By Judy Sikuza
In 1994 a colossal death occurred in South Africa. The subject befallen by fate’s calling was none other than Accused Number 1948 – universally known as apartheid. The fall of this stupendous monster came with a promise of the new — a rainbow nation South Africa — where our differences would be embraced towards a better life for all.
We have made much progress and I would admonish anyone who cannot recognise that. Despite this, discourse in some parts of the country, and emotionally charged comments on social media, reveal something deeper.
Many South Africans seem to still be sitting with a lot of unprocessed pain — across issues of race, sexuality, class, gender etc. Why is this so? Did we not sufficiently mourn the death and remnants of Accused Number 1948? Are the wounds that now bleed a result of that? Or are we presently mourning a new death — the one of our overly optimistic expectations of the proverbial rainbow nation? I propose that we are meandering through both.
In her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the Kübler-Ross model, colloquially known as the “five stages of grief”. These stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Kübler-Ross originally applied these stages to people suffering from terminal illness, but later to any form of calamitous personal loss. Could it be that 20 years post democracy our beloved country is still in a grieving process and is gradually moving through these stages? Let us examine some of the current discourse common in South Africa through the lens of the Kübler-Ross model to see if we are indeed in a grieving process as a nation.
In a farm outside Bloemfontein, you may hear sentiments such as: “This government is more corrupt than the apartheid government ever was.” During dinner parties in Camps Bay you may hear, “I was very young during apartheid, so you cannot say I benefited from it”. At the Taboo night club in Sandton you might hear, “Don’t call me a black diamond just because I dress in Gucci and Armani. I am poor”. These comments could fall under Kübler-Ross’s stage of denial, which is the refusal to acknowledge what was or is to the point of developing a false reality.
There is another group from our rainbow nation who express statements such as: “It angers me how we continue to be left on the sidelines – not white enough during apartheid, and not black enough now!”, “How can only a few black people have benefited from BEE at the expense of us poor majority?”, “It is outrageous that two decades later, the majority of the wealth of our country still sits in white hands”. These statements could fall under the stage of anger, which is the feeling of rage towards oneself, others or “the system” causing grief.
The bargaining stage of the Kübler-Ross model, which is the act of negotiating, involves the hope that the individual can somehow undo or avoid the cause of grief. South Africans in this stage may say things such as: “I volunteer in the townships every week end so I do my bit.” “Comrades, I think we should give our government more time — 20 years is an unreasonable expectation for systemic change.” “I have nothing against affirmative action, but there has to be a cut-off date otherwise it’s not fair to us born-frees who were not there.” People in this stage are beginning to consider what a give-and-take situation could look like, although it is coming from a place of avoidance of the cause of grief.
How many Mzantsi people have you heard say things such as: “What is the point of political power when I still walk into a room and get judged by the colour of my skin?” “I might as well leave this country since it seems there is no place for me in it.” “I refuse to register to vote because the government promised our village progress and did nothing.” This group of people could be placed in the depression stage, which is a state of dejection, withdrawal and misery. Kübler-Ross noted that the emotions felt at this stage show that the person is beginning to accept the situation; where depression may be an ideal path to closure towards the acceptance stage.
Finally, you will hear some South Africans say: “We have achieved political freedom for all. Let us now work together to ensure economic freedom for all.” “I was not alive during apartheid, but I have benefited from it so guide me on how I can contribute constructively.” “I cannot keep waiting for government to rescue me; let us see what we can do as a community here in our township.” These thoughts could fall under the acceptance stage, where people come to terms with what is. South Africans falling in this group would be people who acknowledge the complexity of the current system. They seek to recognise and account for their role in the past and the present, seek to authentically understand others, and are not defensive when they are challenged but are open to truly listening.
Through the Kübler-Ross lens, we can get a small window of insight into why South Africans have such divergent views about our nation. People are sitting at different stages in the grieving process.
I imagine that all of us can identify ourselves in one or more of these stages. Kübler-Ross claimed that these stages do not necessarily come in the order noted, nor are all steps experienced by everyone; though she stated that a person would always experience at least two. Often, she said, people will experience several stages in a “roller-coaster” effect — switching between two or more stages, returning to one or more several times before working through it.
I aspire to be operating from the acceptance stage and would hope that the way I engage daily mirrors that aspiration. However, my own wounds sometimes get in the way, where I am triggered by someone who is grappling with their own stuff in one of the other stages. Although it may feel impossible at times, mutual empathy becomes key in how we engage with each other in our pursuit of nation building. Even President Michelle Bachelet of Chile reiterated this in her Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture on August 9 when she alluded to the need to re-encounter and recognise ourselves in each other.
The ubiquitous dialogues and practical initiatives relating to the state of our nation must continue, as they are important catalysts towards actualising a true rainbow nation. Simultaneously, it is important to acknowledge that we are grieving — whatever stage we may be in — and that that is OK too. A country in transition like ours has to have both a strong memory process and a strong vision that moves us forward. One at the expense of the other may leave many behind at a huge cost. I just hope that the dominant discourse does not get stuck in one of the first four stages too long, lest we become hamsters in a rolling wheel — going nowhere fast.
But for now, as you were, grieve thy beloved country. Most days you are doing just fine.
Judy Sikuza is a social-change consultant specialising in facilitation, leadership, diversity and coaching. She is also an associate at Reos, a social enterprise that helps business, governments and civil-society organisations address complex social issues. She writes in her personal capacity.