Arts and Culture

Transforming pain into healing

Passers-by look at a statue of former South African President Nelson Mandela on the South Bank in central London December 9, 2013. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Image: REUTERS/Toby Melville

Jesmane Boggenpoel
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum on Africa

I am a Coloured woman of South Africa. The blood flowing through me was despised by apartheid, for it was not pure and it was not White. Because of this, I struggled with feelings of self-doubt and shame.

Now, a quarter century after the fall of apartheid, I understand there is much beauty and value in my blood. I am the product of newcomer and native, slave master and slave, of White and Black, of German and Jew, and more. I am a reflection of countless conflicts and contradictions – yet my blood unites me.

I am a microcosm of nations riven by internal strife. I reconciled with myself by turning to the conflicts and contradictions within. This forced me to explore my past so as to truly understand who I am and to grapple with my lingering emotions. Our world today is divided and fractured. That is why I urge individuals, communities, and nations to undergo a similar process of self-reconciliation, to explore their stories, embrace their contradictions, and craft new narratives of acceptance, inclusion, and boundless possibilities. Through the stories I tell in this book – my story, and those of people from around the world – I hope to bring healing and inspiration to all.

My inspiration for this book is three-fold. First, I want to use my story and others’ stories to empower those living in marginalised communities to create positive change. Second, I want to tell the story of apartheid as it impacted communities of colour to an international audience because so much is still not understood about the mixed race community (or as we were referred to, Coloured) in South Africa, especially and particularly during this volatile time in South Africa’s history. Third, we’re at a time when globally the racial divide is greater than ever, and my story brings in the stories of others from around the world spanning from US, Mexico across to India, Pakistan, Nepal and to Rwanda. These stories provides a message to all on racial reconciliation.


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Excerpt from Chapter Six of My Blood Divides and Unites by Jesmane Boggenpoel

Embrace the Pain?

Apartheid and its lingering after-effects still pain the nation of South Africa. And that is a frightening realization; for this pain stands in the way of racial reconciliation. Lack of reconciliation is a festering sore that hampers the social, economic, and other advances needed to propel South Africa into a prosperous, harmonious future.

We all feel pain, for we all are human. We all have reason to feel this pain, for we have all been wounded by someone or something. Some people quickly forgive those who, or that which, harmed them and move on. For them, pain is but a passing issue that does not become lingering anger. Other people do not realize they are in pain and by feeling only the resulting anger, have little opportunity to heal. Yet other people know they are in pain but do not recognize that they have the ability to deal with it. Instead, they focus on the person or group they feel has caused their agony and lash out in anger.

Sometimes it seems as if South Africa is awash in anger and violence due to inequality, unemployment, the frustration with poor service delivery, the cost of university education, issues related to land transfer without compensation, and so much more. Many are angry because they believe that certain jobs and neighborhoods are closed off to them and “their kind,” and many harbor anger over the feeling that they and their group are being slighted.

Much of this is really pain manifesting as anger, an anger with roots that go back to what happened years before, and over things members of other groups say and do today. So much pain spews out as anger, and so often we fail to recognize the underlying hurt. The targets of this wrath certainly don’t think about the underlying pain. Instead, they see the anger and the threat, to which they respond dismissively, defensively, or with an anger of their own. Individual pain levels ratchet up, as does the social pain level, and we sometimes seem to be locked in an endless, ever-more-frightening cycle of indignation, ire, or wrath.

I believe we would be much better off as individuals and as a society if we could recognize and deal with our pain before it becomes uncontrollable anger.

Healing at the Micro Level

I have spoken, directly or indirectly, about healing on the personal level in this book. For me, healing came through the process of working out my identity, realizing that I am so much more than a Coloured person as defined by apartheid, dealing with my lingering emotions, and experiencing gratefulness as I realized just how much support I received from my family and faith.

Talking about my pain with close confidants and family members, and putting it down on paper, was cathartic. In many cases, the act of speaking and being heard is all it takes to start the process of healing, so long as those to whom you are speaking listen to hear and not to judge. Talking in this manner doesn’t always dispel your pain, but it certainly helps uncover hidden hurt, which you can then decide how to deal with. There are numerous ways to discover, explore, and process pain, ranging from two people informally coming together to share their stories and their pain, to broadly based, moderator-led group discussions guided by the essential principles of truth and reconciliation.

I encourage everyone to talk, and to listen with open ears and an open heart as the other person pours out her stories. I encourage everyone to create a space where stories and pain can be recounted and acknowledged, no matter how large or small that space may be, no matter who wishes to speak within it.

Healing at the Macro Level

Healing at the social and national level is just as important as healing at the personal level. In some ways, healing socially and nationally is more difficult, for it requires millions of people to make a deliberate effort to recognize, respond to, and release their pain, even the “righteous pain” that everyone agrees is justified because so many people did suffer in so many ways.

South Africa attempted to deal with its pain via – among other things – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a nation-wide effort to address the crimes perpetuated by apartheid, grant amnesty to the perpetrators in some cases, and call for rehabilitation and reparation where appropriate.

Despite its limitations, the Commission was an excellent start. Can we take it further? A relatively small percentage of South Africans were included in the truth and reconciliation process. I hope this has brought them some measure of healing. And now, what of the rest, of the tens of millions of people denied a good education, shut out of many jobs, forced to live in crime-ridden slums far away from city centers, denied permission to use certain buses or dine in certain restaurants, and so much more? What of them and their pain? To what extent has their pain turned to anger? And to what extent is that anger hindering social healing and racial reconciliation?

Making Pain a Plus

Our ultimate goal should be to transform pain into a positive. Instead of a negative to be avoided, it should be a positive to be sought out. It should be exposed to the light, recognized, acknowledged, and empathized with.

When we see people acting out, rather than responding with disgust or anger, rather than throwing up the barricades, might we ask ourselves, “What is their pain?”

I believe that when a nation – any nation – commits itself to truly and honestly engaging with its members, and to affording opportunities for all to listen and discover their pains and needs, deep and permanent healing is possible. As the healing takes hold, the tide of racial reconciliation will follow, and we will be able to engage with each other authentically, on the basis of humanity. That is my hope.

Read the rest of the book, My Blood Divides and Unites

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