Rising tribalism in South Africa


William Gumede* argues for solidarity that cuts across the ethinic, regional and political divide to counter-balance tribalism in South Africa.

A new wave of tribalism is threatening to unravel South Africa’s infant democracy, destroy economic development and unleash ethnic Violence if not stopped decisively. There is poor political leadership at the helm of South Africa and a perception has taken root that to be successful, whether securing a job or a tender in the public and private sectors depends on whom you are, rather than one’s talents. We have become a patronage-based society, which fuels tribalism rather than merit.

The ANC’s cadre deployment policy has gone horribly wrong and has often been abused for opportunistic, factional and tribal ends. Leaders sometimes deploy family, friends and allies from their own region or ethnic community, to key positions in government and business – rather than those based on talent, skills and capability.


Rampant public sector corruption, poor public service delivery and unaccountable public servants has led people to distrust government. Some argue that the only way to secure services is through lobbying their ethnic compatriots who are in senior ANC or government positions. There is a perception that the Jacob Zuma presidency only looks after his“own”and is not using all the talent within the ANC, let alone South Africa. People whisper about the ‘Zulufication’of key appointments, especially those in the security networks, from KwaZulu Natal. Zuma’s perceived silence during his campaign to oust former President Thabo Mbeki as leader of the ANC, when some supporters wore ‘100% Zulu’reinforced the impression that he approves the politics of ethnically- centered patronage.

Some individuals are turning what should be purely political differences into ‘ethnic’differences. Although some KwaZulu ANC members may not be happy with the Zuma presidency, they apparently feel that not to re- elect at the ANC’s December 2012 Manguang National Conference would be a ‘betrayal’of ‘their’community.


Those whom the former President Thabo Mbeki sidelined from posts in the ANC and government accused him of promoting the ‘Xhosa-nostra’ because of the perception that he surrounded himself with key individuals from the Eastern Cape. Although Mbeki publicly lambasted tribalism, he was not seen to translate this sentiment to ensure that all public appointments were broad-based.

Tribal voting?

There is a real danger that the ANC elections in some provinces will turn into people voting for someone from ‘their’ ethnic group. The other danger is that the ANC’s 2012 Manguang national conference will turn into ethnic camps, with people voting along ethnic lines for leaders to ensure patronage, public services and appointments to government from ‘their’ communities.

Tribalism can also now be seen in the private sector.It appears that some organised (white) business – both English and Afrikaans speaking – give preference to ‘their’ community, especially those who went to particular schools and universities. Similarly those of Indian-descent also rally around ‘their’ community. Some South Africans of ‘coloured’ background claim they are being marginalized because they are not black ‘enough’.

In some areas in Limpopo and the North West provinces, where some locals say only those from ‘their’ tribal community should benefit mining deals. It is alleged that a business deal or tender will not be approved, unless the local chief or king gets a cut. Some provincial governments resemble Bantustans in their ethnic makeup.

In some cases, some white South African professionals specifically joined the ANC to get appointed to senior positions in the state. Some white businessmen have also joined the ANC’s business forum, hoping to gain access, since they perceive themselves to be outside the politically favoured ‘ethnic’ group. Yet, other white businesses appoint politically- connected blacks linked to the ‘right’ group to their boards and as senior executives. These actions appear to be a protective mechanism amidst the fear that the state only delivers for ‘blacks Africans’. Ironically, the very blacks the state is supposedly favouring also feel marginalised; and some blame their tribal affiliation for this.

African elites

In almost every African liberation and independence movement that came to power, only a small elite benefited from the end of colonialism or white-minority rule. Many who got rich were connected to dominant leaders, factions, families, regional or ethnic groups linked to the liberation or independence movements. The benefits of ethnic pork-barreling are short-term, yet the consequences are harmful for the wider society.

Those developing countries that have been successful since the Second World War, particularly from East Asia, have done so by empowering the widest number of people, not just one ethnic group or elite. Those developing countries where only a small elite – whether ethnic, regional or political faction – became prosperous, have stagnated, become corrupt and even de-industrialised.

The post-Second World War Western European reconstruction was premised on a social contract, based on lifting everyone out of poverty. In fact that has been the basis of the Western European welfare state: that everyone in society must be looked after, irrespective of ethnic or political affiliation.

Colonialism and apartheid bequeathed South Africa an ethnically diverse society, which requires leadership to forge an inclusive society. The basis of governing must be to lift everyone, collectively out of poverty.

Appointments must be on reasonable merit, balancing out racial injustices, and must be seen to be fair. The ANC’s deployment policy should be about head-hunting for the best talent across the country. Effective public services must be accountable and serve all, irrespective of ethnicity, colour or political affiliation as the best guarantees against tribalism.


Lastly, the constitution and democratic institutions, are the glue that bind all diverse South African communities together. Attacks on the constitution and democratic institutions, and appointments to such institutions that are narrowly political, ethnic and regionally based, will only encourage people to seek refuge in tribalism as protection. We need a solidarity for the vulnerable that cuts across social divisions.

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