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A conversation is recounted in the book # Shantaram  in which the character, Khaderbhai, says: “There is no such thing as believing in #G...

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Wednesday, 3 February 2016


I was listening to a senior judge being interviewed on the radio the other day.  She made a comment along the lines that “apartheid caused Black people to lose confidence in their ability”.  I don’t doubt that there is more than a grain of truth in what the judge says.  In particular, I don’t doubt that many black people are not as confident of their ability as they might have been had there not been an era of apartheid.  What I do want to challenge is that apartheid itself caused the loss of confidence as opposed to how the people who were subject to the injustices of apartheid processed their experience.

Now, before I get branded a racist (and become a player in the current national sport) for suggesting that apartheid did not cause lasting psychological damage in people, let me unequivocally and unconditionally state that apartheid was an appalling blot on the history of South Africa and many people remain scarred by it to this day.  However, my point is something different.

What is so is that apartheid, or indeed any systematic oppression (e.g. an abusive spouse, a violent teacher or a brutal parent) will behave in a manner in which the victims of that oppression may start to doubt themselves.  If someone is repeatedly told that he or she is useless / ugly / no good / not worth feeding / incompetent / lazy and so on, it becomes easy for him to start believing that if it is repeated often enough.  A typical pattern is where someone in authority makes a comment which might seem plausible on the face of it and then becomes the recipient's reality.  If I say to an employee often enough that she is lazy or not good enough, eventually she will believe it, especially if there is no other point of reference against which the statement can be verified as true or false.  The moment you start believing a statement or judgement, no matter how wrong it might be objectively, you start behaving in a way which makes it true for yourself.

So, if a teacher (one who would know) tells me that I am stupid, I might start believing that I am stupid (especially if I have no objective facts against which to measure this statement) and then lose the belief of confidence in myself that I am capable of doing anything that requires a modicum of intelligence.  Fundamentally, I have taken someone else’s statement which has been presented to me as true, adopted it as my own truth and thereafter behaved in terms of that truth.  Factually, the original statement was judgemental, not based against any objective criterion and so unspecific (and therefore wrong) that I end up adopting as my truth or my reality a belief which someone else has imposed on me and behave as if it were true.  Springing from the belief that I am stupid, my mind then invents several more beliefs about myself such as “I am incompetent”, “I am unworthy”, “I will never succeed” and perhaps “I don’t have what it takes”.

We then walk around with this as our world view and behave as if we are incapable.  The tragedy is that this is nothing more than a type of internal computer program that boots up over and over again in our minds to inform us about our inabilities, unworthiness and place in the world.

So what I am suggesting is that, just because the custodians and benefactors of the apartheid regime might have said things about Black people and their competence and capability does not mean that those things were true.  All it means is that those things were said and a number of Black people (most definitely not all) allowed those to become their reality and hence lost their confidence.

The good news is that, because that is just a program of unverified or untrue beliefs which runs in people’s minds, the internal computer can be reprogrammed with verifiable facts about those same people’s capability.  Even if people lost confidence as a result of apartheid (or any other form of oppression), it does not mean that the program cannot be changed and they cannot regain confidence by learning to esteem themselves and recognizing their inherent skills and qualities.  It may take time, but no-one needs for one  moment to believe that because he or she was oppressed, bullied or abused, he or she is somehow less than other human beings.  If that were not the case, how is it that some Blacks who were raised under the apartheid regime are lacking in confidence, but there are many others raised under the same regime who are super-confident and have been super-successful in their lives?  Same regime, different approach to life.

I want to suggest, therefore (and with the greatest respect), that the judge was wrong.  Apartheid did not cause people to lose confidence so don't blame apartheid itself: that is the easy way to explain why some people are struggling in their lives. Rather blame the way in which their minds processed apartheid and caused the loss of confidence. The moment the unconfident ones have that piece,  they can re-program their minds, re-process their lives and regain their lost confidence.

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