South Africa


Cabinet Reshuffle: Wounded leaders, leading a wounded nation


Nomfundo Mogapi is a clinical psychologist by training and is the executive director at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. She is also leading the mental wellness working group within the African Venture Philanthropy Alliance (AVPA)’s Covid-19 Initiative in South Africa.

How do you spend your youth dodging bullets and imprisonment, fighting an unjust, cruel and inhumane system? How does one endure torture, rape, and witness brutal killings? How is it possible to experience such atrocities and yet remain unscathed?

This is the experience and reality of many of our leaders in political office today.

These are the questions that have kept me restless as I listened to one story after another of the trauma, pain and struggles that the majority of our current leaders experienced when they fought for the liberation of this country.

As a psychologist who has worked with issues of trauma in our country for close to two decades now there are certain things I know for sure. I know the depth of psychic wounds that can be caused by traumatic events. I know what it is like to tread into those dark and scary corners of one’s psyche towards the journey of healing.

I also know how, if these psychic wounds are not addressed, they can “bhibhidla” and infest significant areas of one’s life.

Yes, I know how symptoms of irritability, rage, restlessness, mistrust and denial can damage relationships, careers and health.

Yes, I also have witnessed and seen how the maladaptive coping strategies such as increased risky behaviour, alcohol abuse and reckless living can affect the life of a person who has been exposed to such pain. I also know how if “inxeba” (the wound) is not dealt with, it touches not just significant parts of one’s lives but it infests families and communities; places that are supposed to be springs of life and refuge become sources of conflict, division and infighting. I have seen trauma literally tear apart strong families and social bonds if members do want to do the difficult work of healing.

So, what baffled me for a long time as I looked into these “wounded soldiers” is how they went through what they went through during the Struggle and yet seemingly remained unscathed.

How is it possible that they can just sweep their painful experience under the carpet, leave the liberation Struggle with all its psychic wounds and just seamlessly enter into governance and power, lead a people who are themselves still wounded? I looked in amazement at what for me as a psychologist specialising in traumatic stress was nothing less than a psychological miracle.

However, as I dug deeper and reflected about the events that have unfolded before and during our recent political transition, it is becoming clearer that they were never left unscathed.

You see it in how they respond to societal issues, the arrogance (born from the deep-seated sense of entitlement from having fought for the Struggle and thus being immune from any responsibility). You see it in the denial of serious calamities that have faced post-apartheid South Africa; this denial is a normal and expected coping strategy to the post-liberation trauma but can be destructive when used to deal with serious problems such as the Marikana massacre, poor service delivery and corruption.

You see it in the complete avoidance of any psychologically stimulating material. This avoidance is helpful in warding off the painful traumatic material/memories but can be detrimental if used in situations where a nation calls a president for accountability and all he does is laugh. These are just a few examples.

Jacob Zuma’s fall thus broke my heart because I was seeing unfold in front of me the tragedy of a nation led by wounded leaders who, instead of taking time to heal, took their trauma with them into Parliament, Cabinet and key government institutions.

The sad thing is that these untreated post-liberation wounds are now recreating the very things that they fought against. A South Africa that excludes and marginalises the disenfranchised, where the rich corporates and the “haves” blatantly, without fear, squander the resources of the country.

How can a government that fought for the freedom of our people, which understands what to be poor is, indiscriminately increase VAT to 15% with no appreciation of its impact on the struggling masses?

How do we reappoint the same leader who was the architect of a militarised police?

How do we reappoint a minister – who had fallen short of meeting the needs of the poor – into dealing with women and gender issues?

How can our leaders be so out of touch?

Yes, leaders who are out of touch with their own pain cannot be in touch with the pain of their people.

So, President Ramaphosa and your new leadership, as you lead us into this “new dawn”, we ask for something that I have been too scared to ask for a long time. How do I tell you and the rest of the comrades, after all you sacrificed for the freedom of this country, that the very wounds that you carry as a result of fighting for our freedom are the ones that are destroying this very freedom?

I ask you, Mr President, and your new leadership that as you focus on the economics and politics of our country, please, please also deal with yourself, be prepared to deal with your own wounds, be prepared to face yourselves. Ungalilibali inxeba President ngoba xa libhibhidla lizokulimza thina! DM

Nomfundo Mogapi is the Executive Director at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. She is a clinical psychologist specialising in peace-building, transitional justice, traumatic stress and violence prevention.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted