Wednesday, August 29, 2007


I am struck, still, by the consciousness distance between white and Black South Africans. We are caught in the same brutal history but that is about all it seems sometimes. Most Blacks want to confront the past. And most whites want to distance themselves from the past.

When I think of change and progress in South Africa it is hard for me to delink that movement from knowing and confronting the past. Most of my activist and academic work is about assessing, and confronting, the past. Somewhere tucked into my psyche is the belief, maybe foolish to some, that the past cannot just be left aside or denied. Arthur Neal and Judith Herman's work on trauma and confrontation have been formative influences on my thinking.

Judith Herman writes strikingly about the past and the need to confront when she warns us that the brutality of the past will refuse to be buried.

The dead walk again in a manner that forces us to confront our past.

Herman says that societies that refuse to confront the trauma of the past are doomed to be tied to that trauma and its effects. These effects are no different than those suffered by rape victims, for example. Herman is joined by cognitive psychologist, Aaron T. Beck, in this assessment.

Beck has argued that the responses to individual trauma, like a rape or severe assault, is much like that of the victims of racism or genocide. Neal's work, and I have had the privilege of making a small contribution to his work, is to link personal traumas to mass traumas.

Neal uses the term "chronic" to explain the disruption that comes from a mass trauma. What is significant in a chronic trauma is that there is no going back to a previous condition.

The 'normality' of everyday life is forever punctured and severely disrupted.

My other small contribution has been to argue that chronic traumas can be political in nature. In this sense, I have tried to show how apartheid produced a chronic trauma that leaves both victim and victimizer with an array of effects that look like those that Herman and Beck point to in their work.

I have argued elsewhere, with Neal, that the state cannot ignore the disruption, in the longterm, because it will hamper the expression of political and other development. For this reason, I have joined others in calling for an open system of accountability in which the abuse of the past is made public. Furthermore, I have thought it necessary to blend the outcome of such a confrontation into the socio-political consciousness of the nation and the state.

Additionally, I have called for corrective medicine. And I use the word medicine purposefully and in two contexts. The first speaks to reparation. So in the case of land in South Africa there would have to be serious redistribution.

The second aspect is rehabilitation. By this I mean a longterm assessment of the meaning of apartheid in the relations of South Africans. Rehabilitation is mostly something that happens outside of the corridors of the state. It is, rather, the nation that confronts the past and its presence in their lives. Making meaning out of the past as Neal would say. Meaning is to be tied to the structure that the past presses in the present.

Denial is not an option.

So it is highly problematic to act as if apartheid did not happen. Or rather, that most whites did not consent and participate in the abuses of apartheid. This kind of revisionism is dysfunctional at best.

Rehabilitation would press a consciousness of knowing that whiteness devalues Black life across the board. This is a critical piece if we are to find any condition of lasting peace in South Africa. Critical also because whiteness, as a system of values and beliefs, must be set aside permanently.

But rehabilitation is never easy. It may not even be possible in the manner that I have wanted to believe.

Mainstream political science usually scoffs at this type of analysis. But I am not a mainstream political scientist. I can't be. Like Edward Said I have tried to fuse theory and praxis into organic intellectual activism. This is my frame for remembering.

Remembering is an important part of confrontation. It forces us to see the past and present as related and structurally connected. Memory in these terms, especially where apartheid is concerned, is about piecing the disparate together to make sense of the trauma suffered.

For this reason, I choose to push where some, especially the perpetrators of abuse, would rather forget, or deny. I cannot forget or repress. It simply is not an option for my survival. And there are costs to living so close to the demon of confrontation.

But these costs are unavoidable. For without remembering, confrontation cannot provide real movement forward.



Professor Zero said...

I found out about Herman and Beck because people were referring to them to discuss the New Orleans situation post-Katrina. They seem brilliant.

Ridwan said...

Prof Zero I think you will be drawn to the work of Judith Herman, in particular.

I am glad that I began with her and then migrated to Beck.

I can't speak, of course, about Beck's larger works on depression and cognitive counselling.

But the connection to individual trauma and mass trauma is compelling.

I am interested to know how their works are connected to the struggle of post-Katrina.

Best wishes.

And peace,

Dade said...

Your point about the benefits of confronting the past is irrefutable. We've all experienced the consequences of ignoring our mistakes. Alas, that we humans seem unable to learn even the most obvious lessons from own follies.

By the way, Ridwan, I've put a link to your blog on my site. Hope that's okay.


Ridwan said...

Hey there Dade. If only more of us were willing to dig deeper and confront hey.

Thanks for putting a link to my blog on your blog.

I will do the same here.

Be well Dade.


Professor Zero said...

The other places where the Hermann et al theories would obviously apply is in the Condor countries, with the dirty wars and torture regimes ... and Central America. Actually, I was in this tiny town in El Quiche, in Guatemala, where they had storytelling in the plaza and the storyteller I ran into was an ex-army conscript, telling with pain about his participation in torture. He was doing this by his own choice and had a large audience, sympathetic, some of whom must have been victims. It was wild. And the most depressed place I've been was Nicaragua and ... yes, mass trauma.

Ridwan said...

Guatemala is a key country in the process of constructing so-called "truth commissions".

I must confess that I do not know too much about those processes.

But, the SAfrican Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was partly based on the Guatemalan experience.

I agree that Herman's work fits well there.

I think she is brilliant. Well I said that already.

Be well PZ.


Kellogg said...


I have not had a chance to thank you for putting this blog up. Having you as a professor has changed my life, and your ability to speak to people of all races, and nationalities, without being high handed, is much needed in dealing with the complex issues surrounding race, racism, and the white power contruct. Your a gift to all people, and I wish you all the best!


Ridwan said...

Kellogg your words mean the world to me. I am honoured brother and sincerely hope that in this small world we will bump into each other again.

You know you are always welcome to visit and stay with me in SAfrica.

Keep me posted on your important work my brother. I am proud of you!

Peace and struggle,