin to mobilise for power and control but there is an equal if not more number of people who are opposed to that. It depends on what you are looking for.

Ironically, both Ramphele and Mbeki are passionate patriots who have contributed to social cohesion and nation-building in the country and should be credited for their role. But it’s time leaders, which hold prominent positions and have access to powerful platforms, to not make utterances that fly in the face of facts.

Tribal identity is in crisis in South Africa because it has, increasingly, becoming as insignificant as the size of one’s shoe.



Sandile Memela

Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic, columnist and civil servant. He lives in Midrand.

Leave a comment