/ 24 January 2011

Wanted: One benevolent coloniser

Our confidence as a nation is fragile at best. One good word from a foreign power and we’re on a high, trumpeting the compliment in our headlines. Then, one nasty British tabloid article about our president and we’re skydiving headfirst into the doldrums, ruminating on our failure and pickling in the acrid vinegar of our disappointment.

We’re a bit like that deeply insecure friend you have; the one who is a black hole of affirmation. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell her she’s beautiful or special, she needs to keep on hearing it — and never believing it.

Other countries have a different way of dealing with their latent insecurity as a nation. In India, for instance, this largely takes the form of an inflated sense of pride — a cavalier disregard for pessimism in the face of endemic and crippling problems.

Instead the typically confident Indian politician or nationalist will harp on about their qualities as a people, which would see them triumph. Things can go horribly wrong but rhetoric will save the day. And, like your insecure friend, brashness and hyper confidence masks deep-seated feelings of inadequacy.

The situation is further complicated by a complex relationship with their former colonial power, Britain. Here are two conflicting pulls of desire: impress the West and send the best of our children abroad, or step into our own as a regional superpower in a changing world where our former colonisers are less and less significant.

Colonialists’ stepchildren
The hangover of recent colonialism is a curious one that I don’t fully understand as a South African. I’ve seen it in Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe: the stepchild still smarting from rejection who spirals into self-destructive rebellion, hating the shunned parent even as he seeks their affirmation.

The WikiLeaks cable documenting the meeting between Mugabe and Democratic Party congressman Donald Payne was a rare insight into this split psyche. Mugabe boasted about his country in a “long-winded rehashing of Zimbabwe’s history”, but lamented the international abuse and broken promises he had apparently suffered. “In the context of all the countries in the world — are we really the worst?” pleaded the same man who repeatedly thumbs his nose at international censure.

South Africa’s colonisers left a long time ago. The majority of the lands’ most recent oppressors have nowhere else to go — no dizzy heights that we can secretly compare ourselves to. They must stay here and work out alongside the rest of us what it means to be South African. Our relationship with them is not comparable — or as conflicted — as with a former colonial power.

So we substitute with other powers. Desperately unsure of who we are or what we’re worth we look to foreigners for confirmation — and affirmation. Our obsession with the WikiLeaks cables of American officials’ take on our affairs is a case in point. In most cases the “explosive” documents told us exactly what we already knew.

Rational people believed Mugabe was crazy. Irrational people, who we already suspected of siding with him, did.

Even the latest revelation — the most explosive cable yet concerning South Africa — was hardly earth-shattering. Moe Shaik, in keeping with his brand of dodgy secrecy, was an American informant. He has to sell the idea of a Jacob Zuma presidency to the US. If anything, this is further evidence of our fixation with what people think of us. “So did they buy the idea of a Zuma presidency?” is probably your first question reading the City Press article.

Because, if they did, maybe we can feel better about ourselves.

In the absence of a coloniser we should rejoice, stretch out our limbs and test our strengths, finding out who we can be. Instead we shrink back, tentatively looking to the West, to China, to whomever we deem better, to tell us if we’ve succeeded.

Let’s not be that insecure friend, endlessly navel-gazing and obsessing about what others think about us. We are who we are. Let’s start from there.

  • You can read Verashni’s column every Monday here, and follow her on twitter here.