South African, African, global citizen

There was a time when South Africa was the polecat of the world. Then we averted civil war by way of a negotiated political settlement, and suddenly we had the world at our feet. In the meantime, however, our shine has dulled somewhat. Exactly how do we fit into the global community these days?

This question is of particular importance for young people who are busy with university studies or who are on the point of entering the job market. Is there something about their South Africanness and their identity as Africans that makes them unique? Do they have an advantage over their peers elsewhere in the world? And what is there that they still need to learn before they make their mark in the global village?

In the discussion the last while about our South African identity, the first point that stands out is that our diversity as a nation is one of our strengths. Exposure to a variety of people and ideas puts things into perspective. You realise that you do not know everything, and you can enrich your outlook on life with other insights. You also learn not to be afraid of the unknown, and to be tolerant. This is of great value in a world that is becoming ever more integrated as borders and boundaries fade and multicultural contact increases.

Something else that we can be proud of are the principles enshrined in our constitution. As a South African you have respect for democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights. You think an open society is a good idea – one in which a better quality of life can be pursued for all and where everyone is given a chance to free their full potential.

You believe all people are equal and that they should be treated with dignity. You pursue non-racialism and non-sexism. You are opposed to unfair discrimination on the basis of ethnic or social origin, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, culture or language.

Obviously we are talking here about the ideal “you”. In reality, most of us fall short of this ideal. Nevertheless, this is what the authors of the constitution bequeathed to all South Africans – and what a sought-after inheritance it is! Of particular relevance to this discussion is the fact that the universality of these values connects you to all of humanity – not only to your countrymen and women.

This is why it is important that you vote next year, particularly if you are one of our born frees who first saw the light of day in the new South Africa after the 1994 elections. Every adult citizen “has the right to vote in elections for any legislative body established in terms of the Constitution.” By voting, you will be doing your part to protect the constitution and hold elected officials accountable.

The second point that has stood out recently in our discussion of South African identity is that we are also African – and this means that you are a person through and with other people. That is why we act humanely towards other people.

Ubuntu is Africa’s gift to humanity, and as a South African this treasure is also yours. Share it freely with people from elsewhere, and make the world a better place in this way. But do not necessarily expect gratitude in return. Africans are often marginalised in the global community. Times are changing, however, and you can help swing the pendulum further in our continent’s favour by pursuing excellence at all times.

In the knowledge economy of the 21st century, the most important resource is not gold or oil or labour or even military or political power, but information. The fact that digital information flows freely on the world-wide web means that borders are fading and once established practices are being replaced by new conventions. No-one is in a better position to benefit from this than natives of the information era – as long as they remain flexible enough to keep up with the rapid pace of change. Therefore, take that which is good from your South African and African identity, and make the world your home.

  • What does your identity as a global citizen mean to you? Feel free to comment below (click on the heading above if necessary), or tweet me @RusselBotman. I am looking forward to hearing from you.

(This blog flows from an initial thought leadership discussion that I convened on South African identity recently, and will feed into a live broadcast of Praat Saam on RSG, which will be presented by Lynette Francis from Stellenbosch University on 4 September 2013.)


Proudly African

We have recently been chatting about our South African identity. Many say that it is not only our diversity that is characteristic of our nation but also our celebration of it. To them, we are, as our country’s Constitution (of 1996) puts it, “united in our diversity”.

I concluded my previous blog with the thought that the best point of departure in this debate may be to look not only at our national identity but also at the next level – our African identity. I would now like to expand on this.

Being South African necessarily means that we are also African. Our country is, after all, part of this continent. But what does it mean to be African?

It is not just about geography. The African identity is also about certain values. And at the heart of it is the idea that I am person through and with other people. This view of life is known as ubuntu.

Linking your own humanity to that of other people implies two things: you empathise with all people; and you treat all people with respect. This is what makes you human; this is what it means to be part of humankind.

The advantage of this is that it creates unity where there is division. The emphasis falls on what we have in common rather on what sets us apart. So, even if you and I do not look the same, even if we do not speak the same language, even if we vote for different parties, we still have something in common with one another – our humanity. And this is why we act with humanity towards one another.

It is appropriate that a view that traces our identity back to something as fundamental as our very existence should be associated with Africa. After all, based on archaeological and genetic evidence this continent is the origin of humankind. In fact, some of the oldest humanoid fossils were discovered in our proverbial backyard – at Sterkfontein on the West Rand. This area is not called the Cradle of Humankind for nothing.

