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The Western Cape in general and Cape Town in particular is – as Tinyiko Ngwenya experienced – alienating to people of colour. The lack of representation, particularly in senior leadership in corporates, is striking. By contrast, this gives Johannesburg its allure. For Ngwenya, the desirability lay in the myriad positive representations of people of colour, mirroring a more inclusive society.
But this attraction can also mask the underlying and insidious psychological trauma caused by colonialism and later, apartheid.
Cape Town rips the plaster off the wound and allows people of colour to get in touch with – or, to phrase it differently, never escape – the lived reality of feeling less than white. No matter how distinguished one’s accomplishments, this holds true. An eminent professor of colour at a leading university in the Western Cape once said this of his experience. Or, as it was articulated by Ms. Ngwenya:
“No matter how hard I worked, I never really felt good enough, and that inferiority complex was as a result of being a minority.”
It is an awareness continuously reinforced by corporate cultures that remain, largely, white and male.
READ: Why I moved back to Johannesburg from Cape Town
The problem, therefore, is not Cape Town, but rather that this experience reflects the oversight by political initiatives to address the psychological legacies of internalised oppression of people of colour, and internalised dominance by white people. Systematic methods of oppression, holistically designed and legislated to cast people of colour as inferior to the celebrated superiority of whites, have shaped our identities retrospectively.
According to psychology, these internalised experiences often remain in the unconscious. We rely on triggers to elicit the pain associated with those experiences, and corporate Cape Town is a trigger of such pain – not the cause.
Since there has been no political effort to address this issue, at least not on the scale of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), we often remain largely unaware of our trauma. Furthermore, psychological pain, unlike economic inequality, is not immediately visible to the untrained eye. And even then, it is seen as an individual responsibility.
While there is no doubt that economic emancipation is critical and must be pursued, it is also notable that many financially accomplished individuals of colour – with notable economic security – nonetheless continue to feel inadequate in ways that compromise the quality of their financially comfortable lives.
We urgently need to address the psychological wellbeing – in particular the internalised experience of relative worth – of all South Africans.
First, we need to acknowledge the pain of people like Ngwenya, and every other person of colour who continues to respond to triggers that make us doubt our self-worth.
We must acknowledge the perplexity and frustration of well-meaning liberal white fellow citizens, when they read stories like those of Ms. Ngwenya, and cannot understand, despite their best efforts, that we continue to feel excluded.
READ: ‘Black brain drain’: Western Cape vows to do more to retain talent and be welcoming
Then we need our nation’s psychological healing to be placed high on the political agenda. Interventions aimed at addressing the scale of this trauma cannot be left to just a few Diversity and Inclusion or Transformation strategists. The public and private sectors need to collaborate.
It is important, too, that interventions address the issues concerned at a level of depth that facilitates – as Sigmund Freud pioneered – making the unconscious, conscious.
We also need the black professionals who experience these painful triggers to lean into their pain, make sense of it, and contribute to our collective transformation. Cape Town, as well as other cities with similar profiles, require a critical mass of people of people of colour, as seen in Johannesburg, to accelerate the diversity and inclusion agenda.
The above is critical if we are to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, as the late Steve Biko urged us to do. It is, once more, an opportunity for us to join the late Hugh Masekela and say: “Thuma Mina” (send me).
* Dr Sorayah Nair is a clinical psychologist and a Diversity and Inclusion facilitator. She is the founder of Business Health Solutions (BHS) and an advocate for ‘Courageous Conversations’.