Psychological wounds dealt by a brutal past still far from healing
The Indian novelist Arundhati Roy visited SA in August to promote her 2017 novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. In it, she writes: “From my window seat in a bus on a bright, beautiful day, I saw a mob lynch an old Sikh gentleman.
“They pulled off his turban, tore out his beard and necklaced him SA–style with a burning tyre while people stood around baying their encouragement.”
Despite her courage in fighting apartheid, the world will never forget Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s, “With our boxes of matches, and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country.”
In his eulogy at her funeral in April, President Cyril Ramaphosa used biblical imagery to describe Madikizela-Mandela’s trauma: “Many South Africans have been touching Mam’ Winnie’s wounds. It ought to have been done long ago.
“For she wore the gaping wounds of her people. We must also recognise our own wounds as a nation. We must acknowledge that we are a society that is hurting, damaged by our past, numbed by our present and hesitant about our future.…”
Detainees’ Parents Support Committee (DPSC) founder Audrey Coleman urged leaders of the United Democratic Front after the kidnapping and murder of teenage activist Stompie Seipei in 1989 to have Madikizela-Mandela sent to a trauma clinic outside SA, but it never happened. “I don’t think people recognised the trauma. There were other, bigger things….
“We referred detainees to counselling because we felt [they] were traumatised. But they would go once and never return … because they didn’t understand what the point was,”
When Coleman served on the social welfare committee in the Gauteng legislature, she suggested setting up units for trauma counselling.
“In 1994 we expected people to be normal, and they had gone through this horror and insecurity. I thought teachers could be taught how to recognise a traumatised child and I suggested having counselling services near schools,” she says.
“But, of course, at the time there was a lot happening and we were new to government and it was all too much…. The children who witnessed the violence are the adults of today, and they have never had any redress for their trauma.”
Traumatised people communicate the extent of their pain by traumatising others, Leslie Swartz, professor of psychology at Stellenbosch University said at a conference jointly convened by the Holocaust and Genocide Centre and Groups for the Reading and Study of Psychoanalysis in August.
The gathering followed a memorial ceremony for people who died in the Life Esidimeni tragedy and their families.
Poet Makhosazana Xaba, like many black women of her generation, had limited career options: nursing or teaching. She chose nursing and progressed to psychiatric nursing.
She felt trapped in her career: “I hated the environment of anxious, confused, defeated, groaning and weeping patients. I hated being instructed to be of service to rude, sexist and racist doctors. I hated the sisters who barked instructions at us in the name of teaching. I hated the environment of pain and death.”
The TRC served a political agenda of nation-building ... it did not facilitate the 'economic and social redress of apartheid inequalities'. Nor did it deal with the wounds of a 'society that is hurting, damaged by our past, numbed by our present and hesitant about our future'.
Xaba says when she heard Gauteng’s head of mental health Dr Makgabo Manamela’s testimony at the Life Esidimeni hearings into the deaths of 143 mentally ill patients, she wondered how she had made her choices.
“I recognised in her the person I feared many years ago that I might become,” she says.
Speakers at the conference were psychologists involved with the Life Esidimeni arbitration. They shared their trauma as witnesses to suffering; the challenges of working within a public health system where buildings are disintegrating; facilities are inadequate; posts have been frozen; bullying is rife; caseloads are untenable; and disciplines such as psychiatry and psychology are utilised in the service of power.
Dr Clint van der Walt compared the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) with the Life Esidimeni alternative dispute resolution process. “The TRC combined reconciliatory rhetoric with firmer jurisprudential mechanisms in an exquisite montage of justice, forgiveness, conditional criminal prosecution, investigative fervour, humanity, humaneness and human rights,” he said.
Preoccupation with forgiveness for the “massive and systematic violations of human rights that were incurred during the apartheid regime” was central to the way the TRC was reported by the media.
“Forgiveness was performed, packaged and sold in the official discourses and representations of the TRC,” Van der Walt said.
Images of “former enemies embracing, of perpetrators washing the feet of their victims, of parents reaching out to the murderers of their children in virtually unimaginable gestures of forgiveness”, captured the imagination of SA and the world, Van der Walt said.
The TRC served a political agenda of nation-building, but as Van der Walt points out, it did not facilitate the “economic and social redress of apartheid inequalities”. Nor did it deal with the wounds of a “society that is hurting, damaged by our past, numbed by our present and hesitant about our future”.
Coleman says it was a mistake to appoint high-profile people with no knowledge of what happened at the grassroots level as TRC commissioners.
“For example, we had a woman in the DPSC, Sophie Masite, who lived in the townships. She knew the people; she knew everything that was going on…. And when the evidence was led, for example on the East Rand, where those kids were blown-up with booby-trapped hand grenades, she sat in the TRC and cried, because they didn’t ask the right questions.
“People like Masite should have been advisers to the TRC if they didn’t want to put them on a high-profile committee.”
Coleman says that debriefing and counselling was provided for the TRC commissioners but NGOs and church groups provided this assistance for the people who testified. Referring to a report by the Khulumani Support Group, which is still campaigning for justice and redress for TRC witnesses, Van der Walt noted that “the testifiers were often left feeling upset, bewildered and that they had been used expediently”.
The Esidimeni dispute resolutions’s triumph, he says, was that it evolved into a “metabolised version of trauma” which was incorporated into the official record. “The unspeakable suffering could be born, have a different kind of life, and do a different sort of work.”
SA’s transgenerational trauma cannot be left unaddressed, the conference concluded. Steps to ensure that psychological services are made available must be made a priority.
The election of Qedani Mahlangu — who spearheaded the Life Esidimeni tragedy as health MEC — to the ANC’s provincial executive committee is a symptom of transgenerational trauma.