The African crisis of mass broken individuals

Much focus has been put on how the trauma of colonialism and apartheid has set back the individual and national material development of African countries. In fact, the focus has often been mostly on the material trauma caused by colonialism and apartheid.

As a result, the focus of most African reconstruction attempts and help from outsiders has been on how to reverse colonialism and apartheid’s robbing of resources – land, property, mineral wealth – and how the countries and their people were deliberately deprived of access to knowledge and knowhow, which put them in a permanent disadvantage in this knowledge and technology-intensive era.

Yet, apartheid and colonialism have left broken societies: damaged indigenous cultures, the sense of community, collective identities, self-esteem, self-worth and the sense of self, familyhood, and disfigured the nature of interpersonal relationships.

More importantly, the trauma of colonialism and apartheid on the individual self have often been receiving less focus, been underestimated or simply ignored. Of course, the material deprivation subjected on the African people by colonialism and apartheid – which entrenches poverty (in a context where to be poor in the world is often a badge of being worthless), coupled with the daily indignities and humiliations, on its own, breaks the sense of self of the individual. Nevertheless, colonialism and apartheid left Africans with massive “existential insecurity”, which roughly means, paraphrasing the term from Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in their 2004 book,

Nevertheless, colonialism and apartheid left Africans with massive “existential insecurity”, which roughly means, paraphrasing the term from Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in their 2004 book, Sacred and Secular – Religion and Politics Worldwide, “a persistent, generalised sense of threat and unease” because their survival is systematically threatened on every level – personal, family, community, culturally and nationally. Importantly, the continuing legacy of broken individuals or damaged sense of self is a key obstacle to lifting Africa’s development and democracy building.

Martha Cabrera, a Nicaraguan psychologist, rightly argues that “populations that are multiply wounded as a product of permanent stress lose their capacity to make decisions and plan for the future due to the excess suffering they have lived through and not processed”.

Regrettably, almost all of Africa’s post-independence reconstruction attempts – and outside attempts at help, whether through donors, aid or ideological – have ignored focusing on overcoming the African crisis of mass broken individuals.

Some of Africa’s immediate post-independence generation thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born Algerian activist, warned that colonialism and apartheid have scarred the psyche of victims – their individual personalities, and that unless there is a concentrated effort to reverse this, little will come off development efforts.

South Africa’s Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) of the 1970s emphasised the need to deal with the consequences of the broken individual as a prerequisite for successful development. However, the heirs of the BCM have not elaborated beyond the “black is beautiful” theme to provide a counter-message to black individual alienation caused by colonialism and apartheid.

Broken individuals and a damage of a sense of self – as part of the legacy of colonialism and apartheid – has been at the heart of the fractured social fabrics of African societies. It has been very difficult in most African states to find effective ways to restore the social fabric of societies given the mass crisis of broken individuals. And African leaders have so far spectacularly failed to provide leadership in the context of both broken societies and broken individuals. In fact, most African leaders have been ill-qualified to provide leadership to broken individuals and societies.

Before African leaders can offer such leadership, Reuel Khoza, the South African businessman, rightly argues “they must have emotional intelligence, self-knowledge, and the ability to self-reflect. They must be like Nelson Mandela, attuned to their own ‘feelings of rage and impotence’, and yet be able to overcome this”.

African leaders must have the depth of character, in order to be able to make prudent judgements where the issues are a minefield. Cabrera writes “what we need is leadership that starts with the personal, leaders who lead from their own values, their own life”.  Some African independence/liberation leaders and movements specifically pursued campaigns to counter the negative individual and collective image of their supporters during the struggle.

In fact, the African liberation and independence struggle itself was an attempt also at the individual level to offer a counter positive cause to the racism inherent in apartheid and colonialism. Some African liberation and independence movements of the left constructed a liberation ideology and function as a “broad church”.

But since coming into government, some African leaders and liberation movements have resorted to nativism or narrow Africanism as a response to the attack on the individual African sense of self. They reject everything “Western” (although not the consumerism). A more realistic way would be taking the best of both experiences – the pre-colonial and colonial – and building something new and relevant out of that.

Sadly, most African countries have been so poorly governed that they have declined in development since their liberation. This failure to perform would later be used by former colonial powers to endorse the colonial and apartheid governments’ view that the “natives” cannot govern – adding to the “existential insecurity” of the majority of the poverty-stricken Africans.

In South Africa, for example, this “existential insecurity” has generated “illiberal attitudes” in the wider citizenry: violent crime, low levels of tolerance for differences, xenophobia, social conservatism, and so on. Or, in South Africa and many other African countries, a new phenomenon has developed whereby self-esteem, identity and individual value are increasingly measured in how much an individual has in material possessions.

So, how can the phenomenon of broken individuals on a mass scale be overcome? Firstly, as Martha Cabrera says, “if we are to collectively heal ourselves, we need to undergo a cultural change” – by talking publicly about the problem – and actively looking for progressive policy answers to it.

Cabrera asks: how can the phenomenon of broken individuals and societies be “cured if society refuses to discuss it? How are we going to heal the country’s main political wounds if we have not yet reflected on them?”African countries must also fill the “void” caused by “existential insecurity” by genuinely embracing new democratic values, mores and cultures – and by embracing the best (most democratic) elements of cultural, religious and spiritual values.

Civil society must encourage a new wave of active citizenship across Africa. Active citizenship is important to hold African governments to account, but it is also important to fill the “existential insecurity” void. African governments must rule in the interests of all – material accumulation must happen in a fair way – rather than small elites. African economic policies must be based on social justice as most post-independence governments have redistributed benefits for a small elite, rather than for the widest benefit of all.

The unlucky majority that fell outside these elites have remained poor, and experienced deepened “existential insecurity”. Furthermore, the poor majority, who are not politically connected, are now often looked down upon by their newly rich cousins – suffering in self-esteem doubly.

The East Asian economic miracle countries, most of them former colonies, have through their spectacular economic performance, to some extent lifted the individual and collective self-esteem of their societies. Democrats in Africa must campaign to foster a truly democratic, equitable and fair international trade, economic and political regime – to help African countries to prosper.

Successful African countries will lift the collective and individual self-esteem, sense of self of Africans, and help to undo the mass crisis of broken individuals at the heart of broken societies.

*This article was published in New African on 19 March 2013. To view the article on their website click here

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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