As the gruesome violence in the black townships of South Africa has leapt to the international spotlight, producing almost 800 deaths since early August, that old word used so often to describe intra-African relationships has resurfaced: "tribalism."
Headlines scream from daily newspapers and television news anchors struggle with unfamiliar names as they all try to explain the root cause of this grievous situation. "Tribal conflict," to quote the Wall Street Journal of Aug. 20, has broken out again. It is, says the Washington Times, a "Zulu versus Xhosa" war.
Tribalism is a term that has been used to analyze conflict all over the continent of Africa, from Uganda to Nigeria, Liberia to Zimbabwe, Angola to Burundi.
Certainly terrible human rights violations and genocidal acts have been perpetrated along tribal lines on this troubled continent. Ibos have been slaughtered by Hausas. Bagandas have been victimized by Langis and Acholis. Hutus have fallen in the hundreds of thousands before the Tutsis in Burundi. In Rwanda, the fortunes were reversed and the Tutsis have been decimated by the Hutus. More recently, former Liberian President Samuel K. Doe's Krahn tribe has massacred Manos and Gios, only to have them return the favor. And Zulus and Xhosas have been killing each other in South Africa.
The tribe is obviously playing a role. Some observers think it is the determinant of events in Africa. Even a seasoned and sympathetic reporter such as David Lamb wrote in his book, "The Africans," that tribalism "remains perhaps the most potent force in day-to-day African life" and that it is one of "the most difficult African concepts to grasp" for the outsider.
Certainly, if these terrible human blood baths take place in the name of tribalism, it is difficult "to grasp." But there appears to be much more behind the story. One of the great irritants to Africans and Africanists is that most Western observers, particularly the press, generally equate tribalism only with negatives such as the brutal killings in South Africa. They do not see tribalism in its historical and sociological context.
When there is conflict, they also spend little time searching for deeper, root causes that might explain the situation. They do not understand that although conflict often occurs along tribal lines, tribal conflict is not inevitable in African societies, a theme too often inherent in common Western perceptions.
There is, in fact, a benign side to tribal affiliations and relations. To again quote Mr. Lamb, tribalism is an "essential element of African society, the American equivalent of welfare, social security, police protection, and Saturday night at the VFW." This is true.
The tribe actually emanates, anthropologically speaking, from the family unit and is the largest group claiming descent from a common ancestor. Language, ethnic stock, social patterns, history and geographic setting are often common to a tribal group.
As an "extended family," the tribe is often the arena upon which an individual life is played out, providing the social outlets, economic means, personal values and sense of identity of that individual. Mr. Lamb's comparison of tribalism with a city like Boston with its ethnic neighborhoods is apt in this context.
The problem is that most observers, Mr. Lamb included, still see only the negative in the African example. Tribalism is "power," Mr. Lamb says. Nepotism and conflict instead of self-worth and security are the results of tribalism, he implies.
In fact, tribalism is just a natural step in the historical growth of social institutions, a step taken by all ethnic groupings as they move from family clans to national, class and international affiliations.
Walter Rodney, in his insightful "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa," tracks this theory but adds that different ethnicities, for different reasons, had longer to move through these evolutionary social stages. Africa, he feels, was effectively frozen in the tribal stage by colonial powers that pre-empted its natural social growth. Often, for reasons of control and exploitation, African society was overlaid by Western values, culture and norms. Tribalism thus "ceased to be transient [as it had been for other societies] and became institutionalized," Mr. Rodney believes.
A part of the Western perception, Mr. Rodney feels, is that each tribe "retains a fundamental hostility towards its neighboring tribes." He dismisses this concept and adds that tribal conflict, when it did occur in pre-colonial times, was sparked by the same sorts of things that spark it or any other conflict now.
Having said this, however, it is important to note that there often seems to be a brutal intensity to some tribal conflicts in Africa, no matter their cause. Mr. Rodney says that the "institutionalization" of tribalism caused it to "fester and grow in unhealthy forms," often stimulated and exacerbated by colonial powers in the "classic technique of divide and rule."
In South Africa today, where the fighting seems to be on tribal lines -- and right-wing white extremists are trying to justify their actions on the thesis that African society is doomed perpetually to tribal conflict -- it is very important to understand these axioms as well as other specific root causes. If the "tribalism" myth is allowed to prevail, then no hope can be held out for South Africa's future.
What, then, are the causes of today's violence in South Africa? It is interesting to note that it is not isolated and was not unexpected by most seasoned observers.
