Traditional Zulu healer Zweli Hlongwane wears a Rado watch on his wrist next to a twist of goat hair that reminds him of his pact to be guided by his ancestors’ wisdom. A former asset management specialist once married to a daughter of Nelson Mandela, the 43-year-old Hlongwane just opened the Isigodlo centre to instil ancient African values among young people in Soweto. The centre, named for the compounds of southern African kings, teaches dance and praise-singing and includes herbalists and seers on staff.
Hlongwane is part of a back-to-tribal-roots movement emerging in South Africa. For members of the nation’s largest ethnic group, it is a moment to redefine “ubuZulu bethu” – “our Zuluness” – for themselves. “You should be able to develop without moving away from who you are,” said Hlongwane, who put 80 000 rand of his own money into Isigodlo.
Rallies by the African National Congress leader in line to become South Africa’s next president draw teens in T-shirts emblazoned “100 percent Zulu-boy.” The trend may be buoying the rise of the ANC’s Jacob Zuma, likely to ride his party’s overwhelming popularity in elections this year to become South Africa’s first Zulu president.
Several other projects like Isigodlo have sprouted in recent months, said Pearl Sithole, a social anthropologist in Durban, the main city in the Zulu heartland of KwaZulu-Natal along South Africa’s north-east coast. Sithole believes that for too long, too little was done about the impact of apartheid government and missionaries before that who reviled African culture as backward, violent and immoral. But now, she said, South Africans have grown confident enough to look to their own traditions in the way Western societies do: as sources of strength and pride.
Tribal emphasis on values like respecting elders could even help in fighting crime, unemployment and Aids, the major concerns of post-apartheid South Africa. However, Sithole acknowledged possible conflict between a country with a constitution that enshrines gender equality and individual rights, and tribal cultures that embrace polygamy and see the group, led largely by men, as paramount. Zuma has several wives and has said he can be a democrat but also loyal to the Zulu king.
Since Europeans first tried to rationalise 19th-century battlefield defeats at the hands of Zulu fighters, the Zulus have borne the burden of what one historian calls a “folklore of military glory” – the myth of the Zulu as savage warrior. Some Zulus now welcome the end of an era when expressing pride in your tribe was equated with playing into the hands of whites’ divide-and-rule strategy. But others fear a retreat into ethnic identity that could lead to a resurgence of violence or undermine the country’s 15-year-old multi-racial democracy.
Jabulani Sithole, a historian at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said he did not at first think Zuma’s ethnicity was an issue. But increasingly, the historian is hearing people say: “’There is going to be a Zulu president.’ And for them, it may actually matter.” Certainly the ANC is counting on a boost in KwaZulu-Natal with Zuma at the top of its ticket.
The historian, who is not related to Pearl Sithole, worries about the “danger of mob mentality.” In the waning days of apartheid, violence pitting Zulus loyal to the Inkatha Freedom Party against others loyal to the ANC raised fears white rule would be followed by civil war. Zuma, one of the most prominent Zulus in the ANC even then, reached out to Inkatha and helped end the violence. Inkatha remains a key player in KwaZulu.
The ANC was founded 12 years before Inkatha, in 1912, at a meeting called by a leading black lawyer and member of the Zulu elite, Pixley ka Seme. ANC history has seen a struggle for dominance by South Africa’s two main tribes, the Zulu and the Xhosa. South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, and its second, Thabo Mbeki, were Xhosa.
Opposition to Zuma within the ANC has been strongest in the country’s Xhosa-dominated Eastern Cape, along South Africa’s southeastern coast. An anti-Zuma faction broke from the ANC to form a new party, with some of the dissidents accusing Zuma of exploiting tribal divisions to seize power, citing little more than the “100 percent Zulu-boy” slogans as proof.
Zuma has pledged himself to the ANC’s credo of solidarity across racial and tribal lines. Human rights lawyer and sociologist Shadrack Gutto said South Africans can manage the risks of violence by making respect for others central to their exploration of their own traditions. After the soul-battering of apartheid, South Africans “don’t identify fully with being African, but they can’t be anybody else,” said Gutto, a Kenya-born South African. If that can be resolved, “you come to peace with yourself and you achieve a sense of equality with others”.
Historians say Zuluness did not exist before Shaka forged his kingdom in the early 19th century. Now, at the dawn of the 21st, Zulu artist Allina Ndebele works toward the future with the past as a foundation. As she relates it in the cool dimness of a hut that marries authentic grass roof and practical concrete floor, her life story is of a strong-minded woman in a patriarchal culture.
As a young woman, Ndebele translated for a pair of Swedish artists working in South Africa. That led to training as a weaver in South Africa and Sweden and teaching at South Africa’s celebrated Rorke’s Drift Art School. In 1977, Ndebele, then a 38-year-old divorcee raising four children, left teaching to return to her father’s homestead in KwaZulu. She taught village women by day and created by candlelight at night, after trekking 2km for river water to dye her wool.
Ndebele drew tourists heading to a nearby hot springs to her workshop. Her neighbours respected her entrepreneurship, and came to treat her as a headwoman. “You can be modern and traditional,” said Ndebele, who can remember German missionaries forbidding Zulu converts to attend tribal weddings. “Now, we are free to do what we like. We think for ourselves.”
Collectors around the world and most major South African museums and galleries have Ndebele weavings, most depicting the Zulu folk tales she learned as a girl from her grandmother. Arthritis has kept Ndebele from weaving for years. She has turned to writing a children’s book to be illustrated with photographs of her weavings. She says she wishes she could tell her grandmother: “I have built my house, I have built my workshop with the stories you have told me.”