Apartheid: Britain's bastard child
Hélène Opperman Lewis
In her 512-page book, Apartheid: Britain’s bastard child, psychologist Hélène Opperman Lewis looks at the vital role humiliation of the Afrikaner by the British played in creating apartheid. Herman Lategan asked her some questions.
It took you 15 years to write this book. Let’s be mischievous and to the point: In fifteen words, what is this book about?
It’s an attempt to understand (not justify) from a psychohistorical perspective why Afrikaners created apartheid in 1948.
Shamed people shame other people. Is that correct? Why is this specific topic on shaming and humiliation so important to you?
It’s important because it proposes to explain the cycles of violence repeated in history, and why we never learn from history. Let me briefly explain:
A core question humans ask themselves is: Who am I ... and where do I belong? Underlying these questions regarding one’s identity is the master emotion – shame. Shame forms the entrance into self.
Let’s define the relationship between shame and humiliation.
Feeling ashamed leaves an alienating and vacuous feeling that one is a bad person, is damaged and will never be whole or healed again. It threatens the core sense of self and identity.
Humiliation is the most powerful (most damaging), and often a longer-lasting, form of shame.
Public humiliation is the worst. From this position, it fosters a desire for vengeance, unless the injustice is properly addressed. The revenge is an attempt to be whole again, to reclaim esteem and restore dignity.
That said, there is, however, a crucial need for moderate shaming in societies, because moderate shame is the glue that holds societies and relationships together, and it serves as a moral gyroscope in our lives.
Yet, the two extreme poles of shaming – excessive shaming and deficient shaming – are counterproductive and destructive. They both lead to the opposite result of moderate shaming: societal breakdown and violence.
Under colonialism and apartheid, there was excessive shaming, while currently there is a shame deficiency. Excessive shame is characterised by extreme criticism of self and others, increased feelings of shame, dogmatism and perfectionism, conformity, prejudice and discrimination, while shame deficiency discourages mastery, is self-centred and is indifferent to the needs of others.
Cycles of violence (avenging/revenge) tend to follow when groups/nations have been humiliated, creating new cycles of trauma and humiliation, which then need to be avenged again. Revenge is the attempt, although futile, to restore lost dignity and honour to large groups. There are ample examples of that in history. This perspective explains the age-old truth that we don’t learn from history.
Take us through the pages of this tome. In the introduction, you write that the humiliation Afrikaners experienced started with the arrival of the British in 1795. Then you ask what compelled the Afrikaners, “a people traumatised by British barbarism” to inflict the legalised racism of apartheid on their black countrymen. What, indeed, and how do narcissistic rage and self-fragmentation play into this?
South Africa’s history is a prime example of repeated cycles of humiliation and trauma, as explained above. Afrikaners, the subject of this book, had continuously been humiliated and traumatised by the British since 1795. This was compounded by the trauma of the Great Trek, an attempt to get away from the British, eventually followed by the Anglo-Boer War, with the unprecedented trauma of thousands of dead children, and the horrific destruction of their livelihood in the two republics, leaving fragmented and broken families thrown into extreme poverty, complete with a daily dose of English scorn – all for the glory of Her Majesty and the riches of the Witwatersrand.
The first attempt to restore their collective self and build esteem was with the 1938 Eeufees. Still suffering from extreme levels of post-traumatic stress disorder and unresolved grief, they nevertheless chose what psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan calls a chosen glory – the Voortrekkers, whom they held in high esteem as examples of courage, independence and pride. (According to Volkan, large groups, after severe trauma and humiliation, tend to revisit their history and exercise either a chosen glory or a chosen trauma to consolidate their identity.)
In the case of a chosen glory, it is someone or a historical incident that they could be proud of, and whose example and values they could/should follow. It’s an unconscious attempt to heal their fragmented collective self and affirm who they are (identity). According to Volkan, depending on the choice, the option of chosen glory builds esteem, while chosen trauma leads to entitlement ideology – you owe me. The Afrikaners never looked at the English to pull them out of their misery. For them, it was eendrag maak mag (strength in unity) and red ’n volk (save a nation). With their being destitute, this, of course, encouraged (or took, if you wish) a certain hard-line determination and mindset to achieve. The positive side of it is admirable, the downside a disaster and regrettable.
One year later, in 1939, they were confronted with South Africa being expected to fight on the side of Britain. Fury set it. They had not forgotten the 1914 rebellion, and the painful memory of Jopie Fourie was still vivid. Still suffering from severe PTSD, the generation that had survived the war and had witnessed the atrocities as young children, and who were now adults – as well as their still-grieving and traumatised parents (no parent ever overcomes the death of a child, worse if it is due to an injustice), and the first generation born from these heartbroken and bitter parents, suffering from transgenerational trauma themselves – rebelled.
