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Strengthening citizen agency through fostering self-love to boost democracy


Victims of colonialism, apartheid, systemic racism, and chronic poverty, which continued under many African governments following independence, undermine the agency of victims, the capacity of individuals to appreciate their power, the opportunities in their midst, and the alternatives they have to fulfil their potential.

More broadly, agency is the ability to act on one’s own will, despite the constraints of belief systems one has grown up with, others’ perceptions of one, and a limiting environment. Societies that have emerged from colonialism, apartheid, civil war, systemic racism, and long-standing chronic poverty experience trauma not only at the individual level but also mass trauma at a collective level.

The trauma undermines the agency of the victims – at the individual and collective level, and often their offspring for generations. Restoring the agency of victims of oppression is one of the key conditions for sustainable development following terror regimes.

Traumas from terror regimes or meted out by violent groups to others deny the humanity of those they oppress, assault and terrorise, resulting in broken individuals, communities, and societies. Mass trauma damages indigenous cultures, collective identities, and individual self-worth. It undermines self-esteem, batter self-confidence, and distorts emotional management. Many victims develop inferiority complexes.

It undermines self-love, often leads to self-hatred, and victims often seek invisibility rather than expressing their full selves. The individual feels unseen. It disfigures the sense of self, undermines healthy family food and distorts interpersonal relationships. All these ultimately batter the agency of victims.

Quality development, democracy, and societal peace following past country trauma are not sustainable without large doses of agency at the individual and collective levels. And without agency, individuals and communities cannot build resilience to still prosper even during fragility: when governments fail, economies go belly-up and leaders disappoint.

Shattered assumptions, existential insecurity

In his theory of shattered assumptions, Ronnie Janoff-Bulman (1992) argues that people interpret the world based on a set of assumptions about themselves, others, and the world. This provides one with a view of how the world operates and how to interpret what happens in the world and one’s role in it, a process that allows one to function as a healthy human being.

One would believe that one is a worthy human being, of value, and deserving of fair treatment. These assumptions give meaning, self-esteem and centeredness to one’s existence. Trauma disrupts such assumptions — as one now cannot make sense of what is happening. It distorts the individual and collective understanding of the world.

For example, sufferers of such unprocessed trauma may make decisions in their personal, whether choosing intimate partners or in political life, voting for leaders or parties which go against their own interests, or protests destroying communal infrastructure they need for their own development.

A number of researchers, including Helen Epstein in 1978, in her seminal book, Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors, have argued that the impact of sustained physical, violent and psychological trauma can be transferred across generations – even to those who have not experienced the original trauma.

Colonialism and apartheid left black South Africans with massive ‘existential insecurity, roughly meaning, paraphrasing the term from Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart (2004), “a persistent, generalised sense of threat and unease” because their survival was systematically threatened on every level – personal, family, community, culture, and nation. They left ordinary Africans across the continent with pervasive, deep-seated, persistent feelings of anxiety or angst, insecurity, and vulnerability.

Slavery, colonialism, and apartheid destroyed the “familiar and trusted social benchmarks” which existed prior to colonialism and apartheid, whether cultural, individual, or social, have anchored individuals, communities, and societies and given them a sense of self. For many Africans, slavery, colonialism and apartheid have induced the “feeling that the self has no foundation”.

Rapid mass industrialisation, economic and cultural globalisation and technological change have transformed black societies, which mostly have been pre-modern societies, had to adapt to quickly, have reinforced the process of ‘dislocation’ – whether cultural, individual or social and compounded the African sense of ‘existential insecurity.

Even worse, small black elites took power in the post-apartheid and postcolonial period from former oppressors but then governed only in the interests of themselves, their comrades and their families – leaving the vast majority of their former oppressors behind, amplifying the existential insecurity.

In fact, the post-independence and post-apartheid chronic poverty, insecurity and persistent and violent threats to individuals, families and communities – persistent threats of genocide, arbitrary official violence and family destruction – under African governments were expected to bring a new post-independence and post-apartheid sense of serenity, reinforced the angst.

A country’s negative collective beliefs of itself as a nation

The global political and economic institutions, laws, and trade rules are heavily skewed against African and developing countries in favour of developed countries and increasingly large emerging powers such as China. Although many African and developing countries have long become independent as nations, they are often seen by the governments, elites and companies of industrial and former colonial powers as inferior, partially because of their post-independence chronic poverty, corruption and instability.

African countries have less say within global institutions – which set the rules of the global market, whether the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, or World Trade Organisations (WTO). Global capital markets are also against African countries. Global trade rules are stacked against African countries. High tariff and non-tariff barriers in industrial countries block African countries from exporting value-added products, creating more jobs and wealth for more people in industrial countries.

