Defend Truth


Analysis paralysis: South Africa’s national state of depression


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

I do not know why we insist, as a nation, on only seeing the bad, the wrong and the undesired. The pessimism is palpable in the air. Nothing that active citizens or the government of the day can do, it seems, will remedy this depression.

Deep depression and pessimism contribute to the psychology of any nation. Recently, I have been pondering the persistent Armageddon analysis of our country’s trajectory and all the talk of becoming a failed state by 2030, especially after the mass looting and destruction a few weeks ago.

Often these matters of depression – perhaps I should say mental health – are best understood by my white counterparts – partly because they grew up understanding that various mental matters fall within the definition, and also because they are very much used to receiving treatment for it in various ways because they have the means. It could be through medication or simply through access to therapy.

Access to educational psychologists from a young age, to clinical psychologists or psychiatrists, is commonplace – but for black South Africans, this by and large remains a foreign concept. Not that we are not continuously experiencing matters of mental illness, but when it comes to mental health issues in black communities, the most common response is, get over it. Deal with it yourself and have another drink. 

This is why drug abuse in our communities is so widespread, as is gender-based violence and indeed rape – they are all coping mechanisms for our own mental health deficits, I think. Depression is not new to our civilisation – even Shakespeare wrote about this phenomenon.

Stephen Gaspar wrote in January 2019 that he “cannot say for certain if William Shakespeare ever suffered from depression, but it is certain he understood it and he instilled some of his characters with the disease”. In the opening scene from The Merchant of Venice, the merchant Antonio confides to some friends:

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.

He suggests that many of us who suffer from depression do not always know why we do:

Why we do or where it comes from.
What we do know is that it wearies us;
We feel tired from it and it can also be tiresome to the ones closest to us.
That I have much ado to know myself is true to those who know that the way we act and feel sometimes is not our true selves.

I surmise that the Covid-19 pandemic and the fact that our lives changed overnight are huge contributing factors to our collective depression. We can’t socialise with our family and friends; our behaviour had to change in terms of physical distancing, sanitising and wearing of masks. All this, notwithstanding the enormous death toll we have to contend with and the fact that we cannot bury our loved ones in a dignified way because of regulations. None of this is good for the psyche of people.

And then, just as you try to cope with all that is happening in the world, your worst fears are realised when the black majority rise up and go on a massive looting spree and threaten private businesses and, by extension in the minds of many, private property. This is the end!

So, no surprise then when President Cyril Ramaphosa gives his account of his knowledge and the extent of his involvement in State Capture at the Zondo Commission, that most of us simply dismiss it as hogwash. He should have resigned, or at the very least spoken out against the goings-on. His five choices, as outlined by him, were simply not good enough. He is just the same as all of those who have stolen, plundered and defrauded the government and the people of SA.

Not for one moment do we ask what would have happened if he had simply resigned while serving under Jacob Zuma? What leadership would we have got after the Nasrec conference? Would all the changes we have seen since Valentine’s Day 2018 have happened? Is it not true that SAA, which has been costing taxpayers billions over the years, was placed under business rescue? Or that the governance structures of SOEs have changed and been made more accountable? That the leadership of critical institutions have paid dividends to date, whether they be SARS or the NPA?

Has the governing party, as has been demanded by so many, not ensured that some among their ranks step aside and vacate their public administrative offices and duties? Has the independent NPA not made several arrests and the SIU recouped billions of rands (proceeds of corruption)?

There of course remain many challenges and no doubt the government will not be able to simply correct these overnight, but there has been progress – this, you cannot dispute. But it seems that the continuous shifting of the goalposts is a result of our perpetual state of depression. We cannot and will not see the light at the end of the tunnel: the glass remains half empty and our day of reckoning is at hand.

I do not know why we insist as a nation on only seeing the bad, the wrong and the undesirable. The pessimism is palpable in the air. There is nothing that active citizens or the government of the day can do, it seems, to remedy this depression.

I wish it could be different. I guess a recent video making the rounds on social media of American academic Jeffrey Sachs stating the realist view of the world doesn’t help. It, too, contributes to our collective state of depression. Sachs reminds the world of the simple fact that as long as the rich hog wealth, vaccines and so much more, as long as the rich neglect the poor in the manner they do, we will never change the world for the better. We will never live up to the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Human Rights. Perhaps this, too, is contributing to our collective state of depression.

The Catch-22 is that depressed people may not have the wherewithal to help themselves. Many often feel that it is just as easy (or difficult) to stay in our depression than to try to get out of it, and so many do not even try.

Is this the nation we want to be? Do we want to continue to lie on the couch and get therapy about how best to overcome our depression? Do we want our state of mind to signify that the depressed mind sees life as meaningless or as a cruel joke?

I think not. DM


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  • Johan Buys says:

    So true. We start off with the pessimistic view because at least pessimists are never disappointed.

    If we had floods and government working with agencies organised tents, there would be four human dignity basic constitutional rights NGO the next day bitching that tents are demeaning.

    Give a grant – that is an insulting amount, we demand twice as much.

  • Theresa De Wet says:

    Thank you for this – agree 100% on the progress we’ve made since 2018.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    Never heard so much twak in one essay. “Often these matters of depression – perhaps I should say mental health – are best understood by my white counterparts – partly because they grew up understanding that various mental matters fall within the definition, and also because they are very much used to receiving treatment for it in various ways because they have the means.” Ridiculous assumption.
    Pessimists are, by definition, informed optimists.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Fear not…..apparently the meek shall inherit the earth! Every dog has its day… ignorance is bliss…and all the other pithy statements that humans use to make themselves feel better. There is collective mistrust when those in power are shown to be corrupt with feet of clay. Until Zuma, and his cohorts are brought to justice, no South African will trust anything they see or hear. We dont even know if Zuma is in the country for goodness sake. Is he in Hospital? If so, which hospital and why….no one…I repeat…no one seems to know the answer to this question.

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