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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 … ”

Author

  • Vusi Gumede is a professor at the University of South Africa, also with the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute. He was previously an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg and he has also lectured public policy at the Graduate School of Public and Development Management (now the School of Governance) at the University of Witwatersrand. He worked for the South African government, in various capacities, for about twelve years. He serves on various boards and committees, including the Presidential Economic Advisory Council, the International Preparatory Committee of the Pan-African Federalist Movement and the National Council of the South African Association of Political Studies. He holds postgraduate qualifications in economics and policy studies, including a Ph.D in Economics (2003) from the erstwhile University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal). He has been Distinguished Africanist Scholar at Cornell University and Yale World Fellow at Yale University, among other fellowships. He was in the boards of Southern Africa Trust and ActionAid South Africa and he is the former coordinator of Afrocentricity International for the South African chapter. He currently also holds an Honorary Professorship at the University of Cape Town. He has published 14 books and numerous journal papers & book chapters as well as written many essays and opinion articles and blogs. He is Editor-in-Chief for Africanus & Africa Insight as well as serving in various Editorial Boards/Committees.