Thursday, 23 February 2012

Triumph over the tribe

by Paul Landau, Mail & Guardian

Well after apartheid's end, the tribe is still taken as the background for all subsequent African politics. The attraction of the idea is its mythical and timeless quality. It is celebrated by the state as "heritage" and furthered by new assertions of the chiefs' supposedly traditional prerogatives. 

Difficult decisions today that require attention to history -- such as identifying recipients for the redistribution of land -- are conveniently depoliticised by appealing to a supposedly stable customary past. 

The South African past, stretching all the way back to the start of the second millennium CE, was filled with political alliances, manoeuvring and state building. Rereading the evidence of oral traditions and archaeology for my recent book, I found that most African farmers lived in heterogeneous chiefdoms, ethnically mixed and layered with different patron-client statuses. 

The first Europeans on the Highveld, however, assumed that Africans were locked into affiliations determined by birth. Understanding little of what was said to them, Europeans grasped Africans' most preliminary self-indications as tribal names. After Europeans learned the languages around them, the simplicity of the tribal paradigm and its effectiveness for inexpensive overrule guaranteed its continuing vitality. 

Imagining the African past as eternally tribal also facilitated the idea that Africans were all superstitious or religious, steeped in tradition. Particularly in the post-colonial context -- South Africa after 1994 -- we need to question the presumption of irrational and automatic belonging among ordinary people in the past. 

In my research, by restoring the context for recorded interactions in early sources and retranslating alongside other early evidence, the appearance of simple tribalism dissipates. Instead, one begins to see how negotiated associations and pragmatic alliances preceded the tribe by centuries.

Words that apparently were tribal terms were often actually situational indications of vital and fluctuating political affiliation. Africans were "people of" (Ba-, Ma-) ancestors names, past prestigious powers, or places (- rolong, ha-rotse, tlhaping, Ndwandwe, Seleka) in overlapping fashion. On the Highveld, newcomers heard the phrase, "they are the same as us", or "derive from one other" (Baatshwana, Betjuana), in reference to nearby villages. Thus was produced the "BaTswana" or "the Tswana".


In Highveld oral traditions, the elder brother of twins was named some version of "Tebele", probably designating "founder court" or "senior court". When self-declared, senior-status warriors (calling themselves "Zulu") invaded the Highveld from the east, they were called "Ma-Tebele". Only later was this imagined as an ethnic group, "the Ndebele".

Many of the successful 19th-century chiefs rose to power through their own machinations, aided by ad hoc coalitions and assimilated followers without heed for regional or ethnic background. 

Tlokwa, Pedi, Griqua and Sotho had their origins in flexible leadership and diversity. Most people in the Transvaal Matebele domain (before 1840), for instance, spoke Setswana, not "Sindebele" (se-Tebele). Powerful junior houses could learn to credit new ancestors and kin when shifting their alliances and reimagine their heritage. Minor sub-chiefs became hugely powerful.

A key part of Highveld life over the centuries involved warfare and raiding by bands of internally ranked young men. Oral tradition later cemented over fractures and facilitated consensus about ancestral primogeniture. Certainly, there were periods of peace and plenty, as well as famine and warfare, but ordinary people began to accept tribal identities only when they lost their unrestricted access to the land and could no longer organise and rule themselves as they wished. 

Christianity, which developed in a vocabulary related to ancestor(s), chiefs, justice, propriety and community, was tolerated as an alternative to political mobilisation. 

Many chiefs objected to a power called "ancestor" or "chief" (but not their own one) as threatening to their supremacy. Dingane explained that his people had heard about God and understood the concept -- "I am that God". Because the Christian faith began a hair's breadth away from genuine power, it first spread widely among peasants whose chiefs had lost control of the land and who increasingly identified themselves by tribe to the state.


The triumph of the tribe was never total, because ordinary people continued to contest the terms of their subordination. Sometimes South Africans followed their old anti-ethnic strategies within tribal designations; sometimes they rejected ethnic belonging outright, as did the African independent Christian churches, the Independent Commercial Workers' Union, the Garveyites, the 1920s' "Griqua" of AAS le Fleur, and ultimately, of course, the ANC. 

Even rural movements under a restorationist or conservative banner -- such as the "Barolong" Samuelites, Chief Witsie's people, or AAS le Fleur's "Griqua" -- contested the government's tribally homogenous thinking. The famous Pondoland revolt in 1960 should be seen as a struggle over the constitution of Mpondoness, not as a tribal rebellion. Instead of a landscape of tribes with distinct beliefs living in unchanging custom, a much more vital and energetic past should be imagined for South Africa. 

People elaborated a shared corpus of political ideas over time and bridged dialectical, cultural and blood differences among them. 

Aspiring chiefs accepted others of diverse background into their communities and citizens restructured their remembered past to accommodate their situation. Their ranked, unequal alliances looked timeless only to Europeans, who were interested in subordinating them. 

It is time to bring a different picture of the past into focus, one both truer and more suited to the tasks of the present day.