Former president Thabo Mbeki warned on Thursday against a “retreat to tribalism” in South Africa.

Speaking to the Anglican Church’s provincial synod in Benoni, South Africa, about his work as an African Union mediator to end conflict between the two Sudans, Mbeki said part of the challenge that the people of South Sudan faced in building a new nation was “very strong tribal identities”.

Turning to South Africa, he said: “I wish that our own people here would… get to understand more even of what’s happening in South Sudan to guard against our own retreat to tribalism here, because we can see… it’s very dangerous.”

He continued that if South Africans learned the lessons of South Sudan, “they would understand that we should not sacrifice that sense of national cohesion that’s built up over many, many decades because of some selfish reason of assuming this tribal identity because maybe it’ll bring something to my pocket”.

In raising the issue publicly, Mbeki touched on a sensitive issue in South African public life.

The ruling African National Congress has made strenuous efforts during its 100-year history to downplay the importance of ethnic identity in South Africa, but the issue emerged during the ascent of President Jacob Zuma to power in 2008 when some of his supporters began to wear T-shirts which read “100% Zulu Boy”.

The party cracked down on the T-shirts and the issue is no longer widely discussed in public, except for occasional references to the predominance of Zulu-speaking leaders in the Zuma administration’s security and justice sectors !!

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