They raged against the English and their big capital, and the mere thought of fighting on the ruthless enemy’s side was just too much even to contemplate. The developing split among Afrikaners finally exploded in unremitting rage – feelings abounded, with the dominees right in front. Gone were the days of the cool-headed lawyer leaders. The result: 1948 – and apartheid followed. It’s all too human …
In hindsight, creating the shameful system of apartheid in 1948 was a fatal attempt to rise above their humiliation and fear of survival in a country where they were far outnumbered by black people, their fellow citizens.
Do you think English-speaking South Africans are still in denial about their role in apartheid? Afrikaners were perhaps conveniently singled out as scapegoats. What is the psychological driving force behind this? Is it their Übermensch mentality and their class-conscious obsession, or just vulgar hypocrisy?
Before answering, let’s clarify the thorny issue of racism first. And let’s be clear – white racism arrived with the arrival of all Europeans in southern Africa. It’s not something that suddenly surfaced in 1948! And it certainly is not something peculiar to southern Africa only!
There are different shades to racism. Firstly, for the British and white English, their racism is mostly covert, rooted in the superior man’s cloak of social Darwinism. It spread its myth of racial superiority to different races – including other white races – cultures, social strata, etc.
The covertness of this prejudice makes it convenient and easy for the perpetrator to deny any prejudice. According to psychohistorian and psychoanalyst Joel Kovel in his book, A psychohistory of white racism, covert racism is more difficult to confront, and, like all unspoken “secrets”, more insidious, and therefore more harmful and damaging in the long run. It renders its victims defenceless and silences them with denial, consciously and unconsciously – a bit like not acknowledging the king has no clothes on.
The second form of racism is overt racism. Afrikaners’ overt racism (apartheid) – the “Whites/Blacks Only” entry signs – were a glaring example of overt racism. It was out there for everyone to see, and could not be denied like covert racism can be. Ironically, it was precisely this overtness of Afrikaner racism that made the struggle possible.
The latter is also the reason why the white English South Africans, in general, deny they are racist, because they think there is only one type of racism – overt. The early Afrikaners’ racism was, however, based on distinguishing between believers and non-believers. The believers, of course, were the chosen ones, and the rest, the unbelievers and sinners, were to be avoided. With Afrikaners being exposed to British prejudice (covert racism) and British humiliation (from 1795), their overt racism became infused with a good dose of racial superiority, too.
What is less well known is that apartheid was introduced formally in South Africa by the British with Cecil John Rhodes at the helm in 1894, with the Glen Grey Act. The Afrikaners tightened the screws after 1948.
Most white English-speaking South Africans conveniently deny their share, their gain and their contribution, directly or indirectly, to apartheid. They don’t understand the difference between covert and overt racism.
Most probably also don’t really even know about the atrocities that have been committed by their forebears in this country. My impression is that “apartheid = Afrikaner” in white English-speaking South African minds. They don’t even think about it twice. You even hear the presumed innocence and the blame and prejudice against Afrikaners from their children’s mouths. Why else is it that every so often, when white people are discussed in the media, it states specifically white English-speaking South Africans and Afrikaners?
Why not just white South Africans? Most Afrikaners speak English, and, anyway, many white South Africans are not English, either. Why the distinction? This is nothing but maintaining an old and convenient prejudice – denying any responsibility. That’s why they were shocked (and still are) about the black fury over the Rhodes statue, and why some don’t understand why listing the “positive contributions” of colonialism infuriates black people. In the world of the humiliated, that is totally irrelevant, psychologically.
You write about psychohistory and how you ended up in New York with the renowned psychohistorian Lloyd deMause. For the sake of clarity, please explain the concept of psychohistory and tell us how you met up with him? (Incidentally, the Afrikaans poet and New York-based psychiatrist Dr Casper Schmidt was also a member of that movement.)
Psychohistory (PH) is based in psychodynamic psychology (psychoanalytical), which held at its core that present reality, at all times, is influenced by and interacts with the social and personal past of a person’s unconscious.
It is true for individuals and large groups. Psychohistorian Jacques Szaluta explains that, for the psychohistorian, between the “what” and the “why” of history, the “why” of history always comes back to a “why” psychologically. Following this statement, he states: “Seen from this optical angle, history is what men have done; to know why men have done what they have, one must look for deeper motives, not more or less.”
