NDERITU: Wanted: An ideology preaching respect for differences

Sunday November 03 2019

Zulu residents of the Jeppe Men Hostel scream waving batons in the Johannesburg CBD on September 3, 2019 after South Africa's financial capital was hit by a new wave of anti-foreigner violence. PHOTO | MICHELE SPATARI | AFP


The rise of toxic ethnic nationalism accompanied by secessionist rhetoric is often quoted as one of the defining problems of the century.

“When I was growing up, we did not see any kind of ethno-nationalism. We had globalisation” one man, in his late 50s said at a conference last week to loud applause.

There are enough examples of ethno-nationalist brinkmanship including the one that led to ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims by Serb nationalist forces.

Yet ethnic nationalism is nothing new, with for instance the European history we studied being the story of unifications or secessions.

Ethnic nationalism led to the breaking up of the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires. This coalescing from multi-ethnic to ethnic nations contributed to both World Wars.

Conversely, the end of the World Wars provided pushbacks against ethno-nationalism. Efforts to avert any future such wars were particularly instrumental in enhancing the globalisation alluded to by the conference participant.


Measures put in place to combat the ethno-nationalism which had led to Nazism included a form of world government, the United Nations.

Globalisation, and it could be argued, its superficial embrace of different cultures and religions was emphasized even though through imperialism it had contributed to the World Wars.

Walking hand in hand with globalisation however was capitalism, which, through its economic and political nature and division of societies into the haves and have-nots had and continues to contribute greatly to the need for colonial and neo-colonial acquisition.

Today, ethnonationalism and right-wing populist parties in Europe and the United States, fueled by the need to keep out immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and South America, are clearly visible.

The rise and rise of Western ethno-nationalism is in direct contrast with the equally rising number of immigrants who are still trying despite all odds to get there, many fleeing wars.

In the past century, the western world has been the world thought leader and provided a template dominant ethnic culture in many aspects particularly as regards language and legal systems.

However, several studies show there has always been discomfort in Europe with the idea of foreigners settling there, and in the past, this has ultimately led to war.

There are of course other ethno-nationalist movements worldwide that have had or have the potential to actually fuel war.

Wars such as in Israel and Palestine, Somalia, Iran, Sri Lanka and Honduras have been fought on and off for decades.

Regional jihadist groups have been terrorising the Sahel region, stoking inter-ethnic conflicts claiming thousands of lives. The killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi will no doubt lead to his followers fleeing to less known ISIS havens, some of them in Africa.

South Africa has xenophobia and Orania, a white people only town. The land of Orania with a population of close to 2,000 people— was acquired through large-scale apartheid era eviction of black people.

What hope is there then for a cohesive world and what does it mean in practice? The idealism of globalisation never fully took root or never fully materialised. What does the world do with this ethnographies-nationalistic ideology? It is a well established fact that you cannot bomb an ideology.

Peaceful co-existence requires an acceptance of differences. Ethno-nationalism can be harmless cultural and religious expression when there is no political or economic threat.

Ironically, as ethno-nationalism grows, the world has been brought closer together to speak against it. The world is too diverse for ethno-nationalism to survive as a mainstream political position. However, ethno-nationalism does not have to be mainstream to disturb the peace or cause havoc.

So long as beneficiaries of ethnicism and racism exist, an ideology that opposes ethno-nationalism will not be easy to sustain.

Does changing the ideology lie in the hands of individuals or collective bodies? History has produced both.

In a world that is more than ever connected through technological advances, where are the people who will lead the collective ideological cause for a world that accepts and respects differences?

Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism. Mukami Kimathi, Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides, [email protected]