Last week a mother in Limpopo sent her five-year old boy to school and he never came back. She must have bid him goodbye with a mixture of pride and the kind of longing that is common to parents and their little ones temporarily parting. But that was not a big deal, after all she would see him later that day on his return from school. How was she to know that because her social conditions dictated that she lives where she does, she would lose her son that day? See, Chebeng is a poor rural village on the outskirts of Polokwane. Electricity and water have not made their way to this village as yet, maybe they will one day. So the school little Michel Komape attended used the toilet system that many rural villages without council-supplied sanitation use, the long-drop, otherwise known as a pit latrine or toilet.
I know this system quite well because my school used it too. But that was 30 odd years ago, but I still remember that I developed a strong dislike for public toilets because of the way the school long-drops were designed. They differed in design from the one at home. I was scared – I resorted holding things in till I got home, or the closest bush to school on my way home. Poor little Michael Komape must have been scared too. But poverty led him to those pit toilets. He fell inside and drowned. (So my fears were justified all those years ago!).
Spare a thought for the residents of Mtititi village in Limpopo. They have no access to tap water too and must push twenty-litre plastic containers in a wheelbarrow to fetch water in another village 3 to 5 km away. That was a common occurrence in many villages years ago. Their ward councilor is quoted in the Sowetan newspaper as saying “this means the elderly must buy water”, because there’s no way they can get to the next village themselves. Imagine buying a resource that everybody gets for free simply because you are old, and yes poor. And your elected councilor can only sympathize with you, not tell you of the grand scheme that government has waiting in the wings to get rid of poverty.
The situation is not very different for the residents of Mothlutung in the North West province, 900km away from Mtititi in Limpopo. They went for a full two weeks without running water, leading them to embark on street protests. It’s alleged that some councilors benefited improperly from the poor citizens’ predicament by hiring out water trucks to the council to provide water to the same residents they represent. Talk about poverty being expensive, and fatal. In the protests that followed, four residents lost their lives in clashes with the police.
How about the case of the Malawian national who drowned in a diesel tank ? He arrived in South Africa in October 2013, obviously trying to escape the lack of work opportunities back home. He must have thought the City of Gold, Johannesburg was indeed heaven on earth when he secured a job at a Boksburg filling station on the day he arrived. Poverty back home was in trouble. All he had to do was go down into an underground diesel reservoir, several thousands of litres in size, and do the cleaning. Poverty had made sure that he would not question the safety of the job he was to do. See, he had no idea poverty was a sin in his new country, the wages of which was death. So he went underground and fell into the reservoir and died. And no, the situation is not limited to the inland only.
Take the informal settlement of Khayelitsha in the picturesque coastal city of Cape Town. Last year this settlement which has shacks built so close to each other that it becomes impossible to police lost 354 of its citizens to murder. The rest of South Africa has one policemen for every three hundred citizens but Khayelitsha has one policemen for every thousand citizens. In other words being poor in the Design Capital Of the World, Cape Town, makes you more likely to end up a murder victim. Is it not enough that poor folk live in deplorable conditions, now they also have to contend with the possibility of dying because they are poor?
It goes without saying that the more poor your location is, the more likely you are to end up on the streets demanding one thing or the other in some form of protest.
Andries Tatane, the part-time school teacher from Ficksburg in the Free State is the most well-known of the victims of the so-called service delivery protests. So-called because I believe their root cause is nothing but that fatal condition called poverty. So they are poverty protests in other words. Tatane holds the dubious honour of having been shot on national television surrounded by eight policemen but without a single conviction being returned for his death.
Not so lucky too were the 34 miners who also lost their lives in the full glare of media cameras in Marikana, a mining village in the Platinum Belt. No that wasn’t a poverty protest, it was a wages protest you might say. But listen to this. The workers who contribute to the profits of huge corporations like Amplats live in a little settlement in Marikana. This settlement, on the edge of multimillion-rand mining operations consists of shacks not suitable for human habitation. These are the conditions those workers woke up to on the day they were mowed down in a confrontation with the police. If I were doctor I would return a diagnosis of Poverty, made worse by contributing to the enrichment of share-holders who apparently can’t be bothered by such small things as the welfare of the people who make them money. I mean, if they cared they would not threaten to withdraw their investments each time poverty victims sought to make their fatal condition just a little more tolerable.
