Long looks at violence through psychoanalytic lens

Rondebosch resident and clinical psychologist, Wahbie Long

Let’s plant that tree. It’s never too late.

With these words, clinical psychologist Wahbie Long concludes our interview. I had asked him if he had any parting shots.

It’s a great way to finish, I tell him. And, actually, I add, a great place to start.

The reference to planting that tree of course, is to the Chinese aphorism that, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

The 40-year-old Rondebosch resident who grew up in Walmer Estate, is currently riding a wave of popularity following the release of Nation on the Couch in which he turns his psycho-analytic gaze on violence in South Africa.

The book, he tells me, was written mostly in coffee shops during the early part of last year while he was on sabbatical. “And then the world changed,” he says. “Lockdown hit in March and I had to go home and look after my three kids.”

At this point, he says, the project came to an abrupt end, everything written, except the conclusion, which he was determined would not be reduced to “some kind of Hollywood ending”.

While the final product is very different from the Freudo-Marxist academic text he had initially been working on, he feels that Nation on the Couch as a cross-over text increases its accessibility.

And, has the interest in the book surprised him? Yes, he says.

“It definitely has.

“But I suppose that’s what I was gunning for by writing it as a cross-over text. I was hoping that it wouldn’t just be academics who would engage with this book. I think it speaks to my motivation for writing it. I intended it, in part, as an act of citizenship.”

As for who he hopes will access this work, he says: “My audience is really any South African who is concerned about the astonishing levels of violence in this country… and I mean violence in the broadest possible sense – whether we’re talking about interpersonal, gender-based, symbolic or economic violence.

“It’s really about helping ordinary South Africans who are wondering about this problem and what is driving it from a psychological perspective – and how we might begin to address it from a psychological perspective.”

So, does Long feel the answer to South Africa’s “astonishing levels of violence” lies in psychology?

Not solely, he says.

“Looking at the situation in South Africa from a psychological perspective is only one part of the solution.

“If one looks at commentaries about the South African situation, they typically focus on the politics and economics of it all and we lose sight of the so-called small things – the interpersonal acts of recognition and respect that are part and parcel of our daily lives. What we do in our lives, interpersonally, to each other, is just as important. So, I don’t see the psychological argument as the main argument, but as part of it.”

Both in conversation and in his writing, Long reveals himself as an astute commentator on the human condition, and pulls no punches in his assessment of South Africa and how alienation, envy and shame have contributed – and continue to contribute – to many of the problems we face in this country.

Asked if he could recall the moment of his socio-political awakening, he says it was not so much a “moment” as it was a series of experiences which led to him recognising that he was living in “a world that didn’t feel like home to me” which set off “some kind of an internal process”.

“I would say I was always an outsider,” he tells me.

“You can imagine going to Bishops in the late 80s. I was one among a handful of black kids in the school.

“By the time I hit high school at Groote Schuur, which was very much an Afrikaner school, I was once again one of only a few black kids.

“Very early on I got to grips with the face that I was different – in all sorts of ways, not just in terms of race, in terms of religion, in terms of class.”

In addition to this, he says, it’s really hard to identify a specific moment of awakening “when looking back into the past because memories are traitorous things”.

“They change. The feelings we have about our memories change. (But) the one thing that comes to mind for me is that my mom used to be very involved in charity work, and she always used to take me with. That was when I started to realise that not everyone lived comfortable lives in South Africa.

“I wouldn’t say I was a little Marx, but I certainly had a sense that we lived in a country where the playing field was not level, where the odds are stacked more against some than others.”

When I move into the realm of the rhetorical, and ask Long which South African political figures he would like to get onto his couch, he says there are so many, it’s hard to pick. But he eventually narrows it down to President Cyril Ramaphosa, Jacob Zuma and Helen Zille.

“Maybe we could do some group therapy,” he jokes.

Explaining his choices, he says: “Cyril Ramaphosa gets a lot of flack for being indecisive but I wonder about the psychology of his leadership. I wonder if this is a very thoughtful, cautious, consensual style of politics and that there is in fact a very wise psychology behind it all.”

Of Zuma, he adds: “I am struck by Jacob Zuma’s insistence that he’s done nothing wrong and I would want to figure out the psychology of that because to many South Africans it’s dead obvious what he has done wrong. I have an intuition that Jacob Zuma believes what he is telling us, that he really believes he has done nothing wrong and I’d want to get to the bottom of that.”

And finally, he’d like to convince Helen Zille, to turn her “analytic gaze on white South Africans specifically and speak to that”.

Referring to a passage in his book in which he writes about how one of Zille’s staff was traumatised by one of her dogs, he adds: “She ended up posting a picture of her dog with a child, trying to prove that the dog isn’t racist and I’d like to learn from Helen Zille how she understands white racism in this country.”

As we take a moment to ponder this, I ask if there’s anything else he’d like to add.

“Let’s plant that tree,” he says. “It’s never too late.”

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In Nation on the Couch clinical psychologist Wahbie Long examines the extreme levels of violence in South Africa through a psycho-analytic lens.