Sunday Times

We cannot become a nation that settles for less


It left us deeply dismayed. But Bafana Bafana’s abortive Africa Cup of Nations campaign does not represent the best of who we are as South Africans. Rather, it speaks to a culture of mediocrity that blights our national psyche. Galling to many was that, on crashing out of the continenta­l contest, our team failed to meet the minimum requiremen­t of a simple draw — against a lessfancie­d Sudan.

It’s telling, too, that team coach Molefi Ntseki was shown the door not for failing to win African soccer’s showpiece, but for tripping over the incredibly low bar of just getting out of the qualifiers. All this, it must be said, from a country with the richest profession­al league on the continent, where resources are no object.

Bafana’s abysmal showing goes to the heart of why, in many respects, we have become a nation of also-rans on the global stage.

Over the years we have embraced a performanc­e tradition of celebratin­g the ordinary instead of the excellent. It is a habit that has, regrettabl­y, permeated nearly every aspect of South African life.

Sport is not just about the commitment and talent of the athletes. It’s also about the role of the administra­tors, who must be exceptiona­l in their job of discoverin­g and nurturing the talent needed to compete successful­ly with the best in the world.

The culture has taken root, too, in the schooling system, where we’ve been tinkering with pass marks — some as low as 30% or 40%. We seem to have taken the view that, where pupils cannot meet a particular minimum standard, of, say, 50%, the standard itself must be lowered.

In other instances, children who cannot meet the pass requiremen­ts are “progressed”— effectivel­y promoted despite having, to put it bluntly, failed. On the face of it, the system and those who run it, including the bureaucrat­s and politician­s, then look good. But this is in reality an exercise in self-delusion, which should be questioned rather than celebrated by parents and everyone else.

If children are not coping, might it not be more sensible and productive to address the environmen­tal and classroom causal factors, including the quality of teaching, class sizes and home support? Granted, this would be the harder choice, but of enormous and lasting benefit to the pupils and the country in the long run.

But if we have not covered ourselves in glory in many aspects of our national life, we also have islands of excellence and hard work. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, our scientists have been the face of SA at its best, giving a good account of themselves at the forefront of the global fight against the virus, and helping us to better understand and protect ourselves against it.

Names such as Glenda Gray, Shabir Madhi, Mosa Moshabela and Salim Abdool Karim should be an inspiratio­n to us all, especially to young people.

This, en passant, is why we all should be concerned about the recently announced funding cuts in higher education, which risk negatively impacting cutting-edge scientific and other academic research — potentiall­y weakening our preparedne­ss to deal expeditiou­sly with future public health threats. That, of course, is a subject for another day.

Beyond the world of science, we have acquitted ourselves brilliantl­y in other spheres of human endeavour, proving our ability to deliver a performanc­e of world-beating standard when called upon.

Trevor Noah, anchor of Comedy Central’s Daily Show and recent host of the 2021 Grammys, is arguably the most visible and influentia­l South African cultural export at the moment. We have produced the internatio­nal award-winning Ladysmith Black Mambazo and won both the Rugby World Cup and the before-mentioned Cup of Nations. Not to forget Chris Barnard’s hearttrans­plant world first.

The exceptiona­lists among us imagine us to be special among the community of nations — what with having overcome apartheid relatively peacefully (against fears of a racial bloodbath) and given the world Nelson Mandela. But our apartheid-tainted past, and present, do not in themselves make us a great or special country.

Great nations become so because they excel in what they do. They strive to perform to a superlativ­ely high standard, not the lowest and most surmountab­le bar.

Like them, we should strive to occupy the frontiers of innovation and invention.

In the afterglow of 1994 we prioritise­d the rights of citizens over individual­s’ obligation­s to society. Unwisely, we consigned the conversati­on about the imperative to be the best, and to be great, to the back burner.

But it is now due. When last have any of our leaders talked about the need to excel in the things we do, as citizens and as a country? To be the best as teachers and students; as health-care workers and managers of the public service? As taxi drivers, supermarke­t till operators and business managers?

To, in the words of Martin Luther King jnr, do our task so well “that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better”.

I believe we are at a historic crossroads in the evolution of our society — faced by a choice: to be a nation built on mediocrity and sloth, or one that is set on staying abreast of progressiv­e humanity. To be a society that has more to offer the world than being simply a primitive peddler of raw mineral resources.

With talk of a post-Covid society now a cliché, this is as good a time as any to reflect on our old mindset of making peace with indifferen­ce and stagnation.

Perhaps, in that context, the president might want to consider a National Excellence Day. It might just help to focus our collective mind on a very important matter.

When last have any of our leaders talked about the need to excel in the things we do, as citizens and as a country?

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