The curious case of Mbeki’s ‘homeboyism’

2014-01-19 10:00

My first job was at a large company that had begun to hire more black staff.

This was making some of the white staff nervous because they were suddenly surrounded at work by conversations in languages they couldn’t understand. They assumed the worst. “They’re conspiring against us,” they said.

As people do when fearful, they closed ranks. They demanded that for the sake of workplace harmony, all conversations during business hours should take place in a language understandable to all, which, of course, was English.

Fast forward a decade later and former president Thabo Mbeki is saying a similar thing. Like some of my former colleagues, Mbeki is nervous about Africans in numbers “conspiring in one language”, as he reportedly said at the opening of Unisa’s summer school last week.

He said it might be better for social cohesion if we all spoke only one language. Irony, it seems, knows no bounds.

Returning to what has been his theme of choice since returning to public life, Mbeki warned that tribalism was re-emerging in our politics. He said he’d been told that people were ganging up into “federations of tribes?...?to defeat tribe so and so” and that some government ministers were recruiting only staff from their own ethnic groups.

To be clear, when Mbeki said “people” and “tribes”, he was referring only to Africans – black people, in other words.

Driving the point home, he described this as the “homeboy phenomenon” – a concept anthropologists have used extensively in central and southern Africa since the 1950s, but only when studying the social arrangements in black people’s “tribes”.

The white-supremacist gaze through which this supposed phenomenon was documented observed black life as though it operated from a different set of rules to the rest of humanity.

The phenomena known about people from studies of European societies suddenly required their own race-specific terms when observed in black societies, thus the homeboy phenomenon was born.

The concept theorised that when removed from their rural environment and placed in less ethnically homogenous settings, like mining hostels, black people formed support networks and acted collectively on the basis of common origin – such as language, geography and culture. So it would follow that black people’s mode of organising socially is tribalism.

Mbeki’s use of the word ‘homeboy’ was not incidental, either. It was a subliminal message about someone you don’t want to mention by name.

Mbeki has likely stumbled upon author Mark Gevisser using the word in reference to President Jacob Zuma’s politics.

In one instance, Gevisser writes that in the bruising fight for his political career and the ANC presidency, Zuma differentiated himself from Mbeki by characterising himself as “a homeboy, deeply enmeshed with his clan and family”. But, as Gevisser writes, this was spin.

According to Gevisser, Zuma presented himself in this duplicitous fashion to form a sort of homeboy clique with the socially and economically excluded, so that they might more readily believe his promises and vote him into the presidency of the ANC and the country.

This was pretty much what Mbeki said regarding how this so-called homeboy phenomenon is used deliberately to win support and votes.

I suspect that if pressed for evidence of “homeboyism”, Mbeki will have only ­anecdotes – a “100% Zulu boy” T-shirt here, a story he heard from some unnamed person there. None of it will come close to meeting the burden of proof.

In the absence of such evidence, I can’t help but think that Mbeki is a wounded man, trading, perhaps unintentionally, in the politics of fear.

He was comprehensively defeated and humiliated by Zuma, who’d tapped into his large support base in KwaZulu-Natal and elsewhere to win the ANC presidency. But Zuma’s victory is easily explained by how modern political contests in many places play out in geographic voting blocks, like the “red” and “blue” states in the US.

It was not a Zulu conspiracy to dominate us all.

But thanks to colonialism, stereotypes about Zulu people endure. A new one is that too many Zulu people in the same place is “zulufication”, a counterfactual term the intelligentsia have been bandying about to describe the Cabinet appointments in the Zuma administration.

Professor Richard Calland calculated that Zuma had only three more “Zulu ministers” than Mbeki but nonetheless strangely concluded that “there has been a substantial increase in the number of Zulu ministers under Zuma”. To his credit, he conceded that this perhaps wasn’t the “zulufication” scaremongers would have us believe.

Tapping into the stereotypes, scaremongering and abject hatred for Zuma and the “homeboys” that voted him into power, Mbeki has taken his political injury personally and is attempting to draw the rest of us into a defensive position against the resurgence of tribalism – something that does not exist.

It’s a dangerous ploy with the potential to fulfil its own fiction.

If people give into the anti-Zulu sentiment Mbeki is stirring up and mobilise against an encroaching Zulu hegemony which does not exist, how easy and human a response it would be for those Mbeki maligns to retaliate? Very.

This is not only irresponsible of former president Mbeki; it’s downright shameful.

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