South Africa’s Apartheid-era migrant worker system left many children without the love and inclusiveness so necessary for their full development. It casts its shadow even today, but it can be defeated, writes Kelebogile Motswatswa.
Recently, a sister-friend of mine introduced me to Bessel van der Kolk, a pioneering psychiatrist and leading PTSD researcher. I then listened to a podcast in which he discussed the repercussions of trauma on our brains and bodies.
Bessel’s research-driven insights impelled me to reflect on my own traumas – what they are and where their roots lie. I was transported, immediately, to my childhood home environment.
According to psychologists and sociologists, the optimal environment for a child’s development has love, attention and nurture that goes beyond the material. If a child is going to grow into a well-functioning adult, involved parenting is a non-negotiable for the developing brain.
Considering this, I can’t help but shudder at the tragic familiarity many young Black people have with uninvolved parenting, and the consequences it has had for our state of being. An article on the Healthline Parenthood site describes it as “a style of parenting where parents don’t respond to their child’s needs beyond the basics of food, clothing, and shelter”.
Our history of Apartheid influences the perceptions many Black parents have regarding their roles and responsibilities, which has had a significant ripple effect on the structure of families in Black communities.
These oft-insidious perceptions don’t exist in a vacuum; in many ways, they were constructed by factors such as the migrant labour system, among other causes.
The ramifications of the migrant labour system on family life in South Africa have been researched extensively. The discovery of diamonds and gold begat an economic explosion that increased demand for cheap labour, which birthed the migrant labour system.
Through coercive measures and legislation such as the Land Act of 1913 – which entrenched the colonial practice of land dispossession – Black people were thrust into a situation where they had to leave their homes to provide for their families.
Migrant workers were “absent during the critical years of marriage and child-rearing”, as noted by Ria Smit in her article on the Impact of Labor Migration in South Africa: Yesterday and Today. Consequently, many Black children grew up without the necessary presence of their parents, mostly their fathers.
Having grown up without the consistent presence of my parents, I know, far too intimately, how this affects one’s psyche and, consequently, one’s prospects for living a successful and fulfilled life. The damage is cumbersome and can lead to challenges that are seemingly impossible to surmount.
Navigating cycles of disadvantage
In my favourite song on his latest album, saxophonist Sisonke Xonti laments that Black youths are “products of history, attempting to build with no bricks…”
Penned by Teboho Moleko, this lyric speaks of the grave complications of being a young Black person in post-apartheid South Africa. There are many complex challenges that disrupt our pursuit of a better quality of life; herein, I’ll only touch on two: mental health problems and ‘Black tax’.
In 2000, my mother left for the UK, to work as a nurse. While this wasn’t forced upon her as in the case of traditional migrant workers, who had very little choice but to leave home to go work in the mines, the priority remained the same: provide a better life for your children. For our parents, a better life meant food, education and a roof over our heads. But, by virtue of being human, we need so much more.
“The crucial family social and emotional support which acts as a buffer against the hostile world is not experienced by members of migrant families,” writes Maria Mabetoa in Cycles of disadvantage of African families in South Africa (1994). My mother’s absence, among other childhood traumas such as exposure to domestic violence, led to mental health issues that delayed my path to personal and professional growth. The distance in both time and space resulted in psychological issues that I’m still working through today.
Since my mind was bogged down with battling depression, I had very little capacity to invest in my academic performance. Furthermore, not having my mother around, and the neglect of my father, meant that I didn’t have the support I needed to navigate school life, academia and the turbulent transition into adulthood.
Subsequently, I developed maladaptive coping mechanisms that further impacted my ability to succeed academically and professionally.
Land dispossession, Apartheid, and ‘Bantu’ education engineered Black poverty, which has proven very difficult to circumvent. So, Black youth sit with the responsibility of eradicating poverty in their families. In addition to mental health issues, another factor that interrupts young people’s prospects is what many know as ‘Black tax’ – the money that young Black people, regardless of class, find themselves having to send home to help their families survive.
As articulated by the South Africa-based writer Sukoluhle Nyathi, “There are so many stories out there of dreams deferred and aspirations that are on hold because of the overriding demands of Black tax.”
Without the generational wealth that our White counterparts enjoy, it is arduous for us to fully explore our personhood beyond the task of breaking the cycle of poverty. Many of us are, as expressed by my dear friend and literary journalist Karabo Kgoleng, “one bad move away from landing on the street… part of this is systemic.”
Against the background of the brokenness in the Black family structure and domestic life, there are external challenges which Black youth are faced with; most notably, these are unemployment and limited access to quality education – this is where the government’s responsibility must be interrogated.
There is a dire need for improved access to education, as highlighted by the ‘Fees Must Fall’ marches. The Covid pandemic has also underscored the need for better access to education – many young learners have suffered because of limited access to laptops and the internet, which makes it hard for them to thrive academically.
Another stressor facing young people is the issue of unemployment, which has been recorded to be over 70%. It is then imperative for the government, in partnership with the private sector, to create opportunities for the youth. When one has education and opportunities, the possibilities are endless, and the process of transformation and the alleviation of inequality can be expedited.
The healing process
There is hope for us yet: “Hold fast to dreams, For if dreams die, Life is a broken-winged bird, That cannot fly,” wrote the US poet Langston Hughes.
As I reflect on my experiences of home, trauma and recovery, and restoration, I can’t help but see my healing process as an archetype of the collective Black healing process – this gives me hope. My hope comes from the fact I’ve seen myself heal and, subsequently, succeed in my vocational pursuits.
What helped me was access to therapy, an education, and job opportunities. Therapy tended to my wounds and helped me believe in myself sufficiently to go after what I want. The field that I work in is one in which opportunities are abundant. And my mother’s sacrifice provided a quality education, which provided social capital.
What this reveals to me is that we need more investment in our mental well-being and access to psychosocial interventions, and accountable, capable leaders, who will be sincere about equal education and securing employment opportunities for all.
Indeed, the challenges that young Black people endure appear protracted and unassailable, but I remain ever the optimist. It’s possible for Black youth to transcend their difficulties and reach the other side of strife. All we need are the right minds and hands, which already exist – it’s only a matter of time, and revolution.