Tribalism threatens democracy

Ngila Mike Muendane

Once again the spectre of tribalism in our political life is threatening to wipe out the gains of the liberation struggle, in which men and women of substance, for the love of country and people, gave their lives to achieve unity and peace.

Where unity and peace are absent, strife and insecurity are inevitable, rendering prosperity impossible. The question will then arise whether the sacrifices spanning so many years of struggle were worth it. Allowing tribalism to thrive and destroy the future of our children removes our demonstration of gratitude to those who sacrificed their lives for us.

Tribalism does not initially appear in wicked forms, as in the killing fields of Rwanda; it often approaches placidly, as ethnic pride and later degenerates into destructive varieties. There is apparently nothing wrong with ethnic pride but this can easily spiral into hostility towards other groups. Tribal hostility prevents cooperation between groups. Non-cooperation, even before it degenerates into violence, prevents social and economic development because it distorts communication between people.

It is impossible for an individual to live alone and satisfy his or her needs. We all require living in groups and benefiting from the diverse skills of others. Groups are essentially economic units, which ensure the exchange of services and goods. There are different levels of groups - the family, tribe, the nation. Periodically, we have to evaluate the relevance of each such group in terms of social cohesion and economic prosperity.

The nation, as such a unit, remains relevant. There is one set of laws, one currency by which individuals can access goods and services; there are many other common facilities that make the nation indispensable.

What about the tribe? Of course there was a time when it was socially and economically indispensable. With the evolution of nation states, the tribe has lost these attributes. It is now a reactionary force against national unity. It thrives on mythical common interests, and herein is the potential for inter-tribal conflict because these imagined interests are inevitably at variance with each other.

We are essentially one people. Inter-marriage is now common, notwithstanding these mythical differences; we share churches, sporting teams, we are neighbours and our children play together without the heavens collapsing. Language differences are also mythical because among the Nguni, as among the Sotho languages, the differences are mainly in pronunciation rather than in form.

Just less than 400 years ago, tribe names, such as Xhosa, Swazi, Ndebele, did not exist as tribe names but of individuals. Casting eyes to the next 400 years, will our great-grandchildren be insisting on these tribal identities?

There is only one identity more eternal than Xhosa, Zulu or Pedi; it is African.

lMuendane is an ex-political prisoner, a published author and motivational speaker.