Do White South Africans constitute a tribe and if so, are they guilty of tribalism?

In a recent article published by Africa is a Country, The Story of a South African “Tribe”, Jared Sacks argues that tribalism is alive and well.  Drawing on Thabo Mbeki’s comments on tribalism in October 2013, he suggests that those really guilty of tribalism are Afrikaaners and the English who practice a sophisticated incognito kind of tribalism. They do this in two fragmented camps when voting for either DA or the Freedom Front Plus, but do it all the same with harrowing consequences. Therefore, Sacks’ suggests, it is white people who are the real tribalists and it is their “homeboyism” which poses the biggest challenge to change in this country.

The article seems to me an attempt at uncovering ‘our’ racial and categorical prejudices as well as challenging how we understand tribalism. Sacks seems to be trying his hand at what some have called discursive rupture. He eggs us towards an epistemic break with ideas we have come to accept as matters of fact or historical taxonomies. [Tribes are black people or other uncivilized people. There are different kinds of tribes. These blacks, smeared in animal fat, fought each other with sticks and stones until the arrival of the white man rescued them from oblivion and destined savagery – or so, I imagine, the trope goes].

We are presented with a supposed deconstruction of naturalized anti-black racism – how we think and label black people – whilst the issue of white supremacy is highlighted. But I wonder, is this really a benign white radical anti-racist proposition?

While I also fell for the literary trick by assuming he is referring to the two largest black groups in the country, when he criticizes tribalism, I think this seemingly anti-racist discursive turn is actually a slight-of-hand move that should be read as subterfuge.  I think Jared’s move here, like those of many fair-minded social activists, actually rearticulates white supremacy and necessarily arrives at a problematic conclusion. The problematic claim being: we can lump together prejudice, bigotry, tribalism and white supremacy. The aim is clear. White solidarity and white supremacy is just another form of tribalism equal to and – by his definition – necessarily similar to the irksome tribalism addressed by Mbeki: differing from ‘black tribalism’ only in qualitative terms. This of course does little in the way of conceptual fidelity and has troublesome consequences. 

The juxtaposition of ‘black tribalism’ with ‘white tribalism’ allows for the fallacious claim of parity between oppressors and oppressed. That is to say, black people are guilty tribalism and so are white people. Both are engaged in debilitating and nefarious practices and each for their own narrow agendas.  Sacks subsumes the problem of white supremacy and white solidarity under the notion of tribalism. This unduly stretches the explanatory scope and power of tribalism, even if we allow for poetic license to prove a point about how we think about such concepts. I argue, this re-calibration of tribalism actually obfuscates where the term comes from and masks who did what to whom, in the truest ‘historical’ sense.

It is a willful negligence of how tribalism has come to be understood. Tribalism has been understood as a settler colonialist project nurtured in the bosom of anthropology at pains to disaggregate and atomize the indigenous population as well as continued black resistance incipient in the eighteenth century. It is a mind-set and practice engendered by the conflicts extant between various groups of people, which were ultimately fine-tuned and enhanced by white settler colonialism for the distinct purpose of subjugation. Divide and rule. Therefore, white supremacy and white solidarity whether practiced in dichotomies [DA and FF+] or not, do not equate to tribalism or a form of tribalism. Tribalism is a product of white domination and white supremacy. 

I am not arguing Sacks’ proposition because I don’t have a problem with anti-black epistemes or white solidarity. I do. Rather, my problem is with the lack of conceptual fidelity giving rise to malapropos notions that are irreconcilable with history or the status quo.  

I maintain that that the ‘white tribe’ is not just another group of actors who by and large happen to hold the monopoly on power and wealth. My point is, white society – if you like – invented tribalism to subordinate and subjugate black people. To suggest anything else is toying with sophistry and must be read as such.

What about Sacks’ comments on recalcitrant ‘white tribalism’ viz-a-viz the need to redistribute land and economic power? He says, “Are white South Africans going to change their “homeboyism” anytime soon?…Without redistribution of land, economic power and the complete desegregation of our society on a democratic and socialist basis, tribalism among Afrikaans and English South Africans will continue to prevent the achievement of a truly nonracial and inclusive society [emphasis added]. Does he not recoup himself here?  

