Analysing Narratives of Invisible/Visible Violence & Trauma

This book is an anthology of familiar stories, a teaching tool, a research map, a research report, and an adaptable outline plan of action. The map of invisible/visible violence is reinforced in the contents page, in the anthology of what Professor Manganyi calls the ‘unrestrained voices’ in part one; the analytical sections in part two; and it informs the list of self-directed action and learning resources in part three.

The goal of putting a flexible analytical tool in the hands of every person is achieved even if the reader only scans the contents page. It is reinforced via the stories, and concretised by the analysis section. As Arundhati Roy suggests ‘once you see’ [the structure of invisible/visible violence and its implied opposite – the resilience/resistance, courage and resourcefulness of the oppressed] ‘you cannot unsee it’.  ‘And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out.  There’s no innocence.  Either way, you’re accountable.  

The question to the reader becomes, what can I do, right where I am, to contribute to dismantling the structure of invisible/visible violence, and to help build concrete social justice.  We all have a role to play, and we can start by using our collective voices to disrupt denial about the fact that this structure of invisible/visible violence exists. Each of us need to delink from it, as it needs to be dismantled as a structure. For this, co-ordination is needed.




Trans-disciplinary Road to Self-determination

Trans-disciplinarity, more than a new discipline or super-discipline, is actually, a different manner of seeing the world, more systemic and more holistic. (Max Neef, 2005)

When we give problems their names, we can become a problem for those who do not want to talk about a problem even though they know there is a problem. You can cause a problem by not letting things recede. (Sara Ahmed).

Denial is ‘the perplexing state of knowing and not knowing at the same time.’ (Cohen, 2001:25)

In this book we tell our stories to contribute to truth-telling from the standpoint of descendants of colonised, oppressed and enslaved people. Breaking silence is an act of self-determination. In the process, we seek to heal ourselves and to contribute in small measure to personal and structural healing in society. The trans-disciplinary framework within which our stories are analysed and organised, is a mental map that serves as a heuristic device to generate data on invisible and visible aspects of violence in our society. We offer this mental map to anyone who is interested to understand the invisible mechanisms that produce visible violence, trauma and denial in society. ‘The map is not the territory’, and thus it can be adapted as new information comes to light.  It does however provide a counterpoint to knowledge produced about us and our encounters with violence, as seen from the colonial academy. Edward Said’s method of counterpoint is a useful way of reading, thinking and writing to ‘realise suppressed voices, invisible facts and other hidden elements’. To this end, the book poses a broader question which we as South Africans need to grapple with after 1994: ‘Why are descendants of colonised, oppressed and enslaved people still over- and disproportionately represented in society’s stigmatised institutions?’

As a platform where some invisible facts and hidden elements can be voiced without restraint, the book provides a degree of insight into the deeper, wider and longer impact of oppression(s). It provides a mental map of the structure of invisible/visible violence, trauma and denial in outline form. In its text, it is about our lived experiences of multiple oppressions and meaning-making. In its subtext, the book conveys a powerful message about trans-generational resilience/resistance, courage and resourcefulness. Each contributor submitted a memory or observation, not to position ourselves as victims, but as people who are capable of analysing and abstracting our own experiences.  Editing was confined to spelling and coherence so that each contributor speaks in his/her own voice, and not in standardised English. Contributors retain copyright of their stories and introduce themselves in the biography section. This is self-determination and decolonisation of knowledge production in action.

Five trans-disciplinary action research phases

In addition to accumulated knowledge of life under oppressions as data, the book is based on five phases of trans-disciplinary action research conducted mainly in South Africa between 2005-2018, and for narrow comparative purposes in Norway during my 2008-2012 doctoral research phase.

Phase One: Trained blindness, deafness and complicit silence

Phase One of the research started during 2005 when I discovered that I did not have the conceptual tools necessary to bring my intimate and vicarious knowledge of our history of dehumanisation into my conflict analysis and peacebuilding practice as depicted in Annexure A to this book. I found that our interventions as helping professionals instead focused on the intra-personal and interpersonal levels, and sometimes on the intra-group and intergroup levels. We remain aware/unaware of the structure of invisible/visible violence that produces conflict and visible violence among individuals and groups. We therefore contribute to making ‘happy oppressed’ people whose surface conflicts are resolved because physical violence and turmoil are prevented or stopped in a society that remains structurally violent as described in Annexure B . This phase linked our lack of conceptual tools to the professional requirement of neutrality – the hidden curriculum – which preserves the status quo and status quo ante. This renders us incapable of bringing the structure of invisible/visible violence into our frame of analysis and action. We then replicate this in our practice, and multiply denial on the ground, as the blind leads the blind.

Phase Two: Beginning to see the invisible

It is the silence between the notes that makes the music; it is the space between the bars that cages the tiger. (Zen saying).

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub; it is the centre hole that makes it useful. Shape clay into a vessel; It is the space within that makes it useful. Cut doors and windows for a room; It is the holes that make it useful. (Lao Tzu).

During phase two (2008-2012), I drew on empirical research and trans-disciplinary literature to make a conceptual argument that South Africa is a society in denial about the interplay between trans-historical symbolic, structural, psychological, and physical aspects of violence. As a result of this denial, information about the structure of invisible/visible violence, and the trauma it generates, are filtered out and left unexamined by otherwise progressive practitioners. The filtering was argued to be rooted in blindness, deafness and complicit silence about what professionals ‘know’ to be true about society, but do not apply in practice. I argued that this ‘trained blindness’ is due to the limitations of higher education disciplines that limit our professional focus to the narrow fields in which we specialise. This constitutes the null curriculum that education specialists refer to, which produces gaps in our knowledge – the proverbial space between the bars that cages us in. A comprehensive model of findings in my thesis reveals a chasm made up of four interlinked gaps that are contextual, conceptual, training and practice related.

It appears that many descendants of colonised, oppressed and enslaved people experience dissonance once we attempt to put our professional training into practice. This is particularly true under conditions that we are familiar with since childhood, but that did not form part of our disciplinary body of knowledge. It took many years, and wider reading, to find that my seemingly ‘singular’ experience was more generalised than I thought, and that it cuts across disciplines. For example, while doing an Honours degree at UCT, our class was taken on field trips to Manenberg (the township where I attended high school), and to Victor Verster Prison (where we only saw men who looked like me). When I wrote an essay titled ‘re-visiting’ rather than ‘visiting Manenberg’, the white lecturer  wrote ‘an insightful piece’ and graded the paper 67% (second grade pass). By contrast foreign white students regularly received over 75% (first grade pass) for their papers. My knowledge from below was not valued.

I draw on the work of other descendants of colonised, oppressed and enslaved people, and mainstream critical scholarship throughout this book. This research shows evidence of our trained blindness, and dissonance experienced in practice. It opens up the possibility of bringing a counterpoint to partial knowledge about our lived experiences.  In this vein the book offers a trans-disciplinary mental map within which to co-produce voice based (and not only summarised and paraphrased) knowledge from the bottom up, to meet and modify theories and models of violence crafted in the colonial academy. Many existing theories are seldom ground-truthed and calibrated, and thus leave the status quo intact, specifically with regard to violence and the trauma it generates. By contrast, the mental map presented in this book was ground-truthed and calibrated with a trans-disciplinary spectrum of people from all walks of life.

Phase Three: Co-producing trans-disciplinary knowledge

During phase three of the action research, I set out to adapt ground-truth and calibrate the conceptual framework, with a trans-disciplinary spectrum of more than 100 people from inside and outside the university. The purpose of ‘ground-truthing is calibration, testing, or validation of a model or a theory with additional data’. This phase of the research was conducted during 2016, while hosted by the University of Cape Town. I drew on the comprehensive model of findings and ideas generated by the research in phase two, and adapