South Africa on the Couch

August 12, 2021

What is wrong with us as South Africans? This is the eternal question that we ask at every level of our society. The answers we arrive at depend on what we do for a living and how we see the world.

Leading South African psychologist Wahbie Long provides a nuanced psycho-social take on the problems we face in his recent book Nation on the Couch: Inside South Africa’s Mind. He diagnoses three main problems – shame, envy and impasse – and prescribes broad solutions, the chief of which are continual engagement with each other and the practice of empathy through the universal principle of “The Golden Rule”. The book is academically rich but still accessible and profoundly thought-provoking. It’s also hopeful.

As any doctor knows, you can’t rush into providing a solution until you have a proper diagnosis. But which of the many problems is the most urgent? Poverty, mass unemployment, gender-based violence, civil unrest, state capture, chronic alcoholism, poor education, crime, corruption, and racism are all multi-faceted and arguably made worse by the Covid pandemic and the climate crisis. No wonder that after the recent looting and violence in KZN and Gauteng some commentators were calling out warning signs of a “failed state”. The collective anxiety and horror was palpable. We still don’t know the details of how many of the 342 who died in the recent looting met their deaths.

What I find encouraging about Long’s book is that it shows the complexity of our national psyche without, as he puts it, collapsing into either purely social or psychological answers. Our world is profoundly interconnected and to understand the enormity of our national problems, we need to see South Africa through this psychological-social lens. To do this, Long draws on an impressively rich body of theory and writing from Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx to Franz Fanon and Steve Biko to modern-day writers in a range of different disciplines. He also weaves in many popular references and stories from movies such as Parasite to John le Carre and NWA’s F*ck tha police.

As a clinical psychologist myself, I know that none of my clients come to my consulting room asking for help with Shame or Envy. But as a way of understanding violence in particular, shame and envy are, arguably, two of the best things we have. The community members who burn the very things that they depend on for basic services. The students who trash the university library. The angry men fuelled by alcohol and wounded by disrespect, who take out their frustrations in violent ways. To fully understand South African shame, Long takes us back to examine our racial history and highlights the master-slave relationship. In his chapter on Envy, Long analyses the Fallists, the student protestors who, he says, move through a psychological continuum of shame, righteous suffering, resentment and envious destruction. Some psychology students will nod appreciatively at Melanie Klein’s concept of “attacking the bad breast” which we depend on but which doesn’t give us what we need or want.

Apart from focusing on the poor and marginalised, Long also turns his lens on white South Africans “who find themselves at an impasse, uncertain of how to engage with an ‘Other’ that has been denigrated for generations”. He discusses at length the relationship that white South Africans have with their dogs, which is both fascinating and challenging. Helen Zille’s Rottweiler gets a mention here and her attempt to show that, despite biting one of her black security guards, it is not racist. The notion of impasse is one that I find more helpful than just focusing on white guilt and defensiveness.

So what are his solutions? For a start and perhaps most importantly, we need Empathy. Here he turns to a mainstay of all major religions, which is The Golden Rule. In its positive form it calls for treating others as we would hope to be treated ourselves, and in its negative form it advocates “not doing to others what one would not have done to oneself”. Both of these he says call for “imaginative acts of deep empathy”. While the Golden Rule has been criticised for being “lame”, Long points out that it is the only universal practice of empathy that we have. We need to walk in one another’s shoes and see the world through one another’s eyes. Just as psychologists and clients need to “keep showing up” to work through the client’s experience, as South Africans we need to keep showing up for the challenge of recalibrating our distorted relationships in line with mutual recognition and dignity.

Long does caution against imagining that through empathy alone we can create a ‘kumbaya society’. Our political unconscious “will continue to ripple through the nation despite our finest intentions”. But he does hold out hope that we can make progress if we stick to the basics that make therapeutic work possible, and keep showing up and “tolerating the frequently disabling anxiety that comes with living in this country.” There is a delicate balance between hope and despair and sometimes we need to embrace both. That way we can learn to live with – rather than being lived by – our trauma.

Nation on the Couch is published by NB Books (R280)

p.s. Karin Schimke did an excellent interview with Wahbie here

US Presidential Quiz and my Summer Reading

January 19, 2021

In recognition of Joe Biden’s swearing-in as the 46th POTUS tomorrow, I’ve put together a short US Presidential Quiz. The link is here and if you do take the quiz please pop a comment below to let me know how you did.

