Vusi Gumede
Vusi Gumede

South Africa: A nation in distress

Many thinkers, ranging from as far back as Plato and Aristotle to as recent as Hannah Arendt, spent inordinate amounts of time trying to make sense of the world we live in. With similar intensity and dedication, pioneering psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget devoted significant energies in an effort to understand the processes of human development. Recent literature on these issues has attempted to improve the earlier thinking, culminating in the so-called neo-Freudians and neo-Piagetians. In essence, neo-Piagetians are turning Freud’s dictum that “it is the infant who is a father to the man” on its head by arguing that though the early years are salient many other encounters in life as we grow also significantly shape who we become. Robert Kegan, in his book The Evolving Self, which admirably unpacks meaning-making and subject-object relations, puts it aptly when he says “from a neo-Piagetian view, the transformation in the first eighteen months of life is only the first instance of the basic evolutionary activity taken as the fundamental ground of personality development”. In short, there is continuous assimilation and accommodation in our lives — as part of the evolution of self, relating to our “world”, making sense of it and responding to real-life events.

I guess I am attempting to tackle what would come across as an esoteric subject to many, given that an attempt to characterise a contemporary South African is a relatively abstract intellectual project. I am drawing strength from the late James Baldwin’s argument that “not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced”. Therefore, talking about the psychosocial dynamics in our great country is, in my view, a critical part of confronting the psychosocial pathologies and teleological and deontological questions and possibly tackling what could be changed. I have also been encouraged by the boldness of Ngila Muendane, in his recent book I am an African: Embrace Your Identity, Escape Victimisation. Muendane’s analysis of the “Pull Him/Her Down Syndrome” (PHD Syndrome) is instructive — he argues that “Africans go out of their way to sabotage the constructive actions of other Africans to make them fail”.

I argue that the weakening of the value system in our society has put a significant premium on how we relate with each other as South Africans or even how we see each other as South Africans. Granted, there are material questions that relate to the challenges of inequality, poverty, underdevelopment and so forth that are straining our social fabric. However, it appears that the ill-feelings in our society are a generalised phenomenon: some very well-off folks treat each other with no respect and/or with envy that is hard to explain. Some argue that the way we treat each other and the terrible things we do to each other are a function of our ugly past. Though, from a psychologist point of view, this is appealing, data seems to suggest that it is only from about 2005/6 that we as South Africans started to turn against each other in a serious way. One of the positive legacies of our past which has, in my view, carried through to the democratic order until recently is our respect for the sanctity, equal worth and dignity of human life.

As debatable as they are, the perception surveys of South Africans since 1994 suggest that a significant number of South Africans were confident of a happy South African future. We also perceived that there were improvements on race relations. A large number of surveyed South Africans felt that our country was going in the right direction and we were quite proud of being South Africans. I have argued in the past that South Africans, on average, do not have a problem of self-confidence, of pride, of patriotism and that it is other things that worry me about us (me included, of course). I have argued that as South Africans, in general, we seem to have a problem of ethics and that the injustices we visit on each other are a symptom of a bigger underlying psychosocial problem that we know nothing about. I tentatively concluded that the psychosocial challenges we are faced with may simply be contradictions of life, and ubiquitous for that matter.

However, closely “studying” South Africans since 2005/6 suggests that I could have been wrong. The latest survey data implies that about 60% of those surveyed are confident of the South African future, a sharp decline from 86% in 2005 and 84% in 2006. In terms of race relations, about 50% of those surveyed in the latest survey had felt that race relations were improving, compared to 60% in 2005 and 58% in 2006. Lastly, and most disturbingly, there is a decrease in the share of those that are proud to be South African: from 90% in 2005 to 78% in 2007. I have just skimmed through the latest Afrobarometer survey results and they alarmingly confirm the deteriorating trend on many psychosocial indicators briefly presented here for illustration purposes.

Among the main challenges that I believe we have to confront in our society is prejudice. Beverly Tatum, in her bestseller Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, which I am convinced should be read by anyone in a mixed-race relationship or who has a biracial friend, colleague, child, defines prejudice as a “preconceived judgment or opinion, usually based on limited information”. She contends, and I agree, that we all have prejudices and that “some people are more prejudiced than others, actively embracing and perpetuating negative and hateful images …” She further argues that “prejudice is an integral part of our socialisation, and it is not our fault” but “to say that it is not our fault does not relieve us of the responsibility … each one of us needs to take a look at our own behaviour”.

Another main psychosocial challenge that we must confront is poor ethics. The word ethics has its roots in the Greek word ethos, implying particular “conduct” or “character”. As Peter Northouse put it, in a nutshell, “ethics is concerned with the kinds of values and morals an individual or society finds desirable or appropriate”. The challenge of ethics in South Africa is swelling unabated, in my view. Most public servants are not doing what they are employed to do; most members of communities keep a blind eye to dreadful social injustices, and so on. The reality of our poor ethics is leading to non-accountability, lack of caring for one another, carelessness, and so on. Ours is becoming a fragile zone of inexplicable and despicable bitterness and envy!

