Suidoosterfees 2021: An interview with Wahbie Long

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On 29 April 2021 at 10:00, Marianne Thamm will be in conversation with Wahbie Long about his book, Nation on the couch: Inside South Africa's mind (Melinda Ferguson Books, 2021), as part of the Suidoosterfees-Jakes Gerwel conversations at Artscape, Cape Town.

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These talks are free.

Find the complete programme here.

Date: 29 April 10:00
Duration: 60min
Venue: ATKV Innovation Lounge
Free entrance

In Nation on the couch Wahbie Long looks at life in South Africa through a psycho-analytical perspective. So many of the social issues we are struggling with stem from socio-emotional impulses like shame, jealousy and hope. Come challenge yourself about your way of looking at yourself and your fellow-citizens. Perhaps you will discover why we are what we are, and why we do the things we do.

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Robert Kriger interviews Wahbie to find out more about his book, which Wahbie Long describes as a “letter to all South African citizens”. In so doing, he has evolved a context-specific “psychosocial language with its own particular vocabulary”. The challenge, then, is: how are we, as ordinary citizens, to respond to the author – no, to ourselves – without falling into either the “external” (social theory) or the “internal” (psychological) mode of examination and analysis only.

This remarkable “letter” is an attempt at “excavating” our nation’s deepest concerns about its state of being. Here, in preparation for the interview with Marianne Thamm, are the author’s responses to Robert Kriger’s questions:

From various snippets in the book (especially the preface and introduction), the ideas presented here had obviously been gestating for quite some time. However, what was the actual “fuse” which had you sit down and put pen to paper? For how long had you been “writing the book in your mind”, and which were the main issues “treated there”?

The decision to put pen to paper came to me at the 2019 conference of the South African Psychoanalytical Association (SAPA). I had just given the keynote when psychoanalyst Mark Solms commented about the potential value of psychologists writing about social issues in South Africa. I had effectively just done that in the keynote, so that was the exact moment I knew I “had” my book. But it was around 2015 that I had initially decided to write this book, one that would offer a more materialist / less idealist conception of psychology, and that would not make the mistake of psychologising the material suffering of South Africans. Much of my pre-2015 work had been purely theoretical and had explored the idea of a “relevant” South African psychology, but I didn’t really have a practical sense of how to convert theory into the practice of a “relevant” psychology. The 2019 SAPA conference changed all that.

It is evident that you have various audiences in mind with your thought-provoking monograph. Which are these, and for which reasons in each case?

The book’s audience is ordinary South Africans. I think academics will be interested, too, but the book is really a crossover text. I wanted to write something that wouldn’t just be pored over in the academy, but that could be, in a small way, my contribution to public discourse in South Africa. The organisation of the book speaks to the psychosocial concerns of three main constituencies: the poor and working classes, the rising black middle class, and white South Africans. Taken together, the book can be seen as a letter to the nation, and, as is the case with depth psychotherapy, the contents of that letter will probably make for unsettling reading for those three groups. After all, who wants to read about, respectively, the shame of poverty, the envy that is built into capitalist society, and the sense of impasse – or ambivalence – that attends the prospect of racial integration? But, as James Baldwin makes clear, nothing can be changed if it cannot at least be faced.

It can be adduced from your arguments that you do not have much faith in the decolonial discourse to undo the proverbial knots and the material, structural and systemic violence in the academy. You seem, too, to have your doubts about a TRC 2.0 as “cited”. Which are the most important factors presented regarding this hesitance, in terms of the decolonial discourse and “an Other TRC?

Academics come up with buzzwords all the time, and the latest one is “decoloniality”. Let’s also keep in mind that iconic African intellectuals previously tried this in the middle of the 20th century and didn’t get very far in reimagining the knowledge-making project. Make no mistake: decoloniality is a powerful signifier, though I argue that this power derives from the fact that it has no fixed meaning. In turn, since the decolonial turn is easily appropriated by all-comers, it also carries with it the danger of co-option. My other problem with the decolonial turn – specifically in South Africa – is that, being almost entirely concerned with universities, it is largely indifferent to the shocking state of our schools. Decoloniality, so far, has been for middle-class intellectuals, not ordinary citizens. And, finally, I’m just not convinced about a radical intellectual movement that is based primarily on identity (again, in the South African case).

Apart from the fact that psychology straddles (at least) two domains of science and has some claim to empiricism, how would you wish to convince, for instance, the Council on Higher Education (CHE), the Health Professions Council and PsySSA that you have a viable and feasible (and relevant) curricular and training alternative to that which is currently the status quo? Which would be the key features of this alternative?

I don’t want to claim that this book offers a training alternative for clinical psychology students, but I do think it can contribute to the training of the next generation of clinical psychologists. The profession remains steeped in medical model thinking – the book is a corrective to that, because it alerts us to the social-material dimension of inner suffering.

Do you believe that you have succeeded in establishing the conceptual framework for a transformative theory for the quagmire which is South Africa? If so, which are its core defining features? 

I think the book is novel in the sense that it introduces a psychosocial way of thinking about three of South Africa’s biggest problems, namely violence, inequality and racism. It is a style of thinking that does not only externalise (as social scientists tend to do) or only internalise (as psychologists typically do), but tries to do both at once. In this way, one can almost see a coming together of class politics (dominant in the 20th century) and identity politics (the preeminent politics of our time). And, of course, psychosocial thinking has important implications for what we do about these problems. Potential solutions become not only structural in character – they become also about the “small” things, such as recognition, respect and dignity.

Also read:

Suidoosterfees 2021: An interview with Adam Cruise

Suidoosterfees 2021: ’n onderhoud met Johan Fourie

Persverklaring: Aktuele sake onder bespreking by Suidoosterfees

Suidoosterfees 2021: ’n onderhoud met Coenie de Villiers

Suidoosterfees 2021: ’n onderhoud met Deon Meyer

Terwyl ander huiwer, laat waai Suidoosterfees met spogprogram

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