On May 26 The Con published a piece by Jared Sacks, titled ‘The Tribes Have Spoken’, in which he argues that tribalism is alive and well in SA. Drawing on comments that Thabo Mbeki made about tribalism in November 2013, he suggests that those really guilty of tribalism are the Afrikaners and English, who practise a sophisticated, undercover kind of tribalism. They do this in two fragmented camps when voting for either DA or the Freedom Front Plus, but do it all the same with harrowing consequences. Therefore, he argues, white people are the real tribalists.

The article seems to me an attempt to uncover our own racial and categorical prejudices as well as change how we understand tribalism. Sacks seems to be trying his hand at what some have called discursive rupture. He eggs us towards an epistemic break with ideas we have come to accept as matters of fact or historical taxonomies. (Tribes are black people or other uncivilized people. There are different kinds of tribes. These quasi primates, blacks, fought each other with sticks and spears while smeared in animal fat until the arrival of the white man rescued them from savagery. That’s how the trope goes, I believe.)

Sacks presents us with a supposed deconstruction of naturalised antiblack racism while the issue of white supremacy is highlighted. But here’s my question: Is this really a benign yet brave antiracist proposition from a true white radical?

Like most readers, I also fell for the literary trick by assuming he was referring to the two largest black groups in the country. But when he criticises tribalism, I argue that this seemingly discursive and antiracist turn is actually sleight of hand that should be read as subterfuge. I think Sacks’ move here, like those of many fair-minded social activists, actually rearticulates white supremacy and necessarily arrives at a problematic conclusion. The problematic claim here is that we can lump together prejudice, bigotry, tribalism and antiblack racism / white supremacy. The aim is clear − white solidarity or supremacy is just another form of tribalism equal to and, by his definition, necessarily similar to the irksome tribalism addressed by Mbeki: differing from ‘black’ tribalism only in qualitative terms. This, of course, does little in the way of conceptual fidelity and has troublesome consequences.

The juxtaposition of ‘black’ tribalism with ‘white’ tribalism allows for the fallacious claim of parity between oppressors and oppressed. Essentially he’s saying that black people are guilty of tribalism and so are white people. Both are engaged in debilitating and nefarious practices and each for their own narrow agendas. Sacks subsumes the problem of white supremacy and white solidarity, and antiblack racist behaviours and worldviews, under the appellation of tribalism (albeit tribalism of a special kind). This unduly stretches the explanatory scope and power of tribalism, even if we allow for poetic license to prove a point about our assumption. This recalibration of tribalism obfuscates where the term comes from and who did what to whom in the truest ‘historical’ sense.

It is a wilful negligence of how tribalism has come to be understood. Tribalism has been understood as a settler colonialist project nurtured in the bosom of anthropology at pains to disaggregate and atomise the indigenous population as well as the continued black resistance incipient in the 18th century. It is a mind-set and practice engendered by the conflicts extant between various groups of people, which were ultimately fine-tuned and developed by white settler colonialism for the distinct purpose of subjugation. Divide and rule. White supremacy and white solidarity, whether practised in dichotomies such as the DA and FF+ or not, do not equate to tribalism or a form of tribalism. It is a product of white domination and white supremacy.

I am not protesting Sacks’ proposition because I don’t have a problem with racist antiblack epistemics or taxonomies. I do. Rather, my problem is with the lack of conceptual fidelity giving rise to malapropos notions that are irreconcilable with history or the status quo.

I maintain that that the ‘white’ tribe is not just another group of contestants who by and large happen to hold the monopoly on power and wealth. White society – if you like – invented tribalism to subordinate and subjugate black people. To suggest anything else is toying with sophistry and must be read as such.

What about Sacks’ comments on recalcitrant ‘white’ tribalism vis-à-vis the need to redistribute land and economic power? He asks: “Are white South Africans going to change their ‘homeboyism’ anytime soon? … Without redistribution of land, economic power and the complete desegregation of our society on a democratic and socialist basis, tribalism among Afrikaans and English South Africans will continue to prevent the achievement of a truly nonracial and inclusive society [emphasis added].” Does he not recoup himself here?

No, not necessarily. I think the approach is altogether wrong, dangerous and informed by a worldview that still negates the obvious solution that is black power; it is a worldview that privileges white actors as the master race with the power to free black people economically. Although it is true that antiblack racist politics have shaped power relations in this country, the stumbling block − or what “prevents the achievement of a truly nonracial and inclusive society” − is not a benevolent white tribe. Nowhere in history do we see an even moderately self-interested and powerful group voluntarily liberating – in the truest sense of the word – a group they oppress / exploit.

