Investigating the wounds of young South Africans

South Africa has one of the highest rates of violent crimes in the world. South African psychology professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela leads a research project that investigates what she thinks might be a key to understand the violence in her country – the double “woundedness” of the post-apartheid generation.

The murder rate in South Africa is about five times higher than the global average. Rapes, assaults and other violent crimes are also overrepresented. The victims and perpetrators are especially young people living in marginalized areas. That’s where Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, visiting professor in Uppsala at the Claude Ake Chair, has been doing her field studies.

“We have more than 17,000 murders per year in my country. Almost 50 per day! People in the informal settlements of South African townships risk being murdered just for a cell phone. There are of course many different explanations to this spiral of violence. Through my research I’m trying to find some of them”, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela says.

The children and adolescents of South Africa today have no first-hand-experiences from the torture, detentions and massacres of the apartheid system, but Gobodo-Madikizela’s research shows that these traumas have been passed on to them from their parents’ generation.

“It’s a well-known phaenomena in psychology that children can internalize their parents’ traumas and make their painful experiences feel almost as strong as if they were their own. There has not been much written about this kind of intergenerational transmission of trauma in a South African context. Most of the comparable literature in this field is about how the children of the survivors of the Holocaust were affected by the traumas of their parents.”

Today Gobodo-Madikizela is presenting her research at the University of Helsinki in a seminar on children and youth in South Africa. She emphasizes that her research is not only looking into the traumas that have been passed on from previous generations, but also to the new traumas that are unique for the post-apartheid generation.

“They’re experiencing a different kind of trauma. The humiliation of being adult but not having a job, not feeling part of society, being deprived of all hope. It’s a sense of indignity and uselessness that causes an insidious trauma, which is much more subtle than the dramatic trauma of their parents’ generation”, says Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, this year’s Claude Ake-professor.

FACTS | The Claude Ake Visiting Chair

  • A collaboration between the Nordic Africa Institute and the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at Uppsala University.
  • Founded in 2003 in honor of the memory of Professor Claude Ake, prominent African scholar, philosopher and humanist.
  • The Chair is open to social scientists at African universities, researching on war, peace, conflict resolution, human rights, democracy and development on the African continent.
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