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a great place for trauma

September 2, 2009

I have been stewing away of late, trying to get an angle on the tangled state our current debate – or is it a non-debate? – on race and change in South Africa.  The issue has been pretty much in all of our faces of late:  the ever-deepening ditch into which our Judicial Services Commission and Judge John Hlope have been digging themselves;   the increasing shrillness of the slanging match between Julius Malema and those who seem unable to resist responding to him as his beloved enemies; the horrendous mess that’s been created around the gender status and testosterone levels of Caster Semenya (Zola Budd really feels a long time ago now, doesn’t she); and last but not least, the news that one Brandon Huntley, a white South African now resident in Ottawa, has managed to get himself awarded refugee status on the grounds that, as a white person, he was not safe in his country of origin.

Brandon Huntley, white refugee

Huntley, Refugee from Darkest Mowbray

There is not much that is sublime here, and plenty that’s ridiculous.   So much heat, so little light, so much obfuscation.  The sky is dark, if I may mix a metaphor, with red herrings coming home to roost.  Judge Hlope, a champion of transformation, a fighter for the Africanisation of our justice system? Don’t make me laugh.  His actions have consistently been grasping and self serving and as a jurist he has been utterly conservative.  All this talk about him being marginalised for questioning the lack of transformation in the judiciary is  so much obfuscation.  Caster Semenya, a latter day Saartjie Baartman? I am sorry, I don’t buy it.  Why is the International Association of Athletics Federations racist for wanting her testosterone levels to be tested?  Questions about her gender, it appears, were routinely raised by black athletes at home throughout her career, and her coach is an disgraced East German steroid peddler notorious for diddling his charges’ hormone levels; in fact, one of his charges subsequently had to have a sex change to become a man.   As for Brandon – well, comment is superfluous, isnt’t it? Though some loons have cheered at this news,   most  white South Africans actually inside the country have responded with bafflement, irritation and  ridicule to  his attempt to portray himself as the member of a latter day racially persecuted diaspora.  If he absolutely has to go and live in a place where the temperature routinely is 20 below, can’t he apply for a work permit like an normal person?   Does he not have any marketable skills?  And why does he have to try to portray Mowbray — boring, middle class Mowbray, I ask you — as a latter day Warsaw Ghetto for lahnis?

And at the same time, what space is there for argument?  Everything that can be said about this tedious contentiousness is already so perfectly obvious, it is depressing even to have to put pen to paper.   If you buy into any of these ridiculous stories, it is doubtful that facts or reason will make any impact; if you see through them, nothing needs to be said, does it?

This morning, however, it all clicked nicely into place.  A  colleague and I were driving into work.  Down Modderdam road, in sleety rain, on the first day of Spring, in his Mazda 3. My colleague  was recounting the stories of an acquaintance of his, a  medical doctor from the UK,  who was down here on holiday.  South Africa,  it appears  is a much sought after destination for UK and European medical students looking for internships.  The gruesome reality is that our country, with its legacy of chronic poverty, inequality and violence, presents a young doctor with opportunities for work experience that are simply unavailable in the calmer North.  Or as my colleague  rather baldly put it, South Africa is a great place  for trauma.

South-Africa-LogoA great place for trauma.    That should be our slogan.  Way back in the mists of time, some bunch of advertising consultants decided that we should be marketed as ‘the world in one country’.   Back then, I used to find it odd that you would want to brand and market a country as if it was a detergent.  Clearly I was young and naive then.  Since then, we have been through many re-brandings.  Currently, South Africa’s brand as a country is that we are ‘alive with possibility’. I am sure you will agree that that, not to put too fine a point on it, just sucks.  It  weak and unconvincing even as far as branding taglines go.  It just reeks of focus group.  Instead, consider ‘South Africa –  a great place for trauma’.

It says it like it is, doesn’t it?  In the first place, it puts centre stage our national history of violence and violation.  No need for Brandon to argue it to a Canadian court in detailed argumentation.  It just says so, right on the label.

Secondly — and this is the point —  it’s captures our national discourse to a T. As Colleen says, it’s how we think.  Trauma is what we do. Give us a situation, and we will turn it into a story of victimisation.   Black people feel like victims.    White people feel like victims.  Poor people are victims, clearly.  Rich people talk like the biggest victims at all, and have the bandwidth with which to whine about it at length, as well.  And if you are tired of the victim position, why, there are all these other predictable positions you can occupy.  You can be the rescuer,  pointing out the marginality and powerlessness of the victim without ever having to confront the possibility of change.  Or even more deliciously, you can become a vengeful persecutor, taking out your rage and pain on someone who richly deserves it!  We’ve had three hundred years of it – it’s one of our key skills, and it looks like we can go on for a good few years more.

What gets lost, in this cult of trauma, in this identification with the victim, in this rush to be blameless?

