Self-worth needs to replace self-doubt

2011-07-23 14:27

South Africans sometimes forget how much we matter to the rest of the world.

We feel as if we do not deserve the attention or validation we receive.

We react with a prickly pride that appears to mask feelings of doubt, anxiety and uncertainty. As a result, we miss a chance to understand our true worth and partner with others as equals.

Two recent events bring these thoughts to mind.

First, consider the slogan of the 2010 World Cup: Celebrating Africa’s Humanity. It is a touching, yet somehow wavering, tribute to our sense of inferiority. The fact that we felt the need to ask the world to celebrate our “humanity” – not our creativity, not our ingenuity, not our steadfastness – suggests that we doubt whether the world acknowledges it.

This strikes me as a sad testament not only to the brutal history that Africa endured during colonialism, but to the fact that we really struggle to move beyond it. We feel so battered emotionally by our past that we crave reassurance from the rest of the world that they see, and “celebrate”, our humanity. We fail to see that the world has already embraced our humanity.

Second, consider the public response to Michelle Obama’s recent visit.

 A number of South Africans, especially political commentators, said that the only reason she came with her mother and two daughters was to bolster her husband’s poll numbers.

Leaving aside the fact that US voters rarely, if ever, vote on foreign policy or world affairs, the commentators struggled to accept that she might actually be interested in us as South Africans, or that she might want to share with her family the history and cultures of this land.

No, the analysts implied, we are not worthy of such sincere attention. Michelle Obama must be exploiting us for the sake of personal, political gain.
It is in many ways a tragic misconception.

We need to be able to see beyond the scars of our own history so that we can embrace our worth. We need to get comfortable in our skins, as it were.

As a person who studied and lived in the US for more than 10 years cumulatively, I learned that Americans – especially black Americans like the Obamas – are genuinely interested in what happens in South Africa.

Many come from families who fought for black civil rights in the 1960s, at the very height of apartheid. They remain, like Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby, invested in what happens here.

I saw this interest demonstrated all across the US when I was there in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Black American senators led Congress in passing a law requiring US companies to disinvest from apartheid South Africa.

Meanwhile, students demonstrated for our freedom. Yale University, where I held a post-doctoral fellowship, established the Southern African Research Programme, funded by the Ford Foundation.

Many of our contemporary leaders in government and civil society were at one time or another part of this programme. To this day, students at Yale can study and learn isiZulu because the university hired a South African professor to teach it.

At the University of Wisconsin (Madison), where I completed my PhD in 1982, Dr Pallo Jordan’s father, Professor AC Jordan, started the first Department of African Languages and Literature, one that thrives to this day.

Americans also comprise a significant number of our university exchange students, who are curious about our people, cultures and history.

But because South Africans are riddled with self-doubt, we don’t know how to embrace Americans’ genuine interest in us. We don’t believe we are worthy of such interest. It’s sad.

I admit we are an abused people who find it hard to trust.

Our collective self-esteem has been battered. But the sooner we realise that our history actually inspires others and that our achievements motivate others, the sooner we can finally take ownership of the esteem in which we are held.

South Africans need not feel anxiety, doubt or inferiority when engaging with the rest of the world. We must rather take ownership of the painful, triumphant and courageous history that makes us who we are.

Let us not allow cynicism to diminish our proud standing in the world.

» James is the federal chairperson of the DA 

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