In denial about our own wounds
There is alarming anger not only in South African politics, but throughout our society over our traumatised past
Far from being a society in the advanced stages of recovery from our terrible past, South Africa is a gigantic psychiatric unit. With so many of us, whites as well as blacks, failing to acknowledge let alone wrestle with our wounded psyches, we are not so much a nation in decline following great expectations but a traumatised people constantly hovering between depression and delusion.
We approach each challenge in a state of collective denial, apparently oblivious to the urgent need for introspection. Look at our unrealistic hopes of redemption in the face of our brutal history, for instance. While we are today, sadly, in the self-destructive throes of squandering our greatest asset – Nelson Mandela’s legacy – we were surely deluded in the first place to imagine that a single individual could deliver us from the damaging effects of one of the greatest human rights abuses the world has ever known – apartheid. Perhaps what we are witnessing in many parts of South Africa’s corrupt body politic are not so much the venal victims of greed and abuse of power but real-life, deeply traumatised people who may well have aspired to Madiba’s ideals but simply not had the inner strength to live up to them.
The most elementary grasp of psychology reveals bleak mental hygiene prospects for those in any society who have been deprived of adequate parenting (because their dads were migrant workers, for example, and/or their mothers toiled as live-in domestic workers raising their employers’ children rather than their own) as well as for those who have suffered systematic humiliation throughout their lives.
Equally, the South Africans who have bullied their way to material prosperity over the years are bound to suffer psychologically, if only as the “worried well” who fear deep-down that retribution will descend some day. On the surface, though, the former oppressor is more aggrieved than self-reflective. In dogged denial about their role in the electricity failures known euphemistically as load shedding, for example, white South Africans seldom, if ever, admit that they can hardly expect efficient delivery of such services when it was they who deliberately deprived black South Africans of the educational and employment opportunities by which the latter might have learnt how to keep the lights on.
Let’s face it: we are in our current disillusioned state together and bearing mutual guilt, many of us having contributed in small or vast measure towards it.
Take authoritarianism, for example, and the widespread resistance to criticism on which it feeds. Whereas confident people are able to respond gracefully, albeit often with difficulty, to their critics, those with poor self-esteem lash out in order to denigrate and silence opponents. As the well-known academic and businesswoman Dr Mamphela Ramphele notes of our current leadership, “We are a wounded people who are in denial about our wounds. It is this denial that makes us over-sensitive to criticism and unable to learn from our mistakes to improve our performance on the governance front.”
Perhaps the best white South Africa can offer by way of acknowledging its complicity if not culpability for the self-loathing of others is to be as helpful – rather than as critical – as possible.
Ideally, every one of us in the wider region of southern Africa should receive vouchers for mandatory psychotherapy sessions along with our driving licences, assuming we are not as well-adjusted to our pain and grief as the extraordinary Nelson Mandela – a Xhosa prince who always knew he was superior – or as advanced in our self-hatred as Zimbabwe’s 84-year-old, emotionally deprived president, or indeed as free of typical white reproach as…who?
Interestingly, Robert Mugabe grew up in a Catholic mission where his mother was a depressed religious zealot and his surrogate parent, a wealthy Anglo-Irish priest, inadvertently imbued the friendless, fatherless boy with the disastrous idea that the highest form of human development was the British gentleman. Embracing this common antidote to the racism that characterised absolutely every institution in Rhodesia under British rule and beyond involved Mugabe not only in dressing the part in London’s Jermyn Street, acquiring an enduring love of the quintessentially English game of cricket and developing an abiding affection for the British Royal Family, but also in denying his African heritage so as to make way for his Britishness.
Imagine the once gentlemanly Robert Mugabe’s anger when, five years into his premiership in 1985 – having gone to great and unexpected lengths to reassure his white citizens (who were mainly of British stock) that they could trust him – former Rhodesians voted racially against him and in favour of his predecessor Ian Smith. They were telling Mugabe that despite his life-long efforts to become a British gentleman, he was not good enough. Shocked and hurt, he never forgave them.
The rage we see spilling out of Robert Mugabe today built up from that sorry starting point (or was it when Ian Smith denied the political prisoner permission to leave his detention cell briefly to attend his only child’s funeral in Ghana in 1966?) The same foolhardy voters have been talking long and hard about democracy ever since, though few former white Rhodesians knew much about that hallowed system of governance when they were in office. Had they acknowledged then what they and their forebears had done to Robert Mugabe’s psyche, rather than giving him the finger at the polls, Zimbabwe might have become a very different place.
But self-reflection remains too painful an exercise for white southern Africans or their European antecedents to contemplate, it seems. And Zimbabwe’s elderly leader is unlikely to attend anger management classes at this late stage in his catastrophic presidency.
What we can learn about Robert Mugabe’s rage from the psychologists among us, however, is that it is a defence mechanism against disappointment, inner dissatisfaction and stress. Rage kicks in when life becomes unmanageable, preventing the individual from being aware of hurt and sadness. It is the result of earlier, repressed anger that has been denied and left to accumulate like a festering sore.
If we look behind the alarming headlines, anger and even rage are evident not only in South African politics but throughout our society.
Pass the Prosac.