Working through a past of shared pain

Written by webmeester on . Posted in Gemeentes

What my investigation revealed was the experience of the murderous “event” as if it was not real.

Traumatic experience plays a significant role in the development of patterns of violence . The link between a traumatic past and violence has been found in individuals who have been severely abused, as well as in groups that have suffered trauma collectively, such as systematic abuse and humiliation over an extended period.

In times of stress and when confronted with difficult and painful circumstances, severely abused individuals have a tendency to “cut off” the painful experience as a way of protecting the self from confronting the pain.

The tragic and gloomy aspect of these disruptive failures is that a person with a history of trauma may learn to “cut off” painful or stressful experiences by taking it out on another person. It may be repeated in contexts that may be far removed from, or have no relationship with, the original trauma. The opposite of “acting out” trauma would be “working through” trauma, which requires facing the traumatic past and dealing with it, a process at the heart of transformative practices .

Suggesting that people must “forget the past” creates great conceptual mischief.

By understanding the destructive effects of these complex legacies of the past, we can grasp the full complexity of the repetition of the past and its destructive forces in both the violence we witness on our television screens, and the violence we experience directly as its perpetrators or its victims in the home or work environment.

My appeal for recognition of the past is not to kindle old hatred. Rather, it is in order to transform that past (at least to transform its effects). Very few people, if any, in our society were not touched by the violent chaos of the past. There are narratives of trauma and heroism from all sides of our history. Some people were victims, some perpetrators, and others bystanders or beneficiaries of apartheid privilege.

And this is why dialogue about the past continues to be so critical. Facing each other in a spirit of shared pain about the past, confronting the past not in order to set it aside as a condition for moving on into the future, but rather to remember it in order to transcend it. These are precisely the ideas that were embodied in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The TRC framed its process in a way that has left us with great insights; however, we know that the work of reparative healing still has to happen. What is needed is, firstly, a process of transformative dialogue that goes beyond the binaries of victim/ perpetrator. Secondly, such dialogue should lead to true transformation of lives and transcend not only the traumatic past, but also break the cycles of its transgenerational repetition.

Let me elaborate by sharing an example of a project of transformation that is taking place at the 320-year old Solms Delta estate in Franschhoek.

The work that Mark and Karen Solms are doing is remarkable because it is carefully focused on this very issue of engaging with a destructive past in an effort to break cycles of intergenerational trauma.

When they became the owners of the farm, they soon realised that they were inheriting a group of seven families who had lived for many years on the farm – as the farmworkers say, ” sommer van altyd “, which means forever. This reference to “forever” has an uncanniness about it – read as a metaphor, it is a very graphic representation of lives lived in servitude “for ever.” The term evokes a long life of utter servitude, and it conveys a permanent state of brokenness under subjugation.

Mark described his first efforts to engage the families in dialogue about their future, together, on the farm: “I met with each family one at a time, one family at a time around the dining room table, discussing what ideas did they have, what’s their experience and how I could change things, what direction should we go in.”

Mark says his efforts were met with silence, a silence he describes as a “thickness … like walking through treacle”. He considers several reasons for the silence in response to his invitation to dialogue: did they think he was too important, so they dared not speak to him? Or did they think he could not be trusted?

One man called him to request a meeting the following day. The man said: “After we met you yesterday, we said a prayer to thank God for sending us an owner who we don’t have to be scared of.” For me, this captures, in one sentence, layers of painful memories carried over the generations from the years of slavery to post-colonial years and into the present.

The Museum Van de Caab at Solms Delta is an effort to unearth this past, with all its complicated legacies. The importance of representing the stories of the families on the farm validates them and helps them to reconstruct identities that were destroyed by the humiliation of subjugation. Oral history of the families and their ancestral routes revisits the past, honours it, and creates the space for the sharing of new narratives. During the development of the museum project, one of the farmers said: “You see, Professor, my people were here before yours.” What was lost and destroyed is reconstructed and given new dignity. The fact that the farmworkers are today co-owners of Solms Delta is testimony of this new and proud identity.

The Solms Delta project is blazing the trail for new corridors of social and ethical reflection.

Last week, Dr Mampele Ramphele, challenging the mining sector to bring about visible transformation, asked the question: “How do you sleep at night knowing that you have a poverty stricken community where you are making profits?”

This example from Solms Delta illustrates the essence of transformative dialogue, a principled commitment to a communal ethic based on values embodied within a framework of responsibility for the other. Such a framework requires a process of moral imagination, a certain intentional openness to the possibility of reaching out beyond the self and towards the other.


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