The Impact of Violence on the Psyche of Cape Flats Communities and the Healing Power of Solidarity
Asalaamu Alaikum, Brothers and Sisters
Shukran to Imam Omar, the board and the congregation for inviting me to share this message here, today.
‘’Six year old Nathlia Pienaar was still clutching her skipping rope when her bloodied body was found by her panicked family, minutes after the shooting.’’ This is how a local newspaper reported the murder of yet another child in the ongoing Cape Flats war which has claimed the lives of thousands within the space of months.
It is difficult to find the words that accurately and completely describe the troubled soul of our country at this time. Personally, my family and I, along with hundreds of Manenberg residents, have been living in the midst of a war for months after a long stint of violence between two of the main community gangs. Words cannot describe the exhaustion, heartache and physical pain that accompany this level of anxiety.
Yet, in these trying times, it is especially necessary to remember that our human dignity is what binds us to ourselves, each other and life. Ironically, it is a time when we have to believe in the best in each other.
Many commentators have taken the time to reflect, deeply, about the extreme violence in SA society, in all its manifestations. Yet my simmering thoughts about it were best represented in an interview with a Somalian shop owner in an insert on the SABC news. He was commenting about his horrendous experience during the recent criminal xenophobic attacks in the Johannesburg CBD. Given that he is a third language English speaker the words didn’t come fluently but it didn’t require a complete English sentence for his message to land and resonate with me. “Something is very wrong with SA….this isn’t normal…this country….is broken”, he said.
The first step in solving a problem is taking the time to understand it by unpacking it for accurate diagnosis and treatment. Thus in order to understand the outcomes of a people in a social context, it helps to take the time to unpack their current reality and how the latter is influenced by their historic socialization. Furthermore, unpack how all of the above plays out within their current political and socio-economic frame.
Cape Town is the most interesting microcosm in this regard. In her 2017 article titled ‘Remembering Slavery in SA’, renowned SA poet, Gabeba Baderoon, reminds us that we live in a country, a city, with a social, economic and political identity that was partly born out of two centuries of colonial slavery from 1658 until 1834. Post this period the British, of course, started a new reign of terror that eventually gave rise to the Apartheid system. However, the 200 years of colonial slavery which preceded were characterized by deep, systemic sexual and economic violence. Rape was one of the most widespread weapons during this era. And entire identities linked to race and sexuality took shape in these inhumane circumstances. Yet researcher Robert Ross writes that ‘throughout 180 years of slavery at the Cape not a single man, slave or free, was convicted for rape’.
The cumulative pain of each and every victim ultimately becomes our collective suffering and translates into a value system and social beliefs that are soaked in shame. Literary scholar Zoe Wicomb writes ‘that for those affected by slavery the impact of two centuries of extreme systemic violence and the violence of being blamed for this suffering has resulted in what she terms ‘folk amnesia’. People and groups with folk amnesia often act from a personal place partly influenced by widely held beliefs and value systems borne of invisible shame. The problem is exacerbated by the lack of systemic support to nurture the requisite self-mastery skills to help us recognize and own our toxic values and beliefs borne of shame. Our societal and cultural beliefs about women and their value, being one example.
Almost 200 years post the period of colonial slavery and 25 years since the dawn of democracy, our shame and trauma remain the elephant in the room. It comes back to haunt us in many forms, the most glaring being the 2 000 human bones unearthed in Greenpoint in the year 2000 and also the 167 skeletons unearthed in a piece of prime land in Simons Town in April this year. This land now belongs to a wealthy property developer. Yet our past also haunts us in the form of unseen forces.
In her 2013 doctoral thesis UWC graduate, Dr Shanaaz Hoosain, unpacks the concept of Intergenerational Trauma. She explores the trauma suffered by families affected by the Group Areas Act of 1952 and its transmission within families. Intergenerational trauma is defined as trauma linked to a specific event in time that is relayed from one family member to another across generations. And in her thesis Dr Shanaaz Hoosain finds a link between the trauma borne out of the displacement of affected parents and the subsequent trauma that manifested in the lives of their children and grandchildren.
