Traumatised societies need honest, self-aware leaders




Societies that have emerged from traumatic experiences, such as colonialism, apartheid and civil war, need leadership that is more caring, has greater self-awareness and is less inclined to seek refuge in victimhood.

Countries that experienced colonialism, apartheid and civil war, experience trauma not only at the individual level, but also mass trauma at a society-wide level. Such regimes of terror deny the humanity of those they oppress, resulting in broken individuals, communities and societies.

Mass trauma damages indigenous cultures, collective identities and individual self-worth. It disfigures the sense of self, family and the nature of interpersonal relationships. It distorts the individual and collective understanding of the world.

In his theory of shattered assumptions, Ronnie Janoff-Bulman argues that people interpret the world based on a set of assumptions about themselves, others and the world. This provides one with a view of how the world operates and how to interpret what happens in the world and one’s role in it.

One would believe that one is a worthy human being, of value and deserving of fair treatment. Trauma disrupts such assumptions — as one now cannot make sense of what is happening. “The subsequent state of defenceless, terrifying and confusing awareness of personal vulnerability gives rise to the anxiety and physiological reactivity that characterise post-traumatic stress disorder,” Janoff-Bulman writes.

The experience of the trauma becomes part of memory, identity and the self — and is passed on to subsequent generations as the victims of trauma often pass on their existential insecurity to offspring.

Lack of development, decline and breakdown in many communities and societies in the postcolonial era adds to the trauma.

During trauma, individuals are often forced into moral compromises to survive, which blurs the line of right and wrong. Victims frequently live for the now because no imaginable future appears possible. Short-termism often becomes the norm, as planning for the future appears fruitless.

Post-traumatic societies have inherent challenges that undermine development.

The survival mechanisms to cope with traumatic incidents of violence are not necessarily the same as for those people who live whole or “normal” lives; and may actually undermine living “normal”, whole or well-rounded lives.

Short-termism could continue into the post-independence period based on the belief that, even if one has reached middle-class status, one can slip back into poverty.

Mass trauma, such as colonialism and apartheid, and chronic long-standing poverty and unemployment can alter the way the victims make decisions, the leaders and parties they support, and how they vote.

Societies emerging from trauma may also fall into victimhood more easily — blaming former colonial powers (often rightly so), outsiders and internal enemies — rather than pro-actively building a new future.

Such societies may also grasp on to false beliefs to ameliorate their fears, pain and insecurity. They may also hold on to cultural practices — even if they are harmful — that give them a sense of place, self and identity.

Broken communities and societies tend to produce a disproportionate number of leaders who are broken, and, moreover, unable to transcend their brokenness. Such societies often vote for autocratic figures: either father figures or strong men, who can supposedly defend them against former threats, such as former colonial powers, “enemy” groups and hostile former elites from the ancien regime.

There are many opportunistic leaders who understand — and exploit — the broken nature of communities for self-enrichment.

Traumatised societies often vote for populists who promise nirvana and offer simplistic solutions to complex problems. These could be church leaders, traditional leaders or sangomas who offer quick fixes to soothe broken souls.

Traumatised societies often support autocratic, corrupt and incompetent leaders, because they are “one of us”. This can also lead to misplaced racial, ethnic and community solidarity — someone will be supported, no matter how corrupt, incompetent or abusive they are, because “they are one of us”.

The effect of the trauma of colonialism and apartheid has delivered many black leaders who mimic the behaviour of their former white oppressors against the black poor —cynical exploitation, callousness and dishonesty.

Mass trauma has instilled deep fear, anger and resentment in many black communities for former colonial and apartheid elites.

The problem is that this fear, resentment and anger-based politics against the other creates an environment in which authoritarian political leaders — who seemingly provide a “fightback” against the objects of the fear, resentment and anger — are appealing.

Ironically, such leaders undermine the interests of those who support them — causing them more poverty, underdevelopment and marginalisation and, therefore, more trauma.

Thus, many mass-traumatised and formerly oppressed communities appear to value what potential leaders say about the object of their fear, resentment and anger more than they value their honesty, competency and values.

Some societies may fall into cultural, ethnic and religious fundamentalism as a way to restore their sense of self, identity and humanity. They often easily see others, who do not look like them, speak like them or have a different religion — but who may also have been oppressed — as threats, competitors and enemies.

What attributes should leaders cultivate in societies that have suffered from mass trauma? Honesty is crucial. And they must refrain from seeking refuge in victimhood. The past cannot be erased, but one can choose how to respond to the past, and how to forge a new future. They must desist from blaming the actions of the former oppressor for their own decisions.

Self-awareness is crucial. Reuel Khoza, the South African businessperson, rightly argues that leaders “must have emotional intelligence, self-knowledge and the ability to self-reflect”.

Character matters and is built on values such as compassion, social justice, forgiveness and measuring self-worth — not by money, material trappings or power.

Leaders should not make decisions based on ethnic, racial and community solidarity, but based on ethical values. They should dismiss both harmful beliefs and traditions. And they should never strive for popularity when it compromises constitutional values, human rights and dignity.

William Gumede is an associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Governance, executive chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times. This is an edited version of his talk this week at the foundation’s Academy for Young Leaders

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