Undoubtedly, we really need to take a look at what is going on. We need to think about what has happened and/or is happening. It would seem that this is one of those issues that require each and every South African — no blame game and no blame shift. There are many perspectives about why this is happening to us and/or why we are doing such to each other. Some argue that it is because of the state of our economy and politics. Some argue that it is primarily a weakening in our value system and a breakdown of family values, ethics and associated consequences such as community disintegration and fragile national unity. All arguments on our psychosocial challenges suggest that we are in for a long haul. The economy is projected to get worse before it gets better. Politics is anticipated to further unravel social cleavages. Community life is deteriorating. National unity remains precarious.

However, this does not mean that there are no good things happening in our nation. The question is: what should each one of us do to attain the society we envisaged in our supreme law, the South African Constitution. At minimum, lets honour basic courtesies and etiquettes towards each other and most importantly take care of those in need. Immanuel Kant, one of the most influential thinkers of the 18th century, argued that it is our duty to treat others with respect. He is quoted to having said that “it is our duty to tell truth, keep promises and treat others as an end not a means to an end”. Why is it so difficult for us to fulfil this appealing natural duty?

Let me end with an extract from one of Breyten Breytenbach’s heartening poems contained in his remarkable A Season in Paradise

“May there always be light burning in your house
May the frogs remember you
May your apples grow sweeter every year …
May your friends bring wine when they visit you
May the stars and the mountains and the silence watch over you and your family … ”

  • sarah henkeman

    Thanks for this thought-provoking piece. A group was recently started on Facebook – called the ‘Peace building Group’. It encourages exactly those seemingly insignificant actions you mention above, which are ultimately rooted in the fact that we are all born equal in dignity and human rights. It explains how everyday peace building actions ( like acknowledgement, greeting, respect, helpfulness, empathy etc)can serve as an antidote to the formation of enemy images (think Hitler).
    And sir, since you have the influence being in the president’s office and all – how about suggesting a countrywide campaign – starting with us acknowledging and sharing ideas on how to deal decisively with the economic injustices on the margins? You are right that we seem uncaring and as Stanley Cohen suggests, in a ‘state of denial’. Who and what is going to wake us up? All we need is a critical mass of people to reach the tipping point.

  • sirjay jonson

    Wow, finally, a blogger at [email protected] who speaks to me, who states the obvious, intelligent and obviously employing deep comprehensive thinking. What is it about us, well intended or selfish, that refuses to see the whole picture, the many who don’t consider ethics, or rather ethical behaviour, as likely the most important consideration.

    We have a mess on our hands in South Africa, some realize it, but most don’t, especially those emotive idols types who believe every lie they are told.

    Carry on… you’re onto something.

  • PM de Kock

    In my opinion it is this kind of incoherent intellectualizing that leads to non action. It is time to face the facts, that our leadership cadre has to make a fundamental “gear change” in respect of morality and do what leaders do, that is to create a psychological climate for good things to flourish. Unfortunately out leaders hide behind, convoluted arguments (like the one above), “spin” and at least in my opinion less than truthful communication to justify their positions. The day we realize that leadership is not a position but an attitude and privilege things will change for the better.

  • Brad W

    Thank you for reflecting and articulating this need so well Vusi. Unless as individuals we make an effort to rekindle our humanity along with the responsibilities that accompany the role, we will deteriorate into a state of existence much akin to beasts in the animal kingdom, despite being dressed in Armani suits and transported in luxury German vehicles. We are forgetting how to be humane and human, and its consequences are being felt around the world.

  • Ali

    I find this to be a very accurate and encouraging piece. Thank you!

  • Athol Williams

    I fully support your assessment that our nation is in distress. You ascribe some of the distress to the strain on our social fabric. I believe that our challenge is even bigger than reducing the strain because I don’t believe we EVER had one unified social fabric. Our challenge is to actively build a social fabric where we can move beyond the deep and broad divisions that we have inherited and that cut across every sphere of our society. We have to start to be bold and clear on what our vision really is for this nation beyond platitudes of “rainbow nation.” And then we have to evaluate the effects of issues like BEE and having 11 offical languages has on nationbuilding. What we need is ACTIVE nationbuilding – accepting that we do not have a social fabric that needs patching up but one that has to be built anew.

  • http://Yahoo Phillipa Lipinsky

    Somehow I feel that your article is rather excitable and overwritten. You could do much good by losing some of the “ologies”. It’s clear you’re very intelligent but some of us prefer simple, articulate writing. Just my humble opinion.