South Africa's black townships have been in a constant state of turmoil -- what some observers have called "low-level civil war" -- for at least 15 years. This started with the widespread and shocking violence of the student uprisings of 1976-1977, continuing through sporadic outbursts of civil unrest and violence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, to a period of almost total anarchy in some black townships from 1985 to 1987. Up to 8,500 persons died during that period in connection with the civil unrest. This unrest was due mainly to community protest against the apartheid system, and the deaths came mostly at the hands of police.
In 1987 a continuing period of rivalry began in Natal Province that has seen almost 5,000 people die. This violence has been due to a combination of protests overlaid by competition between political groupings just beginning to organize and canvass for support. With the legalization of black political activities in February 1990, the competition has intensified.
Although a commonly held view among many white South Africans and outside observers, there is little evidence that the .. fighting within the community has ever broken down solely on tribal lines. The more recent inter-community conflict -- that referred to by former President Ronald Reagan as "black on black" -- has reflected a variety of divisions, mostly political but also rural/urban, educational or regional. It has included a large number of revenge killings often taken against alleged "stooges" within the community and reflecting black anger at the system.
Not only have there not been clear tribal lines to the killings, but the bulk of the recent ones have been within the Zulu tribe itself in Natal. There, rural Zulu supporters of Inkatha, a conservative party led by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and urban Zulu supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) or its allies have repeatedly clashed. The more recent clashes outside of Natal have been between the same two protagonists.
As Inkatha, a creation within the apartheid homeland system, is mainly Zulu, any actions taken by it as a group would involve Zulus. The ANC, on the other hand, is not a tribally based #F organization at all. Much of its leadership is of Xhosa origin, and it is popular in Xhosa-speaking rural areas. But its base is urban and non-racial. Not only do members of all tribes belong to it, including thousands of Zulus like those who have fought for it in Natal, but it is supported by whites, Indians and the so-called coloreds or mixed-race groupings.
The trigger to the recent round of violence was political, and very simple to understand. Inkatha, with its base in Natal, has found itself slipping in popularity, according to all published polls and informal soundings. Once the obvious darling of the ruling National Party and most other white groups because of its moderate political and economic positions, Inkatha was also increasingly being marginalized by President F. W. de Klerk as the negotiations with the ANC were playing themselves out.
A hope of any meaningful alliance for Inkatha with other black groups like the ANC was remote. Therefore, it launched itself as a political party in July and openly began to recruit and broaden its constituency outside of Natal. The violence probably began with specific clashes of party faithful in Inkatha and the ANC, but Inkatha may have fomented it in order to force itself into a role in the negotiations on South Africa's future. There is also a great deal of building evidence that the South African police have encouraged and even abetted the Inkatha or Zulu elements in order to weaken the position of the ANC.
Another aspect of the tribal perception, one rooted in the old "noble savage"/Tarzan syndrome, has been the romantic, almost mythical way in which some of the press treat the South African violence. The legendary Zulu "impis," brandishing stabbing spears and pounding their shields in frightening and deafening unison as they strode out to "wash their spears" in blood, was a piece of imagery used over and over again. One expected Peter O'Toole to appear on the horizon at any moment. No wonder many less familiar with South Africa have fallen for the tribal mystique as the causative factor.
Beyond the issue of tribalism, there remain disturbing questions about the scope and purpose of the violence. Why should competing political entities kill each other's supporters?
Some of the answer is found in the historic tension and turmoil that surrounds black township residents of South Africa living against their wills under the oppressive apartheid system. The normal societal controls built into institutions such as church, home, school and family have been purposefully destroyed by white authorities.
Many of the long-established black communities have been uprooted and moved, or injected with the human effluent of other destabilized communities. They have had squalid squatter camps laid in their midst, or the teeming hostels, where men live out their lives alone, working by day and getting drunk at night. Normally rural, poor, uneducated and hostile, these workers perpetrate rapes and murders constantly in the communities in which they find themselves. The squatter camps exude disease and delinquency and, above all, despair.
To this environment is added a disaffected and angry population. The years of protest, during which white authorities have gunned down dissidents, detained and tortured activists, and brutalized a generation of youth, have left a multitude who see violence as inevitable. It is little wonder that political mobilization has spawned violent outpourings.
This does not bode well for South Africa in the short term. For many reasons, I believe that cooler heads and broader realities will finally see South Africa through this stage. A brighter future awaits.
What is important here, however, is to understand that none of this, whatever the tragedy of it and however repulsive it may be, is happening because of tribalism. Although tribes have been involved in the violence, it has not been the result of tribes.