FIKILE-NTSIKELELO MOYA: Why SA suffers from the ‘impostor syndrome’


The South African state would probably not admit it publicly, but it does not totally feel at home on the continent. It is not so much that the country believes it is above the rest of the continent. It is the opposite.

The country suffers the state-equivalent of the psychological disorder, the impostor syndrome, characterised by an individual continuously displaying doubts about their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.

Two incidents in this regard come to mind.

The first is the dilly-dallying around telling asylum seekers that they are demanding the impossible and that their illegal activities in support of this demand should not be tolerated for fear of the country being accused of being xenophobic.

For several weeks now asylum seekers have occupied first the United Nations High Commission for Refugees offices for three weeks, and later the Central Methodist Church, both in Cape Town.

Refugees in South Africa deserve all the protection the law, both domestic and international, provides.

That, however, does not mean that we should infantalise the poor, oppressed and marginalised and assume that just because of their poverty or nationality, they are incapable of hearing hard truths.

Asylum seekers just cannot be shipped out to Canada or anywhere they wish. It does not work like that.

It is also not acceptable for them to have attacked faith leaders, including Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba and the SA Human Rights Commission’s Reverend Chris Nissen.

Makgoba and Nissen were part of a group trying to resolve the impasse between the refugee seekers and the state over their demands to be moved to other countries so that they could escape xenophobic attacks in South Africa.

The second incident involved deputy president David Mabuza refusing to condemn Ugandan laws persecuting homosexuals. Mabuza argued that South Africa must “always respect the sovereignty of Uganda”.

These views, as well as South Africa’s reluctance to be honest with refugees demanding the impossible, can be tracked back to a fallout in 1997 between then President Nelson Mandela and Nigerian military strongman Sani Abacha.

Mandela was publicly humiliated and isolated after he condemned the Nigerian military junta for the detention of businessman and politician Moshood Abiola and the execution of environmental and self-governing rights activist Ken Saro Wiwa. South Africa privileges being polite over being forthright.

Abiola was thought to have won the Nigerian presidential elections before the military junta, led by Sani Abacha, decided that they were better placed to run the country than the man the people of Nigeria had chosen. Mandela called for sanctions against and the isolation of the Nigerian government, but ended up with him being cast as the villain of the piece. Abacha’s minister of information memorably called South Africa “a white country with a black head of state”.

Since then, South Africa seems paralysed to say anything that could offend the sensibilities of the continent. It does not matter how consistent such a statement might be with South Africa’s own values.

That is why it so listlessly wrings its hands when dictators and asylum seekers alike think that they are beyond criticism.

South Africa must develop a backbone to act on its values while promoting human rights on the continent. The see-nothing-do-nothing attitude can only hurt South Africa and the values on which this country was founded.

Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is an independent journalist and former editor of The Mercury and The Witness.