/ 20 September 2019

SA has a legacy of trauma

Everyday exclusion: Residents in the Joe Slovo informal settlement in Langa
Everyday exclusion: Residents in the Joe Slovo informal settlement in Langa, Cape Town. ‘When you say you are from Langa there’s a stigma around the room,’ says a young man from the township. (David Harrison/M&G)




The equality court recently ruled that the gratuitous display of the apartheid flag in public — even in homes and schools — amounts to hate speech. Subsequent debates about this ruling again showed that we are still struggling to reach an agreement on which specific symbols should form part of a collective cultural heritage. Judging by some of the heated debates, the notion of what a truly shared South African cultural heritage should look like will remain hotly contested in the coming years.

Although a healthy degree of dialogue about the past is important, in the book Cultural Heritage and Human Rights Helaine Silverman and D Fairchild Ruggles argue that the key questions are: Who defines cultural heritage and who should control its benefits? They further illustrate the potential risks of the escalation of these stakes in dialogues about heritage, arguing that “these contestations, when unresolved, can lead to resistance, violence and war”.

Since the dawn of our democracy the public discourse about our cultural heritage mostly focused on the removal of those visible symbols that remind many South Africans of the oppression suffered under a white supremacist regime. Some of the symbols that have been removed from public spaces bear testimony to this. Although the removal of those visible symbols that evoke painful memories of dehumanisation, segregation and alienation is a vital part of the healing process of our nation, we also need to ask questions about whether the deeper issues represented by these symbols are being addressed in broader society.

In particular, the call to remove symbols of apartheid violence is entangled with the deeper heritage of transgenerational traumatic memories and the issue of what it means to transform this inheritance in the present context. By transgenerational traumatic memory we are not simply speaking about the psychic wounds of the past that are passed down to future generations. Rather the traumas of the past are very much alive in the present for young South Africans and are triggered through everyday lived experiences of poverty, racism and social exclusion. These everyday forms of trauma are experienced alongside a message of being “born free” of the violence of the past.

This contradiction between the continuations of past forms of violence, together with a message of freedom, is a confusing burden that represents a more challenging aspect of our heritage. Recent research from the Historical Trauma and Transformation Unit at Stellenbosch University demonstrates this, for example, in the following words of a young South African from Langa who was interviewed as part of the Trauma, Memory and Representations of the Past project:

“I think the youth of Langa is very lost at the moment. Nobody knows how much freedom they have and what they can do with it. From little things like police and the way they treat a young man from Langa, you are automatically treated as a criminal, especially if you are dressed a certain way. [This] means we are still marginalised, which means we still feel oppressed and feel we have to explain ourselves everywhere we are, in a free country. As a young male who wants to experience Cape Town and have fun, automatically when you say you are from Langa there’s a stigma around the room or it quietens down. That’s something I feel we have to live through as the youth.”

The young people interviewed as part of this research express this painful contradiction between the expectations of freedom and the realities of continued oppression that they feel as they move through different spaces in Cape Town.

Many young people who carry the burden of this heritage have begun to question the negotiated settlement that was reached in their name. Today, they are still waiting to taste the fruits of their parents’ and grandparents’ struggles for a democratic South Africa. Instead, they face unemployment, poverty, inequality and a lack of opportunities for upwards social mobility.

This process of constant brutalisation demonstrates the particular nature of transgenerational trauma in South Africa as “the past continues to intrude into the present in both the internal and external reality”, as Carol Long points out in her chapter in Race, Memory and the Apartheid Archive.

When we remove symbols of apartheid violence such as statues and flags, this can only go so far to transform the traumatic heritage that continues to structure the lives of many young South Africans.

As we celebrate Heritage Day on September 24, the question we should ask ourselves is: What would it mean to address the deeper significance of these heritage symbols at the level of our transgenerational legacies of trauma? This question has been asked in other historical contexts with histories of mass violence. For example, important strides have been made in the post-Holocaust context, which highlights the desire and responsibility that the second generation of Holocaust survivors feel to keep alive the memory of their parents’ suffering. The difference, however, for countries with histories of slavery, colonialism and apartheid is that the violence being remembered continues to structure the lived experience of the generations that come after the transition.

Transforming the symbols of apartheid violence should not be seen as an endpoint to the work of addressing our heritage. Rather than treating this work as a once-off process, transforming our heritage should be seen as a sustained path into the future.

This is a path that would require a long-term and shared commitment to transforming our world, our relationships and ourselves at a deeper structural and cultural level in ways that would enable us to engage with, address and transform the injustices that continue to haunt our society.

Dr Kim Wale is a postdoctoral fellow at the Historical Trauma and Transformation Initiative at Stellenbosch University. Dr Alec Basson works in the university’s communication division