The answer clearly must lie with a demonstrably popular pro-black, socialist, revolutionary political project that will form the antitheses to the white supremacist, capitalist economic system being managed by the ANC and the DA. This only rings true if we take seriously a dictum that says “liberation can never be granted or acceded to, and must necessarily be fought for and taken, always”.

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10 Responses to “White Tribalism or White Solidarity?”

  1. Thabo Mophiring (@QhaBhuti)
    June 3, 2014 at 2:17 pm #

    I thought it was a clever play on White Supremacy language by exposing the behaviour the world rants about as tribalism is highly practiced by Whites too.

    That Black power is the solution is in no way negated by the article. To assume so, is to assume that Black Power is somehow at the mercy of dialogues about Whiteness.

  2. Themba Moses Msimang
    Themba Moses Msimang
    June 3, 2014 at 2:41 pm #

    Thabo, I am not saying it isn’t clever. No question, it is. My problem is that it is problematic. Once you negate conceptual fidelity, people start saying things like “tribalism is highly practiced by Whites too.” No, it isn’t. White solidarity is practiced by white people too. It is a function of white supremacy, just like tribalism – ‘among black people’ – is. My fear is once we go down that road, we obfuscate what tribalism actually is and where it comes from. Tribalism is not something that is practiced by white people too. How can it. Tribalism is a function of white supremacy. It is black people fighting each other because of the divide and rule tactics instituted by apartheid-colonialism. Black Power is always at the mercy of whiteness as long as whiteness can appropriate concepts like tribalism and racism. And we hear silly charges being leveled, like ‘reverse racism’. not possible.

  3. Jared Sacks
    Jared
    June 3, 2014 at 4:09 pm #

    Hi Themba, I agree for the most part with your critique. You are absolutely right that tribalism is a function colonialism and White Surpemacy. With that understanding, I believe you are correct in saying that Whites do not practice tribalism but instead practice white solidarity and white surpemacy.

    My article does obfuscate what tribalism is and where it came from. In this respect, my article was crude in attempting to play with the racial prejudice of most South Africans and how people like Mbeki often play the tribalism card as a means to vilify Blacks.

    Thus you are correct to state that the problem is white supremacy and (neo)colonial capitalism where tribalism or divide and rule is a bi-product of this.

    Thank you for engaging with my article.

  4. Jared Sacks
    Jared
    June 3, 2014 at 4:09 pm #

    Hi Themba, I agree for the most part with your critique. You are absolutely right that tribalism is a function colonialism and White Surpemacy. With that understanding, I believe you are correct in saying that Whites do not practice tribalism but instead practice white solidarity and white surpemacy.

    My article does obfuscate what tribalism is and where it came from. In this respect, my article was crude in attempting to play with the racial prejudice of most South Africans and how people like Mbeki often play the tribalism card as a means to vilify Blacks.

    Thus you are correct to state that the problem is white supremacy and (neo)colonial capitalism where tribalism or divide and rule is a bi-product of this.

    Thank you for engaging with my article thoughtfully.

  5. Themba Moses Msimang
    Themba Moses Msimang
    June 4, 2014 at 10:47 am #

    Jared,

    You’re welcome ! if anything , it was interesting.

  6. Emma Huismans
    June 7, 2014 at 10:47 am #

    I followed both these contributions wit great interest and both make good points BUT!
    I have a sincere question.
    Do you guys write for each other or are you trying to reach a greater public ( who needs this most) Trying to convince each other or those who really need convincing. Or is this a show off of debating ability and especially vocabulary. Especially the writer above is guilty of this, Jared to a much lesser extent. If you really want to reach the people who this is about maybe change your style and wording. For ALL the above terms there are better , clearer and more communicating words. .. that would reach and involve a much greater audience. That is if you want to reach them If this is just about “us telling us” forgive my remark ..carry on. But me??…. I am for reaching a wider audience.
    And as consolation It is not only you, it is an remarkable new tendency, social activists and “thinkers” excluding there potential audiences in word pride or what ever. The Church did the same in the Middle Ages by te way.. till some started rewriting..

    • Thabo Mophiring (@QhaBhuti)
      June 7, 2014 at 10:10 pm #

      Emma – may I recommend that you write what you think needs to be written for this wider audience.

      That would be an actual contribution and not a platitude.

  7. Rithuli Orleyn
    rithuli
    June 18, 2014 at 8:37 am #

    Great,Themba! Totally enjoyed, beautifully engaging. I’m moved by your humility to take correction Jared.

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