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Don't let petty ethnic differences hinder nation building

President Cyril Ramaphosa and Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini.
President Cyril Ramaphosa and Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini.
Image: Khaya Ngwenya

Recently there was an uproar over pictures of President Cyril Ramaphosa kneeling before King Zwelithini.

Our compatriots saw submission and not humility. "Why would President Ramaphosa kneel before King Zwelithini, when neither former presidents Thabo Mbeki nor Jacob Zuma have?" some newspaper headlines went.

Why would the king of the Zulu people become a symbol of domination rather than one of national pride?

This question was partly answered in 2005 by Mathews Phosa, who admitted that the ANC had inadvertently abandoned the nation building project.

It was around this time that succession contests preoccupied the affairs of the ruling party, at great cost to nation building and economic development.

Mbeki himself later decried the resurgence of tribalism and how it even encroached into appointments of senior state officials. To his credit, Mbeki was committed to the unity of the African people beyond ideological lines, as evident in his appointment of Black Consciousness and Pan African stalwarts in key state positions.

The fact is, today we stand at a moment of immense tribal bragging, suspicions and unease.

It is evident in the social media war waged against former Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni for speaking English on a Tsonga radio station programme, as well as the uproar against football club Black Leopards' owner, David Thidiela, who was allegedly tribalistic against a Tsonga PSL referee Victor Hlungwani.

During the #FeesMustFall protests, the youth presented identity as a point of departure in their definition of their problems.

Unfortunately, in most cases identity and heritage are not used as a positive force for nation building, but rather as tools for exclusion, division and personal power consolidation.

The politics of identity based on race, pigmentation or ethnicity are too dangerous for the development of a nation.

We cannot address this danger by digging our heads in the sand. We need a strong but conscious centre to effect a nation building with education, culture, religion and a firm resolution of the land question as building blocks.

If the majority of our people were taught our history, they would know there is much that unites us.

They would know there is so much common ancestry between the Xhosa and the Khoisan, or that Zulu are a cocktail of various groupings of Bapedi and Vathonga.

Some of our people are ignorant that Bismarck's 1884 Berlin Conference, which drew the borders of Africa, caught our people off guard. They woke up to find their relatives who were on the side of a river or a mountain were now citizens of another country.

Lastly, there will be no nation building without confronting the land question. That this issue was thrust into the national agenda by actors other than the ruling party is instructive. It is sad that land reform in SA has not only failed, but has largely benefitted only white farmers. The ANC does not have to dig too deep to know where it went wrong. The statements of its earlier leaders such as Pixley ka Isaka Seme and John Dube, and the stance of the ANC Youth League in the 1940s, the late 1980s and the early 1990s, are instructive on the relationship between nation building, land and identity.

As Ramaphosa told the Afrikanerbond, if not addressed, the land question will leave the country divided. It will be worse if the response to this matter of conquest and dispossession is nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction. This matter affects identity, economic wellbeing, governance, culture and the law. We dare not fail our country.

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