Tribalism Makes You Stupid

Tribalism is bigotry. (This image used under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial Licence:www.creative

Tribalism is bigotry. (This image used under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial Licence:www.creative

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.



9 responses

  1. It is incredibly eye opening for a lay person to read your thoughts on just about any subject pertaining to the growth and development, also the prosperity, safety, protection and i daresay security of our country. Thank you for sharing your brilliance for the greater good. Indeed what comes into the light is light. You shine bright as a torch bearer.


    1. Thank you Sandy for reading and your kind comments. Much appreciated.


  2. I hope you don’t mind if I point out that your post is posted twice on your blog on the same webpage.


    1. Hi Grace, No I don’t mind at all. Thanks for pointing that out. Sorted. It must be the tribalism gremlins, lol.


  3. Thank you for giving me another glimpse into your life and your part of the world.

    You remind me of a question in the back of my mind regarding the recent disparity between “Buy Local” and “Fair Trade”. You help explain what my brain has been working on putting into words. “Buy Local” means that products from within a certain radius (often 50 – 200 miles) are better than any that come from outside our area. “Fair Trade” means that we contribute to people’s well being in far away places so they can live more like us. I find myself being attracted to both, and concerned about the ethics of each stand.


    1. Thank you for reading Grace. I appreciate the dilemma of Buy Local vs Fair Trade. I think there are pros and cons for each. The problem would arise if “Buy local” had an ulterior motive to it like, Buy local because the people who live 200 miles from us are “not clever like us” or something along those lines. They are Irish(for instance) and they are not bright like us(Italians). These are the sort of incredibly stupid things that colonialism has made people believe about other tribes in former colonies. And some leaders use such differences to exclude certain tribes from power.

      Let me give you a local example. The Xhosa tribe, Nelson Mandela’s tribe has a coming-of-age rite for boys to become men. They go away “to the mountain” for a period of time and come back having made the transition from boys to men(it also includes circumcision as a mark of the transition). Other tribes, like mine, Tsonga, do circumcision but we don’t practice the going to the mountain bit. Now, in the Xhosa tribe, if a man does not go to the mountain he remains a boy, he cannot take part in major family decisions, because he’s a boy. There are Xhosa men who erroneously(and mischievously) want to consider ALL men from other tribes as “boys” because they don’t practice the Xhosa coming-of-age rite.

      In a country with 10 other tribes that translates into millions of “boys” who must be excluded from decision making or being hired by certain ministers. I hope that gives you a clue on the kind of problems tribalism poses.


      1. Wow! Another potent example of tribalism! I shake my head at the disregard for resources that they make inaccessible because of their bigotry. In my daily life, I see people who consider their public image to be more important than actually living a good life. I return to the image you placed above. How sad. How can we support their self-esteem so they can feel more secure, while disapproving of what they are doing?

        From a practical point of view, I also wonder if there is an element of feeling overwhelmed by the number of accessible people. For example, if millions of people are available for consultation and employment, perhaps the ministers feel overwhelmed by the task of sifting through them to choose the few to consult and hire. Perhaps tribalism helps them simplify this process. Perhaps the system of civil service exams isn’t so bad, for this reason. What is the status of your civil service exam system?

        Meanwhile, “Buy Local” often does have a dark side. For example: people outside our area are dirty and can’t be trusted and aren’t monitored closely, so don’t buy their products. People here do the finest work, etc. Where does healthy pride end and excessive pride begin?

        Always great discussing issues with you


  4. Wonderfully incisive, thoughtful article again, Sydney. I love the line, “See, the antidote to fear is confronting that fear and exposing it for what it is, a fallacy.”


  5. These terms, tribal and racial, in the language that came up with them are, by themselves, quite insightful, aren’t they?

    Tribe of Liverpudlians, race of Kikuyu, mmmm…

    What if we were to apply epigenetics to the fray?

    I was just speaking with a friend on how harmful the impact is, down the generational line of ‘Shame’. Though its impact appears not to be carried by DNA, what does that matter, if DNA is not the source of all variation across and within species, and the effects of ‘shame’ are so individually and collectively destructive.

    I wonder what it would look like if we worked on reformatting and recreating ‘sciences’ which help to explain not only why we think like we do about difference and sameness but which also provide tools that we could use to develop and strengthen similarity and commonality as well as to use difference in its most affirmative, human-healing way: enabling a marvellous and cherishable sense of diversity to be taught to the next generation, for example.

    I feel that there is a great and pressing need to deeply explore the ‘algorithm’ of Ubuntu, as it has the potential to conceptually (and meaningfully) unify humanity’s various strands whilst at the same time recognising equally meaningful and unique difference.

    What better place to start than in the landspace where the popular expression of that particular term arose?


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