A wounded nation

On December 16, Reconciliation Day, while many Capetonians were driving towards the beaches, the Dean of St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, Rowan Smith, was welcoming a group of people who had gathered for a two-hour pilgrimage.

St George’s Cathedral, as a site of resistance against apartheid, has long been an important symbol of peace and unity. Here, religious leaders from different faith groups joined hands with tens of thousands of South Africans during apartheid to campaign for peace. Thus the pilgrimage included stops at the Great Synagogue near the Cape Town Gardens and at the Palm Tree Mosque on Long Street.

That the crowd of people who joined the pilgrimage did not match the massive numbers witnessed at the Cathedral’s peace marches during apartheid years suggests that the pilgrimage does not carry as much urgency as campaigns in the past.

Yet, listening to the conversations and watching the determination on the faces of the racially diverse crowd walking towards the Great Synagogue along the tree-lined corridor in the Cape Town Gardens, one was reminded of the hunger for dialogue among many South Africans of different racial groups.

“We need more of these kinds of events that bring us together,” says a middle-aged white woman as she tries to catch up with me. Her companion, a younger woman, agrees. She had attended a public dialogue about reconciliation at the University of Cape Town the previous week, which addressed the challenges South Africans face in a post-apartheid society.

“There is so much anger and negative stuff we hear and read about,” she says, “but there is also a lot of hope. This is why I try to attend these events to keep alive the hope I have for my country.”

As we leave the Great Synagogue and head towards the Palm Tree Mosque, two women, French and Italian, join me. They lament the low number of black people - especially those “from the township” - in the pilgrimage.

These observations, of anger and “negative stuff”, and of the apparent absence of black people “from the township” in reconciliation events, capture the story of South Africa 15 years after our democracy. While there are a multitude of ways in which one could characterise the “national psyche” of South Africans in the first decade of our democracy, I would like to offer two central, related themes.

On the one hand, there is anger and frustration among black and white South Africans for reasons that are different for each group. On the other hand, the spirit of reconciliation and sense of hope that reverberated throughout the country during the years of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which inspired a transformed conception of politics and society, have dissipated.

Behind the anger and frustration are enduringly painful emotional experiences that could be described as collective trauma. Many white South Africans, especially those whose votes sustained the apartheid government’s oppressive rule, find it difficult to acknowledge that the social, educational and economic privileges under apartheid gave them a better life under apartheid. This also created the possibility of a better future for them in the post-apartheid era.

Part of the collective denial of this status of beneficiaries has to do with the following: acknowledging that they have benefited from a system that oppressed fellow human beings and even committed atrocities, threatens white people’s sense of humanity.

They need the psychological protection that denial provides to shield themselves from guilt and from recognising the justifications that they need to avoid confronting the fact of the injustice of apartheid.

Thus many will say: “It is because of hard work and not privileges handed down to us by an oppressive system.”

What is missing from this assertion is that black people worked hard. Their hard work, however, was not rewarded and did not open doors in the same way it did for whites, for example, in the ability to invest in property.

Another complicating factor is that although apartheid was understood as a system that oppressed blacks (black in all the diversity), the details of the repressive system of the apartheid state were not always in plain sight. Moreover, even if they were, fear and being in a comfort zone made it difficult for many whites to question apartheid and actually take a stand against it.

There are other reasons for the collective denial by many white South Africans that they benefited from apartheid. The racial superiority and life of privilege bestowed on many white people a kind of certainty about their future and the future of their children. There was a time when white families knew which university their children would attend, what programmes they would register for and what company they would join afterwards. These certainties have been shattered and for some whites the loss of these privileges has led to real emotional pain.

At a group level these emotions may be experienced as a kind of collective trauma and may lead to feelings of victimhood.

What I am saying is that most of the anger we have witnessed among some whites stems from a real sense of loss - loss of privilege and a feeling of powerlessness in a society that seems to privilege blacks. For the majority of black people, however, the scales of privilege are tilted to the very few, the beneficiaries of black economic empowerment (BEE) and those with ministerial power to allocate material privileges to themselves.

So, while President Jacob Zuma says we have a Constitution that guarantees human rights for all, the experience on the ground is that very little has changed or is changing.

Some schools for black learners around the country are in an appalling physical state. Some learners who pass matric from these schools have never seen a microscope yet, when they enrol at university, they are expected to compete with their peers as if they have had the same educational experience.

In their 1989 book, Uprooting Poverty, Frances Wilson and Mamphela Ramphele characterised the deep economic divisions in our society as the distinction between “grinding poverty and massive wealth”. Twenty years later this situation still prevails and some may say it has become worse. The difference is that some of the massive wealth is now in the hands of a minority of blacks who are beneficiaries of BEE privileges.

While we have witnessed mutual distrust and racial hostility among some black and white South Africans, such feelings among black people may reflect frustration arising from a lack of opportunities available to break the cycles of poverty.

Many young black people wake up to a yawning void of emptiness, with no opportunities for skills training, jobs or inspiration to attend the schools in their neighbourhood. They are caught up in a never-ending cycle of nothingness.

We should not be surprised that, increasingly, on television we see more young people taking to the streets in protest and that the age of the perpetrators of violent crime is becoming younger.

The 15 years of our democracy seem to have produced a generation of young people whose circumstances make them feel worthless. This makes it difficult to bestow worth upon others and to connect with them as fellow human beings.

This is how poverty strips away the humanity of individuals. The complex and enduring struggle to restore one’s sense of humanity in the face of such dehumanising conditions can manifest in violence, against self or others.

Gatherings such as the St George’s Cathedral pilgrimage remind us of the importance of walking the journeys that bring us back to the table of shared humanity.

This solidarity is perhaps what we need to face our psychological demons and to repair the brokenness of our society across racial and generational divides.

The words of the psychoanalyst Robert Stolorow capture this sentiment: “If we can help one another bear the darkness rather than evade it, perhaps one day we will be able to see the light.”

We need a new vision of humanism. We need to find ways to listen to one another’s stories of pain. This will enable us to extend our ethical horizons to include others and to understand that we are implicated in one another’s pain and trauma.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is a professor in the psychology department at the University of Cape Town

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

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