A caring president should make the nation feel safe

Fundamentally, it’s about feeling safe. A child’s response to the world and those in its immediate environment is determined by the level to which they feel safe and the level to which they are made to feel safe by those whose task it is to make them feel safe – their caregivers. But caregivers are fallible; they are not perfect.

This is part of life – and why there is the expectation, not of perfection, but of being a “good enough” caregiver. It’s about how that caregiver goes about repairing the empathic ruptures created by their inevitable slip-ups. A non-response or an inappropriate response results in mistrust, disillusionment, rage, betrayal, denial.

Psychologist and paediatrician Donald Winnicott is credited with giving us a way to organise this in our minds. If a child’s emotional needs are acknowledged and met, things will be okay. The road is not (and probably should not be) without bumps. An empathic failure is not the same as a denial or rejection of needs, or neglect.

On the national stage, it is President Jacob Zuma’s responsibility to ensure we feel safe. He can’t be considered “good enough” in this caregiver role, having failed dismally in his responses – or non-responses, in many cases. The nation is drowning in the chasm created by such empathic failures. We are continually injured by the president’s disregard, and in response many are spewing forth their narcissistic rage. Zuma has no capacity to hold and contain the pain that still so deep in our society.

Do we, as citizens, have a responsibility? Of course we do. But there are many, young people in particular, who did not have the privilege of feeling held and contained by Madiba as the rest of us did. There are young people who did not have the experience of knowing what things could (and should) be like when the caregiver is warm, responsive, empathic and containing. All they have is the experience of chaos: of a caregiver who is selfish, witholding, and who mocks them and then calls them sick because he is unable to reflect on how, in many ways, all they are doing is responding to a caregiving system that is abusive and neglectful.

Apartheid left us wounded in ways we are still discovering 21 years down the line. This is undeniable. But this does not absolve Zuma of his responsibility for how South African society has been warped in its attempts to emerge from those dark times. How people heal is determined not only by the extent to which they were traumatised but by how their trauma is responded to, and the context in which working through that trauma occurs.

Zuma’s response, and the context actively created, is far from conducive, and yet he refers to the populace as the sick ones, and blames it on apartheid. Re-establishing a sense of safety – physical safety, emotional safety, political safety, economic safety – is paramount in responding to those who have been traumatised. It’s convenient for Zuma to externalise: to project his failure on to the rest of Africa and blame it for xenophobia.

Well, we’re not sick. We’re angry, we’re sad, we’re scared, anxious, wavering.

The nation is 21 years old, but we have failed desperately to meet our developmental milestones. Without support and strong guidance, South Africa cannot grow into a well-rounded adult, independent and secure. Without a “good enough” caregiver we are in danger of becoming the delinquent, antisocial adult-child who has been so deprived of nurturance that he is unable to acknowledge his own humanity, and consequently that of others.

Winnicott recognises what he called the “antisocial tendency” as emerging from an environment of deep, profound neglect and the denial of emotional needs. Only an all-encompassing, systemic response – something profound – can realign this jagged developmental path. We need and want to grow and develop into an emotionally secure and stable society that can produce future generations uncluttered by our traumatic residue.


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