Policy Brief 40: Democratic Leadership in Societies Suffering from Trauma

Societies that have emerged from traumatic experiences, such as colonialism, apartheid, and civil war, need honest and just leadership to reduce seeking refuge in victimhood.

They also need leadership that has greater self-awareness, more caring, and emphasising forgiveness. Countries that have experienced colonialism, apartheid, and civil war experience trauma not only at the individual level but also mass trauma at a collective level. “Collective trauma (or historical trauma) is an emotional and psychological stress that has affected a large group and that moves across generations” (Tcholakian, Khapova, van de Loo and Lehman 2019: 2).

Mass trauma, such as colonialism and apartheid, and chronic long-standing poverty and unemployment can alter the way the victims make decisions, the leaders and parties they support, and how they vote.

Impact of trauma on individuals and societies

Traumas from terror regimes deny the humanity of those they oppress, resulting in broken individuals, communities, and societies. Mass trauma damages indigenous cultures, collective identities, and individual self-worth. It disfigures the sense of self, family, and the nature of interpersonal relationships. It distorts the individual and collective understanding of the world.

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. The terrifying impact of apartheid, treating black people as inferior, taking their property and preventing them from owning businesses, from entering certain professions, and banning them from entering certain spaces, causes not only individual but also collective trauma.

“The subsequent state of defencelessness, terrifying and confusing awareness of personal vulnerability gives rise to the anxiety and physiological reactivity that characterise post-traumatic stress disorder,” Janoff-Bulman writes.

Lack of development, decline, and breakdown in many communities and societies in the postcolonial, post-white minority, and post-apartheid governments adds to the trauma.

Post-traumatic societies have inherent challenges that undermine development. During trauma, individuals are often forced into moral compromises to survive, which blurs the line between right and wrong. Victims frequently live for the now because no imaginable future appears possible. Short-termism often becomes the norm, as planning for the future appears fruitless.

The survival mechanisms to cope with traumatic incidents of violence are not necessarily the same as for those people who live whole or “normal” lives; and may actually undermine living “normal”, whole or well-rounded lives.

Such societies may also grasp on false beliefs to ameliorate their fears, pain, and insecurity. They may also hold on to cultural practices — even if they are harmful — that give them a sense of place, self, and identity.

In the political sphere, many communities emerging from trauma may seek solidarity, embrace, and safety in group ethnic, language, or regional-based solidarity (Gumede 2012, 2017). These communities may attach loyalty to collective organisations and leaders which leads them through the traumatic event.

Such groups may also put misplaced ethnic, language, or political solidarity often with organisations, leaders, and practices that may not serve their interests anymore. At the same time, they may be very critical of their own who dissent from the “community”, follow a different political path, or their own conscience. Miri Scharf and Ofra Mayseless from Haifa University in a 2012 study showed that unprocessed trauma causes problems that lead to a siege-mentality, a scarcity mindset, and anxiety of the future.

Short-termism could continue into the post-independence period based on the belief that, even if one has reached a middle-class status, one can slip back into poverty.

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.

Victimhood could be transmitted by political and social organisations “that establish an event as traumatic, provide certain language that group members can use to refer to the collective victimization and work to build solidarity based on the sense of a shared traumatic past” (Vollhardt 2012: 48).

An organisation with members and supporters sharing the same traumatic past could provide support to each other (Vollhardt 2012). However, the victimhood mindset ironically is often the source of new conflict, unleashed by the formerly oppressed group, with the victim often become the perpetrator (Mamdani 2001; Vollhardt 2012).

The victimhood mentality proliferates through the community through the process of social learning (Bandura et al 1961), through collective community memories of the past, rituals, and family stories (Danieli 1998; Rousseau and Drapeau 1998).

The theory of social identity (Tajfel and Turner 1979; Turner and Mavin 2008) makes an argument for how whole communities, societies, and nations can identify themselves through the process as “victims” and may make collective decisions, whether in politics, government, or the economy through the lenses of “victims”, long after the collective traumatic event had been experienced.

Trauma is transmitted across generations

The experience of the trauma becomes part of memory, identity, and the self — and is passed on to subsequent generations as the victims of trauma often pass on their existential insecurity to offspring. Tcholakian, Khapova, van de Loo and Lehman (2019) write the collective trauma memories are transmitted through public, cultural, and social rituals, and through family stories, moulding collective and individual identities.

