Do not toy with tribalism

A basic lesson taught all kids, right from infancy, is never to toy around with dangerous objects. Failure to acknowledge this invaluable lesson always amazes and annoys me in equal measure.

What happened in a movie set in the US last week patently demonstrates the wisdom of this lesson and the folly of choosing to ignore it. A seasoned award-winning actor pulled the trigger of a .45 long colt revolver and fatally shot a cinematographer. An accident for sure, but one that cannot be reversed. Had everyone gone back to the basics, the 42-year-old lady would not have popped her clogs.

Equally dangerous is the carcinogenic tribalism fervour that has gripped an insignificant number of our restive fellow citizens. What is tribalism? In the context of this article, tribalism is a false and fragile sense of identity borne by a community-centred culture of unquestioning loyalty to one’s tribe, elevating it over others, resulting in the generation of the harmful groupthink mentality, where reason and objectivity are sacrificed on the altar of perennial allegiance to one’s tribe. This type of tribalism that is sloshing about part of the populace is unfortunately discharging a repugnant foul odour into the air and is by all accounts a national liability. The curve of history is anti-tribalism, for history teaches us that owing to tribal wars, many occasioned by royal conflicts, inflated self-worth, and disputes over land, avertible mass displacements took place and promising lives were lost.

Consider what happened in Rwanda 27 years ago. The country suffered a mass genocide that was in part fueled by tribalism, but mainly sustained by the fact that the international community, particularly powerful nations that had in the past demonstrated they had no qualms about violating the territorial integrity and sovereignty of others, opted to impenitently watch from a distance. Over a period of 100 days, from April to July 1994, more than one million people lost their lives. In reference to their Tutsi compatriots, some Hutu said, “A cockroach cannot give birth to a butterfly.” This explains why human life was reduced to that of a lowly roach. Expressing the phenomenal degree of viciousness, one traumatised survivor uttered this graphic observation, “I had seen war before, but I had never seen a woman carrying a baby on her back kill another woman with her baby on her back.” How gross! A clear warning to us never to stray into the rutty lane of tribalism.


Apart from the social cost caused by the indignity of sexual molestations, the humiliation of losing homes and the trauma of losing loved ones in death, the economic cost was humungous as the country’s infrastructure and real estate were destroyed. Add to that the repatriation of part of the nation’s coffers by audacious larcenists. Perhaps it is for this reason that Ernest Gellner, a British-Czech anthropologist asserted, “Tribalism never prospers, for when it does, everyone will respect it as true nationalism.” To be clear, no one should be faulted for a principled sense of espirit de corps. Positive pride derived from associating with one’s tribe should not be confounded with negative tribalism. It is this sense of camaraderie and upsurge in balanced pride that, like epoxy resin glue, binds communities together, fosters a deeper and stronger sense of identity, and contributes immensely towards the building of cohesive societies and by extension, unified nations. Conversely, negative tribalism rips the unifying protective social ozone layer and exposes compatriots to harmful ultra-violet-like rays that are inimical to unity.

The dire consequences of negative tribalism strengthen the case for fighting this curse. Poignant are the words of an American author named Elizabeth Lesser who observed, “I know that if we allow ourselves into the gridlock of tribalism, we’re in trouble.” Hence, it is important to avoid casual attribution of fallouts between individuals or groups to tribalism. When disagreements arise, something that is natural to humans, we should resist the temptation to violate the dignity of others by ascribing that to intertribal conflicts.

An environment that promotes inclusivity breeds higher levels of intertribal trust and weaves a culture of considered investment in the fabric of the nation’s social capital, which is a crucial precondition to building a compassionate, healthy, and vibrant society. Lately, the tribalism bubble has been brewing in the country, driven by irrational emotionalism, as well as the regrettable slash-and-burn social and political manoeuvres. Undiscerning ignoramuses would gleefully sidestep objective consideration of this issue. However, self-respecting individuals must lead from the front and with the loudest and most vociferous of voices unambiguously call out such toxicity and burst this unacceptable bubble while it is still fresh. There is no room for non-aligned bystanders. We are either for or against tribalism. The concept of fence-sitting is tossed out of the equation. Silence is akin to quietly greasing the cogwheels of tribalism.

