Time to deal with obsession with ethnicity and ‘difference’


The efforts to stem the tide against violence directed towards nationals from other African countries will be dead in the water if we do not deal with how Africans address issues of ethnicity and the constitution of identity. Reinforcing the idea that we are all Africans is good but the question is, what does it mean to be an African? We know that Africans are not a homogenous group and in fact ours is the most ethnically diverse continent with about 3 000 tribes and many more dialects.

We are often told that our diversity is our strength but John Hunt and Reg Lascaris who co-authored the book ‘The South African Dream’ differ with this view. They say that ethnic interests can delay the implementation of macro-economic strategies, and that in the absence of common vision and common nationhood, diversity is actually a weakness. We need to break down the walls that have created by ethnocentrism.

Robert E Park in the book ‘Race and Culture’ defines ‘ethnocentrism’ as “the technical name for this view of things in which one’s group is the centre of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it” (1950:87). When the author discusses race relations he says ‘race relations’ are not so much the relations that exist between individuals of different races as between individuals conscious of these differences.

In other words people who are not governed by the idea of ‘difference’ do not need a policy framework directing them on how they should relate with others from a race different from their own. An ethnocentric person sees others as ‘outsiders’ and I certainly felt like an outsider when I drove through the town of Orania a few days ago. I knew that I was a human being like anyone who stays in that town but the fact that I had a human body covered by a non-white skin meant that I was welcomed only in the peripheral parts of the town.

Samora Machel, the former president of Mozambique once said that for the nation to live, the tribe must die. He did not mean that tribes should not exist but that patriotism should have pre-eminence over ethnocentrism. Many South Africans certainly do need to be weaned from their tribal enclaves and brought into a place where they embrace the common space called South Africa.

A few years ago when I told a traffic officer in a village I visited in Limpopo that I was from Port Elizabeth he responded by asking: ‘Is that place in South Africa?’ As shocked as was at his ignorance I remembered that my name made me a butt of jokes amongst some of my childhood friends. Some of them would mock me by telling me that I shouldn’t be under the illusion that we were in Africa and I am ashamed to say that this joke really got to me.

Blurred boundaries
Although this was playground banter the reality is that we actually did not view our country as being part of the African continent. We also did not have any nationalistic view either but were imprisoned within the boundaries of our township community life. So how do we even begin to talk about being Africans to people who have never fully embraced the idea of nationhood? Some are even confusing patriotism with partisanship and blur the boundary between political parties and the nation.

African politicians have failed to rise above narrow political interests and steer their countrymen towards a common vision and common nationhood. In fact for some their hold on power is based on tribal sentiments and in keeping people fixated on the idea of being different from others. I suggest then that in order to eliminate xenophobic tendencies we need to address the obsession with ethnicity and ‘difference.’

We need to teach that there is more that is common amongst us than what is different. We need to deal with the rivalry between Xhosas and Zulus and then continue by strengthening the bonds between them and other Africans. I think there is a correlation between the discrimination directed towards foreign nationals and the general discrimination some South Africans have towards those of a different ethnic group.

The Bible is clear that people should not be judged or measured according to their ethnicity and therefore whenever we do that, we go against God’s word.  

One Comment

  1. We are all South Africans and must value the future of our country and its diverse peoples above self. Humbling ourselves and turning to God is the answer to most of our many problems