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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

AM23-PP2: Reflecting on South Africa's collective trauma and how to heal our injured soul

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Parallel Papers Session 1

Friday 30 June 13.30pm-14.45 SAST - VENUE 2
Paper Code: PP2
Reflecting on South Africa's collective trauma and how to heal our injured soul

Presenter: Dr Jean Henry Cooper


South Africa is in trouble. Our soul is injured and the trauma continues. Colonisation, war, apartheid and HIV / Aids, amongst other factors, have contributed to a historical cycle of perpetual trauma.

Violent crime, rampant corruption, gender-based violence, drug abuse, unemployment and poverty are manifestations of this ongoing trauma and contribute to the traumatic cycle.

Simultaneously, we experience a gradual collapse of the institutions that are meant to provide the physical and psychological containment needed to facilitate healing, economic growth and restoration of human dignity. Eskom (electricity), Transnet (railways), SAA (air travel), Denel (military), public schools and hospitals, the South African Police Service (SAPS), municipalities and provincial governments are fraught with corruption and dismally failing.

This paper will grapple with and invite discussion on the following questions:

  1. What can systems psychodynamics offer to heal our injured soul?
  2. In our day-to-day roles as researchers, consultants, coaches and leaders, what can we do?
  3. Dare we imagine a macro-scale societal intervention?

What can systems psychodynamics offer?

In his political analysis The Rise or Fall of South Africa (2020), Frans Cronjé, former CEO of the Institute of Race Relations, cites psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan, arguing that a critical requirement for South Africa's success, is the transformation of our large group identity from 'chosen trauma' to 'chosen glory'. I will extend Cronjé's argument by further exploring Volkan's contributions on collective trauma and reflect on the systems psychodynamics of the injured collective soul and its manifestations.

What can we do?

Together we will reflect on the role that systems psychodynamic consultancy and coaching can play to assist workplaces to become potential transitional spaces where our collective trauma can be contained and healed. A clear sense of the organisation's primary task, authority relations, role dynamics and boundaries may help develop organisations as anxiety-containing systems. Moreover, organisations with a strong spiritual sense of purpose can contribute to employees' sense of meaning, belonging and healing.

Dare we imagine?

Imagine a macro-scale intervention with the goal to provide opportunities for South Africans to heal our injured soul. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), under the leadership of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, assisted our transition to democracy from 1996 - 2002. One of the many accounts that have been written about the TRC, was Antjie Krog's Country of my Skull (2000), in which she vividly portrays the many spiritual and transcendental moments that characterised the commission's work. Many truths were revealed and instances of reconciliation and transcendence were indeed achieved. However, reconciliation, healing and transformation are ongoing processes. In the paper, I will outline a vision of what a macro-scale healing process could look like. I will discuss how insights from psychoanalysis, indigenous knowledge systems such as ubuntu and circularity, and the voice of Franz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth, 1961) will inform such an intervention. Finally, I will discuss the practicalities of funding, mobilisation and logistics and invite participants to dream with me.

Learning Objectives

Participants will be able to:

  1. Identify the effects of social trauma in institutional systems.
  2. Apply systems psychodynamic insights to the process of envisioning organisational interventions within a traumatized context.
  3. List potential ways to consciously address social trauma in South Africa on a macro scale.

Biographical Summary

Dr. Jean Cooper is an organisational consultant and leadership coach in private practice. He works from a systems psychodynamic perspective. He has directed Group Relations Conferences in 2016 and 2017 in South Africa, in collaboration with the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations.