Excellence as an antidote

by The Editor

ARTICLE: In the piece below Wilmot James makes a fairly profound point: that excellence and its pursuit can be a mechanism through which reconciliation can be achieved. That is, to my mind, an entirely original approach. And quite true too: for a country that suffers low self esteem and over which victimhood has such a strong hold, what can be a better anecdote than setting high standards and then achieving them? Something to think about.

Excellence as an antidote
By: Dr Wilmot James

18 March 2012

South Africans are a wounded people. We’ve been traumatized by our past and remain frustrated by our present. This has stifled our capacity to reconcile with each other as citizens of a democratic nation. But reconciliation – the ability to extend trust beyond the narrow confines of our racial or social group – is the key to our future. It is the primary means by which we will be able to harness our greatest resource: human capital.

These were some of the thoughts that Mamphela Ramphele – one of our country’s most gifted academics, businesswomen and activists – shared with the Democratic Alliance parliamentary caucus recently. I had asked her to speak to us so that we might gain wisdom from her insights and experience, as I have done with other thought leaders from all walks of life.

But Ramphele’s frank discussion of black South Africans’ sense of woundedness has reminded us of how much work remains to be done before many South Africans feel that they have moved from victims to victors.

Our woundedness is often expressed in self-defeating ways. First, many of us cannot shake the feeling that we are somehow lesser than others.

However, we also know that this lingering sense of inferiority is unwarranted. It is the sad legacy of a lie that has been thoroughly discredited by our inspirational triumph over racism. The best anecdote to this feeling is very thing that it threatens: achievement. When we take the risk to act, and succeed, it is then we confirm to ourselves and others that we are worthy.

That is why education is so important, because it provides the means by which young people can confidently tackle the future, free of psychological fetters. Sadly, our public education system – where most black children go to school – plays just as much a role in limiting students’ opportunities as it does in expanding them.

The second, and perhaps ironic, sentiment that arises from our woundedness is a sense of entitlement. Our victimization acts as an emotional and moral claim to special considerations. We end up nursing our suffering so as to claim that we should enjoy greater rights, privileges, perks or access than others.

Again, this is fully understandable, and it makes intuitive sense when thinking of “balancing” things out. While this is useful for assuring that blacks achieve redress for the wrongs of the past, at a personal level it can be quite debilitating.

Entitlement is the haven of mediocrity, the place where innovation and ingenuity go to lie down. That’s the problem with an entitled mindset. It does not spur thoughtful or challenging responses to one’s circumstances, but relinquishes problem-solving to the state. It makes us passive and brittle, when we should be pro-active and open to new opportunities.

Lastly, our woundedness can make us brittle about failure. Rather than own up to the fact that we are not living up to our potential, we call for lower standards so that poor results end up being hailed as successes. This is what we’ve done with education, celebrating the mediocrity of students “passing” a test with a 30% mark. A key indicator of our maturity as masters – not victims – of our fate is that we can acknowledge our failures and make a plan for moving forward.

We do not want to forget the past, but we want to learn from it for the sake of the future. We do not want to deny that we have been damaged by apartheid, but that that experience by no means defines the fullness of who we are.

We – yet again – hold the key to our own liberation. We need to use that key to move from a state of victimhood to mastery of our environment and our lives.

Dr. Wilmot James is DA Federal Chairperson. A version of this article first appeared in City Press.