File picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)
File picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)

’Nation on the Couch’: Psychologist examines reasons for violence, inequality and racism

By Duncan Guy Time of article published May 22, 2021

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Durban - There’s a psychological reason for the burning of university buildings during protests, as happened at the University of KZN law faculty during Fees Must Fall protests in 2016.

That is according to Wahbie Long, associate professor at the Department of Psychology at UCT, who is also a clinical psychologist, who has brought out the book Nation On The Couch: Inside South Africa’s Mind.

It takes a bird’s-eye view of the problems of violence, inequality and racism in South Africa.

His analysis involves the concept of the “good breast”.

“I suggest in the book that (psychoanalyst Melanie) Klein’s theory of envy can help us understand the destruction of university property in the country over the last few years,” Long told the Independent on Saturday in an email interview.

Wahbie Long, the psychologist who has written about 'patient South Africa'. Picture: Supplied

“Specifically, I equate the concept of the ‘good breast’ with the elite South African university.

“Just as the infant is dependent on the good breast for nourishment, so too, students from impoverished backgrounds are dependent on these institutions for an education, material support and, of course, the promise of a life of dignity.”

WAHBIE Long’s book that explains things many battle to comprehend.

However, there’s a problem with dependence. “It breeds envy and, hence, the risk of destruction of the good breast.

“That happens in a psychological sense to the infant, but it happens in a very concrete sense in the context of university protests when, for example, human faeces gets dumped in lecture halls or libraries are burnt to the ground.”

Long pointed out that this is intended neither as an infantilising nor a moralising argument.

“Envy is a natural, normal response in the face of dependence, and especially so in a country like ours with such shocking levels of inequality.”

On the issue of violence in societies around the world, Long noted that South Africa was “right up there” when it came to homicide rates.

“But the list is really dominated by countries from Latin, and especially Central, America.

“It is well established in the literature that inequality is an exceptionally strong predictor of murder rates.”

When it comes to interpersonal violence, Long argues not so much for envy but, rather, shame.

“Shame is a major driver of interpersonal violence, especially against vulnerable groups such as women, children and refugees.

“The lived experience of relative poverty – that is, inequality – is deeply shaming, and in trying to rid themselves of that crippling feeling, perpetrators end up inflicting acts of astonishing violence on others.”

He stressed that this kind of reasoning was not an apology for violence.

“If we really want to deal with it, we have to start thinking about the things we tend to avoid like the plague.”

Asked whether South Africa could break its cycle of abuse, from colonialism and apartheid to the recent thieving of Covid funds using the applied to a family caught in an abusive cycle, Long said it would all have to begin with understanding.

“We live in a hyper-rational world where we imagine that we have full knowledge of ourselves and can therefore direct and control ourselves adequately in the world. “Nation on the Couch suggests otherwise – that, in fact, so much of our national psyche, as with our individual minds, is underwater and therefore unknown to us.”

Referring to the works of psychoanalysis founder Sigmund Freud, he said people were driven by unknown forces and “that’s why we keep on engaging in acts of self-destruction over and over again, be it violence, racism or corruption.

“Until we accept the idea of a political unconscious, we’ll carry on stumbling around in the dark, lurching from one crisis to the next. You can’t change what you cannot – or will not – see.

“Perhaps we are looking at a Truth and Reconciliation 2.0-type scenario, but then the South African public must ask itself whether it has the stomach to do that work. I’m not just talking about the horrors of the past but, just as importantly, the horrors of our shared present.”

Long added that South Africans were hungry for hope.

“I don’t think the media make much effort to give readers that. There are plenty of positive stories in the country – especially in the lives of ordinary people. I guess horror sells.”

  • Nation On The Couch

The Independent on Saturday

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