Defend Truth


Covid-19 crisis inflames old wounds


Nosipho Singiswa is project manager for the Indlulamithi South Africa Scenarios 2030, an initiative that provides tools – in the form of scenarios, research, facilitated workshops, downloadable presentations and booklets – to assist us to imagine alternative futures for more than a decade from today. She writes in her personal capacity.

During this national crisis, the impact of past mass atrocities is felt across multiple generations of descendants of survivors. With the spread of Covid-19 and measures put in place by our government to curb the virus, we are seeing this trauma being brought onto centre stage.


“There is a cruel irony in our beloved country. We are known and celebrated as a rainbow nation that decided to heal the divisions of our ugly past to build unity in diversity. Yet we exhibit many signs and symptoms of a wounded nation: racism, sexism, tolerance for extreme poverty and inequality and high levels of brutal violence” – Dr Mamphela Ramphele

Many of the challenges that South Africa currently faces, such as poverty and inequality, and the relation these have to the country’s social problems, can be directly attributed to the injustices of colonialism and apartheid. That dreadful period in our history has resulted in psychological and emotional trauma that has shattered the sense of security and left many feeling disconnected and doubtful.

Now, with the spread of Covid-19 and measures put in place by our government to curb the spread of the virus, we are seeing this trauma being brought onto the centre stage.

When the government announced a 21-day lockdown, as commendable as this action was, it revealed how South Africa is a society that exists with socioeconomic disparities. These were even more glaring when we saw many middle class (mostly upper-middle-class) South Africans panic-buying – even before the government announced the lockdown – in fear of running out of essentials, while the majority of South Africans were not able to buy groceries due to economic reasons.

Research shows that many poor households regularly run out of food before the end of the month. As James Lappeman has said, “A hallmark of living in this kind of household is a dependence on social grant income and a food shortage by the third week of the month.”

The lockdown began on 27 March, two days after the 25th (payday for many), 11 days after the 15th (payday for most civil servants), and four days before 1 April (payday for social grant beneficiaries). Panic-buying left shops with temporarily empty shelves and forced the rationing of foods, and many South Africans, mostly poor and black, went to do their grocery shopping during the lockdown, leaving them vulnerable to being infected.

In the past, white political domination and racial capitalism played a dominant role in creating social and economic problems, causing widespread social injustices.

According to Michelle Sotero, historical trauma theory is underpinned by the assumptions that mass trauma is deliberately and systematically inflicted upon a target population by a subjugating, dominant population over an extended period of time. The magnitude of the trauma derails the population from its natural, projected historical course resulting in a legacy of physical, social, and economic disparities that persist across generations.

Covid-19 also revealed the persistent apartheid geography and the humiliatingly poor-quality social services that many South Africans still live under. Speaking to the Socialist Worker, S’bu Zikode, a leading member of the shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo said:

“The poor are always excluded, and that applies to coronavirus too. We are in a tight corner. The president says we must stay indoors and carry out social distancing and wash our hands. The strategy assumes that everyone has a secure home and access to services. How does this apply to the poor who have no access to water and sanitation? The strategy is blind to the reality of the lives of millions of South Africans. In the slums you will find many families living in a shack that is three metres by three metres. And in that there will be four, or six or even eight people. How can there be distancing in such a situation? Whole communities can be wiped out if coronavirus comes here.”

It has been noted that black people have been liberated in the political sense, but this liberation has not extended to the socioeconomic realm. Cyril K Adonis notes that descendants of victims of past gross human rights violations regard themselves as victims in contemporary South Africa.

It is therefore clear that during this national crisis the impact of past mass atrocities will be felt across multiple generations of descendants of survivors.

Moreover, Covid-19 has revealed the abuse of power by post-liberation leaders. The government released the Disaster Management Act which provided regulations to address, prevent and combat the spread of Covid-19. The regulations mostly restrict the movement of persons and goods, with the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) appointed as enforcers of these regulations. Though these restrictions are enforced equally on every South African, one would say that these restrictions are reminiscent of the pass laws of the apartheid regime.

Thirteen days into the lockdown, “the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) had received 21 complaints. The complaints included murder, rape, discharging of firearms and assault by police personnel,” reported TimesLIVE. These assaults may have brought back feelings of being dehumanised, thus retraumatising those who suffered the wounds of apartheid as this was the reality of many people of colour during this period.

Violence only begets violence and for most citizens, that is what this country has always been, violent. It should be no surprise then to see how violence is increasingly being used to “solve” issues in South Africa.

We cannot take away the fact that desperate times call for desperate measures; however, once we see public servants or ministers using their power to be aggressive and enforcing their moralism onto citizens, we cannot help but wonder if it is true that, as Dr Mamphela Ramphele has said, “post-liberation leaders who have not undergone the healing process become tempted to use public resources to reward themselves for past sacrifices and to bolster self-images that are scarred by trauma.”

Martha Cabrera, a Nicaraguan social psychologist, wrote this about her post-conflict country in the early 2000s: “Trauma and pain afflict not just individuals. When they become widespread and ongoing, they affect entire communities and even the country.”

The trauma we have is not only present in the older generation of South Africans who lived through the horrific events of the past, it is passed on to the next generation. DM


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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