A lot, I think.Nuance is lost.  Interest is lost  Above all, compassion gets lost, and realism, and the ability to make real differences, small as as they might be.   The possibility of conversation is lost in  the self-righteousness of anger.  In this discourse, the enemy of your enemy is your friend, even if he or she is a psychopath or a narcissist, or just a fool.  All that is left is the pressure to choose your corner, your predetermined position, and to fight in it.

And most importantly, no-one ever needs to look into the mirror.  No-one ever needs to ask, what is my role in all this mess?

And that’s  a pity.  Because I don’t know how anything can get better, if that question is not asked.  If that boring, that irritating, that depressing question is not asked.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Kevin permalink
    September 4, 2009 7:12 pm

    Thought-provoking piece; and I say that in all honesty. The first thought that flashed through my mind was “ja, Africa is not for sissies”. But a deeper thought about SA’s increasing poor-white community almost immediately replaced it.
    Huntley worked as a cleaner, and a bar-tender in Canada – this is not a class of person who just “applies for a work permit”. He apparently tried to stay by marrying a Canadian – but the marriage failed. So, apart from his dis-ingenuity behind using racism as a reason for applying refugee status – perhaps there is a level of desperation from an economic perspective that I can’t see (as one who uses all of this bandwidth to make my case).

    I had a flashback to the time I was working at UKOR in Valindaba in the very early ’80s (bursary requirement) where everyone was white – even the cleaners. They mostly commuted (via laid-on bus service) from the poorer areas of Pretoria North – some of the ugliest places I have seen in this country.

    And I wondered to myself, as the thought of sissies died in the back of my mind, where are these people now?

    I love the title of this piece, I will now forever remember SA as a great place for trauma.

  2. andries du toit permalink*
    September 4, 2009 7:36 pm

    Of course Brandon is economically desperate, and obviously he is not part of the elite.

    What concerns me is the availability of the category of victim for all comers – and how boring and flattened-out the debates come when that is the category through which our issues are lensed.

  3. Kevin permalink
    September 4, 2009 11:09 pm

    Ah yes – and how quickly my ‘catholic’ and ‘affluent’ white-man’s guilt rises to the fore and acknowledges that victim-hood.
    In some ways I quite envy it – to be able to appeal as ‘the victim’ without chagrin – and how much power it holds amongst the mesmerised chumps like me.

  4. Rob Gaylard permalink
    September 7, 2009 5:18 pm

    Alas, poor Brandon, don’ t we know him well? A minor con artist, down on his luck, stranded in Canada, his marriage dissolved, what other expedient was left him? But think on this: an economic refugee, an opportunist, a spinner of yarns. Isn’t he even, in spite of himself, belatedly claiming an African identity? How different is he from those desperate border-jumpers for whom Johannesburg (yes, Johannesburg!) represents promise and opportunity?Aren’t there many like him?

  5. andries du toit permalink*
    September 7, 2009 6:05 pm

    Rob, that’s got to be the comment of the week.

  6. September 7, 2009 8:25 pm

    Well, I had an interesting, if rather surreal experience yesterday.

    I was waiting in line at the check out queue at the supermarket. I noticed a couple of young (student age) black girls, obviously a group of friends, standing in the line next to mine. One of them was an albino. I noticed her because she did a big double take at the magazine rack and said “Oh wow, look! Wow!” to her friends. Very excited.

    I leant over to look at the magazine she was pointing at. It was the “You” magazine, and there was a photograph of Caster Semenya on the cover. Caster was looking very different from all the media images we’ve seen of her lately – she was wearing a sexy dress, her hair was teased out in little curls and she was wearing make up. The byline said “Look at Caster Now!” or something similar. I though she looked great.

    These girls were super excited. They passed the magazine around, laughing and pointing. Then the albino girl held the magazine up in front of her face, stared at it hard and said:

    “Frrrreak!” very emphatically, and with great disgust.

    I was so taken aback. Oh well.

  7. andries du toit permalink*
    September 9, 2009 11:28 am

    I’ve had a number of posts from people linked with a blog called Why Whites are Refugees. I have deleted them, not because I disagree, but because they are off topic. I am not interested in discussions of whether or not Brandon Huntley is or is not a victim. If you want to support his cause, by all means do. But not on this thread. Thank you.

  8. September 9, 2009 11:31 am

    but they were so entertaining! :p

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 9, 2009 11:35 am

      I dunno Masha. I have had my fill of the Brandonistas. My mistake, for creating that Save Brandon Huntley group on FB. But I just think they take the discussion into such deeply, deeply uninteresting areas. Which is kind of my point in this post in the first place.

  9. Rob Gaylard permalink
    September 9, 2009 6:30 pm

    Alas, poor Brandon – it turn out that he’s actually black – or at least not entirely white! (See today’s Cape Times). Isn’ t there a name for this? Living in denial? Passing as white (and now even as Canadian)?

