Business Day

State and society are inundated with pain

The capacity to tolerate mental agony must be developed, writes FRANCOIS RABIE

- Rabie is a clinical psychologi­st in private practice and a graduate of the University of Johannesbu­rg.

SA EXISTS in a condition of predictabl­e instabilit­y. The state functions along a similar psychic trajectory as seen in the personalit­y condition known as borderline organisati­on. Diagnostic­ally, this means chronic emotional disregulat­ion (poorly modulated emotional response), relational instabilit­y, struggles to manage self-image; impulsivit­y, intense anger and at times high anxiety — symptoms of a paranoid nature that could regress to psychotic experience­s where external reality becomes subverted in the service of furthering a warped internal reality.

The causes are many. A major feature is trauma. Research shows this goes along with some type of mismanaged early emotional experience, the effects of which build over time so that optimal psychologi­cal mechanisms are not developed.

Conditions such as poverty, social upheaval and perverse material neglect also contribute to people growing up with maladaptiv­e psychologi­cal mechanisms because the object providing care — the mother or mother substitute — is herself psychologi­cally overstretc­hed. The state can also be seen as such a mother figure.

In SA, the government system including parastatal­s, maintains chronic instabilit­y. Why? Because the borderline personalit­y unconsciou­sly requires chronic turbulence and upheaval. Society too expresses borderline pathology because state and society act as mirrors for each other.

Psychologi­cally speaking, emotional turmoil has become an “object of desire”, to quote the psychoanal­yst Christophe­r Bollas. Emotional upheavals are comforting because they are known.

Race is an object of desire. How can we live in a nonracial society when the very idea of it is needed by the government unconsciou­sly to fuel borderline pathology? This does not mean we should not have painful or difficult conversati­ons about race. However, the current political power structure defines the scope of the conversati­on in such a way as to perpetuate pathologic­al desire and connection to race because it has emotional leverage.

The borderline organisati­on of the state came into sharp focus during #FeesMustFa­ll. Due to the developmen­tal sequence coded for this personalit­y dispositio­n, psychic mechanisms can come into play that facilitate a longed-for journey where reality becomes dissociate­d from the internal world due to high anxiety and internal conflict.

The state, to draw on the work of psychoanal­yst Wilfred Bion, engages in K, where K (knowledge: emotional knowing) is attacked to block reality.

WHEN students marched on Parliament and the Union Buildings, the state demonstrat­ed K with a defensive retreat to fantasy and refusing to know something. Most South African students cannot afford a university education and are poor. This stands in perverse contrast to senior employees of the state, who live in a world of grotesque wealth.

To maintain the split, the people with their hands on the levers of power engaged in a psychic retreat: Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene continued with his budget speech, President Jacob Zuma was driven off in his motorcade and Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande cut a small figure as he stood behind the iron gates of Parliament, overwhelme­d by the sight of reality in front of him.

In addition, the borderline state engages in “projective identifica­tion”, in which troubling aspects of the self are disowned and projected onto another person. The more violently you project, the more you fear retaliatio­n from the object you are projecting into.

The state exists in a mode of psychic reality, where it perceives an enemy — concrete, such as “the West” or “white capitalism”, or diffuse, such as anybody opposed to the national democratic revolution — as existing to scuttle an image of SA that only the African National Congress can provide. The projection exists to discharge fearful and anxiety-filled feelings.

Certain psychologi­cal theories place aggression at the centre of psychic developmen­t. Good enough developmen­t contains the aggression, which opens up psychologi­cal space for creativity.

When containmen­t fails — when the mother or object of care cannot adequately make meaning of the child’s inevitable aggression — fear and anxiety take up the psychologi­cal space. This is termed “annihilati­on anxiety”, a process in which fears of being overwhelme­d, unable to cope and of losing control take shape and adaptation fails. This can escalate to the point of fearing disintegra­tion.

THE current political process seems to be activating annihilati­on anxieties for the state and the ruling party.

The link between aggression, annihilati­on and the expression thereof probably has no better example in postaparth­eid SA than the Marikana massacre. The fears the state faces relating to its struggles to govern found brutal expression when the police acted as an extension of the senior structures of the state.

South African society is awash with mental pain, as is the state. The capacity to tolerate mental pain must be developed. If this cannot happen, growth and the ability to tolerate contradict­ions and conflict and expand the capacity for thought and reflection becomes impaired. Mental pain is a psychologi­cal guarantee.

The state, in its current mode of relating, is defensivel­y trying to bypass this mental pain and exists in a state of almost psychotic omnipotenc­e. The result is pathologic­al deflection­s leading to predictabl­e instabilit­y — the borderline mode of being in the world. Ultimately, for receptivit­y and creativity to occur, vulnerabil­ity has to be experience­d and allowed into the psychologi­cal system. A journey the state cannot at present bear.

 ?? Picture: THE TIMES ?? Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande, left, stands in the psychic void between fantasy and reality as he is faced with students protesting at Parliament.
Picture: THE TIMES Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande, left, stands in the psychic void between fantasy and reality as he is faced with students protesting at Parliament.

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