Reading-wise I have a few on the go …

These are a few of the titles from my Goodreads account. I’m loving the Barack Obama (although it’s 700 pages long) and the Michael Harding is gentle and uplifting when I’m feeling down (about the pandemic and other woes). The memoirs of a South African headmaster is suprisingly good. Not because I don’t admire him as a headmaster ( I do, very much) but because South Africans often have to self-publish to get their work out there. I see I have the Michael Harding twice (I’m sure he won’t mind) but no gripping novels at the moment.

I’m enjoying the Helen Lewis, which I’m listening to read by the author herself. It’s really good and she has put together fascinating stories of a number of admirable women that I’ve never heard of. One thing that stands out though is that she doesn’t have children so when I confidently offered up her argument about why it’s OK to leave your kids alone for a few minutes while you have something vital to do, Mrs C was horrified and quite swiftly roasted me for said comments.

This year I plan to return here with a few reviews … if the pandemic and parenting permits. Take care.

Mrs Couchtrip goes on a power trip (and other coping strategies)

July 16, 2020

So we’re back at school and I’ve had the opportunity to chat to some of our matrics (Grade 12s) about how they feel about the “new normal”. Everyone seems to have taken an emotional knock with the lockdown initially but most seem happy to be back at school – even with masks and changed circumstances. There’s no competitive sport, no cultural events, no matric dance (unless right at the end of the year), no valedictory (except online), no visiting friends at their houses etc. They’ve had a lot of losses but most are managing to focus on the positives (e.g. more time for studying) and focusing on what they can do.

Then in the car driving to work I had to laugh at the guy from Observatory who was complaining about the “warm Sauvignon Blanc” in his fridge which he didn’t know what to do with. Seriously? Yes, we know that the big storm on Monday night took out many power lines and some areas have been without power for days. Observatory man was understandably frustrated and angry at not getting any response from the City. But worrying about his white wine getting warm in Winter when the whole of Langa is without power in the freezing cold?

Perhaps I would feel differently if our own power hadn’t been restored after a very assertive intervention from Mrs Couchtrip. Mrs C and I had markedly differing reactions to the power cut. I took solace in it being like a camping trip with head-torches, boiling water on a gas stove and trying to eke out the power in my cellphone while warming myself around the fire sipping rooibos and apple witblits. (With the alcohol ban now back in place, a small glass of witblits every evening is surprisingly good.) Mrs Couchtrip, however, works at a government hospital and even though she’s not working most of the time in a Covid ward, she has to assume that many of the patients she comes into contact with could be Covid-positive. She also does a shift in admissions once every 3 weeks where all the patients are Covid-positive and being admitted to hospital because of shortness of breath or other serious conditions. Deciding that enough was enough, she managed to get through to the office of our very ineffectual ward councilor and told one of her assistants that she was a frontline worker who was unable to wash the virus off herself in the evening due to the power outage and threatened to go the media to highlight the inefficiency of our elected representatives. The assistant was a bit taken aback at this and said she’d phone the mayor’s office to see what could be done. Within an hour an electrician had apparently flipped the trip switch back on at our local sub-station and we had our power restored. Now it could well be more complicated than that, but I can’t help wondering how many of these outages could be more efficiently dealt with. Certainly it would be helpful to have a few people on the switchboard to assure residents that their concerns are being heard.

Otherwise here are five other coping strategies I’m using to cope with the new stress and anxiety of the current crisis:

  1. Preparing “coping with Covid” cards attached to stress balls for the matrics.
  2. Making a time capsule with photos, articles and other items to remember this crazy year in time to come.
  3. Listening to podcasts. Two of my favourites are “Pod Save America” and Rebecca Davis’s “Don’t Shoot the Messenger” but I also enjoy “The New Yorker Radio Hour” and I’m sampling some Anxiety podcasts.
  4. Listening to playlists on Spotify.
  5. Making Covid-mixes to listen to in the car. The list of possible songs is endless and it’s quite creative.

What are you doing to cope with the “new normal”?

Owning our own narcissism

October 8, 2018

1503683533549It’s the last day of holidays here and I’ve been thinking (again) about narcissism. Particularly about how important it is to own our own narcissism. Perhaps it’s prompted in part by watching the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and then reading and watching the reaction from liberals and conservatives alike.

