SA’s tribalism debates fly in the face of facts

2013-10-01 10:00

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.

Addressing Unisa students in April, 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 the citizens define their identity or the meaning of ethnic identity in the context of our constitutional democracy.

As much as tribal or ethnic identity are perceived to be real, the past 20 years have marked a turning point in the use of tribe or language to define one’s identity. A South African identity document does not cite or reflect ethnicity.

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

In order to shatter these myths, we must begin to create awareness and popularise the 2012 Development Indicators, which reveal developments and trends on social cohesion.

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 around 52% between 2004 (52.8%) and 2012 (52.4%).

The great concern expressed by Ramphele and Mbeki over 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 nontribalism in the ANC.

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 number of people who are opposed to that.

It is time that leaders who hold prominent positions and have access to powerful platforms do not make utterances that fly in the face of facts. Tribal identity is in crisis in South Africa.

»?Memela is chief director for social cohesion in the department of arts and culture. He writes in his personal capacity

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