For most of the 100 years of the ANC’s history, two distinct strands of Zulu nationalism competed for dominance in the party, especially in KwaZulu-Natal: one conservative, and closed off; the other, progressive and inclusive of other communities.
Since the death of Zulu King Cetshwayo in 1883, the leitmotif of politics in what became known as Zululand has been how to hold together the communities within the larger Zulu community as a recognisable unit, following repeated attempts by colonial and, later, apartheid governments to break it up through divide-and-rule tactics and appointments of pliant chiefs, and civil wars within.
Within this over-arching drive, various approaches emerged over how Zulu identity should be defined within the mosaic of South Africa’s ethnic diversity. Conservatives emphasise Zuluness as the defining feature of one’s identity, and for the Zulu community to be dominant in the broader African and South African community.
The progressives see Zuluness 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.
Jacob Zuma’s election as ANC president at the party’s 2007 Polokwane conference and his re-election at the party’s Mangaung conference in 2012 signifies the triumph of the conservative wing of Zulu nationalism, and the retreat of the progressives.
However, 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.
The ethnic, language and regional diversity bequeathed by 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 multiple identities 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 Afrikaner or African nationalism, but what Michael Ignatieff described as “civic nationalism”. In “civic nationalism” the glue that holds communities together is equal rights and shared democratic cultures, values and institutions, rather than ethnic nationalism, whether Zulu, Afrikaner or coloured.
After World War I and into the early 1920s, John Dube, the former ANC president and also leader of the ANC in KZN, held essentially what today can be described as the conservative Zulu nationalist line.
However, by 1926 the rise to prominence of a generation of radical black trade unionists, socialists and communists who formed a new Left lobby within the ANC, infused a new strand of progressiveness into Zulu nationalism.
The rise of a more radical grouping of Zulu nationalists included George Champion, who was in 1925 appointed the Natal regional organiser of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of South Africa (ICU), by the largest black trade union movement then.
At the same time a new generation of black communists rose to senior leadership positions in the SACP (then the Communist Party of South Africa).
Josiah Tshangana Gumede, who started his 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 and petitions to the authorities to express their 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.
Dube was in control of the Natal Native Congress, and Gumede ran a dissident Natal African Congress. Gumede’s Natal African Congress was recognised by the ANC mother body.
The battle between the progressives and conservatives in the ANC’s KZN branch would spill over to national level and dominate the trade union movement and ANC mother body.
In 1926, a conservative leadership takeover of the national ICU purged communists, including Champion from his position as organiser of the ICU.
Champion retaliated by forming the ICU yase Natal. The 1927 ANC national conference was a triumph for the progressive wing of Zulu nationalism, as, allied with trade unionists, socialists and communists, it took control of the ANC, with Gumede elected president.
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 and elected Seme in his place.
Seme spent a large part of his time as president of the ANC to “re-establish the old esprit de corps of the Zulu nation”. However, this strategy alienated other groups, sparked tribalism and was part of the reason for the ANC decline under his presidency.
Gumede pushed through two new strands into the South African version of African nationalism.
First, he emphasised unity across all African communities, with all groups being equal; and second, he stressed the concept of non-racialism, the notion that all groups – whatever their colour, creed or religion – should together fight against colonialism and apartheid. He argued that such a common struggle against oppression would help forge an alternative common South Africanness.
Although Seme won the presidency at national level, the battle between the conservatives and the progressives continued at national level and in KZN.
The tussle abated when Albert Luthuli took over in 1951 as KZN leader of the ANC and brought new energy, ideas, and leadership.
Luthuli belonged to the Christian liberation theology wing or the Christian socialist wing of the ANC, pursued by James Calata when he was elected ANC general secretary in 1936. Luthuli brought a new dimension to Zulu and African nationalism, arguing that a common belief in the social justice, human rights and solidarity message of the Gospel could be the glue to hold communities together and the source of a common identity.
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 IFP.
The UDF-ANC internal wing in KZN had mostly taken over the mantle of progressives. One aspect of the violent confrontation between the UDF-ANC and IFP in the 1980s was a battle between a conservative, and more closed-off Zuluness, represented by Inkatha; and the other, progressive and more inclusive, represented by the UDF-ANC.
This conflict for my generation of the 1980s – who was aligned to the UDF-ANC – was one of the defining moments of our lives.
Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the IFP president, and Harry Gwala, the underground ANC leader in KZN, were the leadership faces of these two forces.
With the electoral defeat of the IFP in the late 1990s it appeared that the inclusive vision of Zulu nationalism had triumphed, or space was opened up for individuals to mould their own Zuluness, without a single version being the “accepted” version – which should be the way things must be in a democracy. By the early 2000s, a split emerged in the IFP when the likes of Ziba Jiyane began to argue that the party should embrace a more inclusive Zulu nationalism in line with the social, demographic and democratic changes.
Jiyane and his allies rightly argued that the IFP’s continued electoral defeats in the post-1994 meant that the narrow version of Zulu nationalism is a dead-end.
Many of the traditional leaders in KZN subscribe to the conservative tradition of Zulu nationalism. The leadership, moral and value crises have not only affected politics, but also traditional leaders and institutions. Many traditional leaders are morally corrupt, living “bling” lifestyles on public money, and have on many occasions abused their power for personal enrichment – resisting democratic efforts to hold them accountable.
Some appear to fear that the new constitutional democracy, laws and institutions are eroding their power. Traditional leaders hold a powerful sway over communities in the rural areas.
Zuma appeared to have based his campaign to grab the ANC presidency from Thabo Mbeki at the party’s 2007 Polokwane conference on portraying opposition to his bid for power as part of a conspiracy against a “Zulu” becoming president to secure support of traditional leaders fearful that the new democratic dispensation was eroding their power, and on portraying himself as the defender of the black “poor”, rural citizens and the vulnerable, against a conspiracy between the white establishment and the black middle class .
As in 2007, in the run-up to Mangaung Zuma mobilised traditional leaders fearful of being held accountable for their behaviour, public decisions and performance.
In that fight for the ANC leadership, Zuma appeared to portray Mbeki as part of the “educated” elite, who were waging a “war” against African traditions, institutions and traditional leadership.
Zuma used a thinly veiled strategy of corralling Zulu speakers behind him – and then used them as the launch pad for his bid for the ANC presidency.
In the run-up to Mangaung, he used the same strategy to secure re-election. Zuma explicitly mobilised voters in KZN to support him on the basis of his Zuluness – rather than performance.
Zuma cast the investigation of corruption charges against him and the opposition to his election as a conspiracy against a “Zulu” being elected to the highest office in the ANC and country.
A while back Zuma expressed his support for the Traditional Courts Bill, which Patrick Mashego in his 2008 submission to Parliament rightly said, if adopted, would “instead of making rural people equal citizens in a unitary South Africa, make them subjects of chiefs who are given the coercive power to get rid of those who try to hold them to account”.
Zuma appears to have bolstered the narrow version of Zulu nationalism – at the moment when it had lost ground in both the ANC and the IFP as democracy takes root.
Persisting with this strategy may fuel the flames of tribalism that may destabilise the ANC and South Africa, and possibly split the party.