In most trade deals between African countries and industrial and new emerging powers, industrial countries and new emerging powers use subsidies to boost their own products; have tariff and non-tariff barriers, whether regulations, health standards and licensing systems are discriminately applied to African products.

Western countries and increasingly emerging powers, such as China, have developed unilateral monetary policies destabilising African countries. For example, these governments often manipulate the value of their currencies to improve their export competitiveness.

African and developing countries are also unequal in international law. For a case in point, key industrial countries have not signed up to the International Criminal Court (ICC), an important, necessary and crucial international legal body, and their leaders and citizens are not subject to its jurisdictions, but African countries and their citizens are.

Countries could have negative collective country beliefs and assumptions about their nations that shape their national identities. Many African countries, given their country marginalisation in global law, politics, institutions and trade; and their countries’ continuing chronic poverty, widespread corruption and inept leaderships, have at the level of the nation, adopted collective assumptions that their home countries are “inferior” to former colonial powers, industrial countries and new emerging powers. Many believe that their countries’ poor status is just the way it will be now and in the future. In fact, even a country can suffer from “existential insecurity”, a country experiencing a collective generalised fear that their development progress is threatened at every level and that their countries are stuck in a poverty trap, forever undermined by unfair global trade rules, laws and institutions.

Repeat election of corrupt, incompetent and uncaring leaders and governments, which continue to lock African countries in a cycle of repeat corruption, underdevelopment and strife, reinforces the ‘existential insecurity at the national level in many countries.

These negative collective assumptions undermine the national agency to develop and build sustainable democracies and states of these countries. The impact of countries having inferior collective assumptions about themselves as nations are real. It often translates into country leaders accepting unfair trade deals with industrial and emerging powers without protest. Or countries are mortgaging their national resources cheaply to industrial and emerging market countries and companies.

African countries that suffer from chronic poverty, corruption and developing countries must better their governance, respect the value of their own citizens and increase their countries’ wealth through better quality policies. It is crucial, therefore, that ordinary Africans nurture individual agency, not to vote for leaders based on ethnicity, past ‘struggle’ credentials and for leaders who use victimhood and blame others; but on honesty, compassion and competence, no matter whether these leaders are from different ethnic groups, religion or ideology.

African civil society organisations have a crucial role in helping foster individual citizen agency to finally break the cycle of chronic poverty, underdevelopment and violence on the continent.

Impact of existential insecurity on the individual

Existential insecurity has played out in several ways at individual and collective levels. Frantz Fanon (1967), the Mauritian-born Algerian activist, warned that colonialism and apartheid had scarred the psyche of victims – their individual personalities. Fanon pointed out how institutional racism scars the black ‘psyche’, often causing inferiority complexes, self-hatred, low self-esteem, aggression, anxiety and depression.

Albert Memmi (1965), the great Tunisian writer, describes how very few aspects of the lives and personalities of many of the oppressed peoples were “untouched” by colonialism. “Not only my own thoughts, my passions and my conduct, but also the conduct of others towards me was affected”, wrote Memmi.

Martha Cabrera (2002), the Nicaraguan psychologist, talks about “multiply wounded” societies, which as a result of “permanent stress, lose their capacity to make decisions and plan for the future due to the excess suffering they have lived through and not processed”. Cabrera (2002) says the “ability to communicate, to be flexible and tolerant is enormously reduced” among people who have suffered from personal and mass trauma.

At the individual level, it has led to inferiority complexes, self-hatred, lack of self-love, low self-esteem, high levels of anger, deep-seated angst, chronic insecurity, and a loss of sense of their own sense of agency. It has led to violence against self, intimate relations and outsiders.

Lack of self-esteem, inferiority complexes and lack of self-love leads to many losing their agency. It causes high levels of mental illnesses.

Many victims may apply colonial and apartheid stereotypes to themselves, fostering a negative self-concept and undermining agency. The self-acceptance by some black people of racism against them often fuels self-doubt, self-aggression and self-hate. It can lead those afflicted by internalised racism to dehumanise other blacks, whether from different ethnic groups, religions or for other countries. An individual who treats him or herself terribly will treat others also terribly (Cabrera 2002).

Traumatic experiences can often lead to one not believing in love and seeing relationships, whether intimate, friendships or business, as transactional, depending on what one can get out of it. Martin Luther King so poignantly said: “I have decided to stick with love. … Hate is too great a burden to bear.” As Susanne M. Dillmann writes, “the ability to freely give and receive love is a fragile skill, which traumatic experiences can all too easily dent or damage.”

