/Mcebo Dlamini: On the dangers of tribalism and Xhosa exceptionalism

Mcebo Dlamini: On the dangers of tribalism and Xhosa exceptionalism

2019-11-21 10:02

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,

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

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
, 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

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.

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