Malamulele: 21st-century tribalism?

2013-10-27 10:00

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In Malamulele, life is particularly tough when you’re Tsonga

In early September, an estimated 15?000 residents of Malamulele and the surrounding villages took part in a protest, looting shops and destroying property in their wake.

They are demanding their own municipality, separate from Thulamela Municipality, located in neighbouring Thohoyandou, the capital city of the former Venda homeland.

Six weeks later, the demarcation board announced that there will be no municipality for the people of Malamulele, prompting the community to return to the streets and destroy more property in protest.

While issues of tribalism between the Venda- and Tsonga-speaking groups under the municipality were correctly cited as being behind the demand for a separate municipality, details as they appear in the media do not do the story justice.

To unpack the issue diligently, one would need to take a historical perspective of the problem.

Having fled the Kingdom of Munhumutapa in Great Zimbabwe in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries following incursions by the Portuguese, Bantu communities were scattered along the hinterland of the dying kingdom as clans, such as Barolong, Bakwena, vaNhlave, vhaCopi, vaRhonga, baThembu, baHluvi, baFingo and maMpondo.

They used varying dialects of whatever language or languages had been spoken in the kingdom.

When the missionaries deemed it necessary to write in Bantu languages in the early 1900s, they aggregated the dialects in the different geographic areas into Tsonga/Shangaan, Sotho, Zulu and Tswana “languages”, which were then taught at schools.

As a direct consequence of these classifications, we now have Bakwena, who are Tswana, Sotho, Pedi or Venda; baTembu, who are either Zulu or Xhosa; vaNhlave, who are either Tsonga or Zulu; and so forth.

And then the Bantu Authorities Act of 1951 legalised the relocation of Bantu communities to specific geographies, based on the new language classifications. The final nail in the coffin is the despicable African history taught at our schools.

It has been used very effectively to cement these new identities which, in reality, have no ethnographic value. After 1994, the apartheid tribal demarcations were taken down.

It is against this redemarcation that the communities of Malamulele, formerly a polity of its own as a district under the former Tsonga homeland, Gazankulu, were incorporated into Thulamela Municipality.

The Vhembe District Municipality is also located in Thohoyandou. The outcome of this pattern of demarcations – in which former Tsonga polities were combined with larger Venda- and Northern Sotho-dominated polities – has had undesirable consequences for the Tsonga people of Limpopo.

With no name of a region or municipality, other than Giyani, hinting at their existence, they have in effect been effaced from the South African map and consciousness.

If only it was purely coincidental that the new demarcations take away from Tsongas and give to others, then Tsongas would have nothing to worry about. They would rest in the knowledge that the bulk of the political power in the hands of their Venda and Sotho brethren served everyone equally as South Africans.

But the situation on the ground shows otherwise.

The affected Tsonga communities have seen services, even those as crucial as Home Affairs, moved away from their communities to remote parts in the former Venda.

These are inaccessible areas where there is no regular public transport, given the historical divide between the areas and the people.

In their own back yards, they have seen Venda people chosen over them when it came to public office employment.

They have seen massive developments and services elsewhere while they continue to rely on the old infrastructure provided by the former Bantustan government. Their language has been left out in important notices put up in institutions located in their very own areas.

The importance of boundaries to a people is well documented in scholarly work. As the head of research at the Independent Projects Trust, Richard Griggs, stated: “Boundaries create the territorial space in which we live, distribute power to people who influence our lives, determine where we vote, create tax bases, construct regional identities, facilitate or impede easy transport, determine access to public services and become blueprints for development planning.

“Boundaries have enormous social, cultural, economic and political ramifications that are felt most deeply in the affected border areas.”

No one feels more the essence of Griggs’ wise words than the Malamulele communities.

With the state being virtually the only entity from which most of these people earn income, control of state power equals control of economic power

among them.

Government needs to take a comprehensive review of the demarcations in the affected areas of Limpopo. No one is more South African than another.

The 19th-century wars of the Mfecane have passed. Any attempt to mull over a reversal of their outcomes, as demonstrated by the current demarcations, is asking this generation to return to the battlefield.

Let us keep fresh the memories of Rwanda in our minds as a reminder of the ugliness of ethnic cleansing, and thus forego narrow, self-serving tribal interests.

We are all children of the great Kingdom of Munhumutapa after all. Let us use that knowledge to assert each other positively and to flourish in our country, lest we perish.

»?Mabunda runs a management consulting firm in Centurion, Gauteng. He writes in his personal capacity.

Malamulele residents barricaded roads, looted stores and set alight government property during demarcation protests

A torched cellphone shop in Malamulele

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