Zuma's South Africa and the Perils of Narrow Nationalism

William Gumede


William Gumede is author of best selling Restless Nation, Making Sense of Troubled Times




For a good part of its 100 year old history, two distinct strands of Zulu nationalism competed for dominance within the ANC, especially in its KwaZulu Natal wing; the one conservative and closed, the other progressive and more inclusive of other communities in South Africa.

Ever since the death of the great Cetshwayo, King of the Zulus,  in 1883, the central issue of politics in Zululand is how to hold together the different communities within the larger Zulu community as a recognizable unit, Understandable in the light of repeated attempts by colonial government and later apartheid government to break it up, through divide-and-rule tactics and civil wars within.

Accordingly different approaches emerged over how Zulu identity should be defined within the mosaic of South Africa’s ethnic diversity. The conservatives emphasized Zulu-ness as the defining feature of one’s identity, so that the Zulu community would be the dominant within group the broader African and South African community. The progressives saw Zulu-ness just another element in the multiple and layered African and South African identity.

Jacob Zuma’s election as ANC President at the party’s 2007 Polokwane conference and re-election at the recent Mangaung signified the triumph of the conservative wing of Zulu nationalism, and the retreat of the progressives. Yet, narrow Zulu nationalism is dangerous to both the ANC and South Africa, as it may unleash the demon of tribalism on the land.

Nelson Mandela in 1962 stated from the dock, that a common South African identity must never be defined in relation to a majority community or through one dominant community.

South Africa is a country with a multiple identity. It is the legacy of diversity that history has bequeathed in terms of language, ethnicity and region. South Africanness or South African identity is going to be accordingly layered, plural and of need inclusive.

The way forward for South Africa, is not Afrikaner or African nationalism, but what Michael Ignatieff described as civic nationalism. In ‘civic nationalism’ the glue that hold different communities together is equal rights and shared democratic cultures, values and institutions, rather than ethnic nationalism.

Immediately after the First World War and into the early 1920s, John Dube, the former ANC President, held essentially what today can be described as the conservative Zulu nationalist line. However, by the 1926 the rise to prominence of a generation of radical black trade unionists, socialists and communists which formed a new Left lobby within the ANC at a national level, infused a new strand of progressiveness into the otherwise narrow Zulu nationalism.

The rise of a new more radical grouping of Zulu nationalists included George Champion, who was in 1925 appointed as the Natal regional organizer of the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union of South Africa, by the largest black trade union movement in the country.

At about the same time a new generation of black communists rose to senior leadership positions in the South African Communist Party. Josiah Tshangana Gumede, who started his early political career as a conservative, had by the 1920s, after a trip to Moscow, converted to a more inclusive Zulu nationalism and adopted socialism as his political creed.

The new ANC Left pursued a strategy of mass action and strikes against the Union government, while conservatives, including the national leadership of the ANC, preferred negotiations, discussions and petitions to authorities to express grievances.

Such was the division between the conservatives and progressives, the two groups of Zulu nationalists in KwaZulu in the 1920s, that the ANC split into two parallel provincial branches, with both groups claiming to be the legitimate ANC provincial branch. Dube was in control of the Natal Native Congress, and Gumede ran a dissident Natal African Congress. Gumede’s Natal African Congress was recognized by the ANC mother body. The battle between the progressives and conservatives in the ANC’s KwaZulu Natal branch would spill over at national level and dominate both the trade union movement and ANC central.

The 1927 ANC national conference was a triumph for the progressive wing of Zulu nationalism, as they, allied with trade unionists, socialists and communists took control of the ANC, with Gumede elected president of the party.

However, conservatives, led by Pixley ka Izaka Seme and Dube, the old veteran, rallied at the ANC’s 1930 national conference, and with the help of key chiefs and traditional leaders, ousted Gumede as ANC president, and elected Seme as the new president. Seme spent a large part of his time as president of the ANC to re-establish the nationalism of the Zulu nation. This strategy naturally alienated other groups, sparked tribalism and was part of the reason for the decline of the ANC in all provinces during the period his presidency.

Gumede pushed through two new strands into the South African version of African nationalism. Firstly, he emphasized the unity across all African communities, with all groups being equal; and secondly, he stressed the concept of non-racialism, the notion that all groups – whatever their color, creed or religion, within South Africa should fight together against colonialism and apartheid. A common struggle against oppression, he believed, would help forge a common South Africanness across tribe, race and color.

