Ethnicity undoes ANC's gains
The year 1985 was not a very good year, especially if you happened to live in one of apartheid's labour reserves around Durban and Pietermaritzburg.
Townships in the two cities exploded into deadly violence following the brutal killing of anti-apartheid lawyer and activist Victoria Mxenge.
It was the state that was responsible for her death, as evidence provided to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proved about a decade later.
Yet her assassination turned brother against brother and transformed the province we now know as KwaZulu-Natal into an inferno that left thousands of people dead and scores of families displaced.
Youth and student formations protesting her death through class and consumer boycotts were subjected to attacks by state-sponsored vigilante groups.
The violence was often fuelled by the tribalistic rhetoric of the various warlords who were given unfettered airtime on state radio and acres of space in newspaper columns to justify the attacks.
To these warlords, the student and youth formations were traitors of the Zulu ethnic group - which they chose to refer to as the "Zulu Nation". It outraged them that Zulu-speaking youths would abandon classes en masse to protest the killing of a Xhosa woman.
Those who lived in townships and peri-urban areas around Pietermaritzburg and Durban at the time would remember those "you are selling us out to Xhosas" sermons that used to be delivered at community gatherings, morning prayers at school, and even at non-political funerals.
Fortunately, the vast majority of people rejected this tribalist drivel spawned by Zulu "nationalists" and identified themselves with the broader South African cause for non-racial democracy.
I am relating this story to remind us just how close we were to the precipice just a few years ago and how far we have come as a country in our quest for genuine nationhood.
It is also a reminder of the serious dangers that come with the use of ethnic mobilisation as a political tool.
South Africa is now very far from the dark old days of political violence.
But there are worrying signs that the desperate competition for scarce resources and power is increasingly tempting some of our political leaders to resort to ethnic-based mobilisation.
As the ANC's Mangaung elective conference approaches, we are beginning to hear disturbing words being uttered in hushed tones in dark corners - never in public - by those lobbying for one or the other faction.
"The Zulus think they now own the ANC", "there is a Zulufication of the ANC and the state under President Jacob Zuma", and "it is time a non-Nguni is elected president" are some of the statements we hear being made by some of those campaigning for leadership change in Mangaung.
Equally disturbing are statements made in private by some of those who back Zuma's second term.
A Durban-based ANC activist told me the other day they will not allow "boys from Limpopo" to take over the organisation and party.
The ANC would obviously deny that the leadership race is in danger of being turned into an ethnic contest. Theirs is a truly non-racial and democratic party which buried the "demon of tribalism" - as founding father Pixley ka Seme put it - at its inaugural conference in 1912.
But the sad reality is that such a "demon" is never buried for good and, unless society actively guards against it, it rears its ugly head now and again.
As many ANC members would attest, ethnicity has always been a taxing issue for the party, even during its exile days.
Now and again there would be an outburst from one or the other grouping which felt that it was being hard done by what they perceived as the dominant group.
Just as there were perceptions that the ANC was too "Xhosa-dominated" when it had Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki as its presidents, it is only natural that similar accusations would be made about the party becoming too "Zulu" under Zuma.
But what matters most for the party is how such perceptions are handled to ensure stability.
Zuma and his allies, especially in KZN, have a responsibility to ensure their behaviour does not give credence to such perceptions.
When the ANC national executive committee decided last year that party structures would only be allowed to discuss their leadership preferences for the Mangaung conference in October, there was unhappiness throughout the country.
But, with the exception of the now imploding ANC Youth League and KwaZulu-Natal, all other structures have respected this ruling.
The league is in the dog box today largely because it defied the rule and called for change.
KwaZulu-Natal is openly campaigning for a second term for the president without as much as a protest from Luthuli House.
It is such inconsistency that leads to accusations of favouritism and tribalism.
The province is to hold its conference this weekend, and delegates are expected to unanimously endorse Zuma's bid.
If they do so, Zuma - who is scheduled to address the gathering - should publicly rebuke them for contravening a party directive.