Tribalism brutality: Africa’s toxic legacy of self-hate

Residents of Diepsloot during a protest recently. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Residents of Diepsloot during a protest recently. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published May 6, 2022


By Hope Tshepiso Dhlamini

South Africa carries the legacies of a divided past, not only due to apartheid and colonialism but also as a result of nationality and tribal and ethnic groupings.

People are fragmented into many isolated cultural and ethnic groups that celebrate their own history, customs, beliefs, and vested interests while sometimes despising others. Some South Africans are sceptical of the notion and values of ubuntu when it comes to people from a tribe, ethnicity and nationality other than theirs.

The concept of black humanity is questionable since there are so many incidents of black-on-black violence in South Africa.

While the “Black Lives Matter” movement in the US campaigns for black people to stand up to racism, the situation in South Africa is complex. Ethnic resentment and tribalism make for a long road to African unity in the country, as African people have tended to do more harm than good to one another. It seems that the apartheid regime’s divide-and-conquer tactics were successful as it favoured the white supremacists. Even today, some African people cannot come together.

This is a social issue that is far worse than racism because it promotes disunity and hatred among Africans who should be embracing Pan-Africanism and celebrating their uniqueness and African pride. It is even more disturbing considering that they have all experienced hardships such as slavery, imperialism, colonialism and now Neo-colonialism. The many acts of violence, prejudice, and exclusion in African communities and townships pose a challenge to the power of ubuntu in shaping people’s actions in South Africa.

An outburst of xenophobic violence in Alexandra, Gauteng, in May 2008 triggered xenophobic attacks in other townships. Two weeks later, the violence spread throughout the country to places such as Durban, Cape Town, and Limpopo province. Another wave of xenophobic violence erupted in April 2015. In August 2019, at least 12 people were killed, with thousands displaced and businesses wantonly looted.

Elvis Nyathi, a Zimbabwean-born gardener and family man, was assaulted and burned to death in April 2022 due to suspicions that Zimbabweans in the Diepsloot township in Gauteng are responsible for escalating murder and crime rates.

Colonialism and apartheid taught Africans self-hate and self-rejection, which led them to hate and reject other Africans. The situation is worse in South Africa, which is notorious for xenophobic violence. This is due to tribalism, ethnic hatred, and a lack of Pan-Africanist knowledge and wisdom.

The perpetrators claim that African foreign nationals are responsible for escalating crime, murder, unemployment and drug abuse in townships. While some foreign nationals from African and other countries are involved in crime in South Africa, it cannot be assumed that all black foreign nationals are criminals.

Tribalism is expressed in different ways, including xenophobia, mob justice, gangs, and undermining and harassing other black people. Tribal conflicts exist even among South African citizens, as they undermine other Africans. Tribalism’s roots lie in ancient chieftaincies and kingships that invoked violence to resolve conflicts with other groups. Today, it is invoked by those that perpetrate violence against or ignore people who look different or talk to them in a different language.

The journey towards African unity and Black pride will not be smooth. While diversity will always remain, there is an urgent need to combat crime, xenophobia, tribal cruelty, and gang violence. I argue that Africans should consider adopting a universal language for communication among themselves, such as Bantu languages. Furthermore, local citizens should welcome other Africans for tourism, socio-economic development, political support and citizenship.

* Hope Tshepiso Dhlamini is a Communications Intern at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute of Pan-African Thought and Conversation, South Africa.