Throughout apartheid and into democracy, violence has been a prevalent feature of community life and contributed toward high levels of psychological distress and aggression. Not only overt and physical violence, this, also, includes structural and institutional violence, in the form of forced dislocation, lack of opportunities, and inhibitions to upward mobility for persons of colour.
South African youth have a history of adversity and are exposed to high levels of trauma, either as victims of violence or as witnesses to these events. From the infamous Soweto youth uprising in 1976 to the Fees Must Fall demonstrations in 2015- both were explosions of an accumulation of institutional aggressions endured by young people. More insidious than these, however, are the everyday injuries young people assume and internalise from those around them, most notably their immediate families. The trauma inflicted directly onto South Africans during apartheid continues to live on and find expression in the following generations. These wounds that young people inherit from previous generations are, then, normalised within community life and mistaken for culture and identity.
In 2021, the Youth Identity project kicked off its dialogue series with young people in Bergsig, Calitzdorp and held conversations on Coloured youth identity and belonging within the community. What we learned was that the young people we were speaking to held an insecure identity and a tenuous sense of belonging to their community and South Africa. Instead, all of them identified themselves as wounded and only faintly optimistic for their future. Many of them had isolated themselves from their broader community and formed small enclaves of belonging with their peers. While there is no fault in young people carving out spaces for belonging and affirmation, their decision to limit themselves to their peer groups have significant implications on their participation in community life and decision-making processes.
As a project team, we understood the importance of adjusting to the environment we found ourselves in and the needs both expressed and unsaid by the young people there. We opted to first address young people’s need to move from a state of woundedness onto a path of healing before we embarked on skills development and leadership training. In our mind, it would be futile to equip an individual with technical skills without first equipping them with the necessary skills to express, receive, and manage their emotions. We were determined to have emotionally healthy youth leaders and influencers. As we progressed, it became clear that our decision to deal with what emerged in the first two dialogues did, in fact, contribute toward young people’s overall socio-emotional competencies. We felt secure in the knowledge that we were doing what would be most impactful.
In that time, the Youth Identity project held workshops that included young people, their parents and grandparents, and gave the different generations present in the workshop an opportunity to speak truthfully to one another in a safe and facilitated setting. Together, we explored what trauma is- the different types of trauma that exists- what our current triggers and reactions are, and how we can improve our responses to our own trauma as well as other traumatised individuals. We understood that there were silences that existed within our communities, especially about events that occurred in the past, but that these silences were loud in their manifestations. We, also, understood that when a connection to one’s past legacy remained hidden and unspoken, an individual remained trapped. However, when the past is confronted and brought into awareness, the individual can be set free and embark on a journey toward healing.
In our most recent workshop held in February 2022, we explored traditional and non-traditional ways of healing. We examined the current strategies young people have to heal themselves and determined that many of these were harmful and unsustainable. Some of the mechanisms young people mentioned included sex, use of substances, excessive drinking, and emotional repression. Some others included, prayer, journaling, and confiding in a friend or stranger. With the understanding that talk therapy is expensive and, therefore, inaccessible for many young people living in Bergsig, we undertook to pursuing alternatives and settled on art therapy and meditative walking. Young people took to both with much enthusiasm, and reported feeling as though they’d reconnected with a forgotten part of their childhood. On the meditative walk, particularly, young people said they felt more grounded and connected to themselves and their environment. The meditative walk gave young people an opportunity to release the emotions that no longer served them and set new intentions for themselves, which they did.
It is our hope that when we return, we can develop a comprehensive self-care and community care plan that adequately meets some of the needs expressed by young people in Bergisig, and that create an environment for young people to grow and flourish into their full potential as leaders and stewards of Calitzdorp.
Danielle Hoffmeester, Project Leader for Sustained Dialogues Programme