In 2013 a well-to-do white family, Julian and Ena Hewitt made a conscious decision to move to a black township (Mamelodi) in Pretoria to experience what life was like for their domestic worker, or an average black person in South Africa. They did this for a month. Before you scoff at this social experiment you might want to know what some of their findings were. They chose to live in a corrugated-iron shack, live off the type of food that everybody ate and used the same transport system that their domestic worker uses. For me, their most important finding was how 50% of their domestic workers’ wages went to transport. 50%! (This is why I go really mad when people say stop blaming everything on apartheid, ‘that was so twenty years ago’). Think about it, if half your salary went towards getting you to and from work would you still want to go there? Yet, poor people do that. Everyday. And they keep this country working.
That’s why I have an immense amount of respect for anybody who does even the smallest thing towards the eradication of poverty. And, as we prepare for our elections, we need to keep in mind that it’s not all about us(‘my country this, my country that’), it’s largely about the man and woman on the street. Our combined actions should always be targeted at getting rid of poverty, or in the meantime, making it less expensive and definitely not fatal.
How I wish I had come up with that title myself, I would retire on its wisdom. Alas, tech-billionaire Mark Shuttleworth beat me to it in one of his blogposts in 2010. But I can still claim the credit for bringing it to your attention. I’ll come back to its merits a little later.
I was a bit startled when I heard reports that Former President Thabo Mbeki has acknowledged that there are instances or indications of tribalism in the sphere of government operations, and by extension in the ruling party, the African National Congress(ANC). Startled because before his admission, there had never been a high-level leader of the ANC who had dared to admit publicly to the existence of racism’s equally-evil twin, tribalism. Shuttleworth calls it the “great-granddaddy of racism and sexism”. I agree. We only differ on its place in that despicable family of bigotry.
Tribalism, like racism, apartheid and other evils like paedophilia has this funny pull towards the “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil” arena. It makes it a bit unsavory to discuss in polite company because the first one to raise it appears to be the one who is prejudiced. But therein lies its strength, in its pull towards secrecy. After all, no one wants to be the one to raise these sort of things. The first major reaction to Thabo Mbeki’s assertion has been a general chorus of “what about when you were president, didn’t you see it, don’t act holier than thou”. And an opportunity is lost to address an evil manifestation.
But we must resist that pull. We must place tribalism on the national agenda for the sake of our future. Let it not be enough to joke about “people from the North(Limpopo) are like this and amaZulu are like that”. Where we are all self-assured that I’m not a tribalist because I can laugh at its irrationality. We must get to the bottom of comments like “charity begins at home” when all we mean is I’ll only give opportunities to my home-boys. Or baPedi are arrogant when what we mean is our own tribe is all-understanding. This is the sort of logic that led all the Piets, Jans and Van Tonder’s to employ only their own people because, you guessed it, “people of my culture are easier to deal with”.
There have been murmurs of tribalism from the sidelines before. Even when Nelson Mandela was president of the ANC some murmurs could be heard about the existence of a “Xhosa Nostra”, meaning that getting ahead in the ANC or government was easier if one was of Xhosa origin. These were easily dismissed by a mere rattling off of the names of ANC National Executive Committee members who were not Xhosa and ministers serving in government who were not Xhosa. Times changed and leadership changed, new murmurs that being Zulu was not exactly a hindrance in getting ahead in government and the ANC raised their head again.
When Thabo Mbeki raised the issue again in a lecture on decolonization , they cannot be considered murmurs anymore but a serious sign that there must have been something to the original murmurs. Tribalism has now been elevated to the same level of potential threats to the future of our young democracy as racism is considered to be. None of us should be shocked if an official complaint should be lodged with the Human Rights Commission by a citizen who feels they are being discriminated against in terms of their tribal origins.
We can spend a lot of time and money trying to figure out the causes, but to any casual student of the African narrative, the causes are as clear as daylight, hence the title of the lecture that Thabo Mbeki was giving referred to “decolonization ” . Colonization in itself was bad enough, add to that the evil that apartheid was and the lengths it went to in keeping South African tribes apart, then it should come as no surprise that we have to deal with such detestable issues today. The ruling party, being the broad church that it is, cannot be immune to issues that have affected the people it governs.
Of more importance right now should be a mechanism that can determine how entrenched the issue is in government, the ruling party and our politics in general. Not a witch-hunt but a measure of the extent of the problem, and then a recognizable set of solutions. Recognizable because from our history of dealing with the lasting effects of racism we know the dangers of populists playing on the emotions of affected people promising them “true emancipation” whilst in effect using their frustration to fan the dangerous flames of racism or tribalism.