Experiencing cruelty from others can harden a person not to trust others again, assume that others are out to exploit you, and remain a victim of past injustices. For another, some victims of colonialism, apartheid, and chronic poverty, may continually engage in toxic love, including emotional and psychological abuse and physical violence. Others may have warped ideas of love, which involve controlling those they love, using violence as a tool in their intimate, personal relations and unleashing violence against partners who want to leave them. Yet, giving healthy love and being open to receiving it, despite traumatic experiences, is crucial to healing from traumatic experiences.

Victims of colonial, apartheid and chronic poverty trauma frequently live for the now because no imaginable future appears possible. Short-termism often becomes the norm, as planning for the future appears fruitless. Societies emerging from trauma may fall into victimhood more easily — blaming former colonial powers (often rightly so), outsiders and internal enemies — rather than pro-actively building a new future.

If the trauma is not worked through, it will not only impact the individual, undermining their health, bringing toxicity into their personal relations and impairing their decision-making. According to Martha Cabrebra (2002), it will also be brought to bear on the organisations traumatised individuals are working for.

“The frequently offered advice that one should leave one’s own problems behind when one goes to work is erroneous, if only because it is impossible. People take their baggage with them everywhere they go”, according to Cabrebra. This means that organisations will be negatively impacted – and it is, therefore, crucial that the public service, state companies and civil society organisations – and obviously private companies, in a post-trauma society make trauma processing, self-love and agency assertation part of their development programmes for employees.

Lack of individual agency: Impact on Democracy

Building democracy in countries emerging from colonialism, apartheid and civil conflict demands new approaches. Martha Cabrera (2002) says it “is very difficult to build democracy when a country’s personal history still hurts”.

For countries emerging from colonialism, apartheid, and civil conflict, the spread and deepening of democratic values and attitudes are crucial. To build democracy, postcolonial and post-apartheid societies must democratise governing regimes – the democratic nature of both formal and informal institutions; and democratise societies – the embeddedness of democratic norms, values, and attitudes in the ‘culture’. Lack of agency undermines these critical ingredients needed to deepen democracy.

The destruction of “familiar and trusted social benchmarks” that were there before colonialism and apartheid, combined with the processes of industrialisation, caused “dislocation” or “void”, whether cultural, individual or social, at the individual and communal level. The danger is that individuals often replace this “void” with religious, ethnic and cultural fundamentalism.

Democrats would want the void to be filled by new democratic values, mores and cultures – and by the best (most democratic) elements of cultural, religious and spiritual values. In the South African situation, this ‘existential insecurity’ has generated ‘illiberal attitudes” (Du Toit and Hennie Kotze 2011) toward the broader citizenry: violent crime, low tolerance for differences, xenophobia, social conservatism, and so on.

At the collective level, it has led to tribalism, religious and ethnic nationalism, and xenophobia. Victims often choose parties and leaders who rage, who attack former oppressor power, communities and outsiders. Victims often vote for political movements from their own ethnic group or with whom they shared a struggle history, even if these movements and leaders are corrupt, incompetent, or act against the victims’ interests. They hand over their agency to these movements and their leaders.

Victims regularly vote against their interests – trauma bond voting: therefore repeating cycles of voting for incompetence, corruption and the continuation of poverty, which reinforces the negative impact of colonialism and apartheid. Many votes for “father” figure, aggressive masculine figures who rage against the colonial or apartheid “enemy” or enemies from other groups and non-nationals. Victims often vote for parties and leaders they share a “struggle” past, ethnicity and colour – rather than on competence, honesty and compassion.

This means that postcolonial African countries and post-apartheid South Africa appear to catapult a disproportionate number of psychopathic, narcissistic and mean-spirited leaders into power. Voting for such leaders and parties goes against the voters’ interests, only further increasing their poverty, marginalisation and underdevelopment. This brings corrupt, incompetent and uncaring leaders – resulting in the continuation of poverty, which in turn reinforces the victims’ existential insecurity, and erodes their brittle agency further.

On the face of it then, it appears that African voters, who lack agency, appear to have trauma bonds, attachments based on repeated cycles of empty promises, blame-shifting and affirmations based on shared oppressive pasts, ethnicity or colour, with toxic, narcissistic and psychopathic leaders and governing parties – that lock voters into continuing supporting these mean-spirited leaders and parties.

When post-apartheid and postcolonial movements fail, victims often also hand over their agency to non-political, fundamentalist movements, such as religious or personal addictions. Lack of agency in citizens undermines active democratic citizens, the important act to hold elected and public officials and state and democratic oversight institutions accountable, participate in the civic life of democracy, behave with responsibility and treat others with dignity.

