Home » Governance » The Curse of the Legacy of Tribalism

Part of the reason we have had xenophobic disturbances in South Africa twice in the last seven or so years is because the post-colonial tribesman loathes the sight of another tribesman from elsewhere, while he believes the whiteman continues to define his way of survival.

THIS is the final of three sets of essays on tribalism that I started three weeks ago. The idea behind the essay series is to provoke debate on tribalism in the politics of Africa, and hopefully this edition will cast a broader picture of affairs across the continent.

We were a continent of tribally identified societies before colonialism, and one of the feats of colonisation was to detribalise the people of Africa, creating modern-day nation states that were more of economic creations than they were about nationhood.

We were passive subjects in that process, not stakeholders.

Since the arrival of the colonisers, and even up to the present day, the people of Africa have continued to suffer from the mental and spiritual effects of detribalisation.

The first huge blow to tribal identities was proselytisation as carried out by white missionaries — targeting mainly the lowliest members of the colonised communities, like women, children and social outcasts.

As colonisation took root in Africa, our social structures began to change rapidly.

Elders lost prestige as more and more young people flocked to cities. These youngsters were confronted with a new lifestyle, and in the process they got severed from tribal morals, and yet they often longed for their tribal identity, like most of us continue to do today.

This transition came with a lot of disillusionment, with many sinking into alcoholism, prostitution, and petty crime, and this was all in an effort to sustain the hankering for new Western luxuries.

We have followed the former coloniser to Western cities after the fall of colonialism, haven’t we?

The tribesman has internationalised his dependency overtime, and the disillusionment continues unabated.

This is the period when many young Africans became victims of alienation, and many of our people ended up with anxiety related mental illnesses.

The remnants of our original tribal identities is part of what we call tribalism today, and often they manifest themselves in surviving values and traditions like polygamy, bride price and some religious traits, although most of these values have been adulterated.

While it remains plausible to maintain our cultural identities, and indeed to promote them, the reality of today is that tribalism has become a major impediment to the development of Africa, especially in the context of modern-day politics.

In economics, we have the working person plagued by tribal kinsmen who expect to be put on the dole, if not to be put in the city man’s home. This unhelpful sense of entitlement to dependency is what has contributed immensely to the spreading of nepotism and corruption.

You have some organisations whose majority membership is made up of tribesmen from the tribes of the clique in senior management, and this often compromises efficiency and productivity, as personal relations supersede professional conduct.

In industry, we have our Africanised or indigenised companies facing new kind of problems after the fall of colonialism. Where once an African hand would easily take orders from a white superior, he now loathes doing so from a black foreman, especially of another tribe. Many employees in Africa today feel more secure and happy under the direct supervision and employment of white employers than they do under black owned companies, and part of this is the high value the tribesman puts into white supremacy.

Of course many black employers have not helped the situation by proving to the doubting employees that indeed they are incapable of employing anyone.

There are numerous cases of black employers either underpaying their employees, or failing to pay promised salaries altogether, and that includes some black employers leading extremely luxurious lifestyles.

Part of the reason we have had xenophobic disturbances in South Africa twice in the last seven or so years is because the post-colonial tribesman loathes the sight of another tribesman from elsewhere, while he believes the whiteman continues to define his way of survival.

In our politics, we have this challenge where young Africans have had to put up with the menace of the tribal tradition that promotes the rule of age seniority, and this does affect the corporate sector as well.

So we have this undesirable situation where young politicians are elbowed out of the race for posts purely on the basis that they cannot be seen to be contesting an elderly politician, or a situation where a corporate organisation will not shortlist someone for promotion because they are under the age of 40, or something like that.

We have had a huge challenge to the development of multi-party democracy since the fall of colonial empires, and one of the reasons this has been the case could be the tribal tradition of making decisions by consensus.

We have always been a collective society where decisions are made collectively by members of the community to be affected by those decisions.

While this is meritorious on our tradition, and also an undeniable piece of evidence that Africa has always been inherently democratic, the bane of this tradition has been that it has failed to leave room for “disloyal opposition,” so to speak.

