Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Transforming Societies after Political Violence

My book Transforming Societies After Political Violence: Truth, Reconciliation and Mental Health, now published by Springer in New York.

Transforming Societies after Political Violence offers a template for those tasked with providing truth, justice, reconciliation, and healing. This interdisciplinary study identifies complex relationships between recovery from political violence and the psychological processes that accompany widespread social change, showing how these can be integrated to strengthen both individual and society. Author Brandon Hamber draws on his extensive experience in South Africa and comparative examples from elsewhere to examine the centrality of mental health issues in transitional justice, and the social, cultural, and identity issues involved in meeting the needs of victims. In discussing reparations (what the author terms "repairing the irreparable"), the power of ambivalence, and especially concepts of closure, he eloquently sets out professionals’ roles in helping survivors move beyond the toxic past without covering it up or becoming mired in it. ISBN: 978-0-387-89426-3, Springer 2009


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How to victims heal? We should not be too quick to presume. Those seeking truth and justice often prioritize victims’ interests – but without always fully understanding what those interests and needs are, or how different victims may recover in very different ways. Based on fifteen years of working with and listening to victims and survivors, Brandon Hamber helps us better understand the mental health backdrop to atrocity and recovery. With plentiful, poignant stories, and clear policy recommendations, this book should help shape – and greatly improve – future endeavors to confront unimaginable memories and pain (Priscilla Hayner, International Centre for Transitional Justice and author of Unspeakable Truths: confronting state terror and atrocity)

Brandon Hamber nails this tricky subject with humility, insight, learned insight, and golden recommendations..... if you are interested in how humans try to grapple with the consequences of man’s brutality to man, and ultimately the truth, read it! (Thulani Grenville-Grey, former South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission Mental Health Specialist)

Brandon Hamber's experience in multiple sites of transitional justice work, and his rare ability to bridge the academic and theoretical with the practical and logistical, ensures this publication is an extremely valuable contribution and a must read to those working in this fast evolving field (Piers Pigou, former South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission Investigator and Director of the South African History Archive).

Brandon Hamber has written a challenging and good interdisciplinary book, which will not only be helpful to those dealing with mental health issues during transitions from conflict, but also to lawyers and those concerned with conflict resolution more generally (Christine Bell, Director, Institute of Transitonal Justice, University of Ulster)

How countries recover from political atrocity is a question that has confronted dozens of regimes around the world for decades. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is an iconic symbol of what for some is a profound achievement in restructuring a “peaceful society.” In Transforming Societies After Political Violence: Truth, Reconciliation, and Mental Health Dr. Brandon Hamber applies his many years of experience both within the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and beyond it to a careful analysis of the complex issues – legal, historical, social, psychological - embedded in such a process. It is his astute attention to these complexities that make his book so rich. Hamber says that “if the TRC process and working with the victims appearing before it taught me anything it was that the psychological life of the survivor of extreme violence is cut through by this complexity." His work is clear testimony to that statement Transforming Societies After Political Violence is a valuable resource for researchers, practitioners, scholars and policy makers. If you read one book about countries emerging from their violent pasts, it should be Dr. Brandon Hamber’s Transforming Societies After Political Violence. I will rely on this volume in my ongoing work and I predict it will become a definitive text in this area (Nina K. Thomas, Ph.D., ABPP, Chair, Specialization in Trauma and Disaster Studies; NYU Postdoctoral program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis; Co-Chair, Relational Orientation; NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis; Adjunct Clinical Associate Professor NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis)

Hamber brings an acute clinical sensibility and sophisticated research mind to a complex problem: state handling of reconciliation after a catastrophic upheaval. … his main focus in this book is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process. … a must read for any psychologist working with trauma survivors, especially postconflict trauma survivors. It calls upon a rich literature–from psychoanalysis … to trial transcripts of commissions; it integrates all these sources to provide a truly unique contribution to the psychology of trauma." (Don Dutton, PsycCRITIQUES, Vol. 54 (47/3), November, 2009)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Belfast and Johannesburg: peas in a racist pod?

I long to live in a society where there is no racism but, living between Belfast and Johannesburg, this is impossible.

About a year ago, xenophobia in South Africa hit the international newspapers. Foreigners, mainly from Africa, were driven from their homes, with over 50 people being killed. Over 100 people have been prosecuted for the attacks. But recently information surfaced that local businesspeople in some townships have been meeting secretly to ‘look at’ how to rid the community of businesses owned by immigrants. Sporadic attacks continue.

Belfast recently featured in international papers with a similar storyline. Some 100 Romanians were forced from their homes by mobs of young people claiming the immigrants were taking their jobs and houses and stealing from the local community. The attacks seemed to take on a neo-Nazi feel, with swastikas and Nazi salutes being prominent. Most of the Romanians have now left Northern Ireland.

However, attacks against foreigners in Northern Ireland are not new. They have been a consistent feature of the society over the last decade.

In 2004, for example, Bill Rolston, at the University of Ulster, highlighted attacks against Pakistanis, Chinese and Zimbabwean immigrants, besides others. He also reported on incidents where local minorities were greeted at night by masked men robbing their houses and telling them: “You won’t be needing these; you’ll be leaving soon.”

Police statistics show that, in 1996, there were 41 racist incidents recorded; in 2006 and 2007, there were 1 047. Research by Neil Jarman, of the Institute of Conflict Research, has found that such incidents, although perceived as taking place largely in working-class Protestant areas in Belfast and linked to far right groups, have been documented in Catholic areas and recorded in all major cities, towns and villages in Northern Ireland. Perpetrators of such incidents also vary and are not restricted to rightwingers and paramilitary groups, as some believe.

Of course, the increase in incidents of racism can reflect the growing number of immigrants, improved reporting rates and the increased visibility of the issue. But the numeric increase is undeniable and the figures are also under-representative because many incidents go unreported. Weighing up the research on the issue, the conclusion is clear: racism is a serious problem in Northern Ireland.

The public response has been interesting. As in South Africa, the majority have condemned the xenophobic violence, and a range of antiracism protests have been organised. These actions are commendable. However, there also seems to be social distancing from the problem. Routinely, commentators and the public make reference to “groups of thugs” being responsible and are at pains to point out that the majority are welcoming and want foreigners in the cities.

I agree that the incidents are the work of relatively small groups, but there also seems to be a lack of acknowledgement that prejudice is deeply ingrained across the society, as it is in South Africa. People in Northern Ireland, like those in South Africa, tend to take notice only when problems explode. In the times in between, most of us, including politicians, ignore low-level violence and racism. This reinforces the idea that there is an ‘acceptable’ level of violence and that some racism is tolerable. This creates the foundation for extremism.

I am yet to meet an African living in Belfast, myself included, who has not, at some point, been abused for not being from the society. Such incidents are generally not life threatening and most people are indeed friendly, but the hatred must be coming from somewhere and cannot be overlooked or seen as concerning specific individuals only.

In this context, surely, the majority of the population’s general avoidance of issues until they reach mammoth proportions, the ongoing use of segregated schools and housing, which inculcates a propensity for division, and the fact that most political parties continue to appeal to voters using narrow, single-identity politics and, in some cases, anti-immigration rhetoric, cannot be helping the situation.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 10 July 2009 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.