Shades of black

Discrimination isn’t socially acceptable, yet there are constant flare-ups arising from it in SA. With the help of political analyst Dr Somadoda Fikeni, we put the spotlight on black-on-black discrimination

This piece follows a discussion we had at DESTINY MAN about what we termed “black-on-black racism” – the contempt black people have for their own race. Just like racism – which refers to a bias against people of a different race – it can be based on many differences, such as ethnicity, nationality, class and even skin tone.

While the source of dislike for those perceived different is usually based on prejudice and other misconceptions, Fikeni says it would be inappropriate to label such issues as “black-on-black racism” if it happens among people of the same colour. However, he says the hatred and mistrust of black-by-black can manifest itself in different ways, including tribalism and xenophobia. For the purposes of this article, we will refer to both prejudice and mistreatment as discrimination.

One of the many reasons that social divisions based on ethnicity and country of origin pose a danger to social stability is that, if ignored, they can turn into full-blown acts of violence. Some of the most infamous atrocities on the continent can be attributed to cultural and political hegemony. For example, the Rwandan genocide was a mass murder campaign by extremist elements of the Hutu majority to purge the minority Tutsi population. Close to a million people were killed in just 100 days, while two million fled the country during that period.

Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence was also partly due to the country’s ethnic and geographic diversity. It was reported that political leaders had campaigned along tribal lines throughout the electioneering period. In SA, we have witnessed all sorts of incidents of black-on-black violence – some instigated by tribalism, while others can be attributed to xenophobia. These issues often begin with simmering tensions.

Fikeni says issues of black-on-black discrimination are more deeply entrenched in our psyche than we think. “The colonial and apartheid regimes were designed to ensure that those in the black majority were separated, therefore authorities emphasised divisions among them and even went as far as to create township, university and homeland states for each group,” he says, referring to what’s called “divide-and-rule”. This is the political system of gaining and maintaining rule by splitting up larger groups of people into smaller, less powerful ones so that they are coerced more easily.

Fikeni says the conversation on black-on-black discrimination in SA would not be complete without mentioning how the apartheid administration orchestrated conflicts between blacks before the dawn of democracy. This is based on the theory that there was a conspiracy among high-ranking security officials to destabilise SA before the fall of the apartheid regime.

Conflicts arising from the Mfecane and during the period of confrontation between theBantu and the Khoi people were never resolved and still surface today

“During the anti-apartheid struggle in the late Eighties up until the early Nineties, the authorities even used a ‘third force’ to instigate violence where black people killed each other. The killings in hostels would be attributed to Xhosas and those on the trains would be attributed to Zulus – that’s how the mass disinformation programme worked.”

Fikeni says some of the issues among black people have nothing to do with other race groups, but trace their origins to pre-apartheid SA. “These are divisions within the black communities that have never been resolved. For example, conflicts arising from the Mfecane [a period that was characterised by a series of Zulu and Nguni wars and forced migrations that altered the social demographic of some parts of southern, central and eastern Africa in the early decades of the 19th century] and during the period of confrontation between the Bantu and the Khoi people still surface today.”

However, we’ve come to witness a lot of cases that have nothing to do with history or politics. “Within black communities, we’ve seen the poor versus rich, the rural versus the urban, the township versus the informal settlement and the suburban versus the township. Then there’s religion. We’ve seen cases in which Christians don’t understand or accept Muslims and vice versa. They also do not believe that they should co-exist. Other religious groups don’t want to accept traditional belief systems.”

Incidents of violent attacks against black foreigners in townships continue to rock the country and taint SA’s image as a team player in African politics. Fikeni says the xenophobic conflicts among black people are complex.

“If you’re an outsider [African immigrant], locals see you as competing for the scarce resources we have in the country. This has also turned into mudslinging, where every problem is attributed to foreign nationals by the intolerant. The reverse can be true in some instances, because when an outsider is given a position, he’d find a million reasons why South Africans shouldn’t be included, casting them as lazy and illiterate. Then he’d start recruiting people of the same origin as he is.”

But if you dig deeper, you see this happening among locals themselves, says Fikeni. “There’s a perception that when a president, premier, minister or CEO from a particular ethnic group comes to power, because of how his networks are shaped by geography, he begins to recruit people who share his background. That usually creates problems.”

However, all is not lost. We can approach black-on-black discrimination with the same gusto with which we deal with racism. “We need to have a difficult, but necessary conversation and national dialogue in order to address the issue of reconciliation and increase multi-cultural consciousness. We need dialogue between the different groups and to find a way of dealing with stereotypes and challenges,” says Fikeni.