Hand-Holding and Flag-Waving

How to cure a nation's trauma

Patriotism is a strange thing. What is it that induces someone to love their country—this abstract fabrication, its borders a caprice of History, consisting really of a loose association of peoples who don’t want to be associated, but are herded together (willingly, I might add) by a government they hate? 

Socrates described the state as a mother. Maybe it’s an Athenian thing. I only know that my patriotism came about when I realised South Africa’s history: the thousands of years of war and peace, famine and prosperity, that, from our perspective, culminated in present-day South Africa. History gave meaning to this senseless creation; it invested it with the weight of a million legacies. 

But History is an unfeeling patron: He has left marks upon our country that no amount of flag-waving, happy-singing, and holding-hands-while-the sun-sets can erase. We are not ready for reconciliation; we need truth: an acknowledgment of our divisions, and an understanding of their origins and ongoing causes. As the late Desmond Tutu wrote: “If we are to experience genuine reconciliation, then it will have to be on the basis of the truth, however shattering”.

And the truth truly is shattering. I feel fear, cynicism, and anger all around me—and I live in a nice area. History whispers in the ears of the aggrieved, both black and white, inciting their hatred. Racism lurks in darkened corners, like a word unspoken, its presence felt with all the power of a pregnant silence. 

South Africa’s history is fraught with war, segregation, and exploitation. Such traumatic events don’t simply disappear—just as the trauma of war veteran cannot simply vanish—because they alter the neurology of a culture. Like a seed, they embed themselves in the soil of culture. Like cancer, they grow. We may cut down the stumps, because they are apparent, but the roots remain, buried in the cultural unconsciousness, poisoning the minds of posterity. Histories are easy to rewrite, because they are flagrant; the subtle attitudes that permeate a culture, however, are far more dangerous. 

My own culture is rife with these ‘roots’. Take the Battle of Blood River, for example. In 1994, we renamed it Reconciliation Day, changing the conscious narrative—we cut down the stump. But we did not uproot the tree, did not dare even to admit the subtle superiority it had introduced. I still feel its presence—buried in an expression, a word, a gesture. 

South Africa really needs therapy. A sort of psychotherapy, a ‘talking cure’. It needs people who are willing to speak and write unflichingly about our history, but more importantly, how our history manifests itself in the present. Only by this painful and arduous process can we be liberated: we must externalise the nation’s trauma, trap it on the page, dissect it, analyse it, understand its root cause, and treat it. Our textbooks exemplify our folly: history, pre-1994, is taught as a has-been. But history is not a thing of the past. 

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Brian Scoles
Brian Scoles
1 month ago

Your post raises many questions for me.

Is history just one damned thing after another, as Ecclesiastes laments?

Is there a moral arc to the universe, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed?

When it comes to history, is Hegel right? What about Marx?

Is patriotism the last refuge of a scoundrel?

Finally, what about the Day of the Lord?