Systemic violence like economic exclusion, political oppression and cyclical social violence like gangsterism create individual and collective trauma which physically alters the development of the human brain of those affected. Neurons are the basic building blocks of the brain as cells that form intentional connections to build pathways in the brain. These neural pathways shape our ability to engage ourselves and the world in a healthy, constructive manner. Witnessing or experiencing violence, especially for a child, adversely impacts the development of these neural pathways which leads to irrational fear& aggression, sadness, irritability, unhealthy sleeping patterns, the inability to absorb new information, social difficulty etc. We become what we feel & think for it determines how we speak and act. And when we model behavior fed by anxiety and fear, our children absorb it, internalize it and so it is passed from one generation to the next as a widespread belief system. This is how violence becomes a cycle. This is how violence begets violence, every time.
Add to this a current political and socio economic context where 29% of a young country is unemployed, 60% of which are younger than 35. We always talk about the physical risks of unemployment. But In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, holocaust survivor Victor Frankl reminds us of another important ripple effect. He talks about his research which revealed what he calls the ‘unemployment neurosis’ i.e. for the young men he interviewed being jobless meant being useless and being useless was equated to having a meaningless life.
In this climate of high unemployment, the cost of living keeps increasing. Civil organization the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group recently highlighted the fact that electricity and transport costs alone take up close to 60% of a low and middle income household budget. The Household Affordability Index shows that it costs R568.41 to feed a child between the ages of 10 and 13 a basic nutritious diet every month. Difficult to do for families surviving on the R420 child grant.
How do we expect the healthy self-actualization of human beings in this climate? In his book Power & Love, author Adam Kahane describes power as the drive to self -actualize and love as the wisdom to create room for the self -actualization of others. In a context heavily influenced by emasculating intergenerational shame, unemployment neurosis and neurological pathways wired to fight or flee, there is a drive to survive not thrive, a battle to self-actualize and very little room to consider the self-actualization of others. Thus the balance between love and power is disturbed. And what we are, at the end of the day, is a nation with a very unhealthy relationship with power. And it shows, in leadership at a national level, community level and household level.
The emasculation factor is crucial for our understanding. In his book Gang Town Don Pinnock writes that Anthropologist Elaine Salo found notions of manhood had historical links to the way in which so-called ‘’coloured’’ women had been integrated into the bureaucracy and economic violence of the Apartheid state. “The Department of Coloured Affairs had to be created for so called coloured women and children because the men are useless. ‘’ was the narrative of the then regime.
So, how do we move forward from this melting pot of issues?
Violence, in all its manifestations, can never be justified. But it must be understood in order to heal and break the cycle. Violence always happens within a specific context.
Recently I had the great pleasure of learning from the amazing Dr Samah Jabr, the Director of the Palestine Mental Health Unit. She is a psychiatrist that oversees the mental health services for Palestinians living in the biggest open air prison in the world. She has a team of only 32 psychiatrists for 4 million people living under constant siege, in a context fragmented by 572 checkpoints. A people that have been ravaged by 3 major wars in the past 6 years alone.
In her powerful article where she talks to the Barriers to Healing for the Palestinian People she mentions that the first step towards healing is the social acknowledgement of trauma. And she says that this is yet to happen for Palestinians. This is yet to happen for South Africans too, in my opinion.
September happens to be the month in which we celebrate our heritage. We, rightfully, claim and celebrate various aspects of our cultural heritage. But we are yet to own the inherited trauma and shame in a way that helps us to make sense of where we come from, who we are and where we are going. Our identity is not limited to trauma & shame but it is a part of us and we need to own it. How do we use constructive public spaces like the recent Cape Flats Book Festival and different community gatherings to acknowledge, tell stories and have dialogue about this part of our heritage in a compassionate and hopeful language? How do we create more space for community leaders, like Lucelle Campbell, to teach our young generations about their nuanced history like she does with her powerful educational tours about the legacy of slavery which, in itself, is a healing practice through storytelling?
Dr. Samah Jabr writes that ‘trauma is a collective reality and clinical healing in itself is not sufficient’. She says,’’we require a collective renewal of psychological life under conditions of autonomous agency and justice.’