Lack of individual agency: Impact on development

But lack of agency also undermines development, as it blinds victims from seeing the opportunities within and around them. It blocks the imagination. It dashes hope. US writer Rebecca Solnit (2016) so convincingly argues in another context that hope does not mean denying difficult realities. It means “facing them and addressing them” and acting on them (Solnit 2016a).

“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable” (Solnit 2016b).

Under colonialism, apartheid and autocratic regimes, victims cannot plan for the long-term because their future is uncertain; they may be arrested, their land, property and assets are taken at any moment, and state violence unleashed against them at any moment for arbitrary reasons. The problem is that such short-termism often continues long after the national trauma ends.

The short-termism associated with trauma victims plays out often in individuals, in their personal lives, but also government and country leaders not planning for the long-term but focusing on the short-term.

This may be one of the reasons why very few African leaders and governments appear to bother to plan for the long-term. Elected and public officials often make decisions not in the long-term interest of their countries but only for immediate gratification.

The lack of the rule of law in postcolonial and post-apartheid governments obviously is also a factor in citizens focusing on short-term focus, self-interests and taking as much as they can, not only because government leaders are doing so also, but that possessions and their lives can be taken at any time by either the government or the powerful. Systemic corruption so endemic in most African countries may be partially to do with this short-termism. Everyone wants to “eat today” rather than plan for tomorrow.

The costs of short-termism are devastating for development.

Many of Africa and South Africa’s black political, business and social elite have responded to the ‘dislocation’ by the obsessive pursuit of material possessions. In such cases, self-esteem, identity and individual value are increasingly measured in how much an individual possesses in material possessions. They adopt ‘bling’ lifestyles of Beverly Hill-style mansions, foreign shopping and expensive cars, not only to fill the ‘void’ but also to show they are the ‘equals’ of white colonialists and the apartheid elite.

The lack of individual agency undermines building a culture of entrepreneurship. Since independence from colonialism, African industrialisation, development, and growth have been stunted because of the failure to foster entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs change society (Swedberg 2000; Schumpeter 1934; McClelland 1961; McMillan and Woodruff 2002). They create new industries, jobs, and wealth – which more people can benefit from. They increase the size of economies. They fuel economic growth. They inspire a virtual cycle of others trying their hand at starting new businesses, developments, and initiatives, too (Drucker 1970; Gartner 1990).

Researchers Robert Hirsch, Michael Peters and Dean Shepherd, in their book, Entrepreneurship, described entrepreneurship’s role in economic development as involving “more than just increasing per capita output and income; it involves initiating and constituting a change in the structure of business and society”.

Postcolonial and post-apartheid responses to brokenness

Postcolonial and post-apartheid governments, governing parties and intellectuals have provided various, mostly inadequate responses, to the existential insecurity. Leaders such as the late Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe have gone for hyper-masculinity, attacking old enemies, such as former colonial powers and white business and creating internal ones, such as the opposition parties and ethnic communities different to his.

Some have tried to return to ancient African traditions – Kenneth Kaunda, in his catastrophically failed experiment with African communalism, which left many to die of starvation and disrupted families and communities. Others have invented new African traditions or revived dead ones. However, in these cases, the resurrected African “traditions” and newly invented ones have undermined citizens’ fundamental human rights, dignity and equality.

However, by and large, most post-independence African governments and leaders – including in post-apartheid South Africa, Namibian and Zimbabwe have actively encouraged their supporters’ and voters’ lack of agency – as docile supporters would be loyal voters no matter their leaders’ and parties’ incompetence, corruption and indifference.

Clearly, many African leaders have turned out to be such disasters to their people because they lack love for their fellow human beings, whether of their colour, ethnicity, or religion. Many leaders such as former President Jacob Zuma, the late Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe or Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, behind their, pretend love for the “people,” appear to see other people, whether supporters or voters, merely as objects of control, how they can use them or if they are opponents, how to destroy them with a smile.

South Africa’s Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement (BC) of the 1970s emphasised the need to deal with the consequences of the broken individual as a prerequisite for successful development (Biko 2002). However, the heirs of the BC movement have not elaborated beyond the “black is beautiful” theme to provide a counter-message to black individual alienation caused by colonialism and apartheid.