Kavanaugh outraged at having his confirmation (and integrity) seriously threatened at the last minute and being accused of sexual assault and also drunken boorishness as an adolescent and young adult. Democrats outraged that someone whose integrity can be so seriously at question and who lied under oath (at least about the extent of his drinking) can be shoe-horned into the Supreme Court with a sham of an FBI investigation. Women and men outraged that getting a Conservative swing-vote on the US Supreme Court appears to be more important than taking allegations of sexual assault seriously. And so on.

I think it’s easy as Democratic supporters to get outraged and discouraged. And I’m not downplaying the importance of righteous anger. Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad looks like an excellent recent example of how to harness the power of anger.

But what calmed me down in part was realising that my own anger has as much to do with my own expectations, hopes and ideals for the US and the world as a whole. As someone wisely said, haters are gonna hate, and by extension conservatives are gonna carry on being conservatives, and the privileged will continue to protect their own privilege. Socially and politically, the answer seems to be to keep on taking responsibility for whatever influence we have. To keep on trying to change things for the better. And also, paradoxically perhaps, to be more patient of the slow pace of transformation.

People’s ideas and also political systems won’t change easily in our increasingly partisan information bubbles. But if we accept that lasting change takes time, perhaps we can all be more patient and tolerant with ourselves (as we sensitively challenge others).





Why psychotherapy?

August 16, 2018

This short video clip from the London-based School of Life is really excellent. I’ve never actually heard of the School of Life until I click on the link and am enlightened that they are a “global organisation dedicated to developing emotional intelligence”. I see that they have a whole complex (is that the collective noun for therapists? how about a whole interpretation) of therapists and teachers etc. Very professional-looking.

But that is all by the way. What psychotherapy videos do you like?



5 Stages of Cape Town’s water crisis

January 30, 2018

With Day Zero looming, Capetonians are getting increasingly anxious about the day when the taps run dry. I have mixed feelings about this. I’m very concerned but there also times when I feel reassured by the spirit of “we’re all in this together” and the resilience and innovation that Capetonians are showing.

Of course one thing that helps (apart from 1-minute showers and not using the washing machine very often) is humour. So here’s my take (with borrowings naturally) on the 5 stages of Cape Town’s water crisis.

5 stages of water shortage

On the innovation side, I’ve noticed that at our local spring, there are a few “water guards / water carriers” who are earning a brisk trade fetching people’s water for them.

I think we also need a playlist of Water Songs for inspiration. Any ideas?





Learning from The Donald

September 21, 2016

Fascinating article on the upcoming Clinton vs Trump debate at The Atlantic (


I was feeling quite anxious about the upcoming US presidential election but on reading this I feel a  bit more reassured. Trump does worry me, but if you look more closely at his body language and his statements there’s a pattern there – of domination, bullying etc. He is powerful because his message (both verbally and physically) is often very simple. James Fallows shows in this article how Hillary can win the debates (and by extension the election).

More broadly it also got me thinking about how I relate to bullies. How I am intimidated by them, how they get under my skin, how I get rattled and irritated. But I also started thinking about how I relate to dominance in general – whether it be a dominant male boss or a controlling parent! And when my partner is dominant and controlling, do I sometimes feel intimidated and annoyed as well? What about using our own dominance, and learning from the bullies (without being insensitive though)?

What I also found interesting was seeing the narrow band that dominant women have to operate in . It’s easy for Hillary to fall into the trap of being too shrill or harsh. She’s much better (and more effective) when she’s powerful AND relaxed. When she’s able to joke – and also deliver some put-down lines at the same time. Thanks James Fallows for a stimulating article. I’ll report back here after the debate on the 26th.

On reading and not writing

August 30, 2016

I’d sort of given up on blogging, since life was just too hectic and I wasn’t finding time to do anything much at all. But then I found that life without blogging was not necessarily more productive than life with blogging. So I’ve decided to start again. Even if it’s just a way of checking in and saying “this is what I’m reading and not writing”. So to make it sort of easier to write, I’m doing a Q&A.

Q: What are you reading at the moment?

winnicott A: I’m reading Winnicott by Adam Phillips. I’m enjoying it but it’s definitely harder to read this on Kindle. I lose the thread and it takes days to pick it up again. I’m interested in Winnicott because he’s more hopeful than Freud or Klein. He was also one of the first clinicians to stress the primary importance of the mother-infant relationship. He says there’s no such thing as a baby, only a baby in relationship with its primary caregiver.

He stresses the importance of playing, of creativity, of holding (physical and emotional), and of transitional objects. He’s interested in aggression, in real and false selves, and in many other things as well. I just wish that I had more time to read and think.

