Untreated trauma: the elephant in the room

The room is almost all elephant

Almost none of it isn’t

Pretty much

solid elephant

So there’s no

room to talk about it

Kay Ryan – The Elephant in the Room

Marianne Thamm (Daily Maverick 168; 10-16 October 2020), alluded to the perpetual trauma that beset the relationship between Nelson and Winnie Mandela. “The personal cost was great, the healing might never have come completely, but their love story stands as a testimony of the vulgarity and glory of the times,” she writes.

The world will never forget Winnie Madikizela Mandela’s: “With our boxes of matches, and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country.” The violence and trauma experienced by the necklaced and necklacing generation – the so-called “lost generation” – will forever be ingrained in our history.

Arundhati Roy

When Arundhati Roy was interviewed by Viet Thanh Nguyen shortly before her visit to South Africa in 2018, he read a passage from Roy’s novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness:

Inter-generational trauma and international reputation

From my window seat in a bus on a bright, beautiful day, I saw a mob lynch an old Sikh gentleman. They pulled off his turban, tore out his beard and necklaced him South Africa–style with a burning tire while people stood around baying their encouragement.

In his eulogy at Winnie’s funeral, President Cyril Ramaphosa used biblical imagery to describe Winnie’s trauma.  “Many South Africans have been touching Mam’ Winnie’s wounds…It ought to have been done long ago. For she wore the gaping wounds of her people,” he said. 

Winnie Madikizela Mandela should have been treatred for trauma

 “We must also recognise our own wounds as a nation,” Ramaphosa said at Winnie Mandela’s funeral three years ago. “We must acknowledge that we are a society that is hurting, damaged by our past, numbed by our present and hesitant about our future…”

Trauma wasn’t recognised

ANC stalwart and founder of the Detainees’ Parents Support Committee (DPSC), Audrey Coleman, said that after the kidnapping and murder of teenage activist,  Stompie Sepei  in 1989, she suggested to the UDF that Winnie should be sent to a trauma clinic outside the country, but it never happened.

“I don’t think people recognised the trauma… There were other bigger things…And we found with detainees who we referred to for counselling because we felt they were traumatised; they would go once and they would never return…because they didn’t understand what the point was.”

Children who witnessed violence are today’s adults

When Coleman served on the social welfare committee in the Gauteng legislature, she suggested setting up units for trauma counselling.

“1994 comes about and we expect people to be normal, and they have gone through this horror and insecurity.  I thought teachers could be taught how to recognise a traumatised child in their classroom and I suggested having counselling services near schools.  But of course, at the time there was a lot happening and we were new to government and it was all too much…

“The children who witnessed the violence are the adults of today,” she reflected, “and they have never had any redress made to their trauma.“  

In our politics and in society, South Africa displays the symptoms of unresolved trans-generational trauma. Trauma survivors who have not experienced healing, inflict trauma on subsequent generations. If they are in positions of power, they are capable of immense cruelty and devastation.  The callous treatment of the Life Esidimeni victims and at a different level, the relentless corruption – more recently around essential medical supplies and the distribution of food parcels to impoverished communities during the Covid-19 pandemic – are all expressions of this.

The inquest into the death of 144 mentally ill patients has again been postponed.

Between October 2015 and June 2016, 1,711 people were relocated from mental health facilities operated by the long-term Life Esidimeni services to alternative facilities managed by various NGOs.  This resulted in the deaths of 144 mental health care patients from causes that included neglect and starvation, and the exposure of 1,418 others to torture and trauma. When the tragedy came to light, the state was unable to ascertain the whereabouts of a further 44 patients. 

Traumatised relatives of Life Esidimeni victims

The bodies of four of these patients are still missing and no action has been taken against those responsible. “Where is Qedani Mahlangu now, one wonders?” Mark Hewyood asks in a Maverick Citizen Editorial on 23 June 2020. “Not in prison, you can be sure.”

At a conference of psychologists involved in the Life Esidimeni arbitration, held at the Holocaust and Genocide Centre in late 2018, the poet Makhosazana Xaba interrogated the life experiences of the two women associated with the Life Esidimeni tragedy: Gauteng MEC for health Qedani Mahlangu and Head of Mental Health, Dr Makgabo Manamela.  Like other women of her generation, Xaba said, career options were limited to nursing or education. She chose nursing and progressed from general nursing to midwifery to psychiatric nursing.  Mahlangu chose education and Head of Mental Health, Manamela, chose nursing.

Life Esidimeni: a legacy of trauma

Xaba hated nursing and felt trapped by it. “ I hated it all. I hated the daily routine of bed-making…the routine of medicine and injections and wound cleaning and dressing and patient feeding. I hated the environment of anxious… confused, defeated, groaning and weeping patients.  I hated being instructed to be of service by rude, sexist and racist doctors.  I hated the sisters who barked instructions at us in the name of teaching.  I hated the environment of pain and death.” 

Career paths informed by trauma

A trauma response: I recognised who I feared I might become- poet Makhosazana Xaba

 “When I first heard Dr Manamela’s testimony,” Xaba said,  “I wondered how she had made her choices.  I wondered how she would speak about her experiences as a nurse in training and practice. I recognised in her who I feared that many years ago I might become.”

In the US, healing-centered educators like Angel Acosta are facilitating trans-generational and collective healing. Acosta and others designed the ‘Contemplating 400 Years of Inequality Experience’; a contemplative immersion experience involving a 4 x 24-meter timeline with images and texts depicting 400 years of trauma experienced by black Americans since the arrival of enslaved Africans to Jamestown, Virginia; the dispossession and extermination of native Americans, and the resulting four centuries of historical crisis.  “We are living in an ecology of inequality,” he says.

Archetypal grief and transgenerational trauma

Dr Fanny Brewster

Acosta quotes Jungian analysis, Dr. Fanny Brewster, who speaks of the ‘archetypal grief of black women)’ to refer to trauma passed on from one generation of women to the next; women who have borne the brunt of the contradiction between democracy and a slave state.   “Since the genesis of the country… black women have had to experience the loss of their children,” he said.  “It was very common for women to give birth and their children to be sold off to different plantations. When you lose your child to a system of slavery, and then you lose children to lynching, you lose children to the prison system, you lose children to police brutality… so there is this archetypal grief in black women, that is resonant across generations.”

The TRC played a particular role at a specific political moment in South Africa’s history. It did not result in restorative justice and it did not address cumulative trauma.  Healing trans-generational trauma remains a burning issue in South Africa.

Special thanks to Sue Kramer for the drawing

Part of this article was first published by Business Day Live

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


2 Responses

  1. Sad. And scary. We all need help, but clearly, some people need more help. Why don’t they use it? I certainly hope that no one is forced into places (like nursing) which they hate. Those are all tragedies.

  2. This is such an important article, Melody – and so well written. I am looking forward to the next installment on healing our trans-generational trauma. So very much needed.

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