Article by Mosibudi Mangena

“…Xhosas want their Transkei, the Zulus their Zululand etc. Coloured people harbour secret hopes of being classified as ‘brown Afrikaners’ and therefore meriting admittance into the white laager while Indian people might be given a vote to swell the buffer zone between whites and Africans….Slowly the ground is being swept off from under our feet and soon we as blacks will believe completely that our political rights are in fact in our ‘own’ areas….”

These are words Steve Biko wrote in his 1971 essay entitled “The Fragmentation of Black Resistance.” As young political activists in the South African Students’ Organization, the Black People’s Convention and other Black Consciousness organizations in the late ‘60s and early ’70, we battled the poisonous phenomenon of ethnicity. The oppressive regime, through the Bantustan system, was aggressively fanning the fires of ethnic chauvinism among blacks as a strategy to blunt the struggle for emancipation. Steve Biko wrote his essay for the SASO Newsletter as his contribution to the debates taking place at the time.

We argued in the Black Consciousness Movement that we were not oppressed as Basotho, amaXhosa, baVenda, Indians, Coloureds, etc, but as black people. Therefore we needed to band together as the oppressed to confront our common enemy. We fully understood that ethnic chauvinism was an enemy of black unity and solidarity.

The graded privileges accorded our Indian and Coloured compatriots were dismissed by us as the machinations of the oppressors to divide and rule us. Many of us had thought that we had defeated the demon of ethnicity in our country.

To the dismay of many of us who were involved in the struggle for freedom, the ugly head of ethnicity is emerging with unnerving frequency. This retrograde development comes twenty years after the attainment of democracy.

We were bemused when the “100% Zulu Boy” slogan appeared. Then there were other less prominent 100% something. We did not take these manifestations too seriously. We now realize that we ignored those manifestations of ethnic mobilization at our peril.

The thing is: ethnic mobilization is never embarked upon for a good cause. More often than not it is used by political opportunists to advance their inglorious agendas. Do you remember the circumstances under which the “100% Zulu Boy” came about?

The Vuwani debacle was heavily pregnant with ethnic undertones. People of one ethnic group did not want to be in the same municipality with citizens from another ethnic group. The same was the case with the mayhem we had earlier in Malamulele.

To push their unholy agenda, people burned schools, other public property, disrupted schooling in their areas, severely restricted transport and prevented workers from going work.

The latest madness was the murders, looting and burning of buses and clinics in Tshwane because a political party had nominated a mayoral candidate who was born in a province other than Gauteng. How messed up is that?

Just like racism, ethnicity is irrational, idiotic and dangerous. It is illogical to like or dislike a person based simply on the language he or she speaks at home or where he or she was born. You cannot judge the character of a person, or the skills and competence of a person using ethnicity as a criterion.

The racist regime in our country decided to seize land from black people, deny blacks the right to own a business, to stay in certain parts of the country, deny blacks proper education and pass laws geared at the impoverishment and humiliation of a whole people – based on nothing except race. We fought and defeated that unjust system..

Are people in Malamulele or Thulamela municipalities not the same, except that the majority in that or the other area might speak another language? Even as young student activists in SASO we made it clear that our struggle was for the creation of an open and democratic society where the colour of your skin or region of origin would not be a point of reference. That’s why it is so jarring for some of us to see people mobilizing one another on ethnic lines. It is a phenomenon that is foreign to our political DNA.

Ethnicity is a mobilization tool for those who are politically and morally bankrupt, those that are bereft of a proper political, social, moral or ideological argument to offer.

It is clear in Tshwane, Malamulele and Vuwani that the main instigators of the mayhem were people who wanted to protect or advance their corrupt economic activities.

Ethnicity is just as illogical as it is dangerous. We have already seen its bitter fruits in Malamulele, Vuwani and Tshwane. Property was destroyed and people lost their lives. We could reap even more pain if we allow it to fester.

We have seen genocide in Rwanda, wholesale killings of fellow citizens in South Sudan, the mass slaughter of people in former Yugoslavia and the breakup of the country into different ethnic-based republics and the death and destruction in Biafra and Turkey.

We should nip the manifestation of this menace in the bud before it swallows us. It has no place in our society and we should make sure it goes no further.