But What Colour White: The White Psyche in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Lesley N. Clark
Western Cape, South Africa
Southern African Association of Jungian Analysts

In 1967 Oswald Mtshali, a black South African poet, wrote:

Man is,
A great wall builder –
The Berlin Wall
The Wailing Wall of Jerusalem
But the wall
Most impregnable
Has a moat
Flowing with fright
Around his heart.

A wall
Without windows
For the spirit
To breeze through

A wall
Without a door
For love to walk in.

The walls around our hearts and souls have grown old, covered in peat and moss they have become part of our organic landscape. We know not of their presence until we gasp for breath through the suffocation of our spirits. We know not of their presence until we cut ourselves and refuse to bleed. And so our lives are threatened, the enemy still living outside of ourselves, we build ideological walls so that we might find our breath, and so that our blood might find its course. But our breath is still suffocated and our wounds still refuse to bleed.

Do we white, westernised South Africans recognise the extent of our wounding? As children of our fore-fathers we knew not what we were doing. We suffered white guilt, but it became a psychological state upon which we lived our parched and rarefied lives. We never understood that this guilt was the promise of our soul’s redemption; that it incubated the remnants of our humanity and that once acknowledged could inspire right action. It was the cross we would bear. Unlike the cross of Christ which held the opposing tendencies and tensions of human nature, good and evil, white and black, rich and poor, north and south, our cross promised redemption through the splitting of opposites and through the maintenance of a duality.

Either you are with us or you are against us.

I believe that we redeem our humanity when we become conscious of our guilt and shame, when we have a personal response to the exploitative systems of which we are a part, whether active or passive. We must tolerate these feelings in order to know and differentiate them and then we might liberate ourselves from the stereotypes and prejudices of the past enabling us, as human beings, to participate fully in our new democracy and in seeking a new world order. Jung believed that people who found their own guilt were enriched and enjoyed a sense of honour and spiritual dignity.

Our western patriarchal system has distanced us from forgiving and nourishing relationships with nature, one another, and with ourselves. As power has displaced Eros, in a principled and fundamentalist world, many human beings experience a profound absence of grace, generation upon generation upon generation. This has hardened our walls and made them increasingly inflexible and impermeable. An archetypal defensiveness constellates around core feelings of existential and cultural guilt and shame, making it extremely difficult to engage with these feelings. Possibly Donald Kalsched’s self-care system suggests some understanding of the nature of this defensiveness – a core defense system arising in the psyche in an attempt to preserve and protect the spirit of the individual, whose heart has been broken by trauma. (Kalsched, 1997).

I believe that the trauma that many white, western identified, South Africans have experience, exists in the dislocation of their hearts and souls and the violation of their capacity to experience true compassion and empathy for those they perceive to be different, and inferior to themselves. It lies in their alienation from nature and from themselves. Vital aspects of our feeling lives were repressed, resulting in widespread fears which today are still projected onto an external foe rather than being recognized as being birthed from forgotten aspects of our own beings. We became dependent on the attitudes and beliefs of others to inform our actions and legitimize our morality and no space grew which could hold and contain the darkness in our spirits.

Our trauma exists in an identification with a sense of superiority and entitlement based on nothing more than the pigmentation of skin and the texture of hair. It exists in a collusion with a system which inflicted unspeakable hardship and cruelty on some while endowing a God-ordained superiority and unearned privilege on others. It exists in a failure to take a stand against what was so wrong, and for continuing to deny any responsibility for it. And it exists in a superficiality of character and in a thinness of spirit. It exists in a refusal to feel any guilt or shame – or to bear witness to the suffering that was and is the legacy of apartheid. It manifests in lives characterized by fear and foreboding, in a haunting, dank and musty space, where our attitudes and actions offend our deepest sense of who we are and who we as human beings might be – out of sight and hearing of a forgiving and all-embracing God. The trauma exists in a truncated experience of our humanness and a belief that that is all there is.

Indeed, Jung recognised man’s tendency to “stoop to every kind of self-deception if only he could escape the sight of himself.” (1945, §201).

In the absence of significant recognition that white South Africans were also victims of apartheid, many live with a dis-ease which, unnamed, cannot begin to heal. Nelson Mandela believes that apartheid damaged both the oppressor and the oppressed. “The oppressor through his humiliation in the captivity of hate, and the oppressed through the degrading powerlessness.” Both need to be freed from their respective suffering.

