Psychological Society of South Africa
Psychological Society of South Africa

Justice is fundamental in dealing with the effects of mass trauma

By Ahmed Riaz Mohamed

Judge Billy Mothle concluded on 12 October 2017 in the Pretoria High Court that Ahmed Timol—who died after ‘falling’ from the 10th floor of John Vorster Square Police Station—was indeed murdered in 1971 by security branch personnel who first systematically tortured and then pushed him from the building to his death. The court overturned the findings of an inquest conducted at the time which concluded the death to be the result of suicide—a reflection of the great lengths to which the security branch went to cover their tracks and hide the truth.

The poem, In Detention, by Chris van Wyk comes to mind as a literary depiction of this  farcical attempt at spindoctoring by the apartheid state at the time. Decades later the Timol family reopened the inquest into the death to uncover the truth about the incident and achieve, finally, some form of closure to their loss, and resolution of the trauma of decades of secrecy, unanswered questions and deceit.

The Timols’ story prior to the re-opening of the inquest is not unlike that of many other families in South Africa. These families remain in a state of suspended animation consumed with the ‘not knowing’ and tethered uncomfortably to the loose ends and unsatisfactory explanations that prevent and block the process of truly working through and coming to terms with a brutal past resulting in an unrelenting battle with traumatic memory. These families have been mired in their pain, unable to fully process their losses and struggle with what Cathy Caruth refers to as “unclaimed experiences”—that which cannot be fully or completely known because to know it would be too overwhelming. This results in the constant and oftentimes involuntary repetition—whether in memory, or in action—of traumatic content as the mind’s way of trying desperately to reclaim and make sense of a profound disruption to the psyche.

In the words of scholar and psychologist, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela:

This repetition of real events from the past is, perhaps, a cathartic way of putting into action the struggle to find language to express the frustrations, helplessness,disempowerment, and humiliation suffered by those who have faced extremelytraumatic events in their lives, especially human-induced trauma such as masspolitical violence

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was an attempt to facilitate the process of finding language for victims of gross human rights violations—an attempt to help these victims reclaim their experiences and move forward, but also to he help the nation reclaim its traumatic history and progress towards unity and peace. However, the TRC’s scope was limited and—despite its many harrowing hearings—was circumscribed in its handling of trauma on multiple various levels. This is not to say that the TRC was a failed exercise.

Processes of dialogue and reclamation have to start somewhere, and the TRC would have been that—a good start. The TRC, however, was treated as the totality of the response to mass trauma in South Africa. Reconciliation and the TRC were equated as one and the same, and upon conclusion of the TRC it was taken for granted—naively so—that reconciliation had ‘occurred’, and that it was now time to move onto the business of being a rainbow nation.

The complexity inherent to reconciliation, and the recognition of this as a process rather than as an event, was denied. Bound up in this was the TRC’s amnesty processes which offered perpetrators of apartheid-era atrocities amnesty in exchange for full disclosure of their crimes. Sufficed to say this process fell far short of its intended aim when many perpetrators either did not come forward, fully denied involvement, or only partially disclosed details which left the families of victims wanting, with many loose ends, gaping wounds and unfinished business. The perpetrators who did not come forward were never taken to task as prosecutions were not undertaken, and those who offered even partial disclosure were nonetheless offered amnesty for their crimes despite wholly unsatisfactory engagement with the TRC. For all intents and purposes, the perpetrators of apartheid-era human rights violations are free to continue with their lives unencumbered and devoid of accountability. The same, however, is not the true of the victims of these violations who live daily with the knowledge that the perpetrators of the crimes to which they were victims roam free.

This creates a profoundly unsafe world for victims of trauma because every moment is a moment they could once again be violated. They are not only entrapped by their traumatic memories, but there could realistically come a moment where they are once again faced with the person who ruptured their worlds—this in itself is traumatic. Harvard University professor and trauma scholar, Judith Herman, argues in her book Trauma and Recovery that working through trauma first and foremost requires that safety is re-established for victims—physical safety, emotional and psychological safety, relational safety, economic safety, socio-political safety.

Trauma obliterates the predictability and security that culture—as a system of organising our lives—brings to social life. Without this sense of security everything is a threat and dangerous, and when the trauma is perpetrated by a fellow human being, the empathic bonds that allow us to humanise others and relate are disturbed and results in a feeling of being utterly isolated and alone in the painful fragmented chaos that trauma generates. It becomes absolutely imperative therefore that the response to trauma from others—from family, friends, schools, churches, NGOs, government—is one of patience, understanding, advocacy, and justice. The victim is never responsible for the trauma, and so the victims should never be made to feel injustice in response as this further isolates and disempowers victims of trauma who have been so profoundly stripped of their agency in the traumatic moment. Trauma is, after all, what Judith Herman refers to as the “affliction of the powerless” because of the way in which it renders victims utterly powerless and helpless.

