Beware the boy who cries ‘Zulufication’

This post originally appeared on M&G Thoughtleader.

In Aesop’s fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf, a shepherd boy alone on a hillside tending to sheep called on people in a nearby village to help him chase away a wolf that was attacking his flock. There was no wolf of course. He was just doing what bored shepherd boys are tempted to do for kicks when bored. When the villagers arrived, pitchforks at the ready, the boy yelled, “Psyche, y’all just got punk’d!” Or something like that.

He did that a couple of more times until eventually a real wolf did come for the flock. By then, of course, having grown wise to the trick, nobody believed him and no one came to his aid, leaving the wolf, a big, insatiable wolf from the sounds of it, to gobble up the entire flock.

The fable is a cautionary tale told to little kids to teach them about the dangers of lying. What’s taken for granted in the story that the wolf is the second baddie, second to the act of lying. The story’s internal logic holds that the wolf was obviously a terrible danger to the sheep — dangerous enough that people from the village would and should come running to ward it off.

However, a philosopher might argue that the shepherd boy and the villagers were an equal danger to the sheep and should have been shooed away too. Sheep are part of the human diet after all. So too an environmentalist might say that human activities had encroached on the wolf’s natural habitat and that the sheep had driven away the wolf’s natural prey by taking over the best grazing spots.

The story then is not so clear cut. But this is how words, language and narratives operate. They corral people’s perspectives in subtle and invisible ways, which is why you ought to question the assumptions underlying whatever cautionary tale anyone tries to draw you into, including the one that follows.

In the realm of public commentary of late, there have emerged a group of boys crying wolf. Correction: They’ve been crying “Zulufication”. They warn, as Archbishop Thabo Makgoba did last week while accepting a pat on the back of some sort from the Free Market Foundation, that this so-called Zulufication of South Africa could cause a genocide like the one in Rwanda in 1994. Not only that, Makgoba said we should all rise up against it.

Centre for Politics and Research chairman Prince Mashele this week cried Zulufication too. He wrote in the Sunday Independent that the University of KwaZulu-Natal would be “Zulu-ising” the country by making proficiency in isiZulu a requirement for graduation for all students enrolled from next year onwards. Mashele also warned us not to sit idly by in the face of this apparent Zulu cultural invasion on account of the supposed invaders being African this time.

I’ve said out elsewhere why Mashele and others seeing UKZN’s language policy as evidence of a “Zulu cultural invasion” is the product of a colonised imagination and an awfully embarrassing misread of the situation. The policy has real and practical issues of implementation worth debating, so someone saying it is “Zulu-ising” South Africa would be laughable were that claim not part of a bigger trend.

“Zulufication” as a phrase and a concept as it’s used presently was born from the fractious battle between Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki for the ANC presidency in Polokwane in 2007. But it appears to have been popularised among otherwise seemingly intelligent people by William Gumede, academic and author of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC.

Writing in the New Statesman in January 2009 on the formation of the Congress of the People by the ANC splinter group disillusioned with the results of the 2007 ANC leadership contest, Gumede said, “If anything, Zuma’s election may represent the tribalisation of the ANC: it has been said that he is Zulufying the party after a period in which it was led by Xhosa elite such as Mbeki and Mandela.”

Who exactly has been saying these things Gumede left to the reader’s imagination.

In the Sowetan in May 2012, Gumede wrote, “Recently, some people have whispered about the ‘Zulufication’ of appointments because of the perception that the president is mostly appointing individuals in key posts, especially those in the security service, from KwaZulu-Natal.”

Again the whispers remained disembodied.

Last December, writing in Pambazuka shortly before the 2012 ANC leadership vote, Gumede added some much-needed nuance and omitted the formless whispers of Zulufication. He said, “Jacob Zuma’s election as ANC President at the party’s 2007 Polokwane conference and his possible 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.”

Along the way others have picked up the phrase and run with it unthinkingly. The Times ran an editorial in 2011 saying Zuma’s “Zulufication” of South Africa has shaken his support base. Political analysts like Anthony Butler and Susan Booysens have bandied the term about loosely, so too have members of the public.

As with the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, we ought to be asking ourselves what assumptions are at play here, because all is not as clear cut as the narrative we’re being fed. Is South Africa Zulufied, as the Times editorial claimed? Has the ANC also been Zulufied, as Booysens stated as a matter of fact, and have the country’s security agencies suffered the same fate, as Butler said?

Are we really in the midst of an attempted Zulu cultural invasion, as Mashele warned? And do we need to stand up to it, as Makgoba urged us to do?

The answer is no to all of the above. What’s happened is that a specific concern about how a compromised politician used his ethnicity and culture to mobilise support to oust a rival and fob off a rape charge has now become an unqualified, all-pervading warning of the “Zulu gevaar“, where even the UKZN’s commendable step to develop isiZulu is analysed myopically with that narrative.

Within the Zulufication narrative, it does not matter that Zuma inherited Intelligence Minister Siyabonga Cwele and Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa from Kgalema Motlanthe’s Cabinet during his brief stint as president. What matters is that they are Zulu. To boot, the narrative says, Motlanthe was just Zuma’s puppet president and seat warmer anyway.

It does not matter either that Zuma sacked his friend and fellow Zulu “tribesman” Bheki Cele, albeit under duress, and appointed Riah Phiyega, who is Pedi, not Zulu.

The narrative holds that many Zulu people in a single location or organisation mean that location or organisation has been Zulufied. This must make being anywhere really awkward for the one-fifth of the population who are Zulu and are concerned about being seen to be contributing to Zulufication.

This isn’t to say there aren’t concerns over how Zuma deploys his ethnicity for political gain. But those concerns revolve around the actions of one man within a constitutional democracy and a legal framework that supports and protects multilingualism and multiculturalism. Using that one man’s actions to malign a groundbreaking language policy, warn of a Zulu cultural invasion where none exists and tell us to resist the said invasion is to practice the very thing it seems Gumede is concerned about: tribalism.

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