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 busines- ses 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 inci- dents 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 underrepresentative 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 toler- able. 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.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, July 2009. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 10 July 2009.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Is man-made climate change just hot air?

It appears, as a species, that humans are prone to ignoring problems rather than dealing with them. Take for example the recent claim by Northern Ireland Minister of the Environment Sammy Wilson* that the hubbub about global warming is exaggerated.

Mr Wilson is “not of the opinion that climate change is happening at the rate that some would tell us it is” and he does “not believe that it is within the power of humans to change the climate of the planet through reducing CO2 emissions”.

Nicholas Stern, author of the Stern Review on climate change commissioned by the British government in 2006, laughs off such claims. In his recent book, A Blueprint For a Safer Planet, he notes that what astounds him about the denial of man-made climate change and what needs to be done by humans to stop it, is that deniers are generally non-scientists. Mr Wilson is a case in point: he is a Politics and Economics graduate, and qualified teacher.

Of course, everyone is entitled to their point of view, and Mr Wilson is not an idiot and has no doubt studied the subject. We should also not squash dissenting voices as they can move debates forward. I also agree with Mr Wilson that the green debate can get a bit hysterical at times. But surely all us non-scientists can rely on are rational and scientific voices on certain issues.

Stern, who the Guardian describes as “soberly suited” and “grey”, does not fit the caricature of an alarmist green radical. Yet Stern remains adamant that given the robust nature of the science on the human effects of emissions, arguments by those that deny it are akin to denying an association between HIV and Aids or smoking and cancer.

Interestingly Stern goes on to analyse why some people deny climate change or paint those that talk about it as over-the-top. He concludes most of the naysayers do so for political reasons.

From Stern’s perspective some right wing thinkers want to deny climate change because they see it as a Trojan Horse for greater regulation of the free market. Some left wing thinkers tend to see environmentalism as a middle class preoccupation that diverts attention from the urgent need for economic growth in the developing world.

In Mr Wilson’s case he clearly holds the Trojan Horse theory, trashing the idea of green taxes which he sees as over-regulation and part of a raft of unnecessary “intrusive policies” around the environment.

But Mr Wilson aside, what is most interesting about Professor Stern’s analysis is how it applies to so many issues.

In Northern Ireland, for example, when it comes to integrated education between Catholics and Protestants, those with a right leaning disposition tend see any attempts to regulate and force integration as an imposition, and an attempt at regulating the social and cultural lives of children and communities. Some from the left rubbish the idea of integration as a middle class fancy. But in their actions both fail to face up to the truth—only 6% of children go to mixed schools and solid research overwhelmingly shows that sectarian attitudes from both sides are alive and well, and that contact between groups, under certain conditions, reduces prejudice.

Of course, everything is political. And those for and against integrated schooling, as well as those pro and anti the environmental lobby, have something to gain from different outcomes to the issues they feel passionate about. But surely common sense, at very least, should inform our perspective, especially if we are in a position of power.

As I have written before in this column, it does not take a scientist to know that spewing gases into the atmosphere that in certain doses can kill humans and animals is obviously problematic. But then again who would want logic dictating how we should live.

* In June 2009, Mr Wilson was moved from the Department of the Environment to become Minister of Finance and Personnel. This article was written prior to the reshuffle.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, April 2009. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 10 April 2009.