In October 2013, former South African president Thabo Mbeki, speaking at the Bethesda Methodist Church in the north of Johannesburg, warned us of a resurgence of tribalism in South Africa. In January of this year, Mbeki once again had the courage to speak out. Calling this the “homeboy phenomenon”, he explained that this process is engaged in consciously and deliberately, and feeds corruption on a massive scale. He explained further that tribalist politicians offer material benefits for support and votes, and that it often defines access to political power or state resources. Tenders and other business opportunities are given out on a tribal basis, leading to a politics constructed along tribal lines.
Yet this is not limited to the public sector. In the private sector, tribalism promotes the creation of self-sustaining and mutually supportive bubbles based on ethnicity. During the hiring process, tribalist bosses will preference people from their own social grouping for top jobs. In workplace disputes, they will not be impartial but will often favour their tribal comrade. During business deals, especially within corporates and multinationals, ethnic affiliation becomes a big factor in building trust between two parties and often in concluding mutually beneficial deals.
Yet no one really listened to Mbeki’s warnings. Well, some people might have, but no one really did anything about it. And as he predicted, tribalism has become worse – at least among one South African ethnic group.
Voting is probably the best indicator of tribalist allegiances, as evidenced by statistics from the 2014 national elections:
* 92.8% of voters from two related tribes voted for the same party.
* Most of the rest of that tribe, about 165 715 people, voted for another much smaller tribalist party.
* That leaves only a few percentage points from these tribes who voted for other political parties without any tribal affiliation.
This presents an increase of an already homogeneous voting bloc. In 2009, 83.9% of these same two groups voted for this very same political party. Which tribes are these, you may ask, and which party did they vote for?
Let’s not underestimate the importance of these statistics, which clearly show these two tribes are some of the most parochial and bigoted of any ethnic group in Africa. It’s shocking that in this day and age – in the so-called “new” South Africa – there are few public figures willing to call the actions and voting patterns of Afrikaans- and English-speaking white South Africans for what they are: narrow-minded tribalism.
Our collective racism as a country tends to label the wrong people (the amaZulu, baPedi, amaXhosa, etc) as tribalists, thereby reinforcing anti-black stereotypes. We are all guilty of such racist stereotypes, and I am sure that most readers were shocked to find out that I was not speaking about the so-called “Zulufication” of the ANC. The fact that most of us assume that words like “tribal” or “ethnic” are associated only with blacks lays bare our own racial prejudice.
The real tribalists (and racists) who Mbeki failed to mention are white South Africans, who effectively come together to vote as a bloc for only two political parties: the white-led Democratic Alliance and the smaller white nationalist Freedom Front Plus.
Essentially, in any DA-led municipality, it is white-dominated businesses that are most likely to get tenders, and it is these very same businesses that have the closest and most dubious relationship with politicians. And this does not take into account the tribalist hiring practices at Afrikaans and English firms, where the entire management – except for a few black faces – is white. In fact, whites hold 73% of top management and 62% of senior management jobs even though they represent only 9% of the total population.
Are white South Africans going to change their “homeboyism” anytime soon? Judging from the history of colonialism, apartheid and the façade of the rainbow nation post-1994, they probably will not. This is because they have the socioeconomic power to remain dominant and segregated in wealthy suburbs and on farms, and thereby are able to insulate themselves socially from the rest of society.
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.
* This piece first appeared on TheConMag.