Mamphela Ramphele: How to recover from SA's multi-generational trauma


Our social development programs are too focused on welfarism and too little on healing the social pain that is overwhelming so many adults and children growing up in our highly unequal and violent society, writes Mamphela Ramphele.

Studies across the globe affirm the wisdom of ancients: What is overwhelming and unnameable is passed on to those we are closest to. Our loved ones carry what we cannot. And we do the same. This is how traumatic events can be passed on to the next generations.

I had the opportunity to travel to Belfast in Ireland to deliver the Second Annual Senator George Mitchell Peace Lecture. Senator George Mitchell is honoured for brokering the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended multi-generational conflict between Catholic and Protestant people in Northern Ireland, known as “the Troubles”. We can be proud that our president, Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa, is held in high regard in Ireland for supporting the negotiation process, drawing on our experiences of the negotiation process that led to our political settlement in 1994.

I was struck by how successful Ireland has been in facing the "overwhelming and unnameable" legacy of social pain from centuries of humiliation. They have successfully complemented their political settlement with serious investments in healing the wounds of multi-generational humiliation by British colonial rule, the divide and conquer strategy that fuelled the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants.

These investments include reviving the Irish language and culture, and celebrating their history. They've enhanced the quality of education on the foundations of mother tongue education in lower grades and made education and training accessible to all to ensure that citizens. Their talent development processes including retraining public servants to embrace the values of social justice have promoted active citizenship and the rebuilding of their country.

Ireland has also invested in rebuilding their human settlements to restore the dignity of people who have grown up being treated like second class citizens. Symbols of heroes and proud moments in the history of both sides of the divide are embedded in Belfast's residential areas, to revive a sense of pride in their history and culture.

I was reminded of a Sepedi saying: (Lebelo) Ga lena motlogapele, le ne motshabi wa lona (The race of life is not about who starts first, but who runs a strong race). Ireland is reaping the benefits of a holistic peace building and sustaining process guided by a strong commitment to social justice to ensure that no one is left behind. They are streaking ahead of us in the transformation stakes. 

As we look at the multiplicity of serious challenges in our society we need to learn the lessons from places such as Ireland that have adopted a comprehensive development approach to build a society characterised by social justice. We need to resist the tendency to look at each of our challenges as discreet. Fragmented approaches have led to the perpetuation and worsening of our social maladies over the last 25 years. A holistic understanding of the root causes of our problems is more likely to lead us to more appropriate solutions.

Chaos in our social relationships

Many of us are feeling overwhelmed by reports of serious dysfunctionality in our education system: more than 600 teachers per year involved in serious misconduct including sexual assault of school pupils and impregnating school girls; absenteeism and substance abuse; dishonesty with regard to qualifications and the documented buying and selling of posts. We have also seen a rise in violence and misconduct of students across the system, resulting in a culture of bullying and growing numbers of murders of learners by their peers.  

City Press reported this weekend on the shocking escalating teen pregnancy rates that include children as young as 10-14 years. Persistent high rates of new HIV infection rates amongst teenage girls between 15 and 19 years old are a result of the same culture. Violence in our institutions, including rape and murder of students by their peers, signals the depth of the chaos in our social relationships. 

These problems are all linked. The common thread is multi-generational trauma that has remained overwhelming and unnamed from generation to generation. Take the pain of nearly two thirds (62%) of children in our society growing up without fathers. The pain their unsupported single mothers carry is passed on to them, unprocessed. They in turn become young single parents or missing fathers in their own children's lives. 

We know from neuroscience and psychology that growing up without a father has serious consequences for children – boys and girls. They tend to suffer identity crises and often lack self-confidence leading to under-performance of their innate potential. They tend to become aggressive and unable to exercise self-mastery. Boys may show hyper-masculinity, whereas girls may become submissive and unable to stand up for themselves and say, no is no! Imagine the impact of this cycle of overwhelming and unnamed pain over multiple generations! 

The legacy of colonial conquest, the migrant labour system that deliberately destroyed African family life and took men away from their homes and treated them as sub-human boys, will not vanish because we ignore it. Just look across the Atlantic to the sequelae of slavery on African American families. An estimated 22% of households are single parented.

Each one of our complex problems would be difficult to address unless we acknowledge their inextricable links and adopt a holistic approach to finding a lasting way out of the toxic mix. It would be a grave error for those in the middle and upper classes to assume that this is a problem of poor people that has nothing to do with them. Those so inclined need only to remember Anton Rupert's warning to his fellow white male captains of industry during apartheid: "If they don't eat, we cannot sleep."

Today we know that it is not simply a matter of taking care of material needs of poor people. Of more fundamental importance is to address the social pain of multi-generational humiliation of poverty in the midst of plenty.

Focus on welfarism too big

The majority of teachers in our school system are bearers of "overwhelming and unnamed pain". Growing up, as many did, in poverty and fatherless families, or even only with their grandparents or extended families, exposed them to emotional deprivation. Many have never known love, gentle care and the dignity of being listened to. What programs are we proposing to address these deep-seated unnamed problems they carry? What supportive structures have we created to set the tone for shared values of Ubuntu, nurturing responsibility, support for professionalism and consequence management? 

Our social development programs are too focused on welfarism and too little on healing the social pain that is overwhelming so many adults and children growing up in our highly unequal and violent society. Much more investment is needed to attract, train and deploy social workers, psychologists, councillors and mentors to support single parents, teenage mothers, grandparents and schools to be better able to nurture young people into self-confident critical thinking citizens.

Partnerships between the government, the private sector and civil society need to be forged to reach out to the more than four million young people who are not in school, employment or training. The longer we leave these young people to their own devices the more we perpetuate the social pain they will pass on to their children.

There is no prospect of our economy being able to create enough jobs in the foreseeable future to meaningfully include these young people in productive work. We need urgent innovative interventions to enable experiential learning in the private sector, public service, civil society and faith communities. Such programs should promote structured life skills education and mentoring to enable young people to assume self-matery and to create their own livelihoods. 

We have the resources to do this. Do we have the political will to make these investments as countries like Ireland have done and are reaping the benefits from?

- Mamphela Ramphele is the co-founder of ReimagineSA.

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