As I said on Afternoon Talk on SAfm, presented by Naledi Moleo, on 16 August 2013 (find podcast below), I believe that we owe it to Mrs Ples and all who came after her and scattered across the earth to pay heed to the centuries-old African wisdom that we are people through and with other people. It is with this heritage as our foundation that we can build a better future for the next generation of South Africans.

This means that we accept and embrace and celebrate our diversity because what matters is not that we can be excluded from this or that subgroup for whatever reason, but that we are all included in the overarching collective – humankind itself.

That’s why I am proudly African.

  • What do your South African and African identities mean to you? Please comment below (click on the heading above if necessary) or tweet me @RusselBotman. I look forward to hearing from you.
  • Click here for a podcast of Afternoon Talk on SAfm, presented by Naledi Moleo, on 16 August 2013.

(This blog follows on from an initial thought leadership discussion about the South African identity that I recently convened, and links up with a radio talk show on Praat Saam on RSG, presented by Lynette Francis on 2 August 2013 – click here for a podcast)

What does it mean to be South African?

The enrolment of South Africa’s first “born-frees” at higher-education institutions earlier this year has brought the issue of our national identity into sharp focus again. Having grown up in a post-apartheid society, their experiences have been different to that of previous generations. As we enter a future that will ultimately be shaped by the next generation, we need to review our progress as a nation and look again at where we are heading.

Taking identity as a starting point is useful in the process of re-evaluating our past and future. I regularly experience this in engaging with students. Most of them they say that what binds us together is the ideal of embracing everyone’s human dignity in the context of our diversity as a nation. (Find video below, or visit And judging from the response to a recent radio discussion on this issue (on the programme “Praat Saam”, presented by Lynette Francis, on the SABC station RSG, 2 August 2013 – find podcast below), national identity is an issue of interest to all South Africans.

Sociologists and anthropologists tell us that identity is not a given; it is constructed. It comes about when an individual or group identifies with certain values or actions. It is a form of consciousness, an awareness of how you define yourself and others, and how society sees you and others – with constant interaction between the self and the other, the personal and the social.

The concept of identity is multi-faceted, complex and contested. It has both personal and group dimensions. It is a powerful phenomenon that can act as a force for good, but can also have destructive effects. These were some of the initial inputs made at an initial thought-leader discussion that I recently convened on the South African identity.

A useful point of reference in the argument that the idea of a South African identity serves a good purpose is the country’s 1996 Constitution. The preamble reads that “We, the People of South Africa, recognise the injustices of the past.” A few lines further we see that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it” – and then comes an important phrase – “united in our diversity”.

In the process of constructing a post-apartheid South African identity, our first instinct seemed to be to link this to our diversity. This would be the one thing that we could agree on – the existence of various groups in the country, whether defined in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, etc. So why not make a benefit of our diversity instead of a burden?

But for this to work, the South African identity constructed in such a way that it embraces diversity has to contain a further notion: Inclusivity. Again we find support in the Constitution for this position. In its founding provisions we come across such values as human dignity, equality, human rights and freedoms, non-racialism and non-sexism, as well as democracy. One cannot speak of these values without interpreting them in an inclusive way.

The emphasis on inclusivity is echoed in another key document – the National Development Plan (NDP). It was drawn up by the National Development Commission (NPC) appointed by the President in 2009, and was published last year. The NDP also links the South African identity to the values contained in the Constitution: “We [South Africans] have made the rules by which we want ourselves to live.”

I think the strong emphasis on diversity and inclusivity, on democracy and human rights in these two important documents can best be seen as both a reaction to our history and a yearning for a better future. On the one hand, this entails a rejection of the discriminatory, oppressive and exploitative practices of our apartheid and colonial past. And on the other, it entails striving for such ideals as equality, freedom and justice for all.

If identity is a social construct, the question is do we need an on-going construction of the “South African” identity? I think that in light of the history of apartheid and its legacy still dragging on, we cannot sidestep it. And we should particularly emphasise diversity and inclusivity and the other values of our Constitution as part of our identity.

The South African identity may not sufficiently capture the full complexity of our humanity, but it is probably necessary to use it to achieve the goal of uniting us in the fight for our ideals and against the legacy of the past.

And perhaps a useful starting point for our South African identity is to think of ourselves first and foremost as African. That would mean we consider ourselves part of Africa and we identify with all of our continent’s people in their full diversity.

  • What does being South African mean to you? Please feel free to comment below (click on the title above to activate function if necessary), or tweet me @RusselBotman. I am looking forward to hearing from you.
  • Click here for a video of students of the “Critical Thinking” LLL House at Stellenbosch University talking about their experiences.
  • Click here for a podcast of the programme “Praat Saam”, presented by Lynette Francis, on RSG, 2 August 2013.