To the African mind, a political group is either for the government or against it, and if it is the latter, then it has no business existing. This is why many African countries at one time or the other played with the idea of the one-party state.

Puppet political parties sponsored by various world powers have for long plagued the continent, and many of such parties have caused a lot of instability, even civil wars.

One of the reasons we have had liberation movements ruling post-colonial African countries for lengthy periods of time has been the politics of tribes. We know that while leadership by founding nationalists has brought stability to some of the countries, in West Africa the trend became a breeding ground for military coups in the 70s and the 80s.

Recently, there was a failed coup attempt in Burundi, and when one traces the political history of that country, this ugly head of tribalism, dating back to the pre-colonial era, always confronts them.

It is now over 50 years since colonialism first collapsed in Africa, and perhaps the world is expecting too much from us Africans. We were invaded by foreigners as different to us as Martians would be to Americans, and then we were governed like Helots many of us for less than a century.

Abruptly, we woke up to this revolutionary wave that collapsed colonial empires, thrusting the majority of Africa into euphoric political independence, but we did not so much as take seriously the fact that the coloniser had suddenly vanished, leaving us to rediscover ourselves.

We were in the late Iron Age when the European colonisers first arrived yet we have been expected to do in 50 years what took the United States and Europe several centuries to accomplish, even with far more natural and human resources.

Somewhat, it is like the simplistic judgment often passed on Zimbabwe’s land reform programme.

The indigenous farmers resettled in 2000 are often judged so harshly as failures, and the people who make this tendentious judgment would want the newly settled farmers to have achieved in 10 years what white colonisers took a 100 years to achieve.

We are alive to the fact that the scourge of tribalism has created for Africa bloody civil wars and conflicts, but if the truth were to be told, we as a continent have generally been more restrained than the West, and one only needs to take a look at the bloody record of religious and world wars, not to mention the murderous 21st century invasion wars led by the United States.

Tribes can create for us national unity or shred it. We have the 1987 Unity Accord in Zimbabwe, just like Burundi has the Arusha Declaration, or many other peace agreements in various African countries that have had conflicts in the past.

Almost each of these agreements emphasises the need for national unity, and it is important that instead of Africans focusing on regurgitating atrocities of the past, we in fact admit that our tribes will not go away, and that the only thing that bring us together is nationhood, itself defined by collectively shared goals, interests, aspirations, and indeed a collective quest for equality and respect for each other.

Africa badly needs to find substitutes for tribalism. We are all equal citizens across our countries, and our governments and leadership must reward merit and not tribal identity, equality and not regionalism, or totems and clans.

There is no subgroup of people in any country that must be allowed to feel a better sense of belonging to that country than others. There is no tribe in any country that must boast of a superior sense of entitlement to privileges and opportunities than others.

More importantly, no tribe or subgroup must be made to feel like foreigners, or like an irrelevant minority in a country where they are counted as citizens.

It is disturbing to hear a young politician like Temba Mliswa profiling politicians on tribal lines, whatever tribe Mliswa himself belongs to.

We must not even think of rating Msika, Mujuru, John Nkomo, Muzenda or Joshua Nkomo by their tribes, as Mliswa does. These are simply nationalists that played an important role in the liberation of Zimbabwe, just like President Mugabe did, and they never went to war to free only their tribes.

It is hard to understand why we should judge their post-liberation achievements according to tribe. If tribe really mattered in politics, perhaps Mliswa would have no business contesting for a parliamentary seat in Hurungwe East, a place to which he was brought by political manoeuvring, not by tribal identity.

But I believe Mliswa is contesting for that seat based on what he believes to be leadership merit, and that is the way we must move forward as a nation.

Like Mliswa says, Harare belongs to everybody, so should Zimbabwe as a whole.

Zimbabwe we are one and together we will overcome. It is homeland or death!

Reason Wafawarova is a political writer based in SYDNEY, Australia

Source : The Herald