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Mass trauma is leaving everyone broken

- Associate Professor William Gumede

We need to teach self-love, self-esteem, and agency assertation at all levels of South African society to rebuilt the state and foster democracy.

South Africa has gone about the wrong way in rebuilding the state, fostering democracy, implementing development projects, and combating societal violence, and the results are clear, a failing state, poor development outcomes and frightening levels of everyday violence.

Rebuilding a state, fostering democracy, securing inclusive development, and boosting peace in countries coming from traumatic experiences, such as apartheid, racism and civil war, need different approaches to conventional ones – used in South Africa since the end of formal apartheid in 1994.

The challenge is, mass trauma leaves individuals, families, and communities so broken, many struggle to engage fully in the life of intimate relationships, democracy, the state, development initiatives, business and in the workplace. This makes state and democracy building difficult, undermines development efforts, stunts entrepreneurship and many lead to social breakdown. Worse, unless this is tackled it may continue to be passed on to future generations. 

At the heart of it is that these authoritarian regimes leave many victims with the “feeling that the self has no foundation” anymore. It leaves many with pervasive, deep-seated, and persistent feelings of angst, insecurity, and fear of the future. It batters self-worth, disfigures the sense of self, and ultimately makes it difficult for individuals to reach their full potential. It leads to inferiority complexes.

The corruption, enrichment of the few and uncaring attitude by many ANC and government leaders, which have left expectant former disadvantaged communities stuck in chronic poverty, hopelessness, and violent surroundings, have reinforced the sense of insecurity among many of them.

At the individual level it has led to inferiority complexes, self-hatred, lack of self-love, low self-esteem, low tolerance, not feeling worthy, high levels of anger, resentment and bitterness. Susanne M. Dillmann writes that trauma even distorts the ability to give or receive love.

Victims of colonial, apartheid, chronic poverty, civil war, and failed state trauma frequently live for the now because no imaginable future appears possible – and what they have, their lives and property can be taken from them in a moment, in the past by autocratic governments, local criminal gangs or vigilantes from other ethnic groups.

Societies emerging from trauma may fall into victimhood more easily — blaming former colonial powers (often rightly so), other communities that look different to them and foreigners (which is why we see the high levels of xenophobia in SA) — rather than pro-actively building a new future.

Crucially, it destroys the agency of individuals: the ability to act on one’s own will, despite the constraints of belief systems one has grown up with, others’ perceptions of one and a limiting environment. 

Unless state-building, development, empowerment, and workplace development programs tackles the deep-seated insecurity trauma leaves victims with, it will not only impact the individual, undermining their health, bringing toxicity into their personal relations, impairing their decision-making, it will also bring toxicity into the state, development and empowerment programs and the organisations traumatised individuals work for.

Leaders or employees within the state, democratic institutions, private sector, civil society, or political parties with low self-esteem, lack individual agency and with inferiority complexes, are very likely to make toxic, short-term, self-interested decisions, which goes against the public interest, which will undermine development, democracy building and social order.  

Restoring the agency, the insecurity, and their sense of self, of victims of oppression is one of the key conditions for democracy building, sustainable development, and violent and unsocial behaviour, follow terror regimes. However, very little has been done by the South African state, business and civil society to the address the lack of agency, insecurity and lack of sense of self, in the hearts of many formerly disadvantaged individuals.

In the vacuum, the danger has been that former disadvantaged individuals often deal with their insecurity, by embracing tribalism, populism, and xenophobia. It has also led to violent crime, drug, and alcohol abuse. Many has withdrawn from civic life. Many others have low levels of tolerance for differences.

Victims often vote for political movements and leaders from their own ethnic group, who they shared struggle history with or who make violent threats against perceived “enemies”, whether other ethnic groups, non-nationals, or big business, even if these movements and leaders are corrupt, incompetent or act against the victims’ interests.

Victims therefore regularly vote against their own interests – trauma bond voting: therefore, repeating cycles of voting for incompetence, corruption and for the continuation of poverty, which in turn reinforce the negative impact of colonialism and apartheid, and their own individual insecurity.

Democrats would want the insecurity to be filled by new democratic values, mores, and cultures – and by the best (most democratic) elements of cultural, religious, and spiritual values. All organisations – the state, educational institutions, religious, sport and cultural organisations, business, civil society, and the media, will have to actively help to tackle this mass insecurity left by our traumatic past.

Traditional, cultural, communal, and religious beliefs which undermine human rights, dignity and equality must be jettisoned. New beliefs, traditions and cultures based on human rights, equality, and dignity, must replace ones that are harmful. Patriarchy, based on inequality in gender, social class, and age, which operates as an ideology in all African countries must be gotten rid off.   

Self-love, self-esteem, and agency assertation will have to be taught at all levels of society, whether nursery workplaces or sport clubs, given the reality of broken families – where it is unlikely to be nurtured.

This means that all other areas of human interaction - social, religious, cultural, and political organisations – should include self-love, agency assertation and self-esteem, as part of their induction, training, and well-ness programmes.

Anti-poverty strategies must be multidimensional in that they must include self-esteem, self-love, and self-care. It should be compulsory to have self-care, self-esteem, self-love as part of all government empowerment, public works, and community building programmes. Recipients of government social grants, financial support and scholarships must be compelled to attend civic, democracy and self-esteem, self-love, and self-care programmes.

It is crucial that there are more platforms where ordinary people can talk to others about their individual trauma, tell their stories and reflect with others on what happened to affirm their visibility. The state should consider deploying an army of community counsellors – which could also be a practical form of job creation - across the country to provide support.

Simple localised community-driven memorials, monuments and histories with local stories should be rolled out. Practices such as conscious breathing, meditation and volunteering are crucial tools to build self-love, self-esteem and agency that should be introduced more widely across society. We need a civil society movement to restore self-love, self-esteem, and individual agency – through co-ordinated campaigns to foster these across the country.

The post-apartheid state must treat citizens with dignity, care, and efficiency. Currently, the post-apartheid state is in many instances treating disadvantaged communities with similar disdain as the apartheid state did. 

Delivering quality public services, making the country safe, creating job, business, and empowerment opportunities, and strengthening democracy, will help boost the self-esteem, self-love, and individual agency of the former oppressed.

Lastly, it is crucial that ordinary citizens stop voting based on the past, based on struggle credentials and based on ethnic, colour and party solidarity. They must vote on merit – for those who are honest, competent, and compassionate, even if they do not share the colour, religion or past with one – or they, and their offspring will stay stuck in feelings of insecurity, inferiority complexes and lack of agency for generations.

This article is based on a keynote address to Breathwork Africa’s Umoya Breathfest, held at the Cradle of Humankind, Johannesburg, 18-22 September 2022.