It is natural for people to look to revered figures and scriptures for solace in times of crisis. While will never know the exact words that our beleaguered democracy’s founding President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela would have used in responding to the crisis that engulfed our country from the start of this Mandela month, we can be sure that he would have displayed the decisive leadership that he was renowned and respected for.

He would not have mouthed trite phrases such as “stop the looting” when fully aware that many who followed in leadership after him were known to have looted the public purse entrusted them with impunity – even stealing food parcels and life-saving PPE money during the pandemic. He would have expressed more than mere condemnation, acknowledging the steadily yawning gaps between those in public office and public service and the vast majority of people that they purport to represent and govern, who have effectively been moved further into the fringes of society and our minds.

He would not have dithered in responding when the knowledge of the fire was known, calling on all in our country to join him in stopping those who would seek to divide them further and destroy that which will take many years to rebuild. This, during the devastating hardships of the raging pandemic, when so many more children will see death, from which they are usually protected.

He would not have downplayed the threats we face as a country, yet would have calmed fears stoked by the social media infodemic and those who would seek to benefit from further division and mayhem. He would have appropriately contextualised the wanton orgy that we and the world have been shocked by, relating these self-destructive acts to the lives and social experiences of the country’s marginalised, who may resort to desperate measures in the face of opportunity. He would have with dignity and authority given clear instructions to the police and military on acting to protect life and limb, to prevent anarchy and destruction, and would not have tolerated those not up to their sworn oaths of office to serve South Africa and its Constitution, without fear, favour or prejudice.

No doubt, Mandela would have raised the rights of those immediately adversely affected by the civil unrest. However, he would just as quickly have argued for the rights of the poor to a better life that was promised to them in our transition to democracy, but which clearly has been totally outside their reach. He would have acknowledged the failure of government in allowing such a cumulative process of neglect, of absence of accountability by self-serving persons in public office and service. He would have accepted responsibility for such gross failure, for ignoring the warning signs, the statistics, the evidence building up as a storm all around those in upper working class, middle class and wealthy enclaves. What we as PsySSA have been alerting the Presidency to over time!

As experts of behaviour – the only statutory profession which requires a Masters qualification –  we understand the frustrations and denied aspirations and hopes endured by the millions affected by grinding poverty and destitution, existing unseen, while the few enjoy the comforts of this hard-won democracy. Such desperate life experiences can only be contained and suppressed for a limited time and, for some, are likely to find expression in ways that may go against the grain. One does not need training in psychology to know that citizens experiencing years of government corruption and blatant looting may easily feel entitled to help themselves.      

Noting Mandela’s love of children and concern for their well-being and development, he would certainly have rebuked the abuse of children in this way and expressed his dismay that children are brought to such a depth of being involved in the amorality around them. As the national representative body of both academic and applied psychology professionals, we are gravely concerned about the impact these activities – played out on all forms of media – have on the development of children, fomenting the culture of entitlement and dependency, destroying the quest for fuller exploration of what the world really offers, shutting off their critical skills, blunting their essential agency to be able to craft a world that meets their full potential and needs. With the already high rates of criminal and delinquent behaviour in our society, which often go unchecked, we cannot sufficiently stress that such learning experiences are extremely harmful to the children themselves and all of us, destroying the innocence of childhood and portending a grim future.

Poverty, inequality, inequity, lack of justice and rootedness in socioeconomic and political systems in our society, which are the chief drivers of the current unrest, have exposed the deeper racial, class and other divides in our society. The short-sighted reactive steps in certain suburban neighbourhood watch groups appear to be fuelling racial and other tensions. It is critical for us all to realise that we have the same biology. Accidents of birth, our historic legacy of fear of each other and fractured perceptions create divides that exacerbate crisis. All people are inherently good. Our poor education and warped socialisation create the barriers, made worse by economic exclusion and political alienation. 

At alarming times like these, we yearn for the wisdom of our global icon, whose legacy of bringing us together in reconciliation and hope seem a distant shattered memory.  At this time of our greatest single crisis in living memory, we can do worse than reflect on how we allowed ourselves to degenerate to this low pass, how we overlooked calling leaders to account, how we allowed a small coterie of self-serving individuals to rob us of realising Mandela’s vision, which most of us cherished. We also recall his warning “While poverty persists, there is no true freedom”.

As a country, we need to swiftly put this blot on our democracy behind us. We can work together to make this a better country that the world can again rely on as a lodestone of cherishing our diversity, overcoming adversity and building a better future, without exclusion from democratic processes and opportunities, if we are to avoid a similar crisis in the future. How we treat the worst off amongst us, underpins our own claim to being human.


Professor Saths Cooper 

PsySSA Past President

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