Tribal lines still firmly drawn

18 November 2010 - 01:15 By Jonathan Jansen
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Jonathan Jansen: "I am a detribalised South African," said a good friend without a hint of the enormous significance of these words.

His casual statement caught me off-guard, for this kind of acknowledgement is rare in South Africa. It is a high state of existence when you no longer behave towards, or react to, or think of yourself or others in tribal terms, but on the basis of a principle or commitment or value that transcends primordial ties.

During the struggle days when we were treated to heroic accounts of the exiled ANC, a starting point in your education was 1912. Then and now, I find that episode in history compelling: the ANC was founded with the express purpose of breaking down tribal differences and to unite its followers around common struggles for rights and representation.

No doubt, about from now, the ANC faithful will return to its sacred founding site, Bloemfontein, to commemorate its visionary beginnings as the South African Native National Congress.

I have been dealing with some angry people lately, and what always strikes me is the ease with which we slide into tribal camps whenever we are confronted with crisis. Logic gives way to emotion, argument to anger. The evidence does not matter; after all, what can you expect from Indians, they steal; or from whites, they're racist; or from Africans, they're incompetent.

As distasteful as these descriptions are, so many South Africans keep these essentialist notions of other people firmly in their heads, if not articulated as such in respectable company.

Tribal lines are firmly drawn, and never crossed.

The day I believe South Africans are transformed, is the day a white man stands up among his peers, in public, and condemns an offensive act towards black people because it is wrong.

In all my life, I have not seen this once. Why? Because tribal loyalty is so firmly in place. You do not go against your own, and if you did, you would be labelled something really nasty and excluded from all further social gatherings of the tribe. The judgment will be swift, and harsh.

There is a price to pay for standing on loyalty to truth rather than to tribe.

Notice what happens when a letter from a Muslim reader appears in any South African newspaper condemning Jews in the state of Israel for their treatment of the Palestinians. With clockwork predictability, the next day there will be two or three letters by Jewish readers condemning the Muslim reader for being irrational or worse. It works the other way as well.

I find this very boring. No thought, only emotion; no attempt to understand, only condemn. The world divides neatly among the protagonists as between the tribes of Good and tribes of Evil.

Transformation would have come to South Africa when a black man supports a white man in public on a matter of principle, rather than to side with the black offender simply because the brother is black.

God knows, we are a long, long way from this kind of maturity.

The black person who acts independently, who thinks for himself, must be called a nasty name for refusing to bow to the imperative of tribal loyalty. Of course, you're not really black, for there is something in your skin that would have had you naturally taking a position on the darker side, if you know what I mean.

One of the most common responses I get to taking public positions that fall outside of tribal affiliation is the request for a private meeting, at which point a black or white person will say: "I agree with you on X, but it is difficult for me to say so in public."

I have two feelings about this. One, respect for the person for at least having a position on principle. Two, sadness, for the lack of courage to speak or stand up in public is what constrains the pursuit of what we far too glibly call a "non-racial democracy".

No need to fall into conceptual perplexity with these words, as my colleagues at the English universities are wont to do: non-racialism means simply the building of a society in which our referential framework for thought, decisions and self-referencing is not tribe.

We might never get there if the state keeps insisting that we tick "'tribe" on official forms of all kinds.

My friend who makes the claim that he is detribalised has reached the state of non-racial nirvana. I hope I too can get there one day.

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