Truth and Reconciliation?

Healing the wounds of apartheid

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From the May/June 1997 issue


“Ordinary South Africans are determined that the past be known, the better to insure that it is not repeated. They seek this, not out of vengeance, but so we can move into the future together.”

–Nelson Mandela


In early 1996, President Nelson Mandela’s administration formally established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to provide a public forum for the private grief of the millions of perpetrators and victims of violence in South Africa. Its mission is to encourage truth-telling about what happened during the years of apartheid and, through hearing the truth, to mourn and heal.

The commission’s Committee on Human Rights Violations is the engine driving the process of healing. Its members travel around the country creating public forums to listen to the stories of both perpetrators and victims. Perpetrators who speak out are eligible to apply for amnesty to a separate Committee on Amnesty, and though amnesty is not guaranteed, it is offered only to those who voluntarily speak. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission made a deliberate decision not to issue any blanket amnesties, believing that would whitewash rather than air the traumas.

In a society where an estimated 45 million people have been traumatized and 80 percent of the population has been exposed to chronic violence and torture, according to Michael Simpson of the African Society for Traumatic Studies, the social and psychological stakes could not be higher. “Failure to deal with the plight of victims can be disastrous for a society,” write psychiatrists Bessel van der Kolk of Harvard and Alexander McFarlane of the University of Adelaide, Australia, in their book, Traumatic Stress. “The costs of reenactment of trauma in a society, in the form of child abuse, continued violence, and the lack of productivity, are staggering.” After decades of murders and tortures, violence has become so much a fact of life in South Africa that in one black township grade school, a young girl stunned a group of white psychologists who had come to observe her class by asking them whether they intended to shoot her.

Clearly, the task of healing an entire society is too enormous for the commission alone, which serves as a catalyst and model for local nongovernmental community organizations (NGOs). “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission plays a small part with a high profile,” notes psychologist Craig Higson-Smith, a white South African psychologist and cofounder of the KwaZulu-Natal Programme for Survivors of Violence, one of the many NGOs. “For every person who speaks before the commission, there are a hundred whose stories have not been told. After the commission leaves town, it’s up to the NGOs to deal with everything that’s been stirred up.” Since the government of South Africa has inadequate resources to support the necessary work, support for the NGOs comes from other governments and from private individuals in the international community, including the Queen of Denmark.

The key concept behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is abantu, a word so familiar to South Africans that it is mentioned in the final clause of their Constitution: “There is a need for abantu, not for victimization.” Although no one has a precise translation of the word, South African trauma specialist Merle Friedman describes it as the belief that, “‘I am because we are.’ It’s the ultimate expression of community,” she adds. Abantu means that one does not exist without one’s neighbors, and since people are defined by their relationships with others, healing is the responsibility of everyone.

The other indigenous concept that informs the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is khulumani, which means “to speak out”–not individually but communally. It’s an idea as old as group singing. At one township meeting, a woman named Silvia, whose son had been murdered in 1991, began by saying, “We have gathered here today so that we can speak with one voice. When you are in the field alone you are not heard. But when you are in a group, you are heard easily.” And then the stories began, of husbands, sons and brothers tortured, murdered, vanished. A woman told her people, “Here at khulumani I keep talking, talking, talking. I keep nothing in my heart.”

“One of our neighbors,” says a community leader, describing the therapeutic effects of this process of public disclosure, “had been suffering and unable to work. We told her she needed to come to church and tell her story. Reluctantly, she came. But as she stood in front of us, she was overcome by shaking so bad that she was unable to speak. So, the congregation sang to her. The melody of our song and the strength of our voices filled the church. Eventually, she was able to resume speaking. She told of the horror of seeing her teenage son’s body and realizing he was dead. Her body started shaking again so badly that she could not continue. We sang to her again. That day she told her story for the first time, surrounded by the voices of her community. Her heart was still broken, yet her spirit began to heal.”

