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Mcebo Dlamini: On the dangers of tribalism and Xhosa exceptionalism

2019-11-21 10:02
Makazole Mapimpi, Siya Kolisi and Lukhanyo Am in East London. (Gallo Images)

Makazole Mapimpi, Siya Kolisi and Lukhanyo Am in East London. (Gallo Images)

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People have been saying, "Xhosas are carrying the entire nation on their back". This is harmless insofar as it remains just banter but people's fantasies always manifest in jest so perhaps we need to take the issue seriously, writes Mcebo Dlamini.

There is something affirming about seeing someone who is somehow a representation of you doing well. There is something that restores a sense of pride when someone who speaks, looks and shares a certain future as you, succeeds.

This is mainly because as black people for a long time we have been told that we are not capable and worthy of doing and achieving certain things. For a long time we have always been told that we are subservient and that it is impossible for our light to reach certain levels of brightness. This is why we celebrate when other black people reach heights that were formerly reserved for a certain group of people only.

But lately I have noticed a concerning tendency to use these "black icons" of ours in a way that might be a threat to much-needed unity among us.

There has been quite a long debate on social media around what has been termed "Xhosa exceptionalism". A number of Xhosa people have been displaying their pride because of the many Xhosa descendants who have been winning competitions. Some of the names include people such as Springbok captain Siya Kolisi, Miss SA Zozibini Tunzi and Idols SA winner Luyolo Yiba.

READ | Unathi apologises for tribalistic comment

People including celebrities have even gone as far as saying, "Xhosas are carrying the entire nation on their back". This is harmless insofar as it remains just banter but people's fantasies always manifest in jest so perhaps we need to take the issue seriously.

We must celebrate all black people who do well but the ways in which we do it are also important because we are not a nation without a history. How we do certain things must be informed and guided by where we come from.  

It would be incorrect to suggest that prior to colonisation there were no differences or quarrels between black people. The reality is that there were but what colonialism achieved was to use our differences to cause division among black people. Colonialism was successful in taking minor differences among African people and using them to create cracks and forge disunity among ourselves. Mahmood Mamdani in the book Subject and Citizens is quite clear on how the idea of a "tribe" has been influential in creating rifts between a people who once were able to share space and live amicably among each other.

Not so long ago the colonisers divided our continent and then, just here in South Africa, the apartheid government divided the country into homelands. This type of grouping was created to control and restrict the movement of black people in their country. Its effect culminated into what was known as the "black on black violence" which was at its height during 1992-1994 when huge numbers of black people died. Since then the effects of this grouping still manifest as tribalism, even today in public and private spaces. Because of a system that was meant to divide us we are still suspicious and unduly discriminatory against each other as black people.

The recent and rampant xenophobic attacks have the same roots as tribalism. Colonialism and oppression have created in us an irrational fear of each other and an unnecessary need to compete with each other when we actually should be uniting. So here it is quite clear that the divide and conquer strategy has been repeatedly used to further divide an already fragmented black voice.

This is in no way an attempt to prescribe how people should display their pride and celebration. Rather, it is an unsolicited and yet very important reminder of how tribal lines have often caused division and violence among a people who share a similar history of oppression and being dominated.

We still feel the effects of this division even today and therefore we ought to be careful of how we utilise categories such as Xhosa, Zulu or Tswana because we know very well the potential damage that they could cause. We are a country that is still deeply wounded and if we are to heal we ought to be united and use our commonalities instead of dwelling on meaningless differences.

The celebration of South Africans of certain descent doing well in their different fields is important but are we ready for the unintended consequences that might result from it? This is an important question that we all ought to answer bearing in mind our history and where we still have to go as a country.

We still have a long way to go and we need to be intentional and a little less reckless about the use of certain categories. We are a country birthed out of particular conditions that should reflect on the sensitivities we choose to nurse and harness. Congratulations to all the black people who have been excelling and been living up to their full potential.

- Dlamini is a former chairperson of the Wits SRC. He writes in his personal capacity.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    xhosa  |  tribalism  |  race
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