Fostering a new sense of individual agency

Making African states more accountable, honest and competent

Fostering individual and collective agency will be crucial for individual and collective healing – and a prerequisite to building democracy and fostering inclusive development and societal peace. It is crucial that the post-apartheid state treat citizenship with dignity, care and efficiency. Ultimately, reducing poverty and inequality and strengthening democracy in South Africa, which will help reduce the ‘existential insecurity’ of blacks and make the black majority ‘winners’ also, is a core requirement of building a durable democracy, sustainable development and peaceful development communities in South Africa.

To foster sustainable development, quality democracies and relatively peaceful societies that emerged from violence cannot happen without the formerly oppressed communities inculcating a mass culture of individual self-love and consistently electing leaders who operate from love, who have compassion for others that stretches across ethnicity, colour, or region, and not based on self-interest.

Finally, to break the cycle of poverty, underdevelopment and corruption, it is crucial that ordinary citizens must stop voting based on the past, based on struggle credentials and based on ethnicity, colour and party solidarity, but vote on merit – for those who are honest, competent and compassionate, even if they do not share your colour, religion or past.

To foster individual and collective self-love, self-esteem and agency, South Africa and other African countries require to need leadership that has greater emotional maturity, are compassionate and emphasise forgiveness – leaders that exhibit love, who will have what Christine Hanna calls the “courage to do the right thing even when it is hard.”

Jettison traditional, religious and communal beliefs which undermine human rights

Changing long-held cultural, religious and communal beliefs, perceptions and values – which undermine individual agency is not easy. Many toxic beliefs are unconscious – and many are unaware of them and how they undermine their well-being. Traditional, cultural and religious beliefs which undermine human rights, dignity and equality must be jettisoned.

Cultures, beliefs and traditions can be changed. New beliefs, traditions and cultures based on human rights, equality and dignity, must replace harmful ones. Patriarchy, based on inequality in gender, social class and ageism, which operates as an ideology in all African countries, must be eradicated.

Martha Cabrera used the example of how men are not allowed to show emotions in some cultures, even when they grieve. She says that by repressing emotions, the “emotions—which have an impact on the immune system, the neurological system, the circulatory system, the whole body—trigger physiological changes in blood pressure, temperature, digestion, and end up making us ill” (Cabrera 2002).

She makes another example from Nicaragua, where after the country’s civil war ended in the eighties, there was an increase in domestic violence in households where the men had participated in the war. “The men had lived through very tough situations on the battlefield without being able to process them or express any emotion about them because of the learned masculinity model. On top of that, they went from being soldiers and officers defending their country or values to being jobless and ignored … The only way they found to express their pain was through violence and aggressiveness because that’s the only way men have learned to express their emotions and shake off their traumas”.

At the individual level, changing long-held beliefs and values is even more complicated when one’s beliefs are intertwined with one’s identity and one’s conception of self (Steele 1999; Ouelette 2015). Cultural, religious and communal practices that undermine individual agency must be cut out.

Teaching self-love at all levels of life

Given the reality of broken individuals, families and communities, self-love must be taught from nursery school to higher education institutions. Workplaces should also inculcate individual self-love among their staff. All other areas of human interaction – social, religious, cultural and political organisations – should include self-love, agency assertation, self-esteem and self-care as part of their induction, training and wellness programmes. Self-care is also a crucial building block of self-love, self-esteem and individual agency.

Anti-poverty strategies must be multidimensional, including self-esteem, self-love and self-care. It should be compulsory to have self-care, self-esteem, and self-love as part of all government empowerment, public works and community-building programmes. Recipients of government social grants, financial support and scholarships must be compelled to attend civic, democracy and self-esteem, self-love and self-care programmes.

Again, to quote Cabrera (2002), the traditional mainstream developmental model is inappropriate for countries that have come out of trauma because it is “based on denying the person, the individual, the subjective, on conceiving of individuals as links in a transmission chain towards a more impersonal collective project that is always supposedly for the greater good”.

It is crucial that South Africa and African countries embark on programs where ordinary people can talk to others about their individual trauma, tell their stories and reflect with others on what happened to affirm their visibility. Cabrera (2002), Nicaragua has experimented on a model of personal healing as part of development projects which includes acknowledging what happened, expressing what happened and reflecting on what happened. The healing power of the exercise of processing trauma is that it transforms trauma “into wisdom for oneself and others”.

Practices such as conscious breathing, meditation and volunteering are crucial tools to build self-love, self-esteem and agency that civil organisations should introduce more widely.

Finally, we need a civil society movement to restore self-love, self-esteem and individual agency – through coordinated campaigns to foster these across the country.

This is Prof William Gumede’s keynote address to Breathwork Africa’s Umoya Breathfest, held at the Cradle Valley Guest House, Cradle of Humankind, 18-22 September 2022.

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