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Dangers of Xhosa exceptionalism jokes

By Andile Mngxitama

Hayibo kanti this Xhosa exceptionalism is real kanti? This is one of the most regrettable developments in popular imagination. It reverses efforts to build black solidarity. We are going to pay for this as black people. Watch the backlash.

Wits University is the only liberal campus that has tribal societies. When the university needed to break black solidarity, it encouraged tribal groups to find tribal self pride. It promoted this pride as being more important than black nationalism. It started with the Xhosa society being formed. The Zulu group responded massively. Other “tribes” also followed suit.

I did a short semi ethnographic inquiry into this rather shocking development. I hanged with both the Xhosa and Zulu groups informally. When they were sober they spoke against tribalism but were clear about their love for their own tribal “identity”. When intoxicated with alcohol the Xhosa group spoke about how they were natural leaders and needed to maintain a kind of Xhosa leadership network beyond the university.

The Zulu group, when drunk, were clear that they were tired of Xhosa Presidents – this was during the time when Thabo Mbeki was President. They were clear that they wanted a Zulu President for the country.

Both groups were from the South African Students Congress (SASCO) politically. When the Congress of the People (COPE) was formed, most of the leaders from the Xhosa group defected, ostensibly because they couldn’t stand a Zulu President. Remember COPE was big in the Eastern Cape.

I remember after the Polokwane Elective Conference of the ANC, colleagues would greet each other in isiZulu. If you responded in a different language people would arrogantly ask if you don’t speak isiZulu. It was a new experience for me.

Tribal pride is not innocent. It is a force available to drive a wedge amongst a people. When apartheid wanted to reduce black people’s numerical strength, it broke us up into dysfunctional tribal enclaves.

The whole Xhosa exceptionalism myth is driven by an informal joke like ethic which effectively serves to repel the possibility of being called out. The retort is, “please, can’t we joke now?” No! It’s not a joke. This will divide us. If you are one of those apostles of Xhosa exceptionalism, please note that you are making a choice between nation and tribe. It is precisely what has been designed by colonialism and apartheid.

We speak out so that the historical record can reflect what we said. History will show that we warned against this dangerous development of Xhosa exceptionalism.

We take counsel from Samora Machel’s wise words, “the tribe must die for the nation to live!”

Andile Mngxitama is the President of Black First Land First (BLF), a radical black consciousness organization.