I’m also reading “Towards an Emancipatory Psychoanalysis: Brandchaft’s Intersubjective Vision”. brandchaftIt’s long, it’s good, it’s dense. I’m reading this for our self-psychology reading group, and so it’s one chapter a month. I’m also reading this electronically since the physical copy was very expensive. Even with the pound taking a slight dip with Brexit fears, books are still outrageously expensive.

I need to find a good novel to read. Maybe a re-read. The last novel I read was “The Little Paris Bookshop” which was good but not great. I always feel a little guilty saying that. Is it me? Is it the book? A combination of the two? Seeing a Goodreads rating of below four stars also tends to make me think that it’s not just me.


Q: What are you writing at the moment, if anything?

A: I tend to write a lot of concussion reports since it’s rugby season. To be honest, I really dislike them. I write the minutes of meetings. I write off and on in my journals (both electronic and book-form).

Q: What would you like to write?

A: I would like to write some sort of memoir, but I know that that’s not possible at the moment for a number of reasons. Firstly, I could never bring myself to write about my family knowing that they might read it. And secondly, I need to work on my writing fitness.

Just today I thought that I would like to write about my mother. It’s a difficult topic but it just feels right. For a long while I thought I should write about my dad. Since he is the more well-known of the two (famous even, one might say). Sons writing about their fathers seems more logical, right? But actually the more difficult story would be the more interesting one. But I can’t write about it here. Part of me thinks that I would have nothing to say. But I know that’s not true. I also have a whole drawer full of journals which I could trawl through. *sigh* It’s complicated.

And you? What are you reading at the moment? And writing?

Homophobia, Islamophobia and toxic masculinity

June 15, 2016

Orlando news collage

I’ve been so shocked by the tragic events in Orlando (the mass shooting at an LGBT club in Florida on Sat night) that I’ve been reading obsessively to try and get a handle on how to think about these events. I’ve watched the vigils on TV and I’ve read the updates and the opinion pieces and the analyses. How can such a terrible thing happen? What motivates someone to such hate and violence? What can society do to prevent such atrocities?

There are many themes which are emerging: the radicalisation of marginalised American Muslims; the dangerous mix of homophobia, mental instability and ‘toxic masculinity‘. The possibility that Mateen himself was struggling with a gay identity. The shocking lack of gun control in America. As more evidence emerges I’ll see what the psychologists have to say. For now I think the most powerful research comes from Sarah Lyons-Badilla, a social psychologist who has researched radicalisation in America.

If I was a journalist I’d want to interview the local Muslim authorities about what they teach their followers about tolerance and diversity. Is there tolerance or acceptance of different ways of life from those permitted in Islamic scriptures? I guess, as with Christianity, it really depends who you ask. I’m sure the media could do more to publicise the views of liberal Muslims (athough the cynic in me asks why they would do that if sensationalism is more profitable).




The mind of Donald Trump

May 25, 2016

The mind of Donald Trump

Interesting article. Dan McAdams, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, has crafted a detailed psychological portrait of Donald Trump, the reality-TV star and real-estate mogul who would be US President.

 He looks at Trump in terms of the Big Five of Personality Variables:

Extroversion: gregariousness, social dominance, enthusiasm, reward-seeking behavior

Neuroticism: anxiety, emotional instability, depressive tendencies, negative emotions

Conscientiousness: industriousness, discipline, rule abidance, organization

Agreeableness: warmth, care for others, altruism, compassion, modesty

Openness: curiosity, unconventionality, imagination, receptivity to new ideas


How does Trump stack up? High extraversion plus “off-the-chart low agreeableness”.

“People low in agreeableness are described as callous, rude, arrogant, and lacking in empathy.”

“Anger can fuel malice, but it can also motivate social dominance, stoking a desire to win the adoration of others. Combined with a considerable gift for humor (which may also be aggressive), anger lies at the heart of Trump’s charisma. And anger permeates his political rhetoric.”

A tendency to lie and distort.

Fascinating comparison with Andrew Jackson (who was the source of the donkey as the symbol of the Democratic Party). Similar populist appeal and driving personality. Brashness and anger.

Authoritarianism (associated with prejudice towards minorities or outgroups)


A textbook case of narcissism

Archetypal warrior

But what is the purpose of fighting to win? Make America Great Again, says the Trump slogan. But what does that mean?

Great conclusion: “It is always Donald Trump playing Donald Trump, fighting to win, but never knowing why.”