  • Andrew

    I agree with your sentiments about South African’s having poor ethics. I have found South Africans in general to be very religious and fearful of God. Therefore it is a strange contradiction that many South Africans have poor ethics but still consider themselves God – fearing. I am not religious myself and can’t begin to understand this phenomenon.

  • Lyndall Beddy

    The most important thing about Piaget is that he explained how children think.

    A child under a certain age can’t imagine himself as being in anyone else’e position. No point in hitting him/her for hitting someone else – he/she does not connect the dots.

    Sometimes I think that there are many adults like that, stuck in childhood.

  • nkadi santis

    Thank you for this article. It is a well researched and written article. However, South Africa is not ready to deal with the controversial issues raised and I don’t think government has an idea on how to tackle some of the questions you have raised, nor should the responsibility be placed on government
    Secondly, I do think that race relations are improving but I think the ethnic divide amongst South Africans is increasing. Furthermore I do think that you have raise important questions and theories but I would have preferred it if you included real life practical examples. I also think you forgot (maybe by choice) to mention something related to a spiritual force or third force that influences our behaviour, within the South African context.

    If I had to be bold and frank with you I would ask you the following question:

    If you are aware of the/these problem(s), what is the point of raising all these question(s), knowing very well that solutions are hard to find or who do you expect to address these problem(s)

  • Peter Louw

    It all began with the (correct) dismissal of Zuma by Mbeki. Afterwards, the governing party started tearing itself apart. Ministers stopped governing, some to spite Mbeki. The moral outragousness of those who remained in cabinet to undermine Mbeki in order to serve Zuma’s course has to yet be examined by analysts.
    After Polokwane, it is hard for one to be a proud South African.

  • T.M.

    “Undoubtedly, we really need to take a look at what is going on. We need to think about what has happened and/or is happening,”

    South Africa was constructed along racial lines and it is now deconstructing along racial lines. Zimbabwe is its future.

  • Kizito Okechukwu

    Doc,this is a constructive kick in the gum. I do agree with you that the vast problem we’re facing has its root on poor ethics.Poor ethics is like a virus which can eat up a whole nation, even the reasonable and sane minds gets affected by poor ethical conducts in society. One of the words I say when i wake up each morning is Bonum faciendum et malum vitandum (Good must be done and evil avoided) I try my best to live up to this which sometimes proves to be difficult.

    Moreover, it seems that what is good and bad changes with time,place and culture. Witnessed an argument erupt on the 3rd degree tv programme about favouring decriminilization of prostitution.All these with many others constitute the distressing times that our nation is facing.One thing is ‘What is the standard of determining or distinguishing good from bad.It leaves a big question mark and definitely approves the latest surveys of people’s opinion about the nation where race relations, lack of patroitism and good will is declining.
    I believe we all have a part to play in saving this nation. Kant made it clear that all moral agents act with pure reason and if all men were to possess pure reason, we shall all arrive at the universal principle of action by our pure reason.

  • Noko

    Can anyone tell me what is an overiding South African culture and what make a patriot is SA. I am asking this question because uless we view ourselves from the same lense like most countries that even when they differ they know that their nationhood superseeds their differences. We have a tendency to tear each other apart just to be able to make our point.

    Lets develop a clear South African identity that is clearly atticulated and then we will move forward despite our reace, gender and all else

  • Frank Nnete

    Obviously very NB questions.

    I think you are describing a society confronting its demons-its healthy, the false harmony was always going to unravel. I also think it’ll get much worse before it gets better. We hurt, in turn, we hurt…

  • Phillipa Lipinsky

    @ Peter Louw: finaly someone talks some sense when it comes to the whole Post-Polokwane debacle.
    I was getting rather sick at hearing people compare Mbeki to Zuma. Indeed, Mbeki had his flaws but Zuma is a dictator who think this country is his fiefdom. The problem is that when we take a man of such integrity as Mbeki (who has made catastrophic mistakes, admittedly) and put him alongside Zuma, we trivialise the horrible and by no means amusing crimes which Zuma has (or hasn’t) done

  • Pitso Tsibolane

    As always, a brilliant piece Vusi. Ethics and more ethics is what we need in our public sphere. I am one of those who is suddenly questioning my previous optimism about South Africa. Recent events seem to be pointing in one direction, downwards!

    However i do remain positive, I do not have any other home, things have to improve and I will add my two cents worth to make it work. The ruling party has just about destroyed the goodwill that it gained so far.

    Thanks for this piece.

  • Pascal Maire-Amiot

    I just can declare my admiration for a wise article and a very clever thinker, despite i may disagree on some points pertaining to excess of optimism in human beings. Nihilism, paradoxically could pave the way to a radical approach but i will be arguing later with my dear friend Vusi on this topic.

