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.