Conversations about the past are crucial, but when and how also matter

By Published On: 8th February 2019

South Africa will continue to be a country that promises much but shows little because of our unwillingness to have honest conversations about how the past is robbing us from a peaceful future, writes Stanley Henkeman.

Human beings have since time immemorial tried to make sense of pain and loss of life. When lives are lost because of a tragedy, such as the one at Hoërskool Driehoek where four learners died when a walkway collapsed, the sense of loss becomes a public loss. The mourning process becomes both personal and public. 

There is an unwritten agreement that friends and family be given space to mourn and take leave of their loved ones in a dignified manner. Another unwritten rule, practiced in many cultures, is that you do not speak ill of the dead.

The response to Zenoyise John’s News24 article entitled, “Hoërskool Driehoek and the origin of black anger,” evoked strong responses from many quarters across the traditional divides in South Africa. Under normal circumstances this article would be regarded as sober commentary on an extreme, arguably insensitive, response to a tragic event by some very angry people. 

READ: Discomforting truths about anger and distress

But the reality is that this is South Africa where our responses to difficult issues, especially when it relates to our past, are anything but normal. It should not surprise us when an event of this nature becomes proxy for what is wrong in South Africa.

I have grown up with the expression that two wrongs do not make a right. This was drilled into me by caregivers and teachers when I reacted excessively when someone had done me wrong. It was only later in life that it made sense that my response often exacerbated the problem instead of providing a solution. 

When the fault lines run very deep, as it does in South Africa, even an explanation could be interpreted as hostile. The problem with emotional responses is that it stifles rational engagement and it is unfortunate, but not surprising, that John’s attempt to start a conversation based on reason was met with such strong reactions. 

Part of the difficulty with such conversations is that they often take place on platforms, such as social media and unfiltered comments on mainstream media, promote dialogues of the deaf. These dialogues often take the form of definitive statements and verbal brawling. In the process we lose out on valuable insights and positive contributions.

I think that John makes some useful points which would be worth exploring. She is right when she laments the lack of authentic conversations that will deal with difficult issues. The question, however, is how to have these conversations. 

I think that she provides part of the answer when she argues for the creation of “safe spaces for black people to have genuine conversations about its roots”. It is my view that this should be the case for everyone in South Africa. 

Increasingly, there is a call for racial, cultural and other identity groups to have honest, introspective conversations within their ranks about the past. It is argued that if we are able to hold up the mirror to ourselves within the relative safety of the intra group context we will give ourselves opportunities to express our emotions in ways that will not invoke judgement and to explore the fault lines within our own arguments. 

This approach, which some might regard as taking us back to narrow identity conversations, will, I believe, increase the possibility of people being less defensive when engaging in inter-group dialogue. This will not be possible on social media or with responses to newspaper articles but require face-to-face encounters.

John is correct when she argues for the need to address the impact of an oppressive past on the mental health of black people. I would argue that the past impacted all South Africans, not just black people, in some way or another. 

Martha Cabrera, a South American psychologist talks about the woundedness of societies. In an article entitled, “Living and surviving in a multiply wounded country“, she asserts that, trauma and pain afflict not only individuals. When they become widespread and ongoing, they affect entire communities and even the country as a whole. 

Based on her extensive experience as a social psychologist working with traumatised communities in Nicaragua she sounds a clear warning when she says, “Multiply wounded societies run the risk of becoming societies with intergenerational traumas. It is virtually a law that one treats others the way one treats oneself. Anywhere that large population groups are traumatized, the trauma is transferred to the next generation. Working with the multiple wound phenomenon means accepting that the wounds are collective as well as personal.”

South Africa will continue to be a country that promises much but shows little because of our inability or unwillingness to have honest conversations about how the past, with all its unresolved issues, is robbing us from a bright and peaceful future.

Politicians have failed to lead in this regard and many workshops and talk shops have yielded little. It is time for South Africans who are serious about the legacy we will leave for our children to start these difficult conversations.

We need genuine leaders to step forward to start honest intragroup conversations that will help us to have productive inter-group conversations. We are the people we have been waiting for.

– Stanley Henkeman is executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

Article published by News24

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