South Africa on the Couch

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

One Response to South Africa on the Couch

  1. smithereens says:

    This book and your commentary are fascinating to me. Obvs I don’t know anything about South Africa, but I am always ambivalent about psycho social analysis: I want to read everything about them, and then I resent any attempt to define the psychology of a collective ensemble so diverse as a nation. I’m glad that you enjoyed the book and agreed with the analysis.

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