While doing research during my first year for the DPhil in 2001, I came upon the field of psychohistory. Fascinated by it, I took a chance and wrote to Lloyd deMause, then Director of the Psychohistory Association in New York. I told him who I was – an Afrikaner researching why my people created apartheid in 1948. Of course, I didn’t expect to get a response.
But I was wrong. Early the next day, he emailed me back, with an invite to attend the next annual PH convention in New York. I attended, and a whole new world opened up for me. From this followed a course in psychogenics, and meeting with the international Dignity and Humiliation Studies (DHS) in New York and Oslo. DHS focuses particularly on the impact of humiliation historically on nations, showing how humiliation is one of the main reasons for repeated cycles of violence in and between nations/groups.
Will you expand on neuroscience and how trauma changes our brains?
The literature in relevant studies in neuroscience now unquestionably indicates there tends to be permanent changes in the brain after trauma, particularly severe trauma in which the person is unable to escape the situation.
This explains many of the difficulties survivors with PTSD have after severe trauma. The indication is that, in severe PTSD, the body’s stress hormones do not return to the baseline once the danger has passed. The secretion of stress hormones continues; consequently, the fight-flight-freeze signals continue as if the threat is still present.
This expresses as agitation and panic, and, in the long term, wreaks havoc with the individual’s health. It also affects the individual’s relationships, because traumatised brains are constantly on high alert. They tend to overreact to certain signs or a sudden loud noise. Being traumatised means continuing to organise your life as if the trauma is still going on, unchanged and immutable – as if every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past. As trauma expert and psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk notes, “After trauma, the world is experienced with a different nervous system.”
Scans clearly show how images of past trauma activate the right hemisphere of the brain and deactivate the left. This is what happens during flashbacks, too. The sequential and analytical functions of the left brain seem to be dormant, while the visual, emotional, spatial and intuitive functions of the right seem to be active. It thus influences the way the experience is “remembered”. Traumatised people simultaneously remember too little and too much. It therefore makes it enormously difficult to organise one’s traumatic experiences into a coherent account afterwards.
Neuro-imaging also shows that humiliation registers in the brain in the same area as physical pain. The neuro-psychological pathway from humiliation to violence, also called the cycle of violence and revenge, is as follows:
Humiliation leads to decreased self-awareness, which leads to decreased self-regulation, which leads to increased self-defeating behaviour and eventually to violence. This is an attempt to restore dignity.
These psychic wounds are collectively passed on to future generations in inter- or transgenerational trauma, to avenge their forebears’ humiliation and pain.
The essence of trauma, says Van der Kolk, is that it is overwhelming, unbelievable and unbearable – even long after the event.
Can you provide some examples of how certain genocides have damaged the psyches of entire nations?
In the holocaust, the Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis, but the German people themselves were also hugely traumatised, and are only now able to look at the huge transgenerational impact with which the war trauma left them.
What is less often mentioned is the wounded Russian psyche due to the violent communist regime under Lenin and Stalin, in which millions of Russians died. One only needs to read Secondhand time – the last of the Soviets by Nobel prize winner Svetlana Alexievich to realise the enormous psychic wound that nation carries.
In China, the horror of the Cultural Revolution under Mao left millions dead. It is a past about which few dare speak in modern China.
Then there are the Balkan Wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia, and Rwanda, the Aboriginal people of North America and Australia, the Armenian and Cambodian genocides, ethnic and religious conflicts in Chile, Argentina, Nigeria and Iran. The list goes on.
You have a chapter on the British and their history of humiliating others, such as the great famine in Ireland, eugenics in Australia and so forth. Tell us more ... and there is also a question: Have they learned anything from this?
The consequences of the deeds of the British Empire, upon whom the sun never sets, still reverberate far and wide on the planet. Though the British have a lot to answer for, they seem, in general, to be more focused, historically, on what they consider “progressive contributions” made by themselves to the “savages” – all while, historically, they have enriched themselves through the ”savages’” resources. The latter are expected to be grateful?
The current influx of refugees from failed states in North Africa to Europe and Britain (and the Brexit issue) is an irony of sorts, considering their history under British and French colonialism. A good read regarding this is historian Kwasi Kwarteng’s Ghosts of empire: Britain’s legacies in the modern world. An example is the current genocide in South Sudan that probably – or at least partially – has its roots in Britain’s past involvement in border issues between Nigeria and Sudan. Other examples are Egypt and Israel, Iran and Iraq – all after WWII – and, of course, the South African and Zimbabwean legacy.