Although Seme won the presidency at national level, the battle between the conservatives and the progressives continued at both national and KwaZulu Natal provincial level. The tussle only abated when Albert Luthuli took over, in 1951 as leader of the ANC KwaZulu Natal, and brought new energy, ideas, and leadership to the province.

Luthuli was a Christian liberation theologist and belonged to the Christian socialist wing of the ANC, whose agenda was pursued by James Calata, when he was elected ANC general secretary in 1936. Luthuli brought a new dimension to Zulu and African nationalism, urging for social justice, human rights and solidarity.

The dimensions of the battle between the Zulu conservatives and progressives changed when the ANC was exiled. By the 1980s, what would be described as the conservative wing of Zulu nationalism was embedded in the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). The UDF-ANC internal wing in KwaZulu Natal had now mostly taken over the mantle of progressives. One aspect of the violent confrontation between the UDF-ANC and the Inkatha in the 1980s was essentially a battle between a conservative Zulu nationalism – represented by Inkatha; and the other, progressive and more inclusive, represented by the UDF-ANC. At the time Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the IFP president, and Harry Gwala, the underground ANC KwaZulu leader represented the leadership faces of these two forces.

With the electoral defeat of the Inkatha Freedom Party in the late 1990s it appeared that the inclusive vision of Zulu nationalism had triumphed. Or at least, the space was opened up for individuals to mold their own Zulu-ness. By the early 2000s, a split emerged in the IFP; the likes of Ziba Jiyane, began to argue that the IFP must embrace a more inclusive Zulu nationalism, in order to be in step with the demographic and democratic changes in South Africa.

Many of the traditional leaders in KwaZulu Natal subscribe to the conservative tradition of Zulu nationalism. The leadership, moral and values crises in South African society, has not only affected politics, but traditional leaders and institutions also. Many traditional kings, chiefs and leaders are corrupt and morally empty and are afraid that South Africa’s new constitutional democracy, laws and institutions were eroding their power.

Kings, traditional leaders and chiefs hold a powerful sway over communities in the rural areas. Zuma based his campaign to grab the ANC presidency from President Thabo Mbeki at the party’s 2007 Polokwane conference on portraying opposition to his bid as a conspiracy and opposition against a Zulu presidency of the ANC.

In the run-up to the 2007 Polokwane ANC conference, and again in the run-up to Mangaung, Zuma mobilized traditional leaders fearful of being held publicly accountable for their personal behavior, public decisions and performance, to his side. In his fight against Thabo Mbeki over the leadership of the ANC, Zuma portrayed Mbeki as part of the ‘educated’ elite, who were waging a ‘war’ against African traditions, institutions and traditional leadership. Recently Zuma has expressed his support for the Traditional Courts Bill. A bill that will essential make rural people subject to chiefs who will by it acquire coercive powers over them.

In his battle with Thabo Mbeki, for control of the ANC ahead of the ANC’s Polokwane conference, Zuma’s used a thinly-veiled strategy of corralling Zulu speakers behind him – and then used them as the launch pad for his bid for the presidency of the ANC. Ahead of Mangaung Zuma has used the same strategy to secure re-election. At Polokwane and ahead of Mangaung, Zuma has mobilized voters in KwaZulu Natal to support him on the basis of his Zulu-ness – rather than performance in government and in the party. Zuma has painted the investigation of corruption charges against him and opposition to his election as ANC and South African president as a conspiracy against a Zulu. Even someone Mangosuthu Buthelezi, in 2006 warned against this kind of politicking as dangerous to the new South Africa.

Zuma has skillfully used Zulu and African traditions to cover-up poor performance and wrong behavior. He has portrayed his critics as those opposed to African culture and tradition. Zuma is selective of the elements of African culture he chooses to use and misuse. This strategy has won him support and brought into the ANC fold conservative elements of Inkatha, which was already electorally defeated. This has emboldened the conservative Zulu nationalism strand in the ANC and has beaten back the progressives.

Right from 1994 the core part of the covenant of the foundations of the new South Africa was that leaders should not use ethnicity to secure political power or for self-enrichment. Zuma has broken that covenant, and in so doing he has undermined his own contribution in bringing peace in KwaZulu Natal and South Africa in the post1994 period. Jacob Zuma’s persistence on this disastrous course could fuel the flames of ethnicity which may break up the 100 year old ANC and destabilize South Africa.