The South African syndrome

2007-12-03 00:00

If Willie Shakespeare was around he’d be bemoaning the state of South Africa, as he did the state of Denmark in Hamlet. I’m reasonably intelligent, as are the readers. But none of us has a solution.

A friend asked me what my hypothesis as a psychologist is in terms of this state of affairs and what the solution is. I replied, “If I knew, you’d be the first to know. Maybe it’s something like ‘Exponential Catastrophic Reactions’.”

“What do you mean by that?”

I expounded about survival, competition for resources, power and control. And about collective loss of control. That’s when the process unhinges, gaining uncontrollable momentum. There are generally watchdog mechanisms which curb society when it loses control. I think that the South African syndrome is about being in the loss-of-control loop. It needs more than a watchdog. We talk about the democracy of the rainbow nation. I think it’s gone past democracy to laissez faire.

Recently, I heard something interesting on the radio. It was about an experiment conducted on male drivers. When men listen to an advertisement about lipstick or romance they drive sensibly, whereas if the advertisement is about macho stuff, they drive aggressively and competitively.

This sent little messages pulsating across synapses in my brain. I saw my theory taking shape.

There is a positive correlation between witnessing something and acting it out. When people watch a violent film they walk out adrenalised with a need to express anger. A passive film evokes serenity. One floats out of the film on a feel-good vibe.

South Africa is not going to stop being a grossly depraved place where its inhabitants can’t live blissfully, without a paradigm shift from violence to harmony. This requires a miracle combined with a leader who is above reproach.

There have been massive drives and petitions, marches and letters in the press, to no avail. The violence, criminality and disregard for human life is ubiquitous as well as exponential.

That’s what I mean by “exponential catastrophic reactions”, I said.

Years back, I taught severely challenged children. A boy in my class, let’s call him Cyril, suffered from “catastrophic reactions”. If the noise level went one octave higher than his low frustration tolerance threshold, Cyril would run out the door screaming thunderously.

With a collective exponential state of catastrophic reactions, it’s a blood curdling scream of violence — an illness that permeates and spreads like lava. If everyone remains fearful and angry it fuels the lava. That’s what the psychopathic mentality desires. It gives it more impetus, a blood-thirsty craving to disempower and demoralise the fibre of society.

I don’t think that the media help. Every page tells of a blood bath. Does it become seen as the norm? Does it desensitise the perpetrators to the point that they can only obtain gratification from increasing acts of violence? Does it create mass levels of fear in a society that lives behind barbed wire?

Obviously poverty alleviation will assist people who become caught up in the machinations of crime. But I see the pandemic as larger than poverty related. There’s worldwide poverty and not all people affected by it suffer from this malady. It’s more like a horrific, lawless, runaway mind-set.

Those that “have”, exist behind massive walls and techno gadgets, fearing Robin Hood et al, while the “have nots” standing in queues waiting for their meagre pensions, are also robbed.

Having a million more policemen won’t cure the disease. It rests in the heart and soul of the individual, and is formulated by external stimuli.

We do require punitive aspects such as prisons. But we need to focus more on positive reinforcement and rewards. Respect for humanity and the perpetuation of positive values begin with discipline, security and nurturing in the home.

• Eve Hemming is a local educationist.

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