South Africa's suffering from PTSD

Sheldon Morais

I have a deep desire to know why – why something happens, why someone acts and behaves the way they do, why we say the things we do. It brings me cold comfort understanding facts or the reason why. Knowing why allows you to fix the problem at the cause, and not to merely treat the symptom, I reason.

For several weeks I’ve pondered why we’re so angry (on our roads, in our homes, at work, with strangers, with our nearest and dearest – come one, come all). What makes a man rape his 92-year-old grandmother? What makes a mother kill her five children, children she birthed? What makes a man persuade a gang of strangers to rape and mutilate his wife in Modimolle? A woman he vowed to love, cherish and protect until the day he dies.

And then one day my mind wandered …

I imagined South Africa as a battle-hardened soldier who had returned home from war, rushing into the arms of his loving wife and children. He had been victorious, defeating an unspeakable foe who wanted to oppress him, make him believe he wasn’t worth a damn and kill him if need be. He was happy to be free, relieved to see his loved ones and thankful to be alive. But once the relief subsided and normality set in, the nightmares and demons started surfacing.

He did not know how to deal with it and as a result he lashed out, railing against himself, his loved ones, anyone really. There were glimpses of happiness, hints of progress, but these soon vanished to reveal an angry man who didn’t know how to deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Yes, I’m suggesting South Africa is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the source of our anger is decades of psychological conflict, coupled with being threatened with death and witnessing it. There are generations of South Africans who saw people being killed (from both ends of a gun), escaped being killed themselves or had their psychological integrity threatened. And instead of dealing with decades of trauma – passed down almost systematically from generation to generation of all races before 1994 – we’ve allowed the shock, distress and suffering to stew, eventually erupting in waves of road rage, physical abuse, violent crime, murder and rape.

The most recent incident to show we are a conflicted, angry, hurting nation was the Marikana shooting of 16 August. Vivid video footage filmed in high definition captured the chaos, fear, tension and ultimately death. We watched people die. Real men who would not get up and walk away after a successful take in a Hollywood movie. We watched people die in cold blood. South Africa was in shock.

Comparisons with apartheid atrocities were drawn immediately. The scars of yesteryear were peeled back and the memories flooded back - Sharpeville in 1960; Soweto in 1976. South Africa’s political democracy may be 18 years old, but the speed with which those apartheid-era nightmares returned showed we still have much to overcome.

Two days after the shooting, while most people were shouting, scoring political points, calling for action and inquiries, a simple tweet stood out from all the noise and bluster. Professor Jonathan Jansen, University of the Free State vice-chancellor, posted this message to Twitter: “We must look beyond this incident to ask why we are so violently angry; that is a different commission of inquiry”.

The premise that South Africa, as a nation, suffers from Post Traumatic Stress is not a new one (academics Debra Kaminer and Professor Gillian Eagle tackle the subject in their aptly-named book Traumatic Stress in South Africa) but we’re still no closer to finding peace and healing.

We may have an indication of why we are so angry, but it may be somewhat harder to determine how to heal a nation of 50 million people. We’ll need decisive, honest leadership from government, business, religious leaders, civil society and ourselves.

We have to admit that we are angry, fragile, hurt and need help. South Africa cannot bleed any longer.

Sheldon Morais is the EWN Online Editor. Follow him on Twitter: @SheldonMorais.