I can’t speak on behalf of others, so I will. But in my defence, I simply can’t imagine that many South Africans of all colours are not sick and tired, if not downright angry, at the extent to which misbehaviour and crimes in our society are rationalised on the basis of the past. If there is one phrase that has become hackneyed and an excuse for everything from rape and murder to corruption and misguided policies it is “the legacy of the past.”
The most recent is Cosatu Chief Zwelinzima Vavi’s bit of inspired psychology: “Colonialism, apartheid and international mining houses created serial killers and rapists”. A day or so earlier President Jacob Zuma told the E-news channel that “apartheid created a culture of violence”.
The simple fact is that the more you rationalise and find extenuating circumstances for any act, the closer you get to condoning it. Few can doubt that at the very least, you encourage it as a mantle of expediency for those so bent. Blaming others is always the simplest way of defending one’s own shortcomings. It is also the most obvious and disingenuous.
Just as bizarre is encouraging the populist rhetoric of an “ongoing revolution” and the need for continued radicalism. Even the lesser enlightened would argue that democracy with its supporting institutions such as the constitution, courts, freedom of association and expression, and instruments of accountability makes such behaviour redundant. Indeed radicalism and revolution have seldom been friends of democracy, but rather its antithesis. Soon the victors become the vanquished.
I have never quite understood the debate in psychology around “nature or nurture”. Both seem to be little more than a cop out for personal accountability.
One of those who were the most disadvantaged by the previous regime was Nelson Mandela. When he came out of his 27 years in prison he could have, according to the nurture theory, preached violence and retribution. He did not. Instead he became an icon for reconciliation and a statesman of international stature.
When Viktor Frankl came out of years of incarceration in a Nazi concentration camp, he may have been forgiven if he had murdered the first Aryan German he saw. He did not. Instead he wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning”, one of the most profound and inspiring works in psychology ever written and one still widely read today by those in search of a higher human self. If Mandela and Frankl teach us nothing else, it is that you need never revert to the worst in you because of debilitating circumstances such as deprivation, poverty or anger.
If deprivation triggers depravation then those reared in wars and depression would surely be mostly depraved. Certainly most of the holocaust survivors would be suspect.
There are literally thousands of people who contradict the nurture argument. They may not have reached the pinnacles of success and iconic stature of Mandela and Frankl, but they have survived. They have struggled and grown to become loved, admired and respected by those who know them – often not in spite of severe deprivation but because of it!
Most of us know such people. They are not saints. They are not even exceptions. They are simple ordinary folk who listen to a deeper voice, respond to the good in themselves and follow a caring compass that exists instinctively in all of us. They are less controlled by and more in control of their circumstance. I often used to argue to my work groups that you are just as, if not more likely to find acts of compassion and generosity in the streets of the Diepsloot squatter camp than you will in the Sandton suburbs.
Nature or nurture?
My own background questions both. I have related snippets of my upbringing before and for some interesting reading I suggest accessing my brother, Berend’s blog here. We were six siblings. Four were born during the war years in a shack not much better than the average squatter camp home. From what most would have described as severely dysfunctional circumstances, came the suicide of the eldest brother in his late teens, and a mother and an elder sister constantly seeking refuge in institutions for nervous breakdowns. But those circumstances also spawned a brother who founded the Anti-apartheid movement in Holland, another who became an award winning journalist and broadcaster as well as founding a successful management consultancy, a third who became a leadership consultant and a sister who was one of the first in South Africa to adopt abandoned babies across the colour line and is running a well established home for children. Three have authored published books. None turned to common crime.
Neither genes nor circumstance can explain the disparity in accomplishments or varied careers. There are many families in South Africa with similar experiences from a variety of backgrounds.
There are also many “strugglers” of the past who share some of the concerns about leadership behaviour in South Africa. They include Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Trade Union leader Jay Naidoo. There are many more. Perhaps these words by activist Berend Schuitema says it best: “I feel an alienation rising up in me that has more to do with nostalgia for a lost country I knew, a dashed frustration about what I thought it would become.”
The words echo in the resting places of fallen heroes both sung and unsung, and resonate in the hearts of thousands of a generation of South African adults. They came from both sides of a structured apartness – villains once heroes, heroes once villains. They were brought together in lingering suspicion and tentative hope through a short and yet so long walk to freedom by a real and symbolic hero. Those steps inspired and united most of the citizens of a polecat country – from the warriors on both sides of the gulf to a vast middle that either voted or waited.
All shared a dream of what they thought the country could become.
A very important part of current leadership accountability is the unrealistic expectations that have been created and still form part of populist pronouncements.
In one of my first articles, I related the fable of a wise old American Indian who informed a young protégé that all humans have two fighting wolves inside of them: one good and the other evil.
“Which one will win?” the young man asked.
“The one you feed the most”, the old man replied.
The evil wolf has enough real grievances to feed on. Let’s not feed it scraps of psycho-babble!