How Do Societies Harmed by Mass Violence Begin to Heal?

Marjory Jobson (Director, Khulumani Victims Support Group) and Nomfundo Walaza (Director, Desmond Tutu Peace Center) at Speaking Wounds: Voices of the Marikana Widows through Art and Narrative, 2015. Photo courtesy of the University of the Free State.

Scholars at South Africa's University of the Free State probe the question.

It is a question for the ages: how do societies characterized by histories of mass violence, human rights violations, and even genocide begin to define trauma, depict trauma, and heal trauma?

Those very questions are being tackled by scholars and artists in South Africa, a country still bearing the scars of apartheid.  Now, funds from a recent grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation are being used for an ambitious, boundary-breaking project exploring how trauma is transmitted from generation to generation and how methods such as restorative justice can break the cycle and foster healing. 

The five-year grant from the Mellon Foundation to the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein is for the project titled Trauma, Memory and Representations of the Past: Transforming Scholarship in the Humanities and the Arts, which is led by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, an internationally known trauma expert now based at Stellenbosch University. The project will produce scholarly publications, international symposia, a film, plays and visual art exhibitions.  A major project goal is to produce a cadre of Black scholars in the broadest sense by increasing the number of Black graduate students at Masters’ and PhD levels, and to provide prospective post-doctoral fellows with high quality research training and support.

pumla_gobodo-madikizela.pngPumla Gobodo-Madikizela. Photo courtesy of the University of the Free State.

“The project aims to explore new intellectual frontiers within the buzzing hub of scholarly debates on trauma and its transmission,” said Gobodo-Madikizela. Public talks began last year in a series titled Trauma, Memory and Representations of the Past with speakers exploring themes such "Sites of Memory, Sites of Conscience" (by former Judge Albie Sachs), "Disrupting the Silence: The Past and Transnational Memory" (by musician Philip Miller), “Speaking Wounds: Voices of the Marikana Widows through Art and Narrative,” and "The Intergenerational Dialogue on Trauma and Healing" (a conversation between Judge Albie Sachs and Candice Mama, the daughter of an anti-apartheid activist who was murdered by the apartheid police).  

Professor Gobodo-Madikizela served on her country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Her book A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness, about her interviews with a major apartheid-era assassin, was adapted into a play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this spring.  The play drew critical acclaim and packed in post-performance audiences for discussions. 

“Audiences were fascinated by the question of how you find forgiveness,” said Karen Brooks Hopkins, the former president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and current Senior Fellow in Residence at the Mellon Foundation.

That reaction reflects the international attention to art and scholarship on trauma, the work connected to the Holocaust being a prime example.  The fruit of the Mellon-funded trauma project could put South Africa in the center of global discussions about trauma—whether it affects gang-banging African American youths on the South Side of Chicago or broken Aborigine families in Australia, participants said. 

The bigger idea is that societies with a history of oppression and violence leave residues of pain when the formerly oppressed and the former oppressors try to forge a new connection as citizens.  Some of that anguish is evident in reparations debates, as well as scholarly attention to manifestations such as in-group violence.

“We have some of the highest rates of trauma—murder, sexual violence—in the world,” Kopano Ratele, a psychologist and professor at the University of South Africa and the South African Medical Research Council who is a partner in the project, said of his country.  The trauma from apartheid bleeds into contemporary forms of violence, he said, adding, “We still hold that in our bodies, our relationships.”  Some trauma, he said, is internalized as depression, loss of dignity, and self-worth. 

“My interest is in men and masculinity,” he said. “Because of memories of being dehumanized, turned into bodies, how do men in this position reconstitute themselves? Men who have been humiliated become violent themselves – black men become violent to black women. How do we tell stories to help ourselves and other people get back to their humanity in authentic ways?”

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), a non-profit organization based in Cape Town, is a major partner in the project.  Other partners include an interdisciplinary group of scholars drawn from the University of the Western Cape, Stellenbosch University, the University of Cape Town, and the University of South Africa. Partners in the arts include Lara Foot, a multi-award winning playwright, CEO and Director of the Baxter Theatre  in Cape Town; Angela de Jesus, curator at the Stegmann Art Gallery at the University of the Free State; and Sue Williamson, an independent visual artist with a Cape Town office.

Williamson, whose work has been exhibited at such major venues as the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., is exploring the long-term effects of the truth and reconciliation commission with a film that will feature interviews with 10 to 12 victims of and perpetrators of violence. 

A symposium titled Transnational Witnessing of the Past: History, Memory and Film will examine a small selection of films on trauma produced in countries like Chile, Argentina, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Australia.  The symposium will bring together filmmakers, an interdisciplinary group of scholars, and young researchers to draw attention to the representation of historical trauma and the visual culture of bearing witness to crimes against humanity in a way that has created witnessing publics nationally and transnationally. 

The partners are currently busy planning the research activities for 2016, key among which will be the collection of oral narratives for the research on historical trauma and its intergenerational repercussions.  Graduate students will be involved in this process as part of their research for Masters and doctoral level studies.  IJR has helped with the recruitment of interviewers who will collect data mainly from three areas in the Western Cape, namely the Black townships of Worcester, Bonteheuwel and Langa.  “IJR has a long-term presence in these areas, and we have established meaningful relationships with the communities in preparation for our research,” Gobodo-Madikizela said.  In Worcester, for example, what began as exploratory conversations about key violent events and their impact on the younger generation led to an important connection of the project with a story that represents the interruption, rather than the transmission, of historical trauma through a story of forgiveness, which has now been captured into a film titled Black Christmas, named after a bombing of a group of Black shoppers by a White right wing organization on Christmas eve in 1996 (watch trailer of the film on this story below).  “We are now gearing up for the training of the interviewers in February, and we hope to start collection of oral narratives by mid-March.”


Black Christmas

Dozens of black shoppers in the town of Worcester, South Africa, were injured and six killed on Christmas Eve, 1996, when white supremacists detonated bombs at a shopping center.  The “Worcester Bombing” came to be known as “Black Christmas.” 

Black Christmas is also the title of a collection of filmed interviews conducted by researchers as part of the Trauma, Memory and Representations of the Past: Transforming Scholarship in the Humanities and the Arts project. The researchers, who hold post-graduate degrees in the humanities or social sciences, recorded interviews with older survivors and people who are now in their twenties, in an effort to generate enhanced understanding of how the trauma of those who experience gross human rights violations and genocide plays out in subsequent generations and how and where individual and collective traumatic memories intersect. Grappling with this important question may shed light on the extent to which trauma-affected sections of the population are able to successfully engage in cross-group reconciliation efforts. 

Through multi-disciplinary collaboration with partners from various academic institutions, civil society organizations as well as a diverse selection of renowned South African artists, one goal of the project is to contribute new insights into the way South Africa understands and engages with the impact of the past on the present.

The “Black Christmas” story captures the unique possibilities that were opened up by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “By presenting the story in film, we hope to disrupt the canonical knowledge that currently exists about transgenerational trauma, and to explore new terrains of investigation in the field,” said Gobodo-Madikizela. “South Africa is a country of contradictions. While there are signs of destructive repercussions of the trauma of the apartheid years among the younger generation, there are also stories of forgiveness in response to this tragic historical past.”

This article has been updated to reflect Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s new role as Stellenbosch University's research chair in Transformation and Social Change.