Jacob Zuma and Zulu Nationalism

Jacob Zuma Zulu nationalism
Jacob Zuma has managed to win re-election

AFRICANGLOBE – Jacob Zuma has skillfully used Zulu or African ‘traditions’ to cover-up poor personal choices, indiscretions and wrong behavior, and portrayed those who oppose such poor behavior of being opposed to African ‘traditions’ or ‘culture,’ argues William Gumede.

For most of the 100 years of the ANC’s history, two distinct strands of Zulu nationalism competed for dominance in the ANC, but especially in the KwaZulu Natal wing of the party, the one conservative, and more closed-off, the other, progressive and more inclusive of other communities.

Since the death of Zulu King Cetshwayo in 1883, the leitmotif of politics in what has become known as Zululand has been how to hold together the different communities within the larger Zulu community as a recognizable unit, following repeated attempts by colonial governments and later apartheid governments to break it up, through divide-and-rule tactics and appointments of pliant chiefs, and civil wars within.

Within this overarching drive, different approaches emerged over how exactly should Zulu identity be defined within the mosaic of South Africa’s ethnic diversity. Broadly speaking, the conservatives emphasize Zulu-ness as the defining feature of one’s identity, and for the Zulu community to be the dominant one within the broader African and South African community. The progressives sees Zulu-ness as but an element of, not the most defining, of a multiple or layered African and South African identity, and the wider Zulu community as an equal with others.

Triumph of Conservative Strand

Jacob Zuma’s election as ANC President at the party’s 2007 Polokwane conference and his recent re-election at Mangaung signifies 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’ as the ANC’s first general secretary Sol Plaatje, put it, and may undermine efforts to cobble together a common South Africanness.

Former president Nelson Mandela’s 1962 statement in the dock during his political trial for inciting resistance against the apartheid government neatly put it that a common South Africanness must never be defined in relation to a majority community. Neither off course, should it again through one dominant community, as Whites dominated during the colonial and apartheid eras.

A Shared ‘South Africaness’

The ethnic, language and regional diversity bequeathed by both colonialism and apartheid, must mean that modern South Africanness cannot be but a ‘layered’, plural and inclusive one. The fact that South Africa is a country with a multiple identity should be the basis of its shared South Africanness. Furthermore, a common South Africanness will have to be weaved around the new constitution, democratic values, rules and institutions.

The best way forward for South Africa, is not tribal 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, whether Zulu or any other.

Immediately after the First World War and into the early 1920s, John Dube, the former ANC President, but also leader of the ANC KwaZulu Natal, 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 Zulu nationalism.

The Rise of an Inclusive 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 (ICU), by the largest Black trade union movement in the country.

At the same time a new generation of Black communists rose to senior leadership positions in the South African Communist Party (then the Communist Party of South Africa). 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 with the authorities to express their grievances.

The Battle Between Progressives and Conservatives

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 mother body.

In 1926, a conservative leadership takeover of the national ICU, purge communists, including Champion, from his position KwaZulu Natal organizer of the ICU. Champion then retaliated by forming his own KwaZulu Natal ICU, called the ICU yase Natal.