Counselling A Nation
The Professional – a podcast series by Profmed Medical Scheme about the future world of work – has been in conversation with experts at the cutting edge of the Fourth Industrial Revolution: engineers who design machines for artificial intelligence (AI), doctors who adapt their medical practices in response to machine learning, entrepreneurs who bring high-tech services to traditionally under-served Africa – all forward-focused stuff. So why profile a clinical psychologist who insists on looking back?
The answer lies in where we find ourselves as a nation. We are stuck, experiencing cycles of violence, says Nomfundo Mogapi, cycles that we will unlikely be able to resolve until we change something that allows us to emerge out of a place of hopelessness.
The recent spate of xenophobic violence in South Africa portrays a sense of crisis and hopelessness in the country, says Mogapi – and we’ve been there before: in 2008, as well as in the 1980s, when she herself lived through so-called ethnic violence in KwaZulu-Natal as a terrified young Xhosa girl. And that’s before we even count the cycles of gender-based violence, domestic violence and violence against children that are endemic in our country.
Mogapi missed her Grade 11 year due to political violence. For a girl who knew that an education could be a way out of poverty, this was devastating. She’d set her mind on becoming a medical doctor – but during that missed Grade 11 year, reading in the library, she discovered there was a job called “clinical psychologist” – one that seemed to offer what she instinctively felt she lacked as a child: a talking cure.
Our nation needs a trauma counsellor, a TRC for the soul, as Mogapi calls it. She sees herself as a psychosocial activist on a mission to get South Africa talking about its pain. “We need to face the truth of what happened to us. Most of us haven’t faced the pain we have experienced at a personal level, at a family level, at an institutional level, and at the collective level. South Africans don’t deal, which is dangerous, because people who are wounded end up wounding others.”
As a clinical psychologist at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Mogapi says, “Things changed for me in 2008 when we had the eruption of xenophobic violence. I was the manager of the trauma clinic and media started calling us saying, ‘Can you explain what this phenomenon is?’ There was something psychological about it. But the training that I had at university didn’t help me to understand collective trauma. I believe that the knowledge around collective trauma is going to emerge from Africa because we understand the essence of the collective.”
When someone experiences a threatening or terrifying event, it can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder. The symptoms of PTSD include rage, mistrust, denial and self-destructive behaviour. The most effective treatment for PTSD is therapy. Mogapi says if you think of South Africa as one body, then gender-based violence, xenophobic attacks, school bullying, police brutality – even soccer hooliganism – look a lot like symptoms of PTSD.
Parents are the first containers for difficult experiences for children, says Mogapi. And if we don’t move forward psychologically, we cannot contain our children. We’re a nation that’s hurting itself – and taking our pain out on others. And if we don’t do the work to become healthier, we transfer the work to the next generation.
Trauma that is experienced at a collective level shapes the way in which we engage with each other. “Apartheid could be considered a collective trauma. On the one hand, there was a group whose dignity and sense of self-worth was ripped away. And there was another group that was told that your worth depends on another person being less than… and being restricted of engaging with another person as a full human being,” says Mogapi. “People might try to avoid the topic, so you might have one sector of the society saying, ‘This thing never existed, why are you talking about it?’ Another sector is feeling angry. It penetrates how people interact with each other. And this is really the important thing: if this trauma is not sufficiently dealt with by generation that experienced it, it gets transferred to the next generation.”
The biggest tragedy, says Mogapi, is when a nation had hope and lost it. Hope deferred leads to violence, her research shows. “In spaces where people are beginning to lose hope there is higher levels of violence [than] spaces where there’s no hope at all. When people look back and say 25 years on, nothing’s changed, there is a huge sense of betrayal.”
Violence happens at every level and structure in society. “The first one is at a family level, right? We also see it in our institutions. Part of the trauma of our institutions is they were not designed to support the dignity of people. Poor people who go to hospitals feel that they are treated “less than”. When we go to the nurses, they say, ‘But our managers treat us like we are “less than”.’ The managers say it’s the province. This treating of each other as less than this end of this frustration is tied, treated two different levels. And at a societal level, of course, you see an eruption of fire in such as mob justice, xenophobic violence, and the high levels of sexual and gender-based violence we have seen increasing in our society.”
Into this toxic mix we now add the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which will usher in massive changes to the way we work and live. Super-fast internet, smart devices, artificial intelligence and disruptive technologies mean that computers will soon do many of our jobs for us. If we’re lucky, it’ll mean an end to drudgery. We’ll do more meaningful work and enjoy a better quality of life. But if not, inequality could skyrocket as jobs dry up.
How does a country that hasn’t yet dealt with its past or present face an uncertain future, too? What happens when the machines take over?
Mogapi is cautious about social media’s ability to mobilise people. “Collective activism has been good. But the challenge is when the activism comes from the space of trauma, and there is no container.” Then you risk more violence. “When you are operating from the space of triggering, you can’t reason, you can’t think. With social media, there is no one who comes and says okay, we’ve all been triggered now. Can we contain the pain so that when we respond, we are not responding from the trauma with violence, but we are responding from this space of healing and achieving the vision that we want?”
This is where Nomfundo’s psychosocial activism comes in. “I try to do advocacy with people in development, saying that you can’t just come into development without investing in healing and psychosocial support. Most of the investment in trauma only comes during humanitarian crises. In Africa and in places where there are high levels of trauma, you have to also make sure that you invest in trauma work. I tell my donors, if you want me to have managers and leaders in my organisation, give me money for coaching.”
“We must repair that young boy or girl inside all of us. Once that happens, as a society, we will begin to thrive. It just takes one person making a difference, and that person being put in a space of leadership and influence, to begin to transform and create the South Africa that we want.”
“We are facing a ticking time bomb. This digital revolution is going to happen, whether we like it or not. But if we don’t understand the impact that will it will have in our societies, and how this level of inequality is likely to fuel the types of violence that we are having in our society, then we are really going to be in trouble. So, it’s not a luxury for us to address socio-economic transformation and it is not a luxury for us to address psychosocial interventions, because the digital age is coming.”