Repairing SA’s damaged psyche

‘Let’s play a game.” It was strange, almost surreal, to see a group of young girls, seven to 10 years olds, laughing and cavorting in the streets of Mlungisi township near Queenstown — the same township that in the mid-1980s had become the scene of so much misery, a tinderbox of inflamed emotion against the inhumanities of apartheid. But that was before these children were even born.

I was doing some work in Mlungisi and happened to be walking through their neighbourhood when I saw them. Their squeals and cries were the very embodiment of joy. My heart leapt. They reminded me of tender shoots of foliage — little blades of life — poking out from under the cooled lava of a township that was once devastated by apartheid’s volcano.

“What game?” the others shouted, skipping back and forth.

“Let me show you,” the first one said. She was about eight and looked as if she might be the informal leader of the group. She began to demonstrate. The other girls didn’t seem too enthusiastic about this new game. What was wrong with just playing skip? But slowly, they became intrigued.

“It’s called the necklace game,” the leader said. “This is just going to be pretend necklace, not the real thing.” She pushed the other girls aside as if to open up the stage. Rotating through the role of victim, then killer, then onlooker, she seemed to my amazement to recall everything that actually happened in a real necklace murder, even though she hadn’t been born when the last necklace killing occurred in her township.

She flailed her arms, screaming in mock anguish as if being beaten, swaying back and forth and begging for mercy. Then she switched roles and play-acted someone going to find petrol, then another person offering matches, then someone running to demand a car tyre from a passing motorist.

“Give me your tyre!” she ordered with mock hostility. She narrated the part of the motorist who dutifully obeyed, then the petrol man, then the matches man.

Finally, she returned to her victim role, struggling against an imaginary tyre placed around her neck. Nervously, she made a gesture simulating the striking of a match, as if her friends — now a crowd of executors — had forced her to set herself alight.

As imaginary flames engulfed her, she waved her arms wildly in the air. “Now sing and dance and clap your hands. I’m dying,” she said.

Her friends started clapping and singing in a discordant rhythm. They formed a circle and went round and round her “body”. Gradually, the high-pitched screams of the girl with the imaginary tyre around her neck faded to a whimper as her life “ebbed away”. “Consumed” by the flames, she slowly lowered herself to the ground and “died”. It was all make-believe.

I was in Mlungisi trying to understand how the collective trauma of necklace murders in that community was being dealt with, if at all. In the past, death by “necklace” punctuated the life of black townships so frequently that even children playing on the street began to incorporate fire into their games — sometimes with fatal consequences.

None of the girls I saw that morning re-enacting the necklace game had actually seen a necklace murder. But the unspoken events of the past — the silence of Mlungisi’s lambs — had become imprinted on their minds.

It was not just the outward form of the game, but its inner meaning, the sense of trauma to communal life that it carried with it. They carried the collective fear and horror somewhere deep within them.

Re-enacting the death dance of a necklace victim may well have been a way of transforming its memory into something more accessible and less fearful for the girls.

The enactments of troubling incidents, such as necklace murders, that are beginning to emerge around South Africa are perhaps a cathartic way of putting into action the struggle to find language that expresses the frustrations, helplessness, disempowerment and dire poverty of people whose lives have become meaningless. Whether they sleep or wake up in the morning is of little consequence; they don’t have much to lose because they count for little in the greater scheme of things.

The language of violence is etched in the memory of many South Africans and passed on to the next generation and the next, in the way that traumatic memory so often is.

The externalised skit of a necklace murder suggests that the children I witnessed in Mlungisi were experiencing a desire to escape the cycle of pain that is already part of their individual and communal lives, as it is for many in poverty-stricken black townships.

This death “game” is hardly cowboys and Indians or Dungeons and Dragons. It is based on a reality where real people die.

The angry crowds that have committed murders in areas such as Braamfischerville and Phillipi seem to have found comfort in a way that is somewhat similar to that experienced by the girls in Mlungisi — by embracing the silence and the buried hopes of their communities.

The measures taken to address the trend of necklace murders will need to go far beyond effective policing. They will need to include the restoration of shattered dreams if they hope to bring about real transformation to people’s lives.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is the author of A Human Being Died That Night: A Story of Forgiveness. She is associate professor of psychology at the University of Cape Town and adjunct professor at the Unilever Ethics Centre at the University of Natal

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