What do Bonteheuwel, Langa and Crossroads on the Cape Flats have in common? They are among the many communities that suffered oppression and violence under colonialism and apartheid and continue to suffer under similar conditions in the post-apartheid era.
They survived the many forms of violence and oppression inflicted on people classified as black or coloured under apartheid. They were also involved in the bottom-up resistance of the mass democratic movement in alliance with the national liberation struggle, which turned everyday living spaces into war zones.
Their memories are of humiliation, violence and loss, but it is the current realities that make those memories unbearable. Present conditions turn past memories into a collective sense of despair, because there is an unbearable feeling that the past losses were all for nothing.
This is movingly captured in the words of a Bonteheuwel resident.
“So a lot of our children who were in the struggle, they are still suffering … they remember a lot of things up until now and it is still hurting them a lot … and for me the reason why I am feeling hurt is to think that all this effort, this hurt, this pain and injury that we went through, it looks like it will be all for nothing.”
This was recorded during life-history research in the three aforementioned areas, which was undertaken to help to understand the relationship between past and present violence. This study formed part of the project on trauma, memory and representations of the past being led by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela of the Historical Trauma and Transformation Initiative at Stellenbosch University.
The deep despair, captured in the phrase “it was all for nothing”, is shared in many of the 60 stories collected.
But besides memories of pain, humiliation and loss under apartheid and colonialism, people also share positive memories about the struggle. They recall the sacrifice they made in terms of their own bodies and blood, their families, their wages and their education.
But, when they reflect on the humiliating conditions of the present, the sense of betrayal sours their pride. What was once seen as the solution and source of new hope and a better life has become a source of pain. People feel that politicians have led them into a future filled with darkness, where people are abandoned and left to die.
The way in which past and present and personal and social experiences are tied up in a complex knot asks us to rethink the very theoretical concepts that we use to understand memory and suffering, namely trauma.
We have inherited our concept of it from the work of Sigmund Freud in psychology and later from the work of the post-Holocaust theorists attempting to understand the repercussions of that tragedy on collective memory.
Trauma is the concept we use to understand how memories of overwhelmingly painful experiences from the past return to haunt our present and affect our future. But this understanding assumes many things that do not fit in with the South African experience.
When we uncritically apply the Western psychological concept of trauma, we assume that the haunting quality of traumatic memory is located in the individual’s internal psyche and that this “pathological” memory is the result of a single overwhelming event.
In contrast, the violence of our past was not a single event but rather continued over time (racism and poverty) and into the present (the betrayal people feel in relation to the post-apartheid government).
To understand the nature of post-apartheid trauma and the concomitant collective despair requires that we rethink our inherited assumptions about trauma and healing.
We hear a story about how present socioeconomic and political suffering haunts the past as much as the past haunts the present. Post-apartheid trauma requires that we conceptualise the knotting together of psychological, political and socioeconomic conditions if we want to understand the complex nature of suffering in South Africa.
The stories from Crossroads, Langa and Bonteheuwel indicate that, for memories of past pain to heal at the psychological level, many South Africans need to see social inclusion, political recognition and material change.
This is what they hoped liberation would bring and why they sacrificed so much.
Until the everyday lives of people reflect this kind of political, social and economic transformation, the wounds of the past will not heal and will continue to haunt our future.
Kim Wale is a senior postdoctoral fellow at the Historical Trauma and Transformation Initiative at Stellenbosch University. She is author of South Africa’s Struggle to Remember: Contested Memories of Squatter Resistance in the Western Cape