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”.