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BLACKS are killing blacks in South Africa, as media reports note every few days. Although the greatest proportion of the deaths during the nearly 17 straight months of civil violence in South Africa has resulted from official white conflicts with protesters, a byproduct of the basic battle has been an increase in black attacks on blacks. Last week a black township leader affiliated with the militantly anti-apartheid United Democratic Front (UDF) was assassinated by hooded Africans probably associated with the rurallybased Inkatha movement, a Zulu organization that opposes the UDF, competes with it for supremacy in large African ghettos near Johannesburg, and is antagonistic to the white government. It was one in a long series of killings, mostly of those allegedly collaborating with the ruling regime.

Earlier this month, Zulu-speaking and Xhosa-speaking Pondo tribesmen clashed south of Durban, an Indian Ocean port. Although many wanted to assume that these battles reflected a primordial antagonism between tribes that would always bedevil South Africa, they more fully expressed a competition for unskilled jobs.

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The economy of South Africa is in deep recession. Work for the unskilled is scarce. Land is short for those who would farm on the edge of urban areas. Social welfare is almost nonexistent. Apartheid's exactions encourage the kind of discontent which periodically spills over into conflict between neighbors with slightly different ethnic heritages. Moreover, the Pondos, seeking employment, had been drawn northward into historically Zulu-controlled territory, and were perceived as a threat.

Earlier this month as well, Sindebele-speaking Africans attacked Sotho-speaking Pedi north of Pretoria. Here there was an even more direct connection with the policies of apartheid. A month ago the government took the Pedi area of Moutse away from Lebowa, a Pedi homeland, and merged it into the new KwaNdebele homeland nearby. The people of Moutse had denounced the transfer. Sindebele is a Zulu language; the people of Moutse speak Sotho and have a different history. They had never been associated with the Ndebele.

The KwaNdebele homeland, which threatens to take a kind of anachronistic ``independence'' later this year, functions as a labor reserve for Pretoria. Its population is only 360,000, but with Moutse it will be about 500,000. Many in the area and outside believe that the government forced the unwanted merger to give KwaNdebele a size more respectable for an entity approaching statehood within South Africa.

The clashes in Moutse, meant to coerce opponents of the amalgamation of the two African areas, represent the kind of savagery unleashed by groups vying for power within the framework of apartheid. The attack on the UDF leader falls into the same category.

Africans, like everyone else, will ally themselves in time of trouble primarily with their linguistic kin. But South Africa is not yet a country rent by tribal enmity. Despite nearly 40 years of governmental attempts to emphasize group or tribal loyalties, and some success, urban Africans remain largely pan-tribal or nontribal in affiliations and aspirations. They marry across ethnic lines. Their political focus is primarily national, not tribal. Many urban Africans have lived in cities all their lives: About 65 percent of all Africans live and work in cities. Their tribal affinities are thus diluted.

Whether or not ethnic rivalry consumes South Africa in the future depends as much on the nature of the transition from minority to mixed or majority rule as it does on anything currently fixed or inherent in the complex loyalties of Africans. If power-sharing should come through negotiation, the nationalist aspects of African politics will be preserved. If South Africa is consumed by internal war, ethnic lines of loyalty may be emphasized, as the ruling Afrikaners do now.

Robert I. Rotberg is a professor of political science and history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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