By Nomfundo Mogapi
The recent outburst of
pre-election violence, the way the campaigns were conducted by various
political parties and the intense confrontations over councillor positions
calls for us as a society to pause and engage in serious reflection. These are
an indication of a society whose psyche is unsettled, a society with deepening faultlines,
which threaten the peace that so many fought so hard for. One of these faultlines is the unresolved psychosocial issues,
trauma and psychic woundedness that has infested all spheres of our society and
continues to shape its psychosocial architecture. There is an urgent need to devise
strategies for redesigning this architecture.
In order to do this, we need to
unpack what the psychosocial architecture of South Africa looks like. On the
one hand, a sector of our society developed strong and at times inflexible defenses
in order to ignore or justify their participation in the violations experienced
by millions of South Africans during colonial oppression and apartheid. Some were
spectators who defended and/or pretended not to see the violations happening at
their back door. Psychosocial survival strategies for this sector of society
were, amongst others, continuing to shut their ears and eyes to the realities
faced by the disenfranchised and oppressed in society. This involved denial and
amnesia, the see no evil and hear no evil by those in positions of privilege.
This has continued to shape the psyche of those in position of privilege
(historically and in the present) in post-apartheid South Africa.
On the other hand those who were
oppressed and/or were involved in the struggle against apartheid, had to also
develop very strong and at times inflexible strategies and behavior patterns in
order to survive during the struggle for freedom. These included amongst
others, sharpening skills of identifying and dealing with constant threats of
imminent violence, developing strategies and skills for dealing with betrayal, developing
very strong bonds of comradeship where comrades protected and supported each
other to death, having a thick skin and not be phased by ridicule, criticism
and personal attacks.
Over and above these defenses our society
has, as a collective, experienced painful and unbearable emotions such as
shame, guilt, entitlement, rage, disgrace, humiliations etc. These defenses and
the painful, unbearable emotions associated with the experience of apartheid,
have unfortunately shaped the psyche of our society, which continues to
influence how we view the world. They unfortunately also continue to shape the
nature of leadership in post-apartheid South Africa. This
applies to leadership in all spheres of our society including government,
politics, workplace, community and in the family. The psychosocial redesign has
to therefore address what I call leadership woundedness.
The concept of leadership
woundedness is best understood by drawing from renowned psychoanalyst Donald
Winnicott’s concept of a holding environment. Leaders who are wounded are not
able to create a relational or holding environment for their own pain and are
therefore not able to create a relational home for others. This concept of
relational home is explained clearly by Mark Epstein, he argues that, in order
for pain to be bearable, it needs to find a relational home. When pain has a
relational home, a container, a holding environment then it becomes bearable.
This then suggests that it is not as much what is experienced that is a
challenge but it is the context in which it is experienced. A leader can make
the traumatic experience of the past and the present adversities bearable by
creating a relational home through, for example, treating people with respect
and dignity, hearing people’s concerns and responding accordingly. I call this
concept the principle of “ukugona”.
Ukugona is a term that is used in South African Nguni languages, to describe what
a parent does when s/he comforts her child. I illustrate this concept by giving
an example of two hurt toddlers. One is helped and consoled by the mother through
“ukogona” (placing her on her lap and hugging her)
the other does not have a mother to hold her. Same experience, but for a child
who has experienced ukugona the pain
becomes bearable whilst for the other child the same experience becomes
unbearable. People who have experienced “ukugona” for their own pain learn
to internalize this experience and they develop the psychological capacity to
create a relational home for others’ pain.
One of the crucial interventions, after
attaining freedom, should thus have been the psychosocial transformation for
leaders so they could learn to create a relational home for the psychic wounds
sustained during apartheid. This would have enabled them to develop the ability
to create a relational home for our society which is still faced with the task
of rebuilding its political, economic and psychosocial architecture. For a
country with a history like ours, this can only occur in a context where the
leaders themselves are healed and are peace carriers who speak to our hope and
forge social cohesion rather than trauma carriers who exploit and deepen the
division created by our collective wounds.
wellness is no longer a luxury but a necessity for all of us, especially for
those in leadership. We have to begin to invest in dealing with the unbearable,
uncomfortable and difficult emotions associated with our historical and present
traumas. As a society we need to learn how to create a relational home, a
container for our psychic pain, which keeps on rearing its ugly head through
events such as the violence we have seen before and after the local government elections.
We need to move from leaders who are trauma carriers to those who are peace
Source: column that was published in The New Age on the 30th of August 2016