The transformation of transgender women into goddesses for an annual Hindu festival takes place in an atmosphere of reverent, somber concentration. Laugh lines vanish, replaced by an impassive mask. Skin becomes stone. As they prepared to perform in the Mayana Kollai festival in a fishing village in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, some of the dancers slipped into trances so deep it appeared they might have fainted.
I am not a tribalist and I am opposed to tribalism in all its forms, whether practiced by Zulu nationalists dancing outside a Jacob Zuma court appearance while wearing “100% Zulu boy” T-shirts or whether practiced by Afrikaner nationalists at a Volksfees at the Voortrekkermonument, singing along to Steve Hofmeyer songs and muttering under their breath about the “black government ruining South Africa and persecuting the Afrikaans language and culture”.
Tribalism has bedevilled politics in many parts of Africa, referring as it does to the possession of a strong cultural or ethnic identity that separates one member of a group from the members of another group, an identity often deployed to facilitate political mobilisation of that tribe against perceived enemies and threats. Often tribalism goes hand in hand with chauvinism, the notion that one’s own tribe is culturally, spiritually and morally superior to those who do not belong to ones tribe. Tribalism is thus obviously divisive and exclusionary and Nelson Mandela, preaching unity in diversity, warned of the dangers of tribalism in our democratic state.
Tribalism is also, on a personal level, stifling and oppressive and not easily squared with the notion of the protection of human dignity, which assumes that we all have some agency to decide for ourselves who we are and how we want to live. It assumes that because one shares certain characteristics, cultural attributes, a language or a particular kinship bond with others, one should think and behave like the group and associate with it. It demands loyalty to the group and conformity to its beliefs and its political project – no matter how obnoxious, oppressive or downright murderous that political project might be.
This kind of identity politics is by its very nature conservative and intolerant of difference (differences within the group as well as differences between the group and those who do not belong to it). Tribalists usually do not embrace the full spectrum of human possibilities as it sees identity primarily or – in extreme cases exclusively – in tribal terms. But in order to live meaningful lives it is important to embrace and celebrate the multiplicity of overlapping identities that make us who we are.
That is why I am not a great fan of “Afrikaners” (or Zulu’s for that matter) organising around their tribal identity, as if the architects of apartheid were correct and as if there are only minority groups in South Africa – all members of different tribes – who must therefore organise around their tribal identities to protect or advance their own financial and political interests.
I am a white, Afrikaans speaking South African. But I am also a gay, HIV positive, constitutional law professor; a citizen of the world who travels widely and reads the poetry of Wislawa Szymborska and Wally Serote; a rugby supporter who listens to Zahara and Ntando in my spare time; a loving brother of four sisters; an atheist who would never dream of joining the ATKV and would laugh out loud if I were ever to be confronted by the bizarre exhortations of the local NG Kerk dominee.
Although I am proudly Afrikaans speaking, I am decidedly not an “Afrikaner”. In my eyes an “Afrikaner” is a highly political concept and a problematic one at that; it is an exclusionary identity as it refers to a group of white Afrikaans speaking people who more or less share a political orientation, cultural habits and assumptions, religious beliefs and a persecution complex that would even make Judge President John Hlophe blush. By saying that I am not an Afrikaner, I am not trying to pretend that my forefathers did not enthusiastically enforce apartheid and that I am still benefiting from it as a result. But I am saying that I reject the political label of Afrikaner because it says nothing about who I am, what I think, how I behave, who I am friends with and what makes me comfortable.
So when I read in the papers that the ANC has met with a group of “Afrikaners”, purportedly conveying to the ANC the views of “Afrikaners” about what is wrong with current day South Africa, I wonder who these people are speaking for and I wonder why the ANC is humouring them. It does not help that Afrikaans groups at the meeting included all the usual suspects, the very institutions which developed and implemented and championed apartheid: the Afrikanerbond, the NG Kerk, the Voortrekker Monument, the Afrikaanse Taal en Kultuurvereniging, the Afrikaanse Taalraad and the Federation of Governing Bodies of SA Schools.
Maybe it says something about the rightward turn inside the ANC under Jacob Zuma that the ANC has deemed it important enough to meet with this tribal group and is, in effect, endorsing this kind of tribalism. Maybe it says something about the racism embedded in our society. Why is it that when rich white Afrikaans speakers complain, the ANC is prepared to send a high-powered delegation to speak to them, but when social movements like Khulumani, the Landless People’s Movement or Abahlali baseMjondolo complain, they are mostly ignored.
Maybe it says something about the power of money and the economic power of white Afrikaans speaking South Africans that the ANC jumps when the so called “Afrikaners” complain, but will never bend over backwards like this if the complaints emanate from powerless and economically vulnerable groups.
There are lots to complain about in South Africa and, goodness knows, the ANC has a lot of explaining to do. But I would prefer a non-tribalist engagement with the ANC, one that would not be made possible only because the ANC is able to neatly put me in a box as somebody who fits the political description of an “Afrikaner”. The kind of engagement I am talking about is the engagement by NGO’s and social movements, academics and civil society interest groups – and of course, by all people who know that our Constitution allows them to be active citizens (as citizens, not as members of a tribal group), to protest and engage and argue and ridicule the arrogant and the cynical holders of political power.BACK TO TOP