By Rebecca Helman and Neziswa Titi

In their interview with Elspeth Probyn, Vivienne Bozalek, Tamara Shefer and Ronelle Carolissen argue that “[s]hame has typically been understood as a negative emotion, a view which is prevalent in individualist, psychologising discourses about human experience”. Conversely Probyn argues that shame can be a generative force, one which is rooted in “an interest in and connection with another”. Therefore, shame can both create and sever relations between individuals, communities and social groups.

In line with Shefer, Carolissen, Bozalek and Munt’s articulation of shame as political in their call for the special issue of Feminism & Psychology, we are interested in the political effects of shame – what shame does, to whom and for whom. Our interest in shame developed initially in relation to our own work on sexual violence and particularly in relation to how shame works to silence and blame those who have been victimized. We have also reflected on how shame remains intertwined with social conversations about sex and sexuality.

In order to deepen and extend this thinking about shame we hosted a colloquium entitled The Shame Is Not Ours: Reflections on, Resistances to and Reattributions of Shame at the South African Medical Research Council on the 19th of March 2019. The colloquium was intended to bring together students, academic staff and researchers working on shame in order to reflect on shame as a key component of our current condition, explore different forms of shame,  how shame can be both destructive and productive and to begin to think about shame as a tool for promoting social justice.

The colloquium formed part of the colloquia series of the Trans-Disciplinary African Psychology Programme (TAP), which began in 2017. The colloquia are intended to create spaces for students, researchers, activists, teachers, research council and university managers, and policymakers to dialogue about decolonisation in order to reclaim and validate African-situated approaches, techniques, questions, and knowledges. The colloquium was organised in collaboration with the Research Unit on Men and Masculinities (RUMM) which aims to undertake and facilitate artistic, cultural and social interventions in order to promote more just and egalitarian gender relations.

The colloquium was structured to allow for a combination of engaging presentations and rich discussions among participants. Scholars and students presented on a range of topics, including on gender and racialised shame, the shame of disability and being poor, as well as the shame associated with abortion.

The colloquium was opened by Neziswa Titi who spoke about her speech disfluency, reflecting on instances of name calling and discrimination in the classroom and later in her undergraduate training in Psychology. She reflected both on the pain that was produced by being shamed, as well as her fight to overcome this shame. Rebecca Helman then presented on why it is important to be talking about shame. She reflected on her own shame, related to having been raped, as well as the ways in which other womxn have been resisting being shamed by giving the shame back to the men who have raped them.

Following the introduction, the first session of the colloquium focused on shame in relation to issues of gender and sexuality. Dr Taryn van Niekerk presented on racialised shame in the context of domestic violence programme, focusing specifically on constructions of “coloured” masculinity. Dr Nonhlanhla Dlamini and Anele Siswana then each presented on issues of queer African masculinities and sexualities, reflecting specifically on John Trengrove’s 2017 film Inexba (The Wound). Finally Thandiwe Msebenzi shared her photographic collection entitled Awundiboni – You don’t see me. Thandiwe shared personal reflections on both violation and resistance in relation to her visual representations of gender-based violence.

The second session focused on issues of shame in relation to institutional norms and practices. Noel Dangarembwa presented his work on the lived livelihoods of disabled Zimbabwean migrants’ seeking greener pastures in Cape Town. During his presentation Noel critiqued capitalist understandings of disability as they relate to notions of unproductiveness. Dr Jabulile Mavuso then presented her work on producing and resisting shame around abortion, focusing on interviews with both healthcare practitioners and women seeking abortions in the Eastern Cape.

The final session began with the screening of the documentary film Thembelihle: Place of Hope. Nick Malherbe introduced the documentary as an attempt to resist the internalised shame produced by structural oppression. Amalie Ravn then presented her reflections on Mia Mingus’ politic of ‘ugliness’ and its place in decolonial psychology. The colloquium was brought to a close by Rebecca who reflected on how all the presenters had highlighted the immense power of shame to act as a tool for social justice, if it is directed towards those responsible for violations, rather than those who are victimised by structural, psychological, symbolic and physical forms of violence.

Overall, we took away two key lessons from this colloquium. Firstly, that the use of- and engagement with art and other media has the potential to enrich our scholarship, particularly when we are doing emotionally-charged work. Secondly, that shame is something that many individuals and scholars are struggling with on a daily basis. This shame is often a product of the institutional spaces in which we work.

The colloquium, The Shame Is Not Ours, was the first of four in the 2019 series. The next colloquium addresses the nature of institutional support for the mental health and well-being of staff and students. It is titled, How does it feel to be a problem? Decolonising mental health in academic institutions. The colloquium will be held on 7 May 2019 at the South African Medical Research Council.


Rebecca Helman is a PhD candidate at the University of South Africa (UNISA) and a Researcher at UNISA’s Institute for Social and Health Sciences and the South African Medical Research Council-UNISA’s Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit. Rebecca’s research interests include gender, violence and sexualities within ‘post’-colonial contexts.

Neziswa Titi is a Psychology Scholar at the South African Medical Research Council and the University of South Africa where she is a Doctoral Candidate. Titi’s work is informed by decolonial thought and decolonial theories with primary interest in child-centric research, sexual violence and trauma.  


Psychological Society of South Africa

Psychological Society of South Africa

PsySSA, the Psychological Society of South Africa, is the national professional body for psychology. Committed to transforming and developing psychological theory and practice in South Africa, PsySSA strives...