Guest Column

The 'divine discomfort' needed to lift SA out of its state of frozenness

2019-08-05 08:51
Dr. Alec Boraine, TRC deputy chairperson and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Chairperson) at a TRC hearing. (Photo by Gallo Images/Business Day/Lori Waselchuk)

Dr. Alec Boraine, TRC deputy chairperson and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Chairperson) at a TRC hearing. (Photo by Gallo Images/Business Day/Lori Waselchuk)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

The lack of urgency by all role players to transform South Africa on all levels has led to an alarming increase in divisions within our society between rich and poor, different race groups, leadership and the people, writes Christo Thesnaar.

In his inauguration speech on May 10, 1994, former president Nelson Mandela stated that "The time for the healing of the wounds has come". This year, 2019, marks the 25th anniversary of the political settlement in South Africa and therefore we need to ask if we as a nation have managed to heal the wounds of the past and deal with the unresolved trauma that has traversed over generations.

During the gala dinner hosted by the Institute for Healing of Memories at the end of 2018, Dr Mamphela Ramphele indicated that our democracy remains on shaky grounds. According to her, we failed dismally to complement our ground-breaking political settlement of 1994 with what she calls an emotional and socio-economic settlement. With the phrase "emotional settlement", she implies the healing of traumas of apartheid and embracing values of Ubuntu, and with "socio-economic settlement", she suggests the dismantling of structural barriers to equality in our society.

Nomfundo Walaza, clinical psychologist and former executive director of the Trauma Centre for Survivors of Violence and Torture in Cape Town, already alluded to the impact of past traumas on black South Africans in the lead-up to the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) when she referred to the pent-up anger that has been there for a long time. In the lead-up to the 25th anniversary, we have seen an increase in anger, violence and vengeance on all levels of our society regarding basic service delivery, poverty, education, economic freedom, corruption and so forth.

For the most part of the past 25 years, the state of the trauma in our country has been mainly suppressed by the transition process, the democratic elections, the TRC process, and many political and economic promises. This has literally kept the trauma in what I want to call a "state of frozenness". The lack of urgency by all role players to transform South Africa on all levels has led to a painfully slow process of transformation and an alarming increase in divisions within our society between rich and poor, different race groups, leadership and the people, etc. There is, however, a profound danger related to frozen trauma, as we know that the failure to deal with past traumas could lead to an eruption of suppressed anger, violence and vengeance.

At the funeral of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged the failure of dealing with the traumas of our past. He indicated that we are in need of a new language to speak about our traumatic past and that if we do not attend to it, it will continue to impact current and future generations. He used words such as "hurt", "pain", "woundedness" and "anger" to voice the trauma experienced by the majority of South Africans and emphasised social healing. With this new language, he acknowledged the legacy of generational trauma and pain in our society, mainly caused by an unjust political system and centuries of colonialism, and how this inheritance is transmitted to the current generation and will continue to be transmitted to future generations if we are not able to transform it.

We have to acknowledge that the TRC was indeed a salient process and after the conclusion thereof it published a report and numerous recommendations for healing our nation. The government and other role players such as faith communities clearly neglected to take adequate responsibility for attending to the recommendations, be accountable to the nation for the implementation and to ensure that justice is done by transforming our political, economic and social society during the last 25 years.

It is clear that we cannot afford to continue to ignore the unfinished business of healing our nation. We have already seen all the signs and symptoms of multi-generational and multi-layered frozen trauma that has begun to erupt in our society.

For example, the intense reaction to the publication of four researchers from Stellenbosch University who purported to demonstrate that "coloured" women have lower cognitive development than the rest of humanity, as well as the fact that the study was even attempted, again confirmed the impact of the trauma of apartheid on our society. 

What is needed is a collective attempt by all sectors of the society to take responsibility, be accountable to and ensure that justice is done to all in this country, given our history. In this regard, we need to embrace the values of Ubuntu and mutual recognition and consciously move away from individualism self-enrichment.

We need to realise that we are in relation with each other; we need each other to develop a language to voice the past traumas in order to deal with it. In this way, we learn to live with discomfort because the discomfort of the injustice of the other has alerted us to the need to address those injustices. We as the addressed generation, 25 years on, will need to live in divine discomfort, a phrase used by French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, so that we are able to indicate our responsibility, accountability and commitment to face, deal and address the injustices caused by the traumas of past and current generations. The fact that the injustices we remember and see cause discomfort shows that we as a nation are human and ethical.

With this in mind, it is not too late to pick up the baton and continue with the process of healing our nation as the addressed generation so that we do not dump our unresolved traumas on the next generation. But, because of our responsibility to the next generation we need to ensure that we are continuously disturbed by the traumas of others and it should cause us real discomfort so that we can address the injustice. In this way, the light can start to break through the frozen and erupted trauma.

- Prof Christo Thesnaar is a senior lecturer in the Department of Practical Theology and Missiology at Stellenbosch University (SU). This article is based on his recent inaugural lecture at SU.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 


Read more on:    trc  |  transformation  |  trauma


Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.