Another atrocity was the humiliation of China in the opium wars. The horror of the great famine in India is another story. Particularly significant, though, is the extreme humiliation Britain and France dumped onto Germany at the peace treaty in Versailles after WWI, which is generally recognised as the main cause for the Second World War.
Have they learned anything from it? There seem to be some voices going up in Britain, demanding the British do introspection – have a good look at their past, particularly their mistakes. Who knows how serious that is, or has been taken?
What did John Barrow and Lady Anne Barnard have to say about the local Dutch?
John Barrow published Barrow’s travels, which was hugely popular, reprinted often and standard reading on the ships set for southern Africa. Here are a few of Barrow’s remarks referring to the early Afrikaners from 1795 onwards:
They were lazy, “unwilling to work and unable to think” and stupid, with “no mental resources whatsoever”. They were cowardly, devious and cruel to animals. “They are active only in mischief; and crimes against morality meet with applause if in the end successful. A man who in his dealings can cheat his neighbour is considered a slim mensch, a clever fellow; even stealing is not regarded as criminal, nor does it materially affect the character of a thief.” Et cetera. Page after page …
That this probably is true of some or a few of the early Afrikaners may be so. However, the crude generalisation of all was deeply humiliating and hurtful. The American historian Frederick Hale refers to Barrow as “amongst the first British who laid the foundation of this tradition of ethnic debasement … and launched the standard rhetorical tradition of depicting the Afrikaners as violent, abusive racists”.
Barrow’s close pal was Lady Anne Barnard, a popular socialite in the Cape. In 1799, she describes laying on a “little parade” to impress the locals – the sort of thing, she said, that would suit the Dutch “and [procure] respect from their stupid heads”.
There are so many interesting chapters in this book, too many to mention. Thus, this is a bit of a Sophie’s choice: Which ones were your favourite ones to write, and why?
I don’t think there is a favourite – it was one big, mind-blowing discovery, which led to many emotions in processing it. But there were lighter moments. Like the bizarreness of the Jameson Raid gave me much joy.
To learn how these arrogant jingo schemers made fools of themselves was deeply satisfying. The best bits were the drunken soldiers cutting the wrong wires, and Cecil Rhodes being flustered after getting the news of Jameson’s fatal departure, walking up and down roughing his hair, saying repeatedly to himself, “Now, just be cool.” And when Jameson hit the ground (his soldiers assuming he’d been shot) when he saw his men raising the “white flag” – a desperate attempt using a white apron borrowed from a black woman passing by.
And then, in the conclusion, Dr Van Rhijn’s speech in London, so masterfully told by Naas Steenkamp in his book Op ’n gallop na Buckingham Palace. It just confirmed everything I tried to say in the book.
How do you think Afrikaners are going to heal from their past, and, more importantly, learn from their own past mistakes?
Quite frankly – and I don’t want to be presumptuous – but I suspect the one group in South Africa who most reflects on and agonises about its past, is the Afrikaners. Because there is a perception that Afrikaners are solely responsible for apartheid, they carry the greatest portion of the burden of guilt. Of course, new fears of survival, not least caused by the terrible crime at all levels, bring all kinds of defences to the fore.
What we need to deal with and learn from is why it all happened, and not get stuck in “I told you so” refrains. It’s my hope that this book will be an important contribution in that sense. We owe it to the children and future generations to understand, or they will be stuck in shame and guilt.
Part of doing that is understanding why black people are now so furious, and why so much irrationality prevails – which, to a large extent, though not solely, is due to the humiliation we have subjected them to. We need to take responsibility and own up. And for that, we need to apologise and hold their hands where we can. That will enable our healing, too.
If South Africa were a patient at your practice, what would the diagnosis be? And what would you suggest as the way forward?
This being a challenging and interesting question, I consulted with a few colleagues across the board. Here is a summary of the responses:
- Trauma with direct neurobiological and epigenetic influences that should be handled with great care, and awareness of cultural differences and sensitivities that would encompass different worldviews.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated.
- Considering the democratic age of South Africa, in terms of all the violent actions and behaviour in terms of service delivery, there is a strong element of oppositional defiant behaviour present, "co-morbid anxiety disorder" (adolescent onset type) with the possibility of unspecified disruptive impulse control, and conduct disorder.
- If we consider South Africa in total, strong tendencies of trauma and stressor-related disorders are present in which PTSD, acute stress disorder and adjustment disorders present on this spectrum, with mixed disturbance of emotions and conduct.
- Introduce the traumatic effect and consequences of historic trauma into Life Orientation classes in high school.
- Hold pain and reconciliation meetings all over South Africa with professional support.
