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Transitional trauma: The born-free generation can create the future that moves us beyond our past

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Professor Camaren Peter is an Associate Professor at UCT’s Graduate School of Business and is Director and Executive Head of the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change. Opinions expressed here are his own.

The youth of South Africa may have envisioned a very different reality for their country from what they have witnessed this past week. They need to appreciate that the painful past we carry is not going to heal itself and that the baton has now been passed to them.

The events that unfolded over the past week will occupy a permanent place in the national psychology of South Africa. It will never be forgotten. It is by far the worst scar that democratic South Africa has endured. It will no doubt be memorialised as a sobering reminder of the realities of both apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa.

For last week our sociopolitical inheritance from the darkest periods of our history coalesced and rose up to reveal the monstrous legacy that we carry as a nation.

Our past is not behind us. It walks with us today, even though we’ve numbed ourselves to it and rendered it invisible to us in everyday existence, particularly as a middle-class elite. Last week reminded us that there is nothing normal about the society in which we live.

We are a society of extremes and no amount of pretence or wishing it away will make it go away. Averting our gaze is no longer an option should we wish to live in a healthy society where everybody within it lives a secure, meaningful life of dignity. In particular, we cannot continue to look away while the extreme inequality that characterises post-apartheid South Africa renders the poor and marginal majority to a life of suffering and desperation.

It is a lesson that my generation, and those that came before, did not learn. We were complicit in the programme of cosmetic change that accompanied our transition to the new democratic era. Although much was done to bring services to the historically disenfranchised and poor, and to create employment, it has not been enough to realise the vision of a country in which all enjoy a life of dignity and security. Inequality increased dramatically rendering us a country divided simply by access to wealth and services. It has never been, and will not be, a tenable future for our country.

If we continue to look away after what we have witnessed this week we will have again failed to bring about the structural changes that we require to live in a society that isn’t always one step away from the eruption that we have just experienced. In this respect, what we need to understand — above all else — is that this is a moment for the next generation.

This is the first great trauma of the born-free generation. It is a clear reminder that they carry their history with them, whether wittingly or unwittingly, and that they will never escape the past unless they confront it. It is too late for a generation of older leaders who don’t understand the changes that are occurring in the world today to do so. This great trauma on the nation will have to be healed by the generation who are our future, not our past. They have to create the future that moves us beyond our past.

And while the youth may have imagined the reality of the country very differently from what they have witnessed this past week, they need to appreciate that the painful past we carry is not going to heal itself and that the baton has now been passed to them. The generations who preceded them did bring them something worth caring for, having navigated a bloody but ultimately peaceful transition to democracy in the decades leading up to 1994.

But we are now in a new era, one that the older generations can scarcely keep up with, much less engage with in a constructive manner. They are unable to envision a new future for this society as they themselves are too encumbered with the past. They are, in many ways, prisoners of the 20th century and struggle to think about how to effect change in this society outside of the filters of that era.

This means that they are unable to truly understand the new social, political, economic and technological landscape that the 21st century has brought us. By framing the challenges that we face today in 20th-century terms they are unable to identify the opportunities that we need to embrace to envision a more cohesive society and a new economy.  

However, while we need a new generation that has new ideas about how to truly heal and grow this country into a nation where everyone has a place in it, there are lessons that they can learn from our past.

One of the key lessons is that bringing about meaningful change in South Africa requires that the middle class forge close linkages with the working class and work together — from a mutual understanding — to build intra- and intercommunity connectedness and resilience. This is so that we can overcome the vast inequality that underpins the social divide in South Africa.

Critically, and perhaps most importantly, we need to actively guard against the temptation to simply gloss over this moment of trauma by invoking the kind of cosmetic change narratives that we embraced during the transition to democracy. We need to take a long hard honest look at the deep fault lines that characterise our society, and this can only happen if we are prepared to have the difficult conversations and deep listening that is necessary. This is particularly the case for the middle classes who have remained largely deaf to the grinding intergenerational poverty that black, African people in this country endure.

Another key lesson is that these conversations need to happen in the places that people live. While we can leverage the vast interconnectivity that the internet and social media has brought us, it is no replacement for being present with each other, understanding each other’s challenges, and working together to solve them. The internet is no replacement for building community in the real world.

We need to be in each other’s lives in a real and meaningful way, building local economies that are inclusive of the communities that they are in. We also need to share our knowledge with each other, for it is not only wealth and spatial apartheid that divides us, but disproportionate access to knowledge and skills.

The great trauma that has erupted in our country is an opportunity to rethink how we live together as communities, how services such as water, energy, transport, healthcare and education are shared and administered, how local economies can be made more inclusive and sustainable, and critically, how we leverage a generation who have lived most of their lives in the 21st century to help us navigate it. For there are pressing challenges that this century will bring, over and above the legacy of the past that we’ve carried into it.

This new generation needs to envision a different future for business, one where inclusive social innovation and entrepreneurship that impacts people’s lives matters more than simply getting rich. We need a new generation of public servants who are devoted to making meaningful careers in the public service and are not merely seeking out a job for life or using state employment as a stepping stone to shuttle into the corporate world.

Moreover, we need a new generation of political leaders that are focused on the key issues and challenges that our society faces instead of shamelessly pursuing raw political power.

It is a time for stepping up, not down. Looking away is no longer an option. We have to embrace the beauty and the pain of our nation, acknowledge its past and invest in its future. We need to get behind a new generation that we are failing, support them, be present with them, and trust them to generate new ideas about how we can move to a new future. For more of the same will simply bring us more of the same and that is wholly untenable as the events of the past week have clearly revealed.

This is a turning point, and we must turn with it. DM

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All Comments 4

  • Agreed. I sincerely hope we/they can find the energy, inspiration, strength to rise to this enormous task. Green shoots. Healing linked with multiple, regenerative economic justice plans.

  • Powerful insights. How to get those conversations, and meeting each other, going, as we must still pay attention to the pandemic? Well, maybe the born-frees are less encumbered, and can start to meet around the rebuilds?

  • While a few pot shots at the middle class are well deserved, it’s 20 years corruption and nepotism of the ANC that has ensured that these inequalities have worsened for many (almost kept in place on purpose if one looks at the education sector). Any way forward will have to begin with stopping the corruption first before we even have the ability and money to finance the needs of the most destitute in our society.
    It is worth remembering that in terms of absolute numbers, the black middle class has grown to over 6 million people (Africheck FACTSHEET: Measuring South Africa’s (black) middle class) ..are these also at fault? Is the middle class sin to take care of your own family when economic hard times are the direct result of the ANCs policies and thievery? What is the role of the middle class in providing employment, especially for the poor?
    Finally, at least where I live, the middle class is active in helping out when needed…

    Right now alot of comments are trying to find a scapegoat for what happened last week, we need to be careful…the answer is neither simplistic blame shifting, nor trying to throw money at it without a sustainable plan.