Nelson Mandela is still in hospital, and judging by the influx of international correspondents, the world is preparing for catastrophic news. In South Africa, meanwhile, the sheer volume of emotion displayed speaks of our anguish at the prospect of Madiba-less future. Yet despite the public gnashing of teeth, what this really indicates is a private, inner turmoil – which is completely unique in each of us and occurs outside of public discussion. It's time for South Africa to get on the psychologist's couch. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
One of the most striking images of public loss was taken just a few minutes after the public announcement of the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. It shows a musician reacting to the news, tears streaming down his face, torn with grief.
Roosevelt was one of the first politicians to have such a public profile, thanks to the fairly new medium of the radio. For the first time, the country’s leader was in the heart of every home, and just about everybody in the USA would have heard his voice at some stage. He was part of the very fabric of ordinary people’s lives. When he died, there was an immediate sense of loss that was different to the way the death of a leader had been experienced before.
It’s a brand of grief that South Africa is beginning to understand, with the critical illness of Nelson Mandela. And yet we do not fully understand it. When psychologists are asked how ordinary people deal emotionally with a daily diet of mayhem and disaster in their news media, the answer is often that because human brains generally evolved in small social groups, they’re not actually equipped to deal emotionally with events that affect large numbers of people. That’s why it takes something exceptionally shocking, like a particularly awful incident involving a young child, for example, to evoke a big reaction. Incidents like the rape of Baby Tshepang or the baby found in a sewerage pipe in China both led to outcries.
The trauma that we’re going through with Madiba is different. It’s not so much about him. We love him. We will miss him. We feel that he has a personal connection to every one of us. Many people have a personal anecdote, that friend who once met him and how Madiba’s kindness shone through at that moment. For many of us, there’s the iconic image of Mandela and Francois Pienaar, or the moment he came out of prison, or his speech as he was sworn in as president. He’s been part of the national fabric of our inner lives for many years.
For decades, he was even a part of our lives when we didn’t know what he looked like. While generations of people weren’t allowed to see photographs of him, he was somehow still there. And he was the living embodiment of the Struggle, the fight for freedom, a symbol of why it was so important to not give up.
All of that is present in our inner trauma.
But isn’t just about that. It’s also about our anguish at surviving Apartheid.
Apartheid was so vile, so ugly, so awful, so dehumanising, that there was a widespread and legitimate fear that it could only end in violence. There would be no other way; there would have to be a revolution. And when that revolution came, it would be the whites with their backs up against the wall.
Instead, that didn’t happen. We had a negotiated transition, and are now undergoing a transformation. But the trauma of Apartheid is still with us. Baby Tshepang wouldn’t have been raped if Apartheid hadn’t happened. We wouldn’t have the violent crime that we do now without Apartheid. Marikana wouldn’t have happened without the migrant labour system. All in all, poverty is not what leads to violence. It’s inequality that leads to violence. Humans want a better life, sure, but they also don’t want to be treated differently to anyone else.
However, we survived the end of Apartheid. And quite frankly, the national psyche still doesn’t understand how. How did it not end in violence? How did it not end in civil war? (Despite the best efforts of the awful London Daily Mail).
Anyone who works in the media will have received scores of chain emails over the years from whites worrying about what will happen “when Mandela goes”. They range from the slightly concerned inquiry (we will be all right, won’t we?), through the faintly ludicrous (white families must gather at the Spar in Ventersburg) to the wonderfully stupid (whites should stay with a “black family that can be trusted”). All of them at their heart reveal a bewilderment at how Apartheid ended without a bloody revolution – and possibly also some guilt (Why do I still have my swimming pool?).
It is my belief that we, as a nation, answered this bewilderment by deciding we survived because of Nelson Mandela. We have ascribed super-human powers to him. It’s because he came out of prison and promised peace. It’s because he had tea with Betsie Verwoerd; it’s because of that wonderful moment when you realised Madiba was actually taller than Francois.
And if Madiba goes, well, then he’ll obviously take his super-powers with him. We will have lost both him, and the magic dust he sprinkled over all of us. And so deep down in so many of us is the question of how can we survive without the magic.
The answer is, of course – to quote a recent visitor – “Yes, we can”. And yes, we will. Life won’t change fundamentally. Our politics will pause for a moment, and then about a second later Zille and Zuma will start fighting about Madiba’s legacy. But that’s the same fight they started having years ago.
Yet perhaps, just perhaps, deep down in some of us, the reason for the anguish about Madiba is also guilt. Guilt at how we did survive and why we are still here, when we expected things to be so much worse. DM
Photo: Former South African President Nelson Mandela smiles as he leaves after casting his vote at a polling station in Houghton April 22, 2009. REUTERS/Antony Kaminju
"Joyfully to the breeze royal Odysseus spread his sail and with his rudder skillfully he steered." ~ Homer