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 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 nonracialism and nonsexism.
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 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. But times are changing 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, oil, 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.
So take that which is good from your South African and African identity, and make the world your home.
» Botman is rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University. Find him on Twitter @RusselBotman
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