There was a moment in April 1993 that is indelibly imprinted on many South Africans’ collective memory when our country was thrust to “the brink of disaster”, as Nelson Mandela put it. It was a moment that needed only a spark to set off the fire.
Mandela, always with clarity of vision greater than himself, stepped out to make an impassioned plea for calm in an effort to interrupt the explosion before it broke out. Mandela explains the importance of the vision that inspired him and the men he was incarcerated with on Robben Island in the opening of the documentary film Voices from the Island, directed by Adam Low and co-produced by the late Jürgen Schadeberg. It is a vision that carried a promise not yet fulfilled, as the violent events of the past two weeks have made clear.
The outbreak of the violence in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng may have been politically mobilised by sinister forces, as President Cyril Ramaphosa announced recently; but how could the violence of the betrayal of the promise of freedom not explode into a violent uprising? Poor service delivery, the poor conditions people live in, poverty and extreme inequality, unemployment and many other experiences of human suffering are long-standing factors that build toward violence.
When these conditions of political neglect are layered over a history of collective trauma and are experienced as being “worse than apartheid” — “worse” because a black government is expected to show more empathy than officials of the white apartheid state — it violates a community’s human worth and threatens people’s sense of security. Communities then become potent sites of violence borne out of trauma.
Until recently, the field of trauma studies had been exclusively located within the psychology field and related disciplines. There is, however, growing interest in the social and political implications of oppression and abuse of groups perpetrated over generations, and today the field of trauma studies has extended beyond psychologists’ consulting rooms to the broader society, offering insights on “collective trauma” that may help us think through the recent explosion of violent events.
When violations are endured over an extended period in a way that renders victims powerless to protect themselves or to interrupt the course of the violation, the trauma that they experience may be passed on and re-emerge in subsequent generations as “unfinished business” that cries out for resolution.
The concepts “post-conflict”, “post-colonial”, or “post-apartheid” should not be seen as designating an end as such in the sense of a clear break with the past and a demarcation between an era of human rights abuses and the present. Collective memory of traumatic events lives on long after these historical events took place.
Vamik Volkan, known as “the doyen” of the relatively new field of psychoanalytic political psychology, suggests that the persistence of the past, including when it manifests in violence, is “an obligation” imposed by earlier generations on their descendants to resolve “unfinished psychological tasks” to reverse the humiliation of the injustices they suffered during a lifetime of oppression.
The problem of these cycles of transgenerational repetition of the past is exacerbated by the continuity of disempowering conditions of poverty — the intransigence of “structural violence” that locks people in cycles of depravity with limited opportunities for a good education that might offer a path toward a better life.
These debates about the transgenerational transmission of traumatic pasts and about the problems that tie people to the persistence of social structures that become breeding grounds for violence are important for us in South Africa.
The reflective gaze on these issues, however, should not only focus on violence. Long before Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote about “the dangers of a single story”, Njabulo Ndebele called for the infusion of the spectacular stories of violence with the daily lives of ordinary people “because the problems of South African social formation are complex and… cannot be reduced to a single, simple formulation”.
In the shadow of the pandemic, the entanglement of continuities of the past with betrayed futures and what remains of the present in ordinary people’s lives have been brought into sharper focus. It is fertile ground exploited by unscrupulous politicians for the narcissistic pursuit of power, paying only lip service to the “better lives for all” slogan. The events that unfolded in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng are a painful reminder of the many dreams that have been deferred for far too long.
The tragic irony is that those who were fanning the flames from their social media platforms instead of quelling them portray themselves as fighting for “radical economic transformation”, yet they have engineered radical economic destruction (RED). Its footprint will soon become visible and may extend into the futures of the families and communities who are likely to face a deepening of their already fragile sense of security after losses suffered during the pandemic.
In the film Voices from the Island, Mandela talks about being able to stand back to evaluate the mistakes he has made. Cultivating this spirit of self-criticism is a strength.
These past few weeks, as our country held its breath, the memory of Nelson Mandela — at least for some South Africans, myself included — was a reminder of why leadership matters at such a time as this. You are confronted with the reality that you have always known, that for the highest office in our country to be occupied by a man who is implicated in the crass engineering of the plundering of state resources, who is prepared to destroy trust in our courts, would lead to an exceptional calamity involving some form of rupture.
After listening to Mandela talking about the importance of self-criticism in the documentary Voices from the Island, you realise that you have been listening to the story of remarkable men — Walter Sisulu, Andrew Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki and others. You can tell these men’s commitment to the vision that led to their imprisonment is far beyond their moral stature.
Compare that with Jacob Zuma telling his supporters at his Nkandla home on Sunday, 4 July 2021, that his 15-month sentence for contempt of court is politically motivated, and that their constitutional right to freedom of expression entitles them to express their displeasure with the court’s decision. These are political leadership styles that are, quite literally, like night and day.
Mandela understood the art of possibility, and it is possible for our country to rise again. I think that for him, to stand up against injustice and against white domination began with building solidarity across lines of difference. He tried to hold the vision for change in focus despite the complexities of the transition period after the end of apartheid.
Of course, the limitations of his optimism cannot be denied. But in considering how our country has turned out, you have to wonder about the role of leadership that has failed to match Mandela’s vision, leadership corrupted by the violence of the perversion of State Capture, the catastrophic consequences of which are not as visible as the destruction of business property, homes and schools in KZN and Gauteng.
It will not help to spit on the great effort Mandela made in that difficult chapter of the end of apartheid. It is up to those he left behind, and up to the generation that comes after to produce new imaginaries on how to continue the task of repairing the past, to interrupt the legacy of the political neglect that makes the destructive repetition of the past inevitable. DM