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South Africa’s tribal warfare


TO HAVE travelled widely means that memories resurface following news of an upheaval in a nation that you knew well. Or thought you knew well. Ethiopia, Mali, the Congo, northern Mozambique.

So it is with South Africa. The scenes of looting and destruction in Gauteng (Johannesburg) and Kwazulu-Natal, in areas I remember as busy with peaceful economic activity, were deeply distressing. The implications equally so.

However there has been little analysis or understanding of the ethnic schisms that ignited the catastrophic mass looting sprees in these urban areas of South Africa.

As you may have heard, they appeared to have started as demonstrations against the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma, but no explanation has been offered as to how or why these degenerated into destructive anarchy. Interviews with academics, analysts and authors all suggest it is an after-effect of apartheid, of the continuing unequal distribution of wealth between the black majority and the white minority, and of the limited redistribution of that wealth.

However, these commentators are almost always from South Africa’s non-white communities, and perhaps there is an unspoken desire to avoid fanning tribalism by focusing on it.

Yet this is tribal warfare.

Because South Africa is such a major fixture of the continent and because it is, in parts, more first world than third, it has often appeared to outsiders as a stable Western-style nation bedevilled only by a black-white split that manifested itself as apartheid. The reality is much more convoluted and it is only possible here to give the broadest outlines of why and where the more profound ethnic gulfs exist. Good summaries of the economic and social complexities can be found here and here. This potted history brings out only the tribal factors directly behind the current chaos.

The recorded history of South Africa began when the Dutch East India Company set up a base in Table Bay in 1652. This received a major boost forty years later when the first of several thousand Huguenot refugees arrived from France, fleeing the religious persecution of Louis XIV and later Louis XV. They were fundamental to the success of the development of the Cape and their surnames, modified into Dutch phonetics (Du Pre into Du Preez, Buiss into Buys), are a roll-call of the political and economic leaders of white-ruled South Africa.

The economic cornerstone of the Cape was slavery, and its abolition after Britain acquired the Cape following the Napoleonic Wars was the last straw for many Dutch and Huguenot farmers. They, the voortrekkers, headed directly into the void to the north, avoiding the aggressive Xhosa peoples coming south along the more fertile east coast. (The first syllable is a gentle click of the tongue). Such Bantu tribes had been slowly migrating down from the Cameroon region of West Africa for over a thousand years, and one of these, related to the Xhosa and hard on their heels, was the Zulu nation, under a ruthless dictator, Chaka, whose activities rivalled Vlad the Impaler.

The pre-apartheid history of these tribes was volatile. When the voortrekkers came trundling northward, the Zulu engaged them in savage battles, whereas the Xhosa, to this day a more intellectual tribe (Nelson Mandela was a Xhosa), tried to incorporate the change and find a solution. Neither the Zulu nor the Xhosa tribe succeeded in halting white rule, and each blamed the other’s tactics for this outcome.

South Africa’s black liberation movement, the African National Congress, was formed in 1912, and came to power in 1994. Like all such movements it was an uneasy alliance of intellectuals and thugs, but in South Africa this split also corresponded with the stance of Xhosa and Zulu.

Zulu-speakers represent about 22 per cent of the population, the Xhosa about 16 per cent, but the latter has major support from the members of smaller tribes, alarmed at the prospect of Zulu dominance.

This polarisation was not important while the ANC was banned, but from 1990 onwards it was legitimised and the winning of power became a probability. The effect was to spark a low-grade urban conflict between the two tribes, much of it centred around the big hostels occupied almost exclusively by one or the other in the industrial areas of Gauteng. Estimates of deaths range from several hundred to several thousand.

Nonetheless, under the leadership of Nelson Mandela the ANC reconciled its factions and took power in 1994. However, the Zulus chafed at being excluded from many of the spoils, particularly during Mbeki’s presidency, when politics and big business (by now much of it black-owned) thrived together.

It seemed their time had come when one of their own, Jacob Zuma, became president in 2008, and he certainly fitted into that African political icon, the ‘big man’. However, his style was kickbacks from state contracts rather than cosying up to big business, and as a consequence the benefits of power accrued to a fairly small clique of relatives and cronies.

So the stage was set. When Zuma was arrested his supporters knew that hope of benefiting from their common ethnicity had probably slipped away. Perhaps it dawned on them, as they strode in their thousands through the shopping malls with their clubs and pangas, that the languid and often corrupt police could not stop them. And that all around were emporia that belonged to companies whose boardrooms and management were packed with Xhosa. And full of goodies.

In conclusion, the remarkable thing about South Africa’s purgatory is not that it has finally occurred but that it took nearly 30 years to come. For that credit has to be given to the great majority of South Africans who in 1994, facing a leap into the unknown, put the past behind them and got on with their lives; the willingness on all sides to let bygones be bygones saved the nation. Until now. 

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John Hollaway
John Hollaway
John Hollaway is a retired mining consultant, having worked in 35 countries. He is the author of the All Poor Together trilogy, a semi-autobiographical account of development assistance in Africa and the reasons for its failure.

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