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 9, 2009 6:59 pm

      Hmm I can’t see how Brandon’s actual ‘racial’ identity – or the lack of it – actually matters. Lots of people passing for white, lots of people quite unaware of or in denial about their racially complex ancestry. Brandon’s just an ordinary South African in that respect.

      I’m actually interested in the amount of ganging-up-on-brandon that is happening now. As Masha points out in her comment on Caster, the positions of victim and persecutor are actually very interchangeable. We can all demonstrate our South Africanness by uniting against the Prawn-er, sorry, Brandon; and of course his occupation of the victim position does invite a certain bullying response.

      I think my point in this post was to wonder whether a different register is possible – one in which we have something other than these familiar interchangeable positions.

  10. Darren Smith permalink
    September 13, 2009 12:05 pm

    A great place for trauma!

    Brilliant! It reminds me of the MNet movie screened locally “Gums & Noses” …

    The pay-off line for the movie, was an advertising creative bod, encapsulating his experiences into the new advertising byline for Whitex washing powder.

    “South Africa is a bloody country.
    To live in a bloody country,
    You need a bloody good washing powder.”

    But in arguing for SA to be rebranded “A great place for trauma!” … you inadvertantly (or perhaps deliberately) alude to the success of its current national branding!

    You write: “What gets lost, in this cult of trauma, in this identification with the victim, in this rush to be blameless?”

    “A lot, I think .Nuance is lost. Interest is lost Above all, compassion gets lost, and realism, and the ability to make real differences, small as as they might be. The possibility of conversation is lost in the self-righteousness of anger. In this discourse, the enemy of your enemy is your friend, even if he or she is a psychopath or a narcissist, or just a fool. All that is left is the pressure to choose your corner, your predetermined position, and to fight in it.”

    And that to me, sounds a lot like a country which is “Alive with possibility”.

  11. September 28, 2009 9:21 am

    I really enjoyed this piece, Andries. The triangle of perpetrator, victim and rescuer is so entrenched in our culture – also the super special SA role of “persecutor who cries victim or rescuer” (Leonard Chuene comes to mind as an example).

    In a workshop last week, the group discussed this very triangle within their place of work and how being in the triangle becomes the culture and “it” perpetuates the roles. Without awareness of what they are part of, they just go round and round.

    The question was asked how do we snap out of it? What are the roles and attitutes we can choose that will transform this yawn-yawn, stuckness of this triangle? It is like being in a very bad movie! On one level, the answer seems obvious: don’t be a victim, don’t be a persecutor and don’t rescue. But how do we act in the face of someone crying victim and NOT add to the pain and NOT rescue? How do we assert ourselves and step into the difficult discourses without being a perpetrator that comes across as harsh and insensitive?

    What is clear is that we need a whole lot of awareness to not step into the traps in the triangle. And humility. And healthy self esteem. And the ability to listen – really listen to each other.

    I have work to do!

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 28, 2009 2:28 pm

      What moving words. And what is clear to me from your words (see also what Colleen says in my piece about the ‘two unconsciousnesses’) though many people are trapped in that triangle, many choose not to. Cause for hope!

  12. July 3, 2010 6:50 am

    Interesting blogsite. I’ve enjoyed it. I was Canadian born, to a South African Mother and a French father and grew up in SA. I studied medicine at UCT and indeed, as a trainee surgeon, it was great place for trauma – Groote Schuur saw upwards of 50 000 cases of trauma per annum during the 1987/88 years of unrest and riots. Later, I was working in Toronto and when I presented that figure, the local trauma surgeons protested, claiming I must have added an inadvertent (or deliberate) zero.LOL.
    Anyway, your thread about the triangle of victim/abuser/rescuer struck a chord. As soon as my first child was born, I upped sticks and left. Despite my mother’s family having lived in Southern Africa since 1670 and despite being married to a South African girl, whose family history in the sub-continent was equally long, we both believed that SA would be a land of little opportunity for a white child. We both have family still living in SA and I have seen and heard little to persuade me to change my view; racism is still endemic in the society, despite all our hopes for a non-racist or at least colour-blind society after the death of apartheid. As you cogently point out, the roles of victim and oppressor can change quite readily, and at this remove, this is exactly what appears to have happened. The hope we cherished for a a society which would be a meritocracy in which the slogan the “best person for the job” would be the guiding principle, was clearly naive. I respect those who made the decision to stay and I wish them all the best with the consequences of that decision, but for me, the best way out of the triangle you describe was simply to take myself and my family out of the equation, something we have never regretted. Still and all, I regret nothing. The great experience I had with South African trauma has stood me in good stead in America, Canada and Australasia. You can’t beat a solid grounding in trauma if you’re wanting to learn surgery.
    Tristan de Chalain


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