Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Zulu Chief Exploits Tribal Divisions ETHNICITY IN AFRICAN POLITICS. ETHNIC Nationalism Has Emerged as a Powerful Factor in World Politics as Communist or Authoritarian Governments Have Collapsed in Places Such as the Former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Somalia. but It Remains Little Understood, Especially in the Afircan Context, Where the Tribalism Label Leads to Easy Misperceptions. Here, and on the Opinion Pages, the Monitor Explores the Relationship between Ethnicity and African Politics. SOUTH AFRICA

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Zulu Chief Exploits Tribal Divisions ETHNICITY IN AFRICAN POLITICS. ETHNIC Nationalism Has Emerged as a Powerful Factor in World Politics as Communist or Authoritarian Governments Have Collapsed in Places Such as the Former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Somalia. but It Remains Little Understood, Especially in the Afircan Context, Where the Tribalism Label Leads to Easy Misperceptions. Here, and on the Opinion Pages, the Monitor Explores the Relationship between Ethnicity and African Politics. SOUTH AFRICA

Article excerpt

WHEN the intense conflict between traditionalist and nontraditionalist Zulus in Natal Province spread to Johannesburg's black townships in July 1990, some observers said the final showdown between South Africa's two largest tribes - the Zulus and Xhosas - had arrived.

It hadn't. "The reason for this fundamental misperception is that Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi has successfully used Zulu ethnicity as a tool of political mobilization," says Mervyn Frost, a political scientist at the University of Natal in Durban.

"He has appropriated the symbols of Zulu nationalism for his Inkatha Freedom Party {IFP}, and this has created the misleading perception that all Zulus identify with Inkatha," Dr. Frost says.

The power struggle in Natal, which has teetered on the brink of outright war as Buthelezi has felt increasingly removed from political negotiations, is acted out between Zulus who strive toward urbanized values and support the African National Congress (ANC), and Zulus whose lives are dominated by tribal values and who back the IFP.

Only when the power struggle was exported to the black townships around Johannesburg did an ethnic factor came into play: IFP-supporting Zulus versus the others.

Social scientists who attended a recent conference on ethnicity at Natal University have reached a consensus that Zulu ethnicity - as with any form of ethnicity - is a product of historical circumstances rather than a primordial force.

For this reason, they argue, South Africa probably will not fracture along ethnic lines under a majority-ruled government.

"Zulu ethnicity is not something inherent," says historian John Wright, an associate professor at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg. "It grew in response to British imperialism and was snuffed out when the Zulus were defeated by the British.

"It started reemerging {after the defeat by the British in the 1870s} in the 1920s because Zulu intellectuals started proclaiming a new ethnicity," Professor Wright says.

"Apartheid ensured that Zulu ethnic messages took predominance over other forces like working-class solidarity and a national identity," he adds.

Professor Frost agrees that Zulu nationalism thrived on attempts to suppress it.

"The more one tries to destroy it, the stronger it grows. What Buthelezi has mastered is the age-old technique of turning a political attack into an attack on the tribe or ethnic group."

Buthelezi has bolstered this technique by identifying closely with the Zulu monarch King Goodwill Zwelithini, appropriating Zulu cultural symbols - like the leopard-skin warrior dress, the cowhide shield and spear - as well as marking the anniversaries of famous Zulu historical figures like Shaka, the founder of the Zulu nation.

The IFP leader also portrays the ANC, the major black liberation group, as a Xhosa tribal organization that sees the Zulus as its main rivals.

In fact, the ANC has always stressed its nonracialism and downplayed ethnic differences. While the current ANC leadership is dominated by Xhosas, the organization has had Zulu and Sotho presidents in the past and has whites and other minority groups in its leadership ranks.

Whereas the ANC's Xhosa support straddles the traditional-nontraditional divide, the IFP's power base is overwhelmingly among traditional Zulus.

"If the Zulus were politically united, Buthelezi's power would be quite awesome," Frost says.

Despite the ANC's policy of nonracialism, ANC leaders acknowledge that ethnicity is an important reality that needs to be accommodated in a democratic constitution. …

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