We live in a city where spatial injustice remains a core part of the psychological warfare on marginalized people. Thus it is critical to claim back our streets and spaces within our community to take back our power. This can be done in the simplest of ways. One excellent simple example of admirable leadership in this regard is the Manenberg Street Dhikrs which is the brainchild of a local community leader, Moulana Sameeg Norodien. He simply assembled a few carpets, a speaker, whatever materials he could find, lobbied for basic support and, every Thursday, evening he brings together members of the Muslim and non-Muslim community to sit together for a couple of hours to pledge our gratitude, our faith and build our social cohesion. Find him on Facebook and support him in any way you can.
We also need to cross our segregated highways and railway lines to be intentional about breaking down our mental barriers. This is socio-economic justice in practice. And no government can do this work for us. I applaud the partnership between Claremont Main Road Mosque and the Du Noon mosque & Muslim community as a powerful example of this.
Our babies and children are most vulnerable to the impact of violence in all its forms. Given the roots of our intergenerational shame, the systemic nature of violence and what neuroscience teaches us about its impact, we should be intentional about how we use language and space. We should empower our early childhood development practitioners, school teachers, community practitioners and lecturers to incorporate healing practices towards self-mastery and self-awareness in the language and approach to their work. I am excited that Early Childhood Development will be the theme of the 12th Annual Imam Haron Memorial Lecture which will take place on the 25th of September at the Islamia College in Lansdowne.
Our heritage also includes centuries of indigenous healing practices. How do we incorporate this valuable knowledge and tools in our way of life at community level at every parent and staff meeting at schools, every youth gathering and every community meeting?
Our criminal justice system should be revisited and remodeled in many ways. In their recent publication about re-thinking the system to integrate trauma-informed and restorative justice principles for youth offenders, Lisa Marqua-Harries, Grant Stewart and Venessa Padayachee envisage a model that does not resort to violence to deal with young offenders. The intended outcome is not be soft on criminals but merely to prevent children on the wrong path from becoming hardened criminals with no way back. Violence begets violence, always.
The greatest assets we have are our best intentions for ourselves and each other. Human connection is one of the most powerful healing conduits that can counter adverse neural pathways and change thoughts, feelings thus language and actions for the better. How do we train and deploy our army of unemployed men and women in radical community interventions that are less institutionalized and more focused at the street and home level in support of healthy early childhood development& both mental and physical health outcomes. The Cuban Nation eradicated illiteracy while nurturing social cohesion within the space of a year by training and strategically deploying 250 000 community literacy teachers that went on to empower 700 000 of their countrymen within one year.
Finally, all forms of violence are connected: from the random to the systemic, from the visible to the invisible kind. Thus our solutions need to be intersectional.
American Civil rights activist, Audrey Lorde, said that, ‘’ there is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives. Malcolm X knew this. Martin Luther King, Jr, knew this. Our struggles are particular but we are not alone’’.
Our beautiful way of life, Islam, teaches us this lesson from the moment it became our truth. The final sermon of our Holy Prophet (PBUH) reveals to us how we should live to prevent systemic violence. The very first paragraph of his final sermon speaks to fair & just economic structures when he speaks about forbidden interest and returning that which does not belong to us. This is crucial to prevent grave inequality which, inevitably leads to the collapse of social and domestic structures. The second and third major paragraphs in his final sermon speaks to the value of human relationships and the relationship with power in those connections. This is crucial to prevent cyclical violence, trauma and shame.
The essence of the final sermon of our Holy Prophet (PBUH) is about the interconnectedness of our human dignity as man rooted in justice and peace. Thus to confront and end structural violence & invisible systemic violence is to also address violence in all its other manifestations. Solidarity lives where your pain and trauma but also your hope and compassion intersect with mine. Herein lies the healing power of all intersectional solidarity work.
I will end with the final stanza of a poem read by the late President Nelson Mandela in his inaugural Presidential speech, The Child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga Junction written by the late Ingrid Jonkers:
“The child is not dead
The child is the shadow of the soldiers on guard with saracens and batons
The child is present at all meetings and legislations
The child peeps through the windows of houses and into the hearts of mothers
The child, who just wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga, is everywhere
The child who became a man treks through all Africa
The child who became a giant travels through the whole world
Without a pass’’
For 6 year old Nathlia Pienaar who died from a bullet wound to the head, in the streets of Lavender Hill, while clutching her skipping rope.
Jumuah Mubarak, Brothers and Sisters.