Tribe/ Tribalism words that are applied largely to African people, tend to be conceptualized in racist terms, “primitivism, irrationality, superstition, conservative backwardness.” This is part of our colonial heritage and we still live in a society in which people’s interactions are determined by consciousness of racial superiority and inferiority. It is true Black and White people mix more freely in South Africa now but it is only at certain levels that the mixing is fairly free of race consciousness and that depends on the degree to which Blacks have assimilated white culture; in other words the degree to which Blacks have shed their “tribal” ways. While we are struggling to free ourselves of racism, the reversion to tribalism must in some ways reinforce feelings of inferiority and superiority. Seeing Jacob Zuma endorsing polygamy, marrying a fifth wife at the beginning of the year while a sixth wife waits in the wings to be married to him at the end of year, catches us between our attempts to overcome discrimination and our socialisation in racism. We have been conditioned to believe in monogamy, to believe that it is the most civilized form of marriage because it is based on an equal partnership. So we see polygamy as reducing a woman to the old stereotype of a sex object. Perhaps the rest of the world is ready for a new form of tribalism but in South Africa, we are new to democracy and struggling to develop it. I don’t know whether we can cope with another major transformation so soon.
In the very few articles that I have read about tribalism, I have waded through opinions that tribalism, saddled with stereotypical notions of inferiority, is a term that needs to be avoided. I have also encountered opinions that endorse the notion of tribe: declarations that the tribe comes first, that an African is defined by ethnicity. In the debate, it is made clear on the one hand that racist notions have obscured the real norms and values of African people: the traditions of respect, discussion and recourse to justice. If this is what is meant by a return to tribalism i.e. the return to smaller units of political organisation, that is not possible in South Africa at present. It is true that we have increased the number of provinces in the country, but with our policies of centralisation, there is not much room for deviation. In our election process, we do not vote for our representatives, we vote for a party and the party assigns representatives to our constituencies. In a way we have instituted a form of tribalism; we are ruled by a central authority and we hold kgotlas and mass meetings for consultation with the people. But these mass meetings do not in my mind compare with kgotlas held in a village where everyone thoroughly understands the issues and is meaningfully involved in discussions.
The word that I have not encountered in my admittedly limited reading on tribes and tribalism is the word ubuntu. Unfortunately, the word has become a platitude in South Africa. Ubuntu is translated as “a person is a person through other people” or “I am because we are.” It is a belief that comes from ‘tribalism’ and is a succinct but profound declaration of our interdependence as human beings; our responsibility for and to one another that implies trust, respect and co-operation. If we could live our lives by ubuntu and that turned us into a tribe that would be fine. That would mean working from the inside out, not the outside in. But to adopt a form of neotribalism would be akin to adopting a political ideology and allowing governors to impose values and norms on the governed.