- It will be productive only if one can enter into authentic conversations, different to how the TRC committees handled things. Conversations of mutual sharing may create hope for discovering and developing communal, shared narratives. Such conversations could bring hope for the discovery and development of our shared humanity. It will, however, only be possible if the mirroring can be done with honest reflection and sharing.
Trauma seems to define the character of South African life – historical trauma, such as that caused by the Mfecane, colonialism, apartheid and the ANC’s people’s war during the struggle; and present traumas, such as murder, rape and inequality. The diversity and inequality of South African life has led to different groups of people reacting to this trauma differently (using different types of defences, to put it psycho-dynamically).
Outcome (Prognosis): Uncertain
And how do you think black South Africans (including the other races, excluding whites) are going to react in years to come (psychologically) to their past humiliation?
The current black South Africans are already in full enactment against the humiliation bestowed on them during British colonialism and apartheid. The golden moment of 1994 is a long-gone memory. We see the full enactment of the younger generations particularly in the student upheavals and the EFF.
We hear it in the chosen-trauma speeches by leaders. The constant reminders of Soweto ’76, Sharpeville, the death of Steve Biko and other incidents; reparation claims and entitlement ideology; take back the land; purification efforts in slogans such as “Away with Western science, white men’s statues, Western ideas”; an insistence on reclaiming the African identity; to be authentic. All this is part of black enactment, in an attempt to heal and repair their collective fragmented self, to affirm who they are – an attempt to regain dignity.
The current political instability and exploitation of opportunities by the political elite –causing a worsening socio-economic situation, leading to the devastating high youth unemployment against a history of deprivation, and desperate families who had high hopes now forsaken by most – makes everything worse. Children not born yet will one day look back … and be ashamed of this period of shameless greed and self-centeredness of those in charge.
Is there a way out? A collective path to individuation? To healing such pain and sorrow? And what is that path?
Psychohistory at least brings us closer to explaining and understanding the psychological “why”. Why large groups instinctively and unconsciously commit atrocities of one or another kind, keeping the wheel of human misery turning. Revenge, leading to new violence – an attempt to restore esteem and lost honour – in the process creating new cycles of violence.
One can only attempt a new and deeper understanding – to learn to grieve over our losses without creating new suffering. The problem, however, is that humans “exist” at different levels of affluence or despair, different levels of consciousness. Until everyone can have a basic sense of safety – psychologically, environmentally and economically – we won’t move forward collectively.
Why could someone such as Nelson Mandela – who grew up as he did under the wide skies and green hills of the Eastern Cape, contained in the safety of his extended family – become such a universal token of hope and moral presence? Of course, it is possible!
How did you go about writing this book amid running a practice as a psychologist?
I scaled down to a part-time practice, lived on my own in beautiful and peaceful Barrydale – and had all the time to work around the clock on the most fascinating, excruciating topic ever!
A silly question, nevertheless important. Why should people buy this book?
People are ready to appreciate the contribution psychology makes in understanding human behaviour. Psychohistory is, in a way, psychology applied to our histories. Afrikaners have a long history of being humiliated and traumatised. It lurks in our DNA. Worse, each generation passes it on.
With the English, we humiliated blacks by excluding them and depriving them of fair opportunities to improve their lives – apartheid. We did to them what was done to us. In turn, they repeat the same. When will it stop? Understanding why is maybe a start …
Karel Schoeman wrote in 1973, “What matters more than your human dignity? I believe you don’t only have the right to insist on the acknowledgement of your humanity and dignity, but actually have a duty to undertake the acknowledgement of it – with all justifiable means available to you.”
The most outstanding comment I have received from people who have read the book is “Everyone in South Africa should read the book.” A movement implementing some of the understanding of humiliation has already begun. It’s called ERD – empathy, respect, dignity. It can be reached on the ERD Facebook page. A website will follow soon.
Is there anything you would like to add?
A black woman once remarked on a TV discussion, “We black people are having all these discussions … when are you white people going to have your discussions? Trying to understand why you did what you did?”
Pondering her words, I thought to myself, she hit the nail on the head.
So, here we are!
Finally, where can readers order copies of the book, and how much does it cost?
The book is available in most bookshops (often less visible, because it seems some bookshops are scared of the word “apartheid”!) and on Amazon, and can be ordered by going to the book’s website, www.bbctransgenerational.com.
The price varies from about R300 to R350.
"I came to this book interested in inter-/transgenerational trauma, as a South African, and read it as a case study of the Afrikaner as a particular case of such trauma. I left unconvinced, which is a pity."