Miri Scharf and Ofra Mayseless in their 2012 study showed that trauma can be transmitted from victims of communal trauma, across second and third generations. Scharf and Mayseless’s findings were published in the November 2011 edition of the Quality Health Research Journal. Second and third-generation offspring of victims of trauma, although they did not experience the trauma themselves, often also behave as if they directly experienced the trauma.

The study focused on second-generation Israelis who are descendants of Holocaust victims, and their children, third-generation descendants. The study was done on healthy adults, with no apparent psychological problems. Scharf and Mayseless found that second-generation descendants described their parents appeared to be involved in a struggle for survival against a sinister world, always ready to cause them harm; therefore their parents were in perpetual mode to arm themselves for the unknown unexpected coming threats.

Their parents in anticipation of a future Holocaust would hoard food, essential items and be battle prepared to flee if necessary.  They worry about going hungry, developing life-threatening illnesses, and being impoverished. The Scharf and Mayseless research showed that such survival strategies were passed on the children and their children. Similar conclusions can be reached about the descendants of African victims of trauma – colonialism, apartheid, and dictatorships.

The psychodynamic theory explains how behaviour, values, and social beliefs are consciously and unconsciously transmitted through family and communities, through life stories, experiences, and memories (Zaleznik 1963; Kets de Vries et al 2013).

“Children raised in a family that has survived a collective trauma will identify themselves with the experiences, identities, and behaviors of their family’s collective trauma and glory. Even if descendants have not physically witnessed collective atrocities such as genocide, for instance, they can still be affected by the stories or memories shared by their caregivers and social groups” (Tcholakian, Khapova, van de Loo and Lehman 2019: 2).

So even if the trauma event happened some time ago, communities “may feel as though it took place only recently” (Volkan 2001).

Public leadership in countries coming from mass trauma

The social backgrounds, including coming from collective societal trauma situations, impacts leadership characteristics, convictions, and values, which ultimately influence their leadership behaviour, decision-making, and actions (Brown and Trevin0 2006; Tcholakian, Khapova, van de Loo and Lehman 2019). Childhood experiences influence a leader’s make-up (Murphy and Johnson 2011).

However, the collective background – cultural, social, and identity – of the community or group from which the leader emerges also deeply impacts a leader’s values, acceptable behaviours and actions (Popper and Amit 2009).  The leader’s values, behaviours, and patterns of decision-making develop based on how he or she “internalizes or makes meaning of these formative experiences” (Brown and Trevin0 2006; Tcholakian, Khapova, van de Loo and Lehman 2019: 3).

New leaders that emerge often, through social learning (Bandura et al

1961), based their styles on the role-modeling of the acceptable past and present trauma patterning leadership. In this way, many African countries get a pattern of successive poor leadership, without the cycle of poor leadership been broken.

Political leaders are off course also influenced by the political group they come from. African liberation movements, particularly those involved in armed struggles, operated as clandestine organisations, have a particular culture, socialisation, and identity, which become part of the DNA of members and leaders.

Many leaders will also assimilate the trauma-based characteristics of the victim groups they come from (Hogg 2001; Ashforth and Mael 1989; Tajfel and Turner 1979). They are likely to exhibit short-termism, scarcity and victimisation. They may also only focus on the interests of the victim group and not other groups.

Since the end of colonialism, apartheid and white-minority regimes, many African countries that emerged out of collective trauma appear to have had disproportionally large numbers of psychopathic, narcissistic and just mean-spirited leaders.

These leaders have ruled violently, cruelly and self-interestedly. Holding and defending power at all costs becomes more important than compassion, reason or communal interests. These types of leaders in many cases focus on their own self-aggrandizement, often deliberately sowing societal or ethnic divisions for self-enrichment and loot public resources.

In power, they also deliberately cause chaos, confusion and uncertainty – to perpetuate their rule. African post-traumatic societies, with their high levels of poverty, contestation over legal, cultural and moral codes, and lack of direction appear to be fertile ground for psychopathic, narcissistic, and mean-spirited liberation or independence leaders.

Many of Africa’s liberation and independence struggles to secure autonomy from colonial powers were armed ones. The second group of African liberation and independence movements were those where political movements did not fight colonial, apartheid or white minority regimes, but fought brutal first-generation post-colonial dictatorships.

Often in violent military struggles, as in the case in the struggles for liberation or independence in Africa, hard leaders who talk tough rhetoric against the oppressors, often rose easily through the leadership ranks of African liberation and independence movements.