In the indigenous South African culture, dealing with trauma doesn’t always require abreaction or dredging up repressed memories. Higson-Smith describes a project in the community of Mambi, which had been attacked repeatedly by official government forces, with many homes destroyed. Workers from his Survivors of Violence team asked the local women what the organization could do for them, and the women, who had lost their homes, replied that they wanted a garden. “The trauma workers were taken aback, not only by the modesty and seeming irrelevance of the request,” says Higson-Smith, “but because they didn’t know the first thing about gardening. But these women knew, and they put their backs into it, literally and figuratively, forming a support group around the idea of gardening. While they gardened, they sang together. African people sing very readily. They make up wonderful songs together. They talked continuously about their losses as they weeded and harvested the area. The land was fertile. The fruit and vegetables grew and were harvested and taken to market. They were able to generate an income, which was very empowering. Then, the men and youths saw this group as a model for their community.”

It is easy to romanticize the process of truth and reconciliation, but for every gardening story, there are stories of damage so irreparable, shock so deep, anger so violent that one wonders whether healing may be impossible. “We thought we knew the extent of the evil that was abroad in the dark days of oppression and injustice,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu, head of the commission. “But we’ve almost been overwhelmed by the depth of depravity and the ghastliness of it all. At the same time, we’ve been humbled and moved by the incredible nobility, generosity and spirit in the hearings.”

Ultimately, Truth and Reconciliation is a process founded upon faith in community. “Abantu compels black Africans toward truth and reconciliation,” says Higson-Smith. But no one, including Higson-Smith, feels sanguine about the ultimate success of Truth and Reconciliation. Considerable segments of society–white and black–do not embrace the process. Many believe that amnesty without punishment or genuine expressions of remorse may, in fact, retraumatize people. The violence, so ingrained in the national psyche (Johannesburg has one of the highest violent-crime rates in the world), continually threatens to overwhelm the process of reconciliation.

President Mandela, the primary moral force behind the process, is in his late seventies, and although there are other potential leaders in the African National Congress party who share his vision, none has his charisma and moral authority. When Mandela dies, there may be no one who can carry on the process in any meaningful way.

The work of transforming a national narrative of suffering and brutality into one of healing and restoration will take many generations, and no one can predict whether anger, poverty and exhaustion will drag the process to a halt. “We are still looking for words for what we have gone through,” says Michael Simpson. Nevertheless, day after day, across the country, at the high-profile hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and in the community gatherings in churches, schools and town halls, the people continue to try to find their words, perhaps knowing instinctively what Bishop Tutu said in his prayer at the installation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: “There is no future without the past. There is no day without a beginning.”

–Garry Cooper and Laurie Kahn


The True Marvel of Human Complexity

Twenty years ago, when they were part of a growth industry, a couple of hundred therapists came to the first Family Therapy Network Symposium surfing the waves of hubris and optimism. But today, instead of having carte blanche to enlighten, educate and heal clients, therapists feel the pressure to prove themselves all over again. Accordingly, Network President Rich Simon opened this year’s 20th-Anniversary Symposium, “The Marvel of Human Complexity,” to an audience of 2,600 therapists by describing the societal conspiracy “to make therapists feel as stupid and insecure and irrelevant as possible.” The conspiracy, said Simon, extends way beyond managed care and lean times in the therapy marketplace into everyday life in an information-saturated society. No longer true believers in facile theories, therapists today, Simon declared, are “doomed to live in a world that grows more complex and indeterminate all the time.”

In the hyper-competitive 1990s, the once-invigorating challenge of complexity too often feels simply exhausting, yet another obstacle to overcome, like climbing Mount Everest when you’re coming down with the flu. But for those who felt uplifted by this year’s Symposium, the challenge of coping with complexity metamorphosed into something less isolating and less complicated than many attendees expected.

The opening keynote speaker, Harvard professor of philosophy of religion and Afro-American studies Cornel West, author of Race Matters, invoked the “great tradition of struggle” against human evil and invited the audience of therapists to see their work as part of this struggle. His voice ranging from quizzical outrage to caress, he challenged the audience to question the direction of their profession, which is becoming “obsessed with skills and techniques” and preoccupied with “giving clients enough gas in their tanks to make it back onto the same old road.” Even while exhorting his audience, West wasn’t optimistic about improving social conditions in the “hotel society”–people living hermetic, sanitized lives of comparative luxury while invisible others clean up their mess–of late 20th-century America. Then, dramatically leaning over the podium like a preacher at the climax of his sermon, he urged the audience to try anyway, because psychotherapy isn’t just a vocation or a career, but a calling. Part of our job is to be part of the mess along with everyone else, West told us. “Keep in mind,” West reminded the audience, “that the goal isn’t perfection, but to leave things a little better.”

