When clever blacks gathered in Mangaung on 8 January 1912 to form what later became the African National Congress, one of their main goals was to bury their tribal differences.
The highly educated Pixley Isaka Seme convened the learned Africans and top chiefs from around the country to unite in order to advance their common interests in relation to colonial government. Only united Africans could end the treatment of Africans as hewers of wood and drawers of water.
The previous year, Seme had said: "The demon of racialism, the aberrations of the Xhosa-Fingo feud, the animosity that exists between the Zulus and the Tongas, between Basotho and every native, must be buried up and forgotten; it has shed among us sufficient blood. We are one people."
The formation of the ANC was a culmination of many disparate attempts, most of which failed, to form a movement to resist the continued deprivation of rights, including land rights, by colonialists.
At the conclusion of the successful inaugural meeting, Philip Modise, one of the attendees, made an important contribution about the previous attempts to unite Africans, dating as far back as the initiatives of King Moshoeshoe of the Basotho.
Modise said more than a half a century earlier, Moshoshoe had met Kings Shaka of the Zulus, Faku of the Mpondo and Sekhukhune of the Pedi. He had also sent envoys to chiefs of Botswana, urging them to unite. Moshoeshoe did not live to see his dream of unity.
The formation of the ANC was, in a way, the realisation of the dream. Modise went on to say that he wished delegates to return home and tell their people that while they were identified by different tribal names and dialects - just as the different trees in the woods were known by different names - they could safely claim that they were now trees of one and the same forest.
The proceedings of the meeting were reported by Ilanga lase Natal and the Pretoria News and they are part of an essential volume, The Founders: The Origins of the ANC and the Struggle for Democracy in South Africa, by the historian Andre Odendaal.
Since the early 20th century, a lot has happened. Apartheid was implemented to, among other things, re-emphasise tribal divisions that larger-than-life figures like Moshoeshoe, followed by Seme, sought to bury.
Fast forward to the outcomes of the negotiations between the National Party government and liberation movements: a non-racial, non-tribal Constitution of the Republic was adopted. It’s the supreme law of the land that provides for, among others, free political competition among political parties and regulates the conduct of public officials, as well as their entry and exit from public office.
Some people might wonder why we have to repeat what they might consider boring history or some inconsequential historical facts. But in light of suggestions of barbaric mobilisation, allegedly by people who support President Jacob Zuma, purely on ethnic grounds, it is important to note that we have come far in resolving what was referred during Seme’s time as the "Native Question".
As he correctly pointed out, sufficient blood had been shed. The Constitution of the Republic provides the vision for settling the "Native Question" as well as many other questions. We are entitled to be critical of the Constitution. The Constitution itself gives us freedom to do so.
But no one can deny that the Constitution establishes a unitary state where all citizens have equal rights regardless of ethnic, language, gender, race or other identities. The Constitution also provides for redress of the wrongs of the past.
It might have taken long to realise the dream, but we can safely say that in the words of Philip Modise, who spoke at the ANC’s inaugural conference, we are "trees of one and the same forest". As South Africans, we must understand our history so that we don’t fall prey to ethnic mobilisation on behalf of corrupt leaders who want to cling to power at all costs.
One of Seme’s valid concerns was ignorance, which he blamed on tribal jealousies and divisions. He should have added that ignorance can also cause divisions and jealousies.
A country of more than 50 million people, we have all the talent we need to run the country in line with the Constitution. Not one among us has God-given rights over the entire Republic or parts of it. Nor does anyone of us own a particular linguistic group of people on whose behalf he or she has the exclusive right to speak.
In a previous column, I cautioned FW De Klerk about the same thing when he appeared to be speaking on behalf of Afrikaners.
This one is for anyone, including Zuma or any of his lieutenants, who might feel he has to cling to power because Zulus won’t be happy if he’s removed and will therefore abandon the ANC.
South Africans of all ethnic backgrounds who appreciate the initiatives of Moshoeshoe, Seme, Modise and others are entitled to feel offended by the rubbish talk of ethnic mobilisation.
- Mkhabela is with the Department of Political Science at the University of South Africa.
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