  • Lyndall Beddy

    Both Mbeki and Zuma are second rate leaders.

    We would have had Cyril Ramaphosa if the communists had not ganged up to keep him out.

  • Vusi Gumede

    Thanks everyone (including those that wrote privately to me) for insightful inputs/comments/questions/arguments.

    Let me single out Sarah, Sirjay, Brad, Kizito, Ali, Pitso, Nkadi and Pascal in my acknowledgement of those that have made encouraging and humbling remarks. I also accept that PM de Kock and Phillipa were not pleased. I have tried to make a point in the past that, for me, writing “polemics” for this Blog is simply a social science or rather an intellectual endeavour. As such, important question (and other points) that Nkadi and others made would be tackled in follow-on “polemics”. To some extent though, I think Kizito answered Nkadi’s important question of what should be done and by who: Kizito argues that “we all have a part to play…”. I would still make an attempt to address the fundamental questions/points that people like Noko, Andrew, Athol and Nkadi raised.

    To those that made specific suggestions, for instance Athol and Sarah, thanks and I will try my best to ensure that your suggestions and proposals are filtered through, though my imminent career change might impact on that. Athol and Sarah: lets keep in touch. There is some roundtable that The Presidency’s Policy Unit is organizing around the proposals you make and others. Nation-building is too important to be left to a few folks, and as society we are found wanting on this important project.

    So long.

  • Vusi Gumede

    PS: I am smitten, very much, by the point that Pascal makes around Nihilism. I am reminded of my readings of write-ups of Friedrich Nietzsche. I however wonder whether that is a kind of the space we want to enter for our dialogue on our challenges as a nation. We debate in order to try and find solutions. The philosophy of “nothingness” and associated logics are unlikely, for the purposes of trying to address challenges, to take us far – notwithstanding that I dearly enjoy that space!

    Just to say that, like Pitso, I remain optimistic.

  • Angus

    The crime that we witness in this country especially the acts of violence of which there is no obvious monetary gain, such as rape and xenophobia, are symptoms of grave psychological distress within our society. Blame is made on poverty or our tumultuous past; conveniently for our political leaders. I believe this is in error and it is the gross level of inequality that exists to be the primary cause. Other countries with lower inequality levels (no matter of GDP/person or development levels) have less crime and we can therefore surmise better ethics. The widening between the haves and have nots creates animosity and jealousy and this is where our government has failed the psyche of our beloved country. I am dumbfounded about how inequality could have increased after an apartheid government system that was specifically designed to create inequality. All leaders in every facet of our country must address this problem for any semblance of social cohesion to exist.

  • mgeve

    Ja, Vusi, yours is a long and winded article which does not address psycho history. History and psychology is what you were attempting to link, yet forgot about African History, and used as references authors and thinkers which leave unexplained and are less relevant to the issues affecting Africans and other races in South Africa. History in our country, African History specifically, has been made to seem irrelevant because it has been made to look unprofitable. I wonder if you are familiar with the Skinner Rat experiment.If you are, then we can proceed to other serious matters. Most of us are educated to be servants, and because of this,Europeans and Africans can never escape their condition of servitude. A higher education simply means we are just educated servants, nothing more, nothing less. People who are ahistorical, have little knowledge of history,are people who are more gullible. Yet,knowledge of history can become a basis for self criticism, a basis for self understanding, and more importantly, the basis for the understanding of the motives and the psychology of others. If you forget your past, you will not understand the present nor future. Past, present and future are one, and that proposition is at the center of an African centered psycho history and approach. This will also help us to clearly, simply and cogently offer solutions to our beleaguered nation, than just high flown analysis attempting to sound intellectual and barren. I think you should get on with the program.

  • mgeve

    My Mistake, it came up late. I think the internet is a medium which Marshall McLuhan would say its a viral medium. Your ideas and narratives should target ordinary man in the street. African people are still not privy to this new technology, for a variety of reasons. I sense that your audience is not the poor and underpriviledged, but an attempt to reach the petty elites of this world. Propaganda, according to Jacques Ellul is a sociological phenomenon rather than as something made by certain people for certain purposes. Even Goebels insisted that the Wehrmacht communiques be as accurate as possible. I have a sneaky feeling you are still being evasive about simplifying what your thrust is in terms of making clear issues for the poor and ignorant about the state of affairs in Mzantsi. For example, we have in South Africa a school system that is based upon the psychology of White children and white People. Therefore, we have a school system that is based upon the white psychology for our African children, and these African children are bound to fail. African intellectuals use the same psyche to inform our people,which is not true, to somewhat educate our children and nation; this is bound to fail. If you are to be a good propagandist for African people, you need to tell the truth of historical, psychological, social, political and educational dimensions of our reality. I discern none of this from your diatribes. Knowing ones’s society is fundamental.