Because it is so difficult to acknowledge or speak of white suffering in the face of the extraordinary brutalization of people of colour during the apartheid years, many white people have been rendered mute to their personal suffering. Feelings so long dismissed. As a culture we are blessed by the irony of our history as many years of conscious suffering of our leaders today offer white South Africans forgiveness and the possibility of moving forward together. Of course for us to reconcile with one another and ourselves we must face into ourselves, and many are having a very difficult time doing so, as our cultural defenses become more rigid. Many do not expect forgiveness, and many others would say they do not want or need it. Consequently there is some difficulty being receptive to the generosity of spirit offered by many black South Africans.

Ubuntu, umuntu, ngumuntu, ngabantu, or, a person is a person because of other people, recognizes the interconnectedness of all people. It is Jung’s collective unconscious. In Africa, my pain is your pain, my joy is your joy, my salvation is your salvation. This is not a concept which resonates readily with the ideologies of the white, western psyche. I think, therefore I am – where an inflated, Persona- identified Ego fails to relate to Self.

I believe that until a real empathy is found for the nature of the wounding of the white psyche, white South Africans will remain defensive and non-reflective, and continue to feel persecuted by and withdrawn from commentaries on their character by other South Africans.

Thabo Mbeki, our president, says South Africa was “… a place where others always knew that the accident of their birth entitled them to wealth. Accordingly, these put aside all humane values, worshipping a world whose only worth was the accumulation of wealth.” (2004) This perception is echoed by many. During the dark days of apartheid Archbishop Desmond Tutu noted how ready white people were to sacrifice their souls for the promise of physical and material security.

Indeed it is an unconscious sacrifice which many white, western identified people continue to make today. We maintain our wounding through our materialism and addictions, keeping ourselves numbed to the impact of our actions, thoughts, and feelings.

But what Colour White

Professor Njabulo Ndebele, the vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, notes the blinding sterility at the centre of the “heart of whiteness” and he believes that “’the heart of darkness’ has become the condition of ‘whiteness’ at the Southern corner of the African continent.” (IJR, 2000)

The state of denial and avoidance of many white South Africans reflects an underdeveloped ego, the development of which is necessary to confront and integrate overwhelming shadow material. If we are to find the very best in ourselves while confronting the very worst, we must create the psychological context and understanding which will support this exceptionally demanding process.

A thorough exploration of the factors affecting the white psyche is beyond the scope of this paper; however, it is interesting to note the devastating impact of one man and his small group of Nationalists. The personal neuroses of a few powerful Afrikaner men informed an ideology which closed peoples’ minds and hearts, and consciously set out to undermine the power, thinking, and ultimately the dignity of others. It was dehumanizing, and damaged or destroyed the lives of the majority of South Africans, black and white, leaving a legacy which will be felt for generations to come.

South Africa’s own Father of Psychology, and acclaimed architect of apartheid, H. F. Verwoerd, wrote a Ph.D. thesis titled “Die Afstomping van Gemoedsaandoeninge,” the Blunting of Emotion. Interesting, given the system he, as minister of education, put in place, some thirty years later, with it’s foundation in the blunting of the affect of all the people of this land.

Like an over-indulgent parent the Apartheid government endeavored to protect its white citizens from a broad range of suffering. It reserved specific work, residential areas and schools for whites, and restricted competition and opportunities – few white people went without. We had our own benches, beaches, buses, books, boardrooms – it was made so easy to forget that there was a human being in that black skin, that had to ask permission, baas, madam.

As Thabo Mbeki says, “For too long our country contained within it and represented much that is ugly and repulsive in human society.” (Mbeki, 2004)

We became a culture with little capacity to suffer, we were not emotionally robust, and had developed little capacity for relatedness and responsibility. We did not even have to take responsibility for our own racism. Jung says, “… a state of degradation can come about only under certain conditions. Loss of self-preservation can be measured in terms of dependence on the State … every man enjoys a false feeling of security … one is no longer aware of one’s own insecurity.” (1945, §201)

