South Africa & Tribalism


Democracy, as the mad moaner Malcom Muggeridge once remarked, can work only in societies that are essentially unified. He was thinking at the time of communist regimes, but the point is still valid. We are beginning to understand that Scotland, which was tolerably unified before Nicola Sturgeon started to foment social division for political advantage, is no longer in that category. Neither is South Africa. The riots and looting in recent days have driven that message home with elemental force. Will the rule of law prove to be stronger than ex-President Jacob Zuma’s supporters, or will it fail, and the country slide into anarchy? If so, what is the cure for group hostility?

To those Scots, like me, who lived for many years in South Africa, the common feature of our two “homes” is a form of tribalism. Zuma’s Zulus have long had a prickly relationship with the Xhosas, whose most famous leader was Nelson Mandela. Scotland has had comparable rifts, perhaps the closest comparison to the Zulu-Xhosa one being that between the Campbells and the Macdonalds. Ever since the Glencoe massacre in 1692, which involved “murder under trust”, that has been a byword for suspicion, mistrust and enmity which can occasionally tip into violence. But there is always hope, and I once experienced an encounter which illustrates why.

Thirty-five years ago, at a time when Nicola Sturgeon was still at school in Dreghorn learning to hate Margaret Thatcher and “the Toarees”, I had a brief but dramatic illustration of the way the Campbell-Macdonald issue tends to play out in modern Scotland. I was living at the time in a remarkably damp cottage at the head of one of the more beautiful sea-lochs on the coast of Argyll. A friend of a friend from London came up to stay for a week to get some writing done. One evening, I persuaded him to relax from his labours—he was hoping to break into television as a script-writer—and come with me to the local pub.

It was a mile or so away on the side of the loch and we sauntered down in glorious sunshine, hopping from one clump of grass to the next trying to keep our feet dry at high water. It was a perfect, early-summer evening and we were in good spirits. There was no possible cause for alarm, except for the fact that my new friend was black.

I think he, coming from Africa via London, was a bit apprehensive. This, after all, was rural Scotland, and he had heard some lurid tales about life among the hairy Celtic savages. He had rarely travelled north of Watford and so was not accustomed to places where non-whites were as rare as perfect summer evenings.

We were alone in the bar except for a group of four local builders who, we later learned, had finished a major job that day and were celebrating. They, too, were in fine spirits. We ordered our pints and soon fell into conversation with the boys in boots.

“Where are yous from?” one of them asked, looking at my friend.

“London,” he said jauntily.

“You’re no Sco’ish, then?”

“No, but I can see it is a beautiful country.”

“This yer first visit?”

“Yes,” he said. “But my great-great-grandfather was from Scotland. My middle name is Macdonald.”

“Macdonald, ye say?”

The main man in group got up and came over to the bar, where he loomed over us on our bar stools. I could sense a slight tinge of anxiety in my friend’s voice as he said, “I’m not really from London I just live there, I’m really from Africa…”

“Ah’m no worried aboot tha’,” the builder said. “Ye say yer middle name is Macdonald.”

“Yes, it is. Why do you ask? It’s not important, surely.”

The builder took a long look at my friend and said, “It’s very important.”


“Well, ye might be a Caampbell.”

“No, honestly! I’m a Macdonald.”

“Ye dinnae look like one.”

Laughter from the builders’ table.

My friend was by now completely bewildered.

The big man explained. “Ye cannae be too careful the noo.” He leaned in, pointed to his mates at the table and said in a stage whisper, “See that boy on the left? His name’s Innes Campbell. Ye couldnae trust him wi’ a beermat. And the wee bugger next tae ’im is Gregor Campbell. Better check yer wallet’s safe.”

Roars of laughter all round.

“Barman! Get these gentlemen a drink.”

The beers arrived. The big man put his arms around my friend and made to hand him his pint. Then he stopped. “Hang on a second.” Meaningful pause while he stared into the clearly sub-tropical face. “Yer SURE you’re no a Caampbell?”

“No, no, no…”

“Och, that’s alright then. Here have a beer and the very best o’ luck tae ye both. Cheers!”

Everyone else joined in and the evening turned into night. How and when we finally made it home, I cannot now recall. But we certainly did not have dry feet.

Who needs the rule of law when you have a sense of humour?

Ian Mitchell is the author of “The Justice Factory: Can the Rule of Law Survive in 21st Century Scotland?” (2020) The Foreword was written by Lord Hope of Craighead, ex-Deputy President of the UK Supreme Court and the Professor of Public Law who is author “Constitutional Law of Scotland” wrote the Introduction to Part II. Details here on Amazon (UK).