Opinion: Ubuntu may heal our broken society

26 January 2014 - 02:02 By Suntosh Pillay
OUT OF SIGHT: Activism ignores the complex causes of SA's social problems. Picture: MARK ANDREWS
OUT OF SIGHT: Activism ignores the complex causes of SA's social problems. Picture: MARK ANDREWS

A culture of ubuntu could curb violence against the vulnerable people in South African society. Unfortunately, the urgency of activism can hide the banal, subtle way societies become sick.

The 16 days of activism, so quickly forgotten, reflect our uneasiness at how things are and our desire to want to put things right.

We must acknowledge that poverty, mental health, our past, the changing nature of families, and attitudes towards gender all intersect in a complex matrix that cannot be undone overnight. We're frustrated, but maybe we need to become inspired.

Women, children and sexual minorities such as lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals are vulnerable and often victims of violent hate crimes.

In public hospitals, we often treat members of these groups who are the victims of structural inequality left by the laws of apartheid, which promoted homophobia and patriarchy.

Many traumatised, depressed and anxious people endure a stigma born of a shared legacy of legislated discrimination.

These challenges are rooted in our historical social pathologies. Fortunately, our democracy has created progressive laws and policies.

Despite research showing that state mental health services tend to be underfunded, understaffed, poorly conceptualised and not prioritised, we bear the burden - perhaps the privilege - of being the last hope for people who have nowhere to turn.

The tenet underpinning our constitution is, plainly put, about the right to be happy. As clinicians, we are satisfied with seeing our patients relieved of the symptoms that brought them to us , but we also hope for a change in the social conditions that gave rise to them in the first place.

At the moment we operate too individualistically. Stuck in consulting rooms, organising a few outreach projects, we are trapped in an unnecessary mode of practice, and communities are forgetting how to promote their own wellbeing.

For example, many psychiatry beds in hospitals are taken by people whose symptoms were triggered by alcohol or drug abuse. But they might never have become patients had there been effective psychosocial support in place.

Similarly, the abnormally high suicide rate among youths who are members of sexual minorities could be reduced if we focused on making young people comfortable with the varieties of sexualities towards which we are genetically predisposed.

Instead, we wait for failed suicide attempts and try to treat the symptoms of a dysfunctional culture - alienation, rejection, aggression, ignorance.

Mental health is everybody's business. It is not the domain of specialists. Healthy communities should be able to help individuals before they get to the point of needing specialist intervention.

This is where we fail ourselves. Are we doing enough to be everyday activists who create enabling, integrated social systems?

We really must deepen ubuntu, build social capital, draw on our traditional and ancient healing wisdoms, know our neighbours well enough to ask for help, not turn a blind eye to abuse, not allow alcoholism and drug abuse to be tolerated, affirm gay and lesbian identities as legitimate and OK, challenge gender norms, keep in contact with friends and family so our increasingly suburban lifestyle doesn't isolate us, and not get sucked into the narratives of how tough life is and how futile the pursuit of joy can be.

We need to change the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we share with each other. We need to collect the wisdom of our foremothers, who rose above adversity and made life happen, often happily and without complaint. And we need to nurture our souls and sense of love and kindness towards our fellow humans.

We need a psychology of the everyday, of being human within vibrant, exciting communities whose building blocks are families that stay, pray and play together. No amount of pills, therapy, handouts or artificial support can replace the natural flow of being a person through other people.

  • Pillay is a clinical psychologist who works in a public hospital in Durban and writes on social issues