Mass trauma has instilled a deep fear, anger, and resentment among many black communities for former colonial and apartheid elites (Gumede 2012, 2021; Gumede and Dikeni 2010). Not surprisingly, many former oppressed look at the world as continuing a black and white division between former colonial and apartheid governing elites, the “insiders” and the oppressed former disadvantaged, as the “outsiders” (Gumede 2012, 2017, 2021).

Leaders often gain popularity based on how violent – or how strident, they fight former colonial, white-minority, and apartheid regimes. So, many mass traumatized formerly oppressed communities appear to value what potential leaders say about the object of their fear, resentment, and anger more than their honesty, competency, and values.

In the post-colonial period, the former victims often continue to pursue politics based on fear, resentment, and anger against the former oppressors. When these leaders are in power, they often blame the former colonial powers for their own wrongdoing. The result is that many former oppressed people tolerate exploitative, corrupt, and violent black leaders because they may be useless, but at least they are black – supposedly one of us, and not white or from the oppressor communities.

Trauma produces a disproportionate number of broken leaders

Broken communities and societies tend to produce a disproportionate number of leaders who are broken, and, moreover, unable to transcend their brokenness.

Since the end of colonialism, apartheid and white-minority regimes, many African countries appear to have had disproportionally large numbers of psychopathic, narcissistic and just mean-spirited leaders.

Psychopathic leaders suffer from abnormally violent intimate, social and political behaviour. For narcissists, grabbing, holding and defending power at all costs becomes more important than compassion, reason or communal interests. Mean-spirited leaders are motivated by cruelty.

All these types of leaders in many cases focus on their own self-aggrandizement, often deliberately sowing societal or ethnic divisions for self-enrichment and loot public resources. In power, they also deliberately cause chaos, confusion and uncertainty – to perpetuate their rule.

African countries, with their high levels of poverty, contestation over legal, cultural and moral codes, and lack of direction are fertile ground for psychopathic, narcissistic and mean-spirited liberation or independence leaders.

Such societies often vote for autocratic figures: either father figures or strongmen, who can supposedly defend them against former threats, such as former colonial powers, “enemy” groups and hostile former elites from the ancient regime.

Many opportunistic leaders understand — and exploit — the broken nature of communities for self-enrichment.

Traumatised societies often vote for populists who promise nirvana and offer simplistic solutions to complex problems. These could be church leaders, traditional leaders or sangomas who offer quick fixes to soothe broken souls.

Traumatised societies often support autocratic, corrupt and incompetent leaders, because they are “one of us”. This can also lead to misplaced racial, ethnic and community solidarity — someone will be supported, no matter how corrupt, incompetent or abusive they are, because “they are one of us”.

Similarly, traumatic societies may also grasp on false beliefs to ameliorate their fears, pain, and insecurity. They may also hold on to cultural, political and religious practices — even if they are harmful — that give them a sense of place, self and identity.

Such groups may also put misplaced ethnic, language or political solidarity often with organisations, leaders and practices that may not serve their interests anymore.

Mass trauma has instilled deep fear, anger and resentment in many black communities for former colonial and apartheid elites. The problem is that this fear, resentment and anger-based politics against the other creates an environment in which authoritarian political leaders — who seemingly provide a “fightback” against the objects of the fear, resentment and anger — are appealing.

Thus, many mass-traumatised and formerly oppressed communities appear to value what potential leaders say about the object of their fear, resentment and anger more than they value their honesty, competency and values.

Ironically, such leaders undermine the interests of those who support them — causing them more poverty, underdevelopment and marginalisation and, therefore, more trauma.

Some societies may fall into cultural, ethnic and religious fundamentalism as a way to restore their sense of self, identity and humanity. They may also become intolerant to outsiders. They often easily see others, who do not look like them, speak like them or have a different religion — but who may also have been oppressed — as threats, competitors and enemies.

Finally, they may easily fall to scapegoating, blaming “enemies” for development failures, which may in some cases be self-inflicted whether because of poor country leadership or poor policies. The injustice by the victim group often then gives the group a “moral justification and legitimization” to harm others (Macdonald, 2003; Mamdani, 2001; Ramanathapillai, 2006; Stern, 1995).

Positive leadership attributes in societies in trauma

The type of leadership in a country recovering from trauma is crucial if the country is to overcome the legacy of the trauma and foster peaceful, inclusive and prosperous societies.