No, not at all. I think the approach is altogether wrong and informed by a worldview that still negates the obvious solution that is black power. Such an approach privileges white actors as the master race with the power to free black people economically. While it is true that anti-black racist politics have shaped power relations in this country, the stumbling block or what “prevents the achievement of a truly non-racial and inclusive society” is not a benevolent ‘white tribe’. Nowhere in history do we see a even moderately self-interested and powerful group voluntarily liberating – in the truest sense of the word – a group they oppress/exploit. 

The answer clearly must lie with a demonstrably popular pro-black, socialist and revolutionary political project that will form the antitheses to a white supremacist, liberal democratic, economic system being managed by the ANC and the DA. This of course only rings true if we take seriously a dictum that says “liberation can never be granted or acceded to and must necessarily be fought for and taken, always”. 

This is an edited version of the article,which first appeared in the Conmag. 



  1. “Nowhere in history do we see a even moderately self-interested and powerful group voluntarily liberating – in the truest sense of the word – a group they oppress/exploit.”
    Not true. Think about it. I live in a country where serfdom was abolished and outlawed, without armed conflict. The lesson is that freedom can be achieved without violence.

    “liberation can never be granted or acceded to and must necessarily be fought for and taken, always”. The answer is – no. If you mean violent revolution. Courts of law.

    As for Sacks, he didn’t contribute anything afaict.

  2. I think, as you rightly point out, that there is this negative connotation with the word tribe and tribalism. All of which indicates a certain backwardness, due to the history of the word as well as stereotyped writings. But, in broad strokes, all white people can be seen as identifying within a tribe.

    Many Afrikaners identified this way, and one can argue that this mobilisation contributed immensely to their political dominance from the 1920’s until WW2. The English South Africans can also allign in a certain way, although peculiarly, they tend to ally along their European origins. One also sees the latter in the US, where there is strong contingents of Irish, Polish, German or English, but many of whom have never seen the country they swear allegiance to.

    I suppose this was another strength of the Afrikaner, that after the South African War, many (while still calling themselves European and emulating Europe) began to ethically divorce themselves from the European system.

    What this has bread though, especially after the Apartheid crime, is a laager mentality to the perpetrator. That other tribes (or ethnic groups) seek to attack and destroy. It’s this mentality that needs to be seriously addressed, because that’s the mentality that’s stalling (in a large part) the continuing reconciliation efforts.

    Koos Kombuis, an Afrikaner musician, keeps saying that what the volk (or the Afrikaner nation) needs is a leader who will represent and guide them, and that the current crop of Mulder or Hofmeyr are too terrible to lead. This is strongly represented in the fact that the DA, a traditionally English party, receives the bulk of the Afrikaner vote.

  3. Aai tog, in which world do the authors live with their ‘expert’ knowlegde of the ‘Afrikaner’ if they cannot even get the most simple facts about Afrikaners and their voting behaviour correct or if they wax on with outdated and mistaken stereotypes of the official opposition? What purpose is served by the use of clever-sounding academic terms in an attempt to gloss-over a fallacy? AiaC deserves better than this, let alone its readers.

  4. I agree for the most part with this critique. It is absolutely right that tribalism is a function colonialism and White Surpemacy. With that understanding, I believe it is correct to state that Whites do not practice tribalism but instead practice white solidarity and white supremacy.

    My article does obfuscate what tribalism is and where it came from. In this respect, my article was crude in attempting to play with the racial prejudice of most South Africans and how people like Mbeki often play the tribalism card as a means to vilify Blacks.

    I think it is important to note the satirical manner in which the piece was written attempting to shock the reader. It was not an attempt to analyse the deeper more structural meanings of the term ‘tribalism’. Though perhaps by the end of the piece I should have either made that more clear or done a proper analysis of the term and its shortcomings.

    That said, it is correct to state that the problem is white supremacy and (neo)colonial capitalism where tribalism or divide and rule is a bi-product of this. Thus I appreciate the productive engagement.

  5. The point this article makes is a good one. But my patience was depleted after the fifth paragraph: the writing is too pedantic. Jeez!

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