An October 1970 issue of Newsweek showed a photo of Angela Davis in handcuffs with the words “Angela Davis: Black Revolutionary” on its cover page after her arrest to face charges for which she was later acquitted. The image prompted James Baldwin to write an “Open Letter to my Sister, Miss Angela Davis,” which he opened thus:
One might have hoped that, by this hour, the very sight of chains on black flesh, or the very sight of chains, would be so intolerable a sight for the American people, and so unbearable a memory, that they would themselves spontaneously rise up and strike off the manacles.
Baldwin was of course, referring to the memory of the chains of American slavery, which subjugated African Americans as commodities of labour for more than two centuries. But it was not just the memory of the past that he was concerned with in his letter to Davis. The letter captures most poignantly the continuities of this past, evidence of which exists today. The continuing racist oppression in contemporary America has been described in compelling studies (such as Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow), documented most convincingly in films such as “13TH” and captured through social movements like “Black Lives Matter.”
It is important to realise that the problem of the continuities of the past in the present is not just a US phenomenon. The repetition of violence in ways that uncannily resemble the past occurs globally in societies with histories of repression, various forms of gross human rights violations, and social marginalisation of groups. The past continues to cast a long shadow long after civil wars have ended, hostilities ceased, new democratic governments established, and peace and reconciliation processes set in motion. The tragic and gloomy aspect of this is that the repercussions of the past extend intergenerationally far beyond the generation that experienced the violence and oppression directly, and play out in the lives of the descendants of both victims and perpetrators of past atrocities —sometimes manifesting in violence against others (or one’s own group), intractable conflict, and other kinds of destructive behaviour when the victim group is under threat. The link between traumatic pasts and violence has been found in individuals who have been severely abused, as well as in groups that have suffered trauma collectively. At the heart of the argument about the link between trauma and violence is the contention that traumatic memories have an intrusive power, and often impose themselves violently into the daily lives of trauma victims and survivors. This has sometimes been associated with what is variously called traumatic re-enactments, traumatic repetitions, or, in the words of the founder of a branch of psychology called psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, “the return of the repressed.” Freud’s theories are foundational in the concepts that inform our understanding of transgenerational transmission of trauma among victims and their descendants. Echoes of this insight abound in a broad range of works covering the fields of the Arts and Humanities. William Faulkner’s famous quote “[t]he past is never dead. It’s not even past”, Maya Angelou’s reference to the potential repetition of history’s “wrenching pain”, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk’s notion of “the body keeps the score” all reference the indelible imprint left by traumatic experiences on victims, and the likelihood of the repercussions of the trauma on their descendants in subsequent generations if the trauma is not addressed.
My interest in this article, however, is not so much on the transgenerational effects of trauma on victims and their descendants. James Baldwin’s response to Angela Davis evoked for me the recent memory of the twenty-one-year-old security guard who was chained to a fence pole and assaulted on the Eenzaamheid Wine estate. Much has been written and theorised in psychology about the intergenerational continuities of historical trauma among victim groups and within their families. But the complex matrix of interacting factors of trauma, of history, power, politics, the fault lines in the victims-perpetrators binary, and the continuing issues of social injustice is an area that still cries out for investigation. The questions that connect the Eenzaamheid incident with last year’s “coffin assault” case in Middelburg, and with the 2005 murder by a farmer who threw a former employee to a pride of lions in Phalaborwa are, in my view, still unasked. I mean questions that will give us a deeper understanding of what’s going on with the perpetrators of these crimes. And who are they? From the photographs of the young man chained to the fence with a bloodied face (his name is not mentioned), it seems clear that the aim was to humiliate the young man; to degrade him, to make him an object of revulsion and to render him inhuman. Yet this cruelty tells us that it is the doer of the deed who has dehumanised himself. What drives this level of depravity? What inner turmoil rages inside the perpetrator to lead him to engage in such an act of hateful violence?
These acts of self-dehumanisation in order to degrade and violate the human integrity of the other—the scenes of trauma across South Africa—are repeated whenever the violence is against farmers, farm-workers, young lesbian women and against women and children in their own homes. “Racism” and “patriarchy”, although some of us use these terms to explain interracial violence and men’s violence against women, seem inadequate as explanatory concepts. The moral outcry and the punishment of individual perpetrators through the Human Rights Commission or the courts are important responses to these crimes. Punishment of individual perpetrators alone, however, will not resolve one of the violent contradictions of our beloved country: there’s been so much change, yet so little transformation of the lives of the majority of South Africans who were treated like second class citizens under apartheid and deprived rights and privileges, and remain, along with their descendants, without the means to enjoy the rights and freedoms promised by the ANC government in contemporary South Africa.
Towards the end of last year, we hosted a public conversation with Zackie Achmat at Stellenbosch University. In a captivating yet harrowing lecture titled “State Power, State Capture and Building a New Politics of Justice and Equality,” Achmat took us on a journey as secondary witnesses to the violence inflicted by state and provincial structures daily on the lives of millions of South Africans, to show us the deep chasm that exists between the promise of a “better life for all” and the ever-receding horizon of such a vision.
We are easily stirred by the spectacular violence we witness in incidents such as the inhuman and degrading treatment of the young security guard at the Eenzaamheid Wine estate. Like James Baldwin’s moving aspirational words of wishing for a collective response from his countrymen and women, Zackie Achmat wanted to bring the audience at his lecture at Stellenbosch University closer to the suffering of others and to connect to their stories.
This might open up the possibility of a shared vision of compassion and empathy for the suffering of the other. The capacity for empathy is, in my view, an urgent need of our historical moment. It is a crucial starting point for building a society that cares enough for the plight of those vulnerable to structural racism, and those who face daily various kinds of violence—to care enough to do something about the structures that continue to fuel hate in our society. It is at this nexus that we can experience a sense of solidarity with the suffering others and embrace a sense of what I have called reparative humanism.
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is professor and Chair of Research in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University. She also holds a research fellowship at University of the Free State, and appointment as the SARChI Chair for Historical Trauma and Memory.