Leadership is at a higher premium in societies that come from trauma and which are ethnically diverse, have high levels of inequality and where democratic rules, institutions and democratic governance are not fully embraced by all. Poor leadership prevents the institutionalisation of democratic constitutions, laws and racial, language or religious inclusivity.

Good leadership is a pillar of democratic good governance, the way the values of the country, as encompassed under its constitution, are embedded. Leaders can either foster the underlying values, inclusive nationhood and peaceful co-existence set out in democratic constitutions, or undermine these.

What attributes should leaders cultivate in societies that have suffered from mass trauma? Honesty is crucial. And they must refrain from seeking refuge in victimhood. The past cannot be erased, but one can choose how to respond to the past, and how to forge a new future. They must desist from blaming the actions of the former oppressor for their own decisions.

Leaders must govern in the best interests of all. Leadership that is in the widest public interest, aligned with the values of the constitution, and is compassionate – promotes good governance.

Self-awareness is crucial. Reuel Khoza, the South African businessperson, rightly argues that leaders “must have emotional intelligence, self-knowledge and the ability to self-reflect”. Regularly assess your strengths, shortcomings and whether you are believing your own hype.

Set clear personal, career and spiritual goals – use these to hold yourself accountable. Do you know where you’re going? What do you want to achieve – and when? Create your own board directors – people you admire, want to emulate, who inspire and energise you. Commit to life-long learning – and making life-long changes when it is necessary.

Character matters and is built on values such as compassion, social justice, forgiveness, and measuring self-worth — not by money, material trappings or power. Sadly, many leaders prioritise power over all else.

Leaders should not make decisions based on ethnic, racial, and community solidarity, but based on ethical values. They should dismiss both harmful beliefs and traditions. And they should never strive for popularity when it compromises constitutional values, human rights and dignity.

Leaders must emphasise forgiveness and reconciliation, rather than stay in a revenge mindset (Tcholakian, Khapova, van de Loo and Lehman 2019: 3). Forgiveness is of course very difficult in countries like South Africa where the former perpetrator leaders and communities did not acknowledge the harm they have done, beyond blaming a few “rotten” apples (Gumede).

“Forgiveness may be an almost impossible action for descendants of collective groups whose trauma has not been acknowledged. The pain that lingers on from the trauma of forefathers–and the lack of acknowledgment of the trauma by the perpetrators–hinders the process of finding peace and cultivates vengefulness” (Vollhardt 2012: 147).

The US writer Rebecca Solnit wrote rightly: “Making an injury visible and the public is usually the first step in remedying it” (Solnit 2016a).

At the individual level forgiveness leads to inner peace, at the communal level it helps with healing from the trauma, and start to build trust in relationships with members of communities with which they have had conflicts  (Tcholakian, Khapova, van de Loo and Lehman 2019; Vollhardt 2012). However, it also helps to foster peace at a communal level between the victim and the perpetrators. “When leaders have vengeful emotions due to their traumatic past, their ability to exercise authentic or exemplary leadership may be hindered” (Vollhardt 2012: 145).

Forgiveness also helps generate empathy – the ability to understand the feelings of others – for others (Johnson et al 2012; van Dierendonck and Patterson 2015). Being victims before should give former victims greater empathy for others who are vulnerable and against whom injustices have been perpetrated.

Leaders must use the legacy of trauma to lead from a point of justice, fairness and in the widest public interest, not in the interest of only the victim community (Tcholakian, Khapova, van de Loo and Lehman 2019).

Leaders must be resilient to lead complex change after traumatic events (Bonanno, 2004; Tugade and Fredrickson, 2004), and not fall into the trap of victimhood, scapegoating and using the trauma to excuse self-inflicted failures. Andrea Ovans (2015) writes in the Harvard Business Review that organisational resilience is the “ability to recover from setbacks, adapt well to change, and keep going in the face of adversity”.

Leaders must lead with hope (Brueggemann 2018). Do not let despair, defeatism and cynicism bring you down. US writer Rebecca Solnit (2016) so convincingly argues in another context that hope doesn’t 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).

Maria Popova (2015) the Bulgarian writer argues “critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naivety”. Patrisse Cullors, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter, described the organisation’s aim as to “provide hope and inspiration for collective action to build collective power to achieve collective transformation, rooted in grief and rage but pointed towards vision and dreams” (SF Weekly 2015).

Perhaps, in the South African case, black South Africans should have done more to practice collective mourning of the trauma of apartheid and colonialism, to cleanse society, and to try to move on.


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William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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