Defend Truth


Nationhood: Our fragile national self-esteem

Johann Redelinghuys is previously founder and chairman of Heidrick & Struggles South Africa, now The Director of the Chairman's Institute and of Portfolio&Co

Who are we? Do we as South Africans have a national character? Other nations do, but we seem fragmented, overly sensitive to criticism and yearning for any bit of positive feedback. JOHANN REDELINGHUYS wonders how we could get a life already.

There are people who are bright, talented, good looking and rich. Yet,  despite all these psychological “assets”, they  have low self-esteem. Then there are others who have little that is admirable but who feel enviably good about themselves.

Sub-sets of the first group are the ones who have learned fake confidence, and somehow get along quite well in their lives. Others, no matter much they are complimented or have their achievements recognised, fail to build self-esteem.

They continually ask for reassurance and, when they get it, still express doubt and in the end negate any benefit that may be derived from the appreciation of others.

The national psyches of countries seem to behave in similar ways. The French are very proud and possessive of their French-ness. They don’t care too much what others think of them because they believe in themselves. They live and behave as if they have high national self-esteem.

Despite episodes of relentless introspection and even self-doubt at times, the British and the Germans generally also seem to have good feelings about themselves, as do the Japanese, the Canadians, the South Koreans and others.

The Australians are the fakers. With all their sporting bravado there is an underlying insecurity that asks for approval and yearns for acceptance. And then they have to pretend that it doesn’t matter. The New Zealanders have a slightly more timid version of the same thing.

So where are we? Where is our South African national self-esteem? Well, let’s say that it used to be very low. During the apartheid years, when travelling internationally, we had to develop a whole range of defence mechanisms when people asked us where we came from. Because we were excluded from world sport and had sanctions all over the place we had to make do with the shreds of positive feedback we got from Taiwan, Paraguay and Israel, most of whom had a range of their own self-esteem problems, at the time.

But now that we are more or less mainstream and back in the bosom of the international community, have we become more confident? Do we have a better sense of our own self-worth?

It would seem not. Just like people with low self-esteem we are still often touchy and thin-skinned. Think, again, of the storm of defensive outrage caused by Reuel Khoza when he commented on the deteriorating level of political leadership.We can become very defensive at times and we don’t like to hear criticism. Any perceived “attack” on the president brings out the masses and the ululating protests.One wonders about three judges giving world-headline stature to an issue of “dignity”.

Remember during the World Cup how sensitive we were to any comment which may have suggested that we did not live up to expectations? Critical comments cause hand wringing and demands for an apology, often followed by aggressive bursts of patriotic table-thumping.

At the same time we are almost pathetically grateful when we are given any recognition, or international approval. Also, remember how chuffed we were when the world told us that we had organised a great World Cup? Some of us even got carried away with the idea and started talking about “the best ever”!

It’s right that people like Oscar Pistorius, Louis Oosthuizen and Charlize Theron should become folk heroes of the now generation, and that we can reflect back and celebrate past achievements like the first heart transplant and the inventions of the wave breaking “dolos”, the CAT Scan and the Kreepy-Krauly. What about the expanding collection, in these challenging times, of world-class international CEOs like Marius Kloppers and Mick Davis? Much to be pleased about, but somehow our doubts still linger.

Our emotional temperature seems at times to be unduly fragile. We are so sensitive to bad news or critical comment that we even have, in place and sustained for some years now, a website to remind us of “South Africa: The Good News”.

We certainly have pockets of self-esteem. We feel great pride in our natural assets: the wildlife and the climate and everything form the Garden Route to the Namaqualand daisies of the West Coast. We are proud of our transformation, the Constitution, Madiba, the ubuntu value system, the Bokke and much else.

But how do we feel to be South Africans? Do we think we can be competitive as a nation? Are we even a nation? Or are we just a collection of tribes and factional regions? Do we have an abiding spirit of South African-ness that defines us and gives us our national identity?

I suppose we can ask the same questions about America. They are also an often discordant collection of tribes and ethnic minorities. But they seem so much more sure-footed in their nationhood. Perhaps size does matter. But then why are there counties much smaller than ours, who seem to feel so much better about themselves? Singapore, England, Austria.

I worry when the boffins who worked on branding South Africa could only come up with a byline as wimpish as “It is possible”

I worry when the boffins who worked on branding South Africa could only come up with a byline as wimpish as “It is possible”. It sounds so tentative and unsure. Compare it with Obama’s “Yes we can!”

Any person who is a high-level achiever will tell you that to get a place at the top table you have to know who you are and you have to believe in yourself. You have to be less sensitive to criticism and you must leverage your assets. Can we please get over ourselves and start behaving like a nation of people, confident in our diversity, and finding our strength in the greatness of this hugely endowed country? DM


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