Psychological Society of South Africa
Psychological Society of South Africa

Uncomfortable about current protests? Embrace your discomfort and be part of social change

By Ahmed Riaz Mohamed

We live in a country and in a democracy forged through struggle, sacrifice and protest. The recent surge in student-led protest in the country is powerfully reminiscent of apartheid-era resistance and anti-apartheid marches, rallies and sit-ins. These students are channelling the spirit of former student leaders such as Steven Biko who led powerful protests at universities across the country.

What is taking place at universities via #FeesMustFall is not only about money. Yes, availability of funds is key here but at the core the underlying issues speak to a process of exclusion and inaccessibility that cannot be decoupled from colonisation and the legacy of apartheid as a form of profound socioeconomic injustice. It cannot be removed from discourses of oppression that have silenced those who have been victim to these dominant and hegemonic practices in order to maintain the status quo, and allow asymmetrical relations of power to perpetuate without question.

In some ways the so-called “born frees” are in a better position than those of us who moved through the higher education system riding on the coattails of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its reconciliation and healing discourses. I wonder if we weren’t disadvantaged by this. It is almost as if we were too caught up in the “feel-goodness” of it all that we were too afraid, and too defended, to see and acknowledge the more insidious ways in which various forms of oppression continued to operate around us. Perhaps having subverted these rosy discourses of reconciliation and healing, the born frees have been more free to access their discomfort, and to express the rage that has been silenced, giving voice to the previously voiceless. We are witnessing a reclamation – a spatial reformation in which those being denied access are taking a stand and empowering themselves to demand what has been shifted just beyond their reach by institutionalised exclusivity. Spatial reform is an important requirement for liberation and emancipation, along with awareness, collective organisation and collective action such a protest.

Protest is an essential and integral part of social change, development, progression, growth and of democracy. It is a key component of challenging social injustice and structural inequalities that result in the lack of access by the “lesser privileged” to inalienable rights such as education. Without protest Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists would likely have died in prison. Without protest apartheid would probably have remained in-tact, thriving and unchallenged. Without protest gay and lesbian people would not be allowed to marry. Without protest women would still be denied the right to vote. There are countless examples of the privileges and rights we take for granted today that came about as a result of protest (even if only in part).

Protest is necessary. Should it be violent? Probably not. Should it encroach or deny the rights of others? No. Should it make you uncomfortable? Absolutely! Protest is meant to make you uncomfortable. It is meant to force you to reflect, to question, to take a stand. It is an opportunity to be part of social change; to be part of progress. Solidarity and communality are the crucible in which resistance thrives. So instead of being complicit in problematic practices by pretending as if nothing is going on, or complaining about “those damn stupid protesters” who are causing so much inconvenience take the opportunity being offered. It is an invitation to engage both with others and with yourself. It is a moment in which we allow the subaltern voice to be heard, allow them to speak, to scream, to rage and we allow ourselves to listen, really listen.

As a psychologist, in my role as a psychotherapist, I have the privilege (yes, it’s a privilege) of stepping in the worlds of my clients to experience – even just for that hour (although the experience often lingers beyond that hour) – the world as they do. I observe, embrace, experience, indulge and understand from a perspective other than my own, while still holding in my mind what I think, how I feel, how my own world interacts with that of the world I have just been allowed to access and engage with. This is an intersubjective process that necessarily involves two subjectivities coming together, meeting, engaging, and transforming one another.

This process is not always easy and is more often than not quite uncomfortable, sometimes intolerable given the intensity and pain of that which one has just been given access to. But it is only by sitting with the discomfort, engaging with it and understanding it that it is possible to use it to effect transformation and open up the space for dialogue and meaningful change. This is not unlike what needs to happen in societies where we must engage with the discomfort that protests such as those occurring at the moment make us feel, reflecting on it and understanding the meaning that underlies it. If we can take a moment to listen and to allow ourselves access into the world of the other – regardless of how uncomfortable – and if we can reflect on the significance of our discomfort, we have taken important first steps towards being part of social change.

Ahmed Riaz Mohamed is a clinical psychologist and lecturer in the department of psychology at the University of Pretoria. He has previously worked as a clinical psychologist at the Centre for Psychological Services and Career Development at the University of Johannesburg, as well as at psychiatric hospitals in Pretoria and Cape Town.

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