In the broader scheme of things, the TRC fell short in its handling of the totality of the effects of apartheid atrocities. By not adequately holding perpetrators responsible, and not following up the amnesty process with investigations and prosecutions of these perpetrators the State—in an attempt to make reconciliation happen—denied victims of trauma the safety that is required for them to move meaningfully forward with their lives, and attempt to piece their fragmented lives back together. Instead, the unfinished business of trauma remains unfinished, and the trauma remains unresolved. The nation remains traumatised and fractured. One needs only observe the tremendous response to the recent film Action Kommandant by Nadine Angel Cloete that tells the story of prolific anti-apartheid activist Ashley Kriel, murdered in Cape Town at the age of 20 in 1987, by security police on the orders of the infamous Jeffrey Benzien. Three decades after his death, the rapture with which Ashley Kriel’s story is taken up by communities that span the length and breadth of the South African population, and beyond, reflects the hunger and the need for constant engagement on the trauma of the past. This speaks volumes to the desperate need of families—including former comrades—to continually seek spaces to find voice and language to make sense of the loss, and to come to resolution. There is an insatiable drive towards reclaiming the unclaimed experiences of trauma in South Africa which it is clear was not adequately offered by the TRC.

The re-opening of the inquest into Ahmed Timol’s death by his family is yet another example of the need to reclaim, and to finish what has for too long remained unfinished. It is an attempt to take back what has been held in the shadows, situating the power and control firmly within the hands of the perpetrator while continuing to render the victims in a state of perpetual helplessness, and—in many ways—suspending them at the mercy of the perpetrator. This is an untenable state of affairs and is an injustice against victims of trauma that cannot be accepted. If justice aims to restore balance, then allowing injustices to be perpetuated amounts to the continual destabilisation and unsettling of victims. In other words, it has much the same effect as trauma, resulting in continued retraumatisation of victims. Victims of apartheid-era crimes and their families therefore continue to suffer the emotional burden of the unfinished business of trauma, which—through lack of action—is condoned and allowed by the State whose role it is to safeguard and protect its people, particularly its innocent and vulnerable ones. The State, on a macro-level, serves at a country’s caregiver. In the same way that the family plays a key role in helping to re-establish safety for victims of trauma, the State equally has a role to play in this regard particularly when the trauma goes beyond just the individual but also has had profound and widespread societal effects. The State’s role therefore in pursuing the unsolved cases of apartheid atrocities is of paramount importance in helping not only the families involved, but in facilitating the nation’s resolution and restoration. Pursuing justice is therefore essential. Justice aims to re-establish balance. It is not tantamount to vengeance. Vengeance and retribution without reflection perpetuates violence and trauma, whereas justice contributes to restoration, balance, resolution and, ultimately, peace. To quote Martin Luther, “Peace was not made for the sake of justice, but justice for the sake of peace”.

Although the perpetrators have not as yet been prosecuted in the case of Ahmed Timol, the justice system—as the moral centre of our democracy—has unequivocally made its position known; that such a prosecution must be pursued in order for justice to be officially seen done and for the family to experience meaningful closure. What lies in this position is an acknowledgement of the necessity of this kind of statement, and its meaning in terms of facilitating resolution. This kind of response resituates the power in the vicinity of the victim, and is a necessary step on the broader response to mass trauma in post-conflict contexts such as South Africa. The fact that 5 decades down the line, such a process remains as pertinent as it is, is testament to just how significant it is, and is also reflective of how without it closure is unattainable. We as a nation and as a society must, therefore, advocate for formal judicial inquisition into apartheid-era atrocities, and unconditionally support families seeking such inquiries if we are to truly speak to resolution and closure, and in order to really begin to engage with reconciliation which remains—continually—a work in progress.


Ahmed Riaz Mohamed is a lecturer and clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pretoria and writes here in his private capacity. He is a recipient of the VU-NRF Desmond Tutu Doctoral Training Programme Scholarship, and has previously conducted research in the field of victims of gross human rights violations in South Africa and their experiences of providing public testimony at the TRC. He is a PhD candidate at the VrijeUniversiteit Amsterdam in the field of parent-child attachment in children with intellectual disability, and is also currently supervising a research project exploring black South Africans’ experiences of reconciliation and the ‘rainbow nation’ following nearly two and half decades of freedom
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