By Anver Versi
The role of columnists in newspapers and other media is not only to comment on current issues but to tap into the social nervous system and detect new tendencies. Thus they act as weather vanes, predicting the direction of thoughts, emotions and impulses and working out the effects of these on the social consciousness. In many cases, they ring alarm bells; in other cases, they act as thought-leaders, urging their readers to choose certain paths and avoid others.
African columnists are no different from their colleagues elsewhere in the world apart from one fundamental aspect. They do not seem to enjoy the same status in their own spheres of influence that their counterparts in the developed world, and increasingly in the more confident developing countries of Asia and Latin America, enjoy.
And here lies the crux of the problem, which goes beyond the media. There is a reluctance to appreciate the work of Africans unless it is recognised and validated by outsiders, usually in the West.
Over the last few months, New African columnists, from different countries and regions and backgrounds, have been consistently pointing out one theme – the African lack of confidence and appreciation of other Africans.
This is a sensitive issue which many commentators prefer to skirt around but it is nonetheless a profound one. When we talk about African self-confidence, we are not talking about the often false bravado of declaring ‘I am proud to be an African!’ which by its very declamatory nature often masks a deep-seated inferiority complex.
It often takes the form of asking for help from outside as the first course of action during a crisis, or looking for acknowledgment from outside rather than from within. It manifests itself in the glee with which we rush to parade whatever praise a foreign agency may send our way while ignoring comments from our own contributors.
It manifests itself in the manner in which we refuse to recognise outstanding achievements of our own people unless someone else does so first. The achievements of our writers, artists, sportspeople, inventors, entrepreneurs and so on are sniffed at until Time magazine or its equivalent says so, at which point we rush to add our praises.
We see it in the eagerness of our leaders and politicians to be interviewed by foreign media, when they shun the local media.
Falling over backwards
Times without number I have seen our high and mighty and those in between falling over backwards to accommodate foreign journalists, no matter how junior, while snapping at our own journalists, no matter how senior. Then there are those who proudly carry copies of The Economist or The Times to show their sophistication but will not be seen dead with a copy of an African publication.
We are fond of quoting outsiders to prove our points while ignoring words of wisdom from our own thinkers.
We see it as a matter of pride to show how cultured we are by displaying our knowledge of Western literature and art instead of feeling shame that so few of us have neither read nor are aware of our own classics.
Then there is the cult of mediocrity whereby we look with suspicion at any African that strives to achieve excellence in their field. These people more often than not have to produce their work abroad before their talents are acknowledged.
What this boils down to is that we have lost our confidence in distinguishing between the good, the bad and the ugly and depend on others to tell us what is what.
Some have blamed this tendency on the long period of colonisation which entailed the rubbishing of all things native- African. There is no doubt there is some truth in that but the era of colonisation is long gone. We are masters of our own destiny now, for better or worse.
And the person standing shoulder to shoulder with me is my fellow African – not the foreigner. We sink or swim together. If I want the world to respect me, I have to start by respecting and loving my African brothers and sisters. In the eyes of the world, we are indistinguishable one from the other. Let us celebrate our Africanness – it is what makes us unique. NA