Transcending the wounds of the past: A nation’s journey to healing

The team recently attended a research seminar at Freedom Park in Pretoria on March 31, 2017 which focused on the impact of transgenerational trauma in South Africa. The seminar highlighted work done by Prof. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela; Prof. Sharlene Swartz; Dr Shanaaz Hoosain; and Prof Maurice Apprey.

These presentations reflected a need for us as individuals, families and communities to understand the traumas of the past, and the impact it has on the present, to begin transcending the wounds of the past and heal.

Transgenerational transmission of trauma refers to the way in which unresolved traumas of the past can be subliminally transmitted from one generation to another (Volkan, 1996). Taking into account the current state of affairs in the country-violence, corruption, a call for new leadership, this was a very relevant topic of discussion.
The seminar looked at the past history of apartheid in South Africa, a time in which violence was rife and many individuals endured cruel inhuman degrading treatment in various forms. The abolishment of apartheid and the event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), as a path to healing the past was meant to create a space of coming clean and forgiving as we forged the rainbow nation.

Have we as a nation healed?
Understanding the impact of trauma from a psychological perspective, trauma memories have a way of embedding themselves into our individual and collective psyche and if not processed, lay dormant within us and are often triggered, giving rise to the ghosts of the past. Trauma returns but with a different face. Over the past few years, South Africa has felt the presence of the ghost, as events such as Marikana, Fees must fall protests, SABC 8, Zuma must fall, has mimicked events of the past apartheid regime.

Post-apartheid research has concluded that the past has had an impact on the social fabric of South African society, and racially inspired injustices have traumatized us as a nation. This state of traumatization has passed on through generations and the wounded, unhealed have repeated the mistakes of the past. Noted in the following ways: the continuous struggle of racial division, inequality and poverty; the use of violence as an expression of power in families, communities and state level; the lack of empathy for the other; the othering that takes places between black nationals and black non nationals, black nationals and indian and coloured nationals.

We are the so-called rainbow nation but the socialization of apartheid continues in our homes and communities. We have not consciously reconfigured the past, we have not consciously dealt with our trauma, we were simply free, yet chained within ourselves to repeat what we taught, what was modelled to us.

When will we transcend the wounds and how is it possible?
It is a challenge to transcend the wounds of the past, when current circumstances have aggravated it. Re-traumatizing us. Prof Gobodo-Madikizela states that trauma in South Africa has three faces: Apartheid trauma, which involved experiences of forced removal, racism and violence; Struggle trauma, which looks at the experiences of ex combatants, who struggled for a place in post-aparthied South Africa, as they were iconized, yet faced challenges privately in the forms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, family relations neglect as parents were detained and children were exposed to apartheid violence; and lastly our current experience of trauma, which is betrayal trauma, referred to Prof. Gobodo-Madikizela as the experience of betrayal and abandonment by our leaders. Some of us may have directly experienced all three traumas and others not, but we are all victims of them, as they are a part of who we are, they have impacted on us indirectly. The history, as well as, the trauma (wounds) of the past has passed down, it is the source of our pain, rage and anger.

If we are bound to the ghosts of the past, is healing possible?
According to the speakers and their research, it’s not all doom and gloom. Healing can occur and it starts with acknowledging the traumas of the past. One would say, didn’t the TRC do this. Yes and no, it started the process but it was left incomplete. There is still gaps in the memory, as silences have left a void in history. Prof. Gobodo-Madikizela and Prof. Apprey argue that youth today are disconnected from the past, focusing on their current challenges, which are valid, but have a root in the past. If I don’t have the full picture, how do I proceed to make sense of the now and take action for the future?

Prof. Apprey put this eloquently as he stated that rushing through the pain of the trauma and not metabolizing the past places us at the risk of becoming repeat agents of the past. He further explores the psychology of our integration of our past experiences and how they subtly impact on us in the now. He states that at the bottom level lies our history, some of it remembered, some not; at the next level, is the history remembered which gives form to an individual’s mental representation of the world; and at the present everyday interactional level, the history that is remembered which forms the mental representation of the world dictates how we perceive others will treat or receive us in the world.

On this point he really touches on the ways in which South Africa’s historical trauma has subliminally transferred across generations. And it is something as South Africans we see every day, in our interaction with each other, perceptions of each other and receiving of each other.

He also states that restoration is possible, it starts with accepting the trauma history, breaking the silence and getting the whole picture and dissolving the internal resistance (fighting what we were taught, socialized to think about each other) to allow for possibilities to be re-socialised and work towards Uncle Kathy’s vision of a non-racial South Africa.

Written by Sumaiya Mohamed

Click here to read a comment by Thembisile Masondo.

First blog post

This blog was started by the clinicians that work within the CSVR Trauma Clinic. the purpose of the blog is to create a platform to raise awareness of mental health related issues that arise as a result of violence.

Violence is a predominant feature in South African and global history. The CSVR acknowledges this and the complexities in which violence takes form. The CSVR works towards understanding violence, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at community, national and regional levels. This is done through collaboration with and learning from lived and diverse experiences of communities affected by violence.

The Trauma Clinic is the intervention component of the CSVR, that provides mental health therapeutic services to individual, families and communities that are affected by violence.

Posts on this blog, are clinicians reflections of the impact that violence has on mental health of individuals, families and communities, and possibilities of healing.

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