The well-known idea of “African tribal culture”, otherwise known as “ethnicity,” was not something that has developed throughout centuries of lineage and cultural progression, but rather, an ideological construct manufactured by Europeans. Harvard History Professor, Leroy Vail, and others, claim this was a manufactured status that was imposed upon Africans during the posts-Colonial era, by Europeans elites, to establish a factional, class-based system. Through these artificially created “classes”, they could manipulate groups to their own benefit, and transfer wealth and power to select people, mainly whites (Vail 1-3).

Europeans, needing to define and support their own roles as masters of large masses of Africans, drew upon European culture and traditions to impose the false structures upon the society. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger contend, in their book, The Invention of Tradition, that in Africa, the “whole apparatus of invented school and professional and regimental traditions became much more starkly a matter of command and control than it was in Europe itself” (211). Some of these invented traditions were subtle, yet greatly impactful. For example, the use of “craft unionism” (Ranger 213) was developed by the companies and labor institutions to segregate sections of the working population. This ensured that the white workers could exclude the Africans from participation. To accomplish this false status, they created special labels with accompanying certifications, like a blasting certificate, for example, by which only certain groups could achieve and be invited into the Union-backed leadership groups.

Along with creating new divisions within African civilization, the Europeans superimposed new notions of superiority intertwined with religious connotations of grace. The black man, for example, would be considered more gentlemanly, to be a shop-keeper, or a prospector, and it was purported that to be a gentleman’s farmer and having laborers work for you, was far better than to be a traditional farmer, and having to work the land themselves (Ranger 218).

Furthermore, newly found educational institutions had a significant impact on the indoctrination of the young African culture. New schools were teaching the right way for Africans to spend their days, including, making their bed up properly when they wake in the morning, and how to then sing, pray, and then learn English (Ranger 222).

While the African population was groomed into service for the English gentlemen, the intentions of the English made no significant shift toward actual brotherhood with those Africans whom helped make their quarters clean and stocked, and beds neat. The image maintained, Ranger notes, of English as “servant and master” to the blacks, held well as it then transferred into industrialization (223). Harvard historian Leroy Vail, explains, in his piece, The Creation of Tribalism in South Africa, that the notions of tribalism were mitigated by the newly imposed institutionally-backed missions of the Europeans, which drove the African culture toward nationalism (Vail 1-3). Where nationalism drove out tribalism, it provided a hope to the Africans for benefits that the white Europeans maintained, could only come from the new class-based economy. However, due to the inherent bias in the systems, Africa failed to reap the promised benefits, at least for the masses. Any growth that took place was directed toward the pockets of the wealthy elites and seldom trickled down to the working class.

Ironically, Vail states, the very ethnicity that was created by the imperialists, became the structural foundation for popular backlash when the industrialism failed to deliver prosperity (3). Eventually, national patriotism gave way to ethnic particularism, and new division were made politically, instead of by class or income. In summary, where prior to the colonial era, African’s were a wide mix of socio-political groups, with transmutable natures, and fluid commitments, they were now, strongly grouped along political lines, poised to protect themselves against the influence and abuse of European systems. Tribalism, our writers contend, developed as a thing of the modern era as a way for Africans to move forward in a collective consciousness toward political strategy and ultimately, a new identity.

Works Cited

RANGER, ERIC HOBSBAWM AND TERENCE. THE INVENTION OF TRADITION. LONDON: CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, PRINT.

VAIL, LEROY. THE CREATION OF TRIBALISM IN SOUTHERN AFRICA. BERKELEY: UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS,  PRINT.

WHITE, LEROY VAIL AND LANDEG. SOUTHERN AFRICAN VOICES IN HISTORY. CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA.: UNIVERSITY PRESS OF VIRGINIA, PRINT.

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