South Africa


Surviving intergenerational trauma: A story about reclaiming power is sadly all too familiar in South Africa

Surviving intergenerational trauma: A story about reclaiming power is sadly all too familiar in South Africa
Nompumelelo Runji. (Photo: Supplied)

A new book by political analyst and academic Nompumelelo Runji documents her journey of healing after leaving her emotionally abusive husband.

What political analyst and academic Nompumelelo Runji writes about in her recently published book How I Took Back My Power is shocking, but sadly all too familiar. A male partner who is “cold”, “insensitive”, “cruel” and generally doesn’t care about his partner’s wellbeing sounds like the common complaints we’ve heard from our mothers and aunts.

Runji says she is aware that her tumultuous marriage wasn’t unique. “But as somebody with a public profile, I thought that my story was a great case study on how we as individuals, families and communities navigate chaotic relationships,” she said in a Zoom interview.

Even if none of the dismissiveness and emotional bullying is true of your own romantic relationship, you’ve most likely seen this scene play out elsewhere. Perhaps you saw this defective “love” play out on Mina Nawe, which aired on the Moja Love channel on DStv earlier this year.

In it, five couples live in a house and complete activities in attempts to mend their relationships. Each couple grapples with varying forms of abuse in the relationship.

A quick scan of a “South African confessions” Facebook page asking people about the most shocking things their partners have done, reveals comments replete with anecdotes of cheating and of physically and emotionally abusive partners.

One Facebook user who shares that her husband is emotionally abusive can’t help but reminisce about how it all started: “At 19, I thought I [had] found the most perfect man ever. Having grown up without parents or emotional support, he made me feel so special.”

Similarly, Runji traces how her marriage played out, with much relating to what she lacked as a child.

Speaking frankly about her relationship with her ex-husband, Sheffield, a fellow attendee at her then local church, Runji said: “I had to also acknowledge that the problem wasn’t just with him, it was with me too. I was used to being devalued, I was used to having to work for love.

“When it was happening during our courtship, there weren’t any alarm bells because that was my frame of reference.”

This “frame of reference”, as she puts it, explains the strangeness of Runji’s oblivion in the early stages of their courtship. In a chapter titled My Dream Guy, the red flags are clear as day, but Runji seems completely unaware or unwilling to deal with them.  

When they were not together, Runji felt like she didn’t exist or matter; her partner rarely called or sent a text, which “triggered [her] abandonment wounds from childhood”.

But again, as a people pleaser and “someone who has always had to work to be loved”, Runji reiterates that she couldn’t see the red flags because it didn’t feel unusual.

Runji makes the point about her “frame of reference” because her book isn’t just about romantic relationships but also about intergenerational trauma.

She devotes a chapter to her parents’ upbringing, which inevitably shaped the kind of parents they were. Runji’s mother grew up in a volatile and abusive home.

Writing about her, Runji says: “She suffered from a deep sense of insecurity. Her self-esteem was ground to powder by her mother’s constant criticism and her father’s devaluing and invalidating verbal lashings.”

Her father was “petty, self-absorbed, neglectful and dismissive”. Inevitably, Runji describes her household as “erratic” and “unstable”.

In trying to make sense of the chaotic relationship she had with Sheffield, Runji resorts to the often-used trope of “daddy issues”.

She writes: “Perhaps seeking male approval was rooted in my longing for attention and acknowledgement from my father. It’s no accident that I turned out like this; it was built into my DNA and etched into my subconscious.”

Her analysis of her romantic relationship may be true, but it doesn’t seem to take into consideration that we also live in a patriarchal society where men are socialised to be uncaring and women are socialised to stay with men, no matter how terribly they are treated. Her parents’ actions and attitudes were also not unique.

Runji writes: “As soon as I would start feeling worthy of Sheffield’s love and affection, this would be replaced by guilt, shame and a deep sense of failure, brought on by his comparing me with other women… But rather than think there was something wrong with what he was doing, I felt there was something wrong with me, and [if] I could fix myself, I would change his mind.

“It was the start of my pattern of overcompensating for everything that went wrong or wasn’t perfect in our relationship. I felt the strong need to prove to him that I was everything he wanted and more. I didn’t want him to ever think I was not the woman of his dreams or that I couldn’t meet his expectations.”

After eight years of enduring her husband’s emotional abuse behind closed doors, Runji finally decided to leave him.

While reflecting on the decision, she told her friend: “I think the problem is that I didn’t value myself. I somehow felt that I needed my husband in order to believe I had worth, to feel affirmed.

“It was as if my value hinged on that relationship working. I needed him to make me feel worthy and that was the trap.

“I didn’t value myself so even if I wasn’t with my ex-husband, a similar pattern would’ve emerged in a relationship with somebody else and that’s why I needed to also start a journey of healing,” said Runji.

And her journey to healing is how the book came about. In 2020, Runji started therapy and also started to document her experience by journaling, “which was cathartic”.

Runji’s business coach told her that she “shouldn’t write for the sake of writing” and that she should consider getting her journal turned into a book.

Runji went back to therapy and was admitted to a psychiatric clinic for the second time earlier in 2021. This time around, she said the admission was the “rehab” she needed, helping her process what she’d been through.

Before this, she and Sheffield had sought counsel from church elders but Runji had grown frustrated with it.

“The church was more concerned with the institution of marriage and not the wellbeing of the individual. They were not considering, ‘is this good for me?’; it was more about, ‘we need to prevent more divorces’. So, I was left disillusioned with their response.”

Runji said that part of her healing and taking back her power was realising that “going to therapy was an option, holding him accountable was an option as well as acknowledging the pain I experienced.

“And I want people to see that someone, who is educated and as successful as I am, can find themselves in an abusive relationship.”

Runji also hopes that in writing about her intergenerational trauma, “that many of us who were taught to revere our parents can move away from that and candidly speak about how our parents have contributed to our pain. We need to also acknowledge that pain.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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