OPINION: Trauma and the Unhealed Scars of South Africa
The history of South Africa is a painful one. This is a fact everyone knows and admits. But we ignore something far more critical that follows from this admission: how, individually and collectively, we have lingering experiences of pain and memories of trauma.
The apartheid government denied generations of South Africans a chance to co-exist on human to human terms because of different skin colours. The concept of apartheid was predicated on classifying "non-whites" as sub-human and white people as God-like – a superior race that could kill, rape, enslave and exploit without consequences.
Various decolonial scholars argue that it is the "God complex" that the Caucasian bestowed on himself that led to colonial conquest on a global scale, the aboriginal genocide in Australia and the Americas, race-based capitalist exploitation, racialised transatlantic slavery and ultimately, apartheid in South Africa.
Colonialism and apartheid was a psychological injustice as much as it was physical abuse and epistemicide. Not only was the land taken, but so was identity and dignity. Martha Cabrera writes at length on what she calls the "multiple wound phenomenon" which are personal, social as well as political. Because of this multiple trauma suffered by the black majority, the experiences of pain and suffering during colonial-apartheid continue to reinvent the wheel of trauma.
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela defines inherited trauma as the impact of colonial oppression, genocide and other kinds of mass atrocities felt across multiple generations of descendants of survivors. Jeffrey Prager calls trauma a wound that never heals but succeeds in passing down from one generation to the next.
Prager further notes that inheritors of trauma are deprived of a social location and as a result fail to build capacity to define themselves autonomously from former generations. In other words, they are dislocated from the centre.
These definitions locate the South African youth at the centre of inter-generational trauma. It is impossible, for instance, to define black youths autonomously from the experiences of apartheid. Their very lived experiences point to the shameful impact of trauma.
Landlessness, poverty, economic exclusion, patriarchy, labour exploitation, education barriers, etc. characterise our young people today. The pain and suffering that multiple generations of South Africans lived through, structurally and systematically, can still be evidenced today through young people.
There are feelings of resentment by black South Africans towards white people for the role they played during apartheid and their remorseless existence in the new South Africa. The youth believe that much like their parents and their grandparents earlier, they live a life of squalor and poverty because white people are uncompromising in their opposition to redress. The trauma-filled existence of the majority of South Africans is largely an outcome of an ignored history.
Service delivery not enough to heal wounds
The democratic dispensation did little to confront the traumatic legacies of colonial-apartheid. It presupposed that service delivery would be therapeutic enough to heal deep wounds of multiple traumas. Failure to get real justice for apartheid injustices is being perceived as a let-down by the government. People see poverty and joblessness as outcomes of compromises that helped protect the privileged status quo of people who benefited from colonialism and apartheid.
I presented findings from a small research sample on Inter-generational Trauma in South Africa: Perspectives from the Youth at the Indlulamithi South Africa Scenarios 2030 Research Conference. The purpose of the research was to find out whether the youth perceive their lived experiences as physically and psychologically traumatic in the context of prevailing colonial-apartheid legacies. This is at the backdrop of a South Africa that is trying to re-imagine itself centered on foundations of social cohesion. Inherited inter-generational trauma was noted as a threat to the realisation of a fully socially cohesive society by 2030.
Simply put, the research wanted to find out if sentiments that the "born free" generation are unburdened by the past; a generation that has options, choices and freedoms former generations (including their parents) did not have.
The study reached several conclusions, the main one being that the so-called born frees, contrary to popular belief, do not "enjoy" complete freedoms. Instead, they live in the shadow of apartheid realities of trauma. Further, the study revealed that young people have a unique lived experience of freedoms which translates to a unique understanding of inherited inter-generational wounds.
How is living in the shadow of apartheid traumatic? Surely the past is in the past, as some have suggested? Research suggests for example that stories told by parents to their children of the past on violence like apartheid can burden them with feelings of anxiety, resentment and possibly depression. Martha Cabrera notes the importance of speaking about trauma and not staying silent like South Africans have chosen to do because it has social consequences of apathy isolation and aggressiveness.
For many young people, the past is the present and can never be forgotten until fully addressed. How then can we have a socially cohesive society when we continue to ignore issues of redress that have socio-economic, psycho-physical wellbeing implications? Black South Africans are socially dislocated they cannot define themselves outside of trauma, a wound that remains unhealed, persistent and threatens efforts to build national unity.
We rely on sport tournaments and public holidays like Heritage Day to convince ourselves of the myth that we are comfortable and accepting of our diversity when, in fact, we continue to resent each other jeopardising the realisation of a united, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous South Africa?
Inevitably, as South Africans we will need to recognise and acknowledge collective traumas of our past, attend to them and find practical ways of healing which undoubtedly includes the rightful return of the land to the black majority.
- Wandile Ngcaweni is a junior researcher in Political Economy at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA). Wandile is also co-editor of a fourth coming book, We are No Longer at Ease: The Struggle for #FeesMustFall.