The 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the 1998 Kenyan post-election violence must serve as stark reminders of what can happen in a country that leaves tribal prejudice unattended. This might sound alarmist but one need only cast their minds back to the “xenophobic” violence that claimed many lives in 2008. Apartheid had taught our people well that physical differences and cultural(linguistic) differences are real differences. Thus reports that marauding groups identified their targets by asking questions like “what is an elbow in Zulu” to identify “foreigners” pointed to the lasting and entrenched damage of apartheid and colonization.
There has been an increase in the number of comments like “but Mangope did more for the people of Bophutatswana than all the other homeland leaders”. These comments come disguised as discussions about “service delivery”. But if one interrogates the argument further, one realizes that Mangope, and therefore Tswanas can take good care of themselves if left to their own devices. Just like Hudson Ntsanwisi “did so much for the Tsonga people”, sad that BaVhenda had Mphephu who was the bane of all manner of jokes. This nostalgic reminiscing has the danger of achieving what Verwoerd had intended in the first place: divide and rule, even worse, inter-tribal strife.
Tribalism, like racism and a whole host of other isms are primarily born out of a fear of what’s different. I can’t make sense of another’s culture and physical appearance so I demonize them and do all I can to keep them from advancing above my level of living. I go so far as blaming all sorts of societal ills on their existence or presence. Highly irrational. But who ever said fear was rational? I can’t get a job because people from Bushbuckridge can bewitch like nobody can, and sadly people believe that and make decisions based on that.
White people(there he goes again on the race card) must not feel exempted from this evil. It is an open secret that people from Zimbabwe “are such hard workers”, hence they fill all sorts of posts in that world. Try finding a restaurant without Zimbabwean workers if you don’t believe me. But that’s just facts, they scream?” I employed guys from the townships and all I got was one excuse after another, I can’t run my business on excuses”. And then we wonder why people “say these foreigners” are taking our jobs. All of us are to blame for its perpetuation.
Our day-to-day practices, although rationalized in a way we find acceptable, go contrary to the spirit of non-isms like non-tribalism that we like to rattle off about our new democracy. But you know what Mandela did when he came into power, he reassured the Afrikaners that they too had a place in the new administration. A simple yet powerful affirmation.
Leaders in such instances must lead by example. The way our very own Nelson Mandela dealt with racism. See, the antidote to fear is confronting that fear and exposing it for what it is, a fallacy. It’s not out of a perceived personal benefit that Mandela elevated racial harmony as a tool in social cohesion but more out of the realization that when white and black mix, fear of the other is dispelled. Sometimes the feared must extend a hand to the fearful, which Mandela did with aplomb.
In our present circumstances, government leaders can lead by example. I hope I’m not lynched for saying this but recently our President donated money to a project to have the bible translated directly from Hebrew and Greek into isiZulu. He would have done racial and tribal harmony a huge favour by initiating a project to have the bible translated directly from Greek into all 11 official languages. Expensive I know, but he would have struck a blow right at the foundation of tribalism .That would have gone a long way to confounding the critics who suggest that being of Zulu lineage confers one an advantage over others in our current circumstances.
The majority of ordinary South Africans are getting along, learning for themselves that there are no real differences between the tribes, just some superficial ones. We joke about the perceived differences, we have been marrying across tribes for years, appreciating that the cultural differences make our interactions all the more richer. Tribalism and racism leads to in-breeding and cultural “incest”, to borrow from a friend’s expression. After all, our national motto is “unity in diversity”.
Back to my title, have you ever heard the arguments advanced by those who want to “keep to myself and my people”? They like saying things like “the other guys have never done anything useful” , Mark Shuttleworth again. These people will say that and try to present you with stupid evidence like who invented what and what race or tribe they were. Being the first to do something doesn’t make your tribe better than other tribes, it just means you were first. Period. Think of a government minister who employs people from their region of birth only, their tribe that is. Doesn’t that automatically tell you how stupid this whole thing is?
It must take some sort of below par intelligence to believe that your people, your tribe has a monopoly on intelligence, hard work and innovation. Tribalism does indeed make you stupid. Like racism, sexism and homophobia.
Hi, I’m glad to let you know that I’ve had an article published on the Mail&Guardian Thoughtleader website, see the article at http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/readerblog/2014/01/13/dont-like-the-anc-vote-for-someone-else-but-who/. You can comment on the article itself or on this blog. Thanks for reading!