As the gruesome violence in the black townships of South Africa has leapt to the international spotlight, producing almost 800 deaths since early August, that old word used so often to describe intra-African relationships has resurfaced: "tribalism."
Headlines scream from daily newspapers and television news anchors struggle with unfamiliar names as they all try to explain the root cause of this grievous situation. "Tribal conflict," to quote the Wall Street Journal of Aug. 20, has broken out again. It is, says the Washington Times, a "Zulu versus Xhosa" war.
Tribalism is a term that has been used to analyze conflict all over the continent of Africa, from Uganda to Nigeria, Liberia to Zimbabwe, Angola to Burundi.
Certainly terrible human rights violations and genocidal acts have been perpetrated along tribal lines on this troubled continent. Ibos have been slaughtered by Hausas. Bagandas have been victimized by Langis and Acholis. Hutus have fallen in the hundreds of thousands before the Tutsis in Burundi. In Rwanda, the fortunes were reversed and the Tutsis have been decimated by the Hutus. More recently, former Liberian President Samuel K. Doe's Krahn tribe has massacred Manos and Gios, only to have them return the favor. And Zulus and Xhosas have been killing each other in South Africa.
The tribe is obviously playing a role. Some observers think it is the determinant of events in Africa. Even a seasoned and sympathetic reporter such as David Lamb wrote in his book, "The Africans," that tribalism "remains perhaps the most potent force in day-to-day African life" and that it is one of "the most difficult African concepts to grasp" for the outsider.
Certainly, if these terrible human blood baths take place in the name of tribalism, it is difficult "to grasp." But there appears to be much more behind the story. One of the great irritants to Africans and Africanists is that most Western observers, particularly the press, generally equate tribalism only with negatives such as the brutal killings in South Africa. They do not see tribalism in its historical and sociological context.
When there is conflict, they also spend little time searching for deeper, root causes that might explain the situation. They do not understand that although conflict often occurs along tribal lines, tribal conflict is not inevitable in African societies, a theme too often inherent in common Western perceptions.
There is, in fact, a benign side to tribal affiliations and relations. To again quote Mr. Lamb, tribalism is an "essential element of African society, the American equivalent of welfare, social security, police protection, and Saturday night at the VFW." This is true.
The tribe actually emanates, anthropologically speaking, from the family unit and is the largest group claiming descent from a common ancestor. Language, ethnic stock, social patterns, history and geographic setting are often common to a tribal group.
As an "extended family," the tribe is often the arena upon which an individual life is played out, providing the social outlets, economic means, personal values and sense of identity of that individual. Mr. Lamb's comparison of tribalism with a city like Boston with its ethnic neighborhoods is apt in this context.
The problem is that most observers, Mr. Lamb included, still see only the negative in the African example. Tribalism is "power," Mr. Lamb says. Nepotism and conflict instead of self-worth and security are the results of tribalism, he implies.
In fact, tribalism is just a natural step in the historical growth of social institutions, a step taken by all ethnic groupings as they move from family clans to national, class and international affiliations.
Walter Rodney, in his insightful "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa," tracks this theory but adds that different ethnicities, for different reasons, had longer to move through these evolutionary social stages. Africa, he feels, was effectively frozen in the tribal stage by colonial powers that pre-empted its natural social growth. Often, for reasons of control and exploitation, African society was overlaid by Western values, culture and norms. Tribalism thus "ceased to be transient [as it had been for other societies] and became institutionalized," Mr. Rodney believes.
A part of the Western perception, Mr. Rodney feels, is that each tribe "retains a fundamental hostility towards its neighboring tribes." He dismisses this concept and adds that tribal conflict, when it did occur in pre-colonial times, was sparked by the same sorts of things that spark it or any other conflict now.
Having said this, however, it is important to note that there often seems to be a brutal intensity to some tribal conflicts in Africa, no matter their cause. Mr. Rodney says that the "institutionalization" of tribalism caused it to "fester and grow in unhealthy forms," often stimulated and exacerbated by colonial powers in the "classic technique of divide and rule."