Enough of the self-deprecation already

2011-12-17 13:49

At a dinner for a bright group of young – largely black – South Africans recently, I was struck by how hard we South Africans are on ourselves. Meant as a catch-up on South African current affairs, it took the three British guests to point out that things were not that bad here. Really.

The banking system is solid and has weathered the storm admirably. Institutions are robust – to wit, the Public Protector, the courts, the revenue service and the media, among others.

Strong institutions and systems undergird stable political systems and while we pick at the fraying edges, it was good to be reminded to take a different look at the quilt of democracy we have stitched.

Our social welfare system is an African leader: there is no other country on our continent that even comes close to extending a blanket of support to 15 million people (about 20% of the population).

Read government’s report card of how it has performed this year and it presents a different narrative to the dominant one. Things have happened. Three important policy gateways have been opened for robust debate: the national health insurance scheme, the plan unveiled by the National Planning Commission and the green paper on land reform. Each seeks to build a modern state.

At a globalisation seminar last month, I was privileged to spend a week with leaders from the rest of Africa, parts of Central America and the United States.

What was immediately striking was the thrusting confidence and optimism of a generation of young African professionals who, over the past few years, have come into their own, leading a re-imagination of our continent. This year must surely go down as the year in which Africa’s image began to change.

I don’t for a moment buy into the narrative of seeing the continent as the next big market for global multinationals. But to sit with people who head rapidly expanding banks, who are starting up Rwanda’s tourism economy, and who are beginning to manufacture pharmaceuticals instead of importing them, was to see in action the professional and middle classes that can power us into a more prosperous and more egalitarian future.

Dare we hope for an Africa without aid, as the author Dambisa Moyo has suggested?

What was also immediately striking is how the South African professional and middle classes do not share this optimism, though we have many reasons to do so.

Without it, we will be overtaken by the much more confident and ambitious Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana, where the democracies are as robust as ours, but where the zeitgeist is more positive.

I’ve wondered about our national spirit of being more down on ourselves than we need to be. It comes possibly from an ingrained sense of inferiority sown by a system that told the majority it simply would never cut it. Could it be that we still believe this? We must get rid of it.

It is an eternally positive strand in our DNA that we object to things and are what Julius Malema calls “tjatjarag”.

But can this make us also look at what isn’t, instead of what could be and what is? A New Year’s resolution of mine is to thread more of this into City Press next year – to go out and find that which works and to find fine thinkers who are quietly leading our country and who can shape it as the African giant we claim to be. I’d love to hear from you as we undertake this journey.

» The DA has objected to our call to find established and loyal ANC supporters among our readers. The party claims this is a partisan endorsement of the ANC and a biased feature. I don’t agree. The ANC’s centenary is a big moment worthy of grassroots and reader reflection, not only of ivory tower and national introspection. If the DA wants to report us to the Press Ombudsman, I am happy to defend our call and pledge to do the same when the 12-year-old DA itself turns 100

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