In the Symposium’s second keynote session, family therapist and University of Minnesota professor William Doherty offered some guidelines to therapists bewildered by a contemporary reality that refuses to fit into psychotherapy’s traditional theoretical cubbyholes. Quoting G.K. Chesterton–“I have seen the truth, and it makes no sense”–Doherty described the successive movements that have swept across the field of therapy, reshaping its landscape each time. Each orientation when narrowly conceived, said Doherty, becomes “hedgehog therapy”–its practitioners burrow along comfortably inside the same tunnel, oblivious to what’s going on elsewhere. Encouraging therapists to distrust any technique that purports to be the answer, while warning of the danger of drifting into “mindless eclecticism,” Doherty exhorted them to learn from the fox, who keeps scanning and sniffing, alert to everything.

Then it was time for Mary Pipher, the best-selling author of Reviving Ophelia and The Shelter of Each Other. In a soft, embracing voice, she invoked the Lakota Sioux’s concept of the community that sustains us–tiospaye, “the people with whom one lives”–and urged the audience to ask how, as therapists, we can keep our communities from falling apart. In the midst of a Symposium that offered workshops spanning techniques from meditation to behaviorism and topics from soul work to marketing your private practice, Pipher declared that therapy is basically nothing more complicated than “human beings gathering in a room to solve human problems.” In the toxic social environment we’ve constructed, Pipher, quoting poet Carolyn Forche, said, “Slowing down may be the ultimate subversive act.” Then she told of a mother working in a horribly noisy tire factory who, every day after work, had to rush to pick up her children at separate day care centers. One day, after getting her first child and rushing to get the second, she noticed the sun setting, and she suddenly pulled the car over. She and her child sat on the hood and watched the sunset in silence for a long time. Finally, the mother sighed and said, “It’s so noisy in that tire factory.”

“It’s noisy in the day care center, too,” replied her child.

The audience, which had applauded and cheered during West’s ringing oration, sat silently, shaking their heads. The silence of the mother and her son watching the sunset over the Nebraska plains suddenly seemed palpable. For a moment, Pipher had created  tiospaye, a feeling of immediate connection, in the audience. “As therapists,” Pipher concluded, “we should be purveyors of simplicity.”

The third keynote speaker, family therapy pioneer Salvador Minuchin, described his own journey from simplicity to complexity in his work with the poor. It took him years, Minuchin confessed, to realize that he paid too much attention to his model and not enough to the political forces that shape people’s lives. However well-intentioned public agency therapists may be in trying to help poor families, he warned, if they don’t recognize the destructive impact of the larger system they represent on the lives of the people they’re trying to help, they may end up doing more harm than good.

The power of the Symposium is felt not only in its massive plenary sessions, but in the shared moments of illumination and discovery that occur unpredictably through the 125 workshops on its program. This year’s Symposium marked the debut of the Open Space, an opportunity for attendees to form small, informal groups on any common interests that they wished. The groups proved to be a way for some people to bring the tumult and overstimulation of the Symposium to a more manageable level. “I’ve been feeling so lonely this weekend,” one Open Space participant said. “But now I feel that I’m right where I need to be.” One Open Space group, meeting to discuss Cornel West’s comment that every white American was infected with some degree of racism, became an instant support group. Several of the white attendees agreed that West was right, that they did harbor thoughts ranging from condescending to hostile and acknowledging those thoughts actually created harmony.

Navigating a hotel nearly bursting with therapists of every conceivable orientation doesn’t exactly breed a sense of intimacy and simplicity. At times, the Symposium can seem like an insane marketplace purveying sanity, but for those who experience renewal while they are there, it’s about revivifying the possibility of human connection. Perhaps the ultimate marvel of human complexity is that while we keep inventing excuses and distractions to turn away from ourselves and from one another, we still yearn to touch and be touched, and, in spite of all the obstacles the world increasingly creates, we still so often succeed. 

–Garry Cooper

Psychotherapy Networker

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