Our President’s Inaugural speech this year reflects on how “Die afstomping van gemoedsaandoeninge,” or the numbing of affect, created “a place in which squalor, the stench of poverty, the open sewers, the decaying rot, the milling crowds of wretchedness, the unending images of a landscape strewn with carelessly abandoned refuse, assumed an aspect that seemed necessary to enhance the beauty of another world of tidy streets, and wooded lanes, and flowers’ blossoms offsetting the green and singing grass, and birds and houses fit for kings and queens, and lyrical music, and love.” (Mbeki, 2004)

Sadly, while so much has changed, this still remains a fitting image for our new democratic South Africa. It seems impossible not to feel and experience the fundamental injustices which have existed and continue to exist in our land. Squatter camps, street people, joblessness, hawkers at traffic lights, in car parks, hunger, everywhere. The scourge of HIV/AIDs. That white South Africans are particularly fearful and untrusting seems appropriate given an ongoing marked discrepancy in wealth and privilege, along with an inability and resistance to recognizing and taking responsibility for their racism and psychological violence. Surely this must evoke feelings of resentment, envy, rage and the need to retaliate. Yet, current research indicates that many of these fears are not in fact reality based.

Jung believed that when some part of the personality was prevented from living or was kept in check, fear would be generated and it would change into a deadly fear of the instinctual unconscious, which becomes cut off from life by a continual shrinking back from reality. It is this process which gives rise to the “blinding sterility at the heart of whiteness.”

This extraordinary city, Barcelona, has reminded me of a freedom of being so long forgotten, and has caused me to reflect on our cities, constructed not to bring people together but to keep them apart – keeping the poverty and “milling wretchedness” out of sight and hearing, ensuring that without consciousness nothing would change. Yet it is in the townships where the majority of black South Africans live that there is a vitality and vibrancy, a communal space where lives and dreams are shared. As our new city parents set about righting apartheid’s wrongs, so is there the possibility of a new way of being and a new way of relating, and the face of our environment increasingly grows to support a greater consciousness and an enrichment of spirit.

Rilke’s appeal: “Surely these ancient sufferings of ours should finally begin to bear fruit,” seems apposite for all – however, for our suffering to bear fruit, we must become more conscious. While we understand the impact that colonialism and racism has had on its victims, we do not fully appreciate the impact that it has had on the psyches of its beneficiaries, on the “oppressors.” If we are to understand the responsibility we carry and the role we must play in developing a just and peaceful world order, we need to recognise and understand the psychological damage we, as beneficiaries of these systems, have experienced, and what we need to do in order to heal ourselves and our relationships with our neighbours. We must begin to hear one another’s stories and we need to being to tell our own.

During the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings, after the end of Apartheid, Antjie Krog, the daughter of an old Afrikaner family, wrote the following poem.

Because of you
This country no longer lies
Between us but within

It breaths becalmed
After being wounded
In its wondrous throat

In the cradle of my skull
It sings, it ignites
My tongue, my inner ear, the cavity of heart
Shudders toward the outline
New in soft intimate clicks and gutturals

Of my soul the retina learns to expand
Daily because by a thousand stories
I was scorched

A new skin

I am changed forever, I want to say:
Forgive me
Forgive me
Forgive me

You whom I have wronged, please
Take me
With you.

We may yet experience grace.
Nkosi sikelel’e i’afrika. God Bless Africa.


  • Jung, C.G. “Civilization in Transition” Collected Works, Vol. 10. Routledge, 1964.
  • _____. “After the Catastrophe” Vol. 10, 1945.
  • _____. “Mind and earth” Vol. 10, 1931.
  • Kalsched, D. The Inner World of Trauma: Archetypal Defenses of the Personal Spirit. London: Routledge, 1997.
  • Krog, A. Country of my Skull. New York: Random House, 1998.
  • Mbeki. T. Inaugural Speech, April, 2004.
  • Mtshali. O.J. Sounds of a Cowhide Drum. Renoster Books, 1971.
  • Ndebele, N. Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, in Institute of Justice and Reconciliation Journal, 2000. (IJR, 2000).
  • Tutu, D. No Future Without Forgiveness. Rider, 1999. (Public lecture at University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, 1978, on the occasion of the death of Neil Aggatt.
  • Verwoerd, H. F. Die Afstomping van Gemoedsaandoeninge, Stellenbosch University, 1924.
  • Xolela Mangcu, in Karin Lombard’s article in Institute of Justice and Reconciliation Journal, December, 2003 (IJR, 2003).