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Do South Africans have a ‘loser’ mentality?

“Yaapies” is how the Australian writer Malcolm Knox referred to South African cricketers in his 2005 novel Adult Book. Some may take exception to this, but it has to be acknowledged that he also manages to sum up very neatly what is wrong not just with our national cricket team, but with the South African psyche as a whole.

Chris, the main character in the novel, has this to say about South African cricketers:

The Yaapies jump around. Busy, punky, athletic. They think they’re like us, but they’re not, not at all. Something in their history makes them tough but insecure, hard on the surface but soft–centred. They fight and fight and never give up, but when you’ve beaten them, there’s something in them that accepts it. As if deep down they’re too guilty to take the last step.

What Knox successfully puts his finger on here is a fundamental lack of collective self belief that continues to prevent South Africans from achieving their full potential. There is plenty of idealism in the nation, abundant skills and resources, many decent people and a still potent core of optimism that comes from our collective success in pulling away from the brink of ruinous civil war. Despite this, there remains an over-arching pall of negativity throughout society that all too often becomes self-fulfilling. This dampens enthusiasm and stifles hope for the future. Real achievements are routinely played down while problems are too often conflated into unmanageable threats.

History is replete with the extraordinary things that can be achieved when a nation, or even an ethnic group, works together with a sense of common purpose. One particularly striking example took place in the latter half of the 19th century, when Japan transformed itself from a quasi-medieval, feudal society into a modern economic and military superpower capable of competing with the most advanced European countries. Japan achieved this not by sacrificing its own traditional culture but rather by harnessing the dynamics of that culture to assimilate what was useful in the rival European culture and to fully exploit this for its own ends. As a result, Japan not only avoided the fate of other non-European societies that failed to adapt fast enough and were consequently swallowed up by predatory colonialists, but even succeeded in becoming an imperial power itself.

One can point to other examples. The remarkable transformation of the land of Israel from a sparsely populated colonial backwater into a thriving modern state in the face of such daunting odds is one. Another is how post-World War I Turkey arose Phoenix-like from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, spectacularly reversing three centuries of near-constant decline to re-establish itself as a strong, prosperous presence on the world stage.

There is a striking local parallel we can point to. Inevitably, it has its dark side, yet its underlying lessons are profound. This was the way the Afrikaner community was able to pick itself up by its bootstraps in the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer war through a sustained and impressive series of economic, cultural, educational and political upliftment initiatives.

The extent to which Afrikaners succeeded in transforming themselves has to be admired, whatever reservations one might have with some of the methods employed. A host of organisations and institutions aimed at promoting Afrikaner welfare in every conceivable sphere were launched, particularly during the inter-war years. The Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereenigings, financial giants like Saambou, Volkskas Bank and Sanlam Insurance, workers’ organisations like Spoorbond and charitable institutions like Reddingsdaad were just a few of these. Inspired by an intense spirit of ethnic solidarity and national pride (something so dramatically illustrated by the 1938 Great Trek Centenary celebrations), Afrikaners confronted head-on, and to a great extent overcame, the problems of poverty, lack of education and skills and political powerlessness that had so bedevilled them in the grim years following the loss of their independence.

Of course, this is not the whole story. Much of these undoubted achievements were marred by the fact that Afrikaner upliftment was in part facilitated by existing racist legislation that accorded special privileges to the white minority while placing unacceptable restrictions on legitimate black aspirations. There were statutory colour bars limiting skilled and most semi-skilled positions in the workplace to whites only, not to mention racially differentiated wage levels, among many other iniquitous laws.

How, therefore, should one evaluate the whole phenomenon?

I believe that while the negative aspects of the campaign for Afrikaner upliftment cannot be disregarded, it would be equally inaccurate to dismiss Afrikaner accomplishments as being solely attributable to institutionalised racism. The undeniable fact is that the ethnic, national and cultural solidarity fostered by countless dedicated men and women proved to be a potent force in generating change for the better within the Afrikaner community. It should further be noted how this solidarity cut across class lines, being as concerned with uplifting the lowest echelons of Afrikaner society as it was on creating a wealthy, educated elite.

As I see it, South Africa’s greatest challenge is to foster a similar sense of patriotism and common purpose amongst its diverse peoples. History has shown how patriotism, when it is genuinely inclusive, can be a tremendous force for good. This would mean, in the South African context, at the very least having a sincere respect for those from different backgrounds.

In this regard, it can seriously be questioned whether according special privileges to certain groups solely on the basis of race is the best way of redressing the wrongs of the past (especially fourteen years into democracy, when young white people who were only small children when apartheid was in force are now entering the market place). There are unquestionably some disquieting similarities between contemporary affirmative action and BEE policies and the notorious Colour Bar legislation of bygone years, even if the latter impacted far more negatively on blacks than its modern incarnation does on today’s white minority. Nor is it necessarily working in correcting the socio-economic imbalances between blacks and whites. In practice, a minority of fortunate blacks have landed with their buttocks in the margarine while the great majority remain rooted in poverty.

One area where I believe there is a pressing case for remedying apartheid’s legacy is in public transport. Forced removals and urban segregation resulted in most non–whites being forced to live in areas very far from their places of work, and this problem continues to this day. For many –- perhaps the majority -– of black people, getting to and from work remains a lengthy, expensive and often dangerous ordeal to be endured on a daily basis. I, for one, would whole-heartedly support the allocation of sufficient resources towards establishing an efficient, affordable public transport service to ease this inherited burden. It would certainly be preferable to racially-skewed employment requirements that reward a few lucky individuals for being black, correspondingly punish others for being white and leave the basic problems of inequality unresolved.

Author

  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.