We should avoid seeing tribalism where none exists. Local architects of tribalism often rhapsodise about an imaginary North-South ‘us and them’ divide. Something that is unimportant to many Batswana. That explains the number of intertribal marriages between the so-called ‘southern’ and ‘northern’ tribes. We have similar physical features, and oftentimes it is not easy to tell one’s origin by casting a glance at them. Apart from relying on senseless stereotypes, can anyone say that any two tribes in Botswana are culturally incompatible? We have no right to demonise others on account of their tribal heritage or the intensity of their swarthy pigmentation. No one can claim that they are the intellectual spark of genius behind their origin or tribe. This is purely a product of chance. How ironic that one would think they are more important than others on account of a fluke! This fact invalidates the value of tribalism.

Those who remorselessly bend to the power of tribalism allow their judgement and moral psychology to be defined by the groupthink phenomenon. When persistently ignored, this spirit could swiftly polarise an entire nation, blow national cohesiveness to bits and fracture important societal structures. If we were to peep infinite millenniums into the future, the one thing we are likely to agree on is, there would never be a propitious time for losing oneself in the inglorious delirium of tribalism. Ergo, a sense of discipline must drive communities to guard against the spirit of intolerance and savagery borne by a self-serving form of tawdry and phantasmic espirit de corps.

It is easy though to use pretentious and sanctimonious twaddle to whip people with a shared identity into euphoria and a frenzy of tribalism, oftentimes blinded by the nebulous hegemony card. Regarding the ease with which unsuspecting crowds can be manipulated, an Austrian philosopher named Sigmund Freud came up with this analysis of a paper presented in 1895 by a French social psychologist named Gustave Le Bon, entitled, ‘The Crowd: The Study of a Popular Mind;’ “A crowd is trusting and easily influenced; it is non-critical. The concept of improbability doesn’t exist...Whoever wants to influence it doesn’t need to present logical arguments. It is only necessary to paint the most alluring images, to exaggerate and to repeat the same concept several times...Crowds are subject to the magical power of words, which can provoke the most serious storms in the soul of its members...Crowds are never thirsty for truth. They demand illusions...Irreality prevails over reality, irreality acting almost as strongly as reality. The visible tendency of the crowd is not to differentiate between them.”

When opinions are traded in a Kgotla setting, as customary in our body politic, recognition of the facts raised by Le Bon and Freud should prompt us to be careful in our assessment of those moments, particularly where one could earn the wrath of the pugnacious crowds if he chooses not to follow the beaten path. It is the course of wisdom to cut through the noise of the clearly heated rhetoric and sensational charade.

Some people have been eager to embrace tribalism that is promoted by dynamic, charismatic, and prominent individuals endowed with ginormous but brittle egos. However, if we were to peer into issues with a critical eye, we would probably discern that the parties directly involved are fully aware of the deeper flaws of tribalism. May we not be so naïve as to expect expressions of mea culpa from the culprits any time soon. Though I lay no claim to being a guardian of rationality and virtue, I would argue, it’s only logical that we should cleanse the constipated body politic, that for now, unfortunately growls and hisses with tremors of subdued polarisation. A qué sera, será attitude would be regressive.

Editor's Comment
More resources needed to fight crime

The Fight Crime Gaborone Facebook page is always filled with sad complaints of hard working Batswana who were robbed at knife point at some traffic lights or at their home gates when trying to get inside.These thugs have no mercy; they do not just threaten victims, they are always ready to use knives, and sadly, they damage car windows. While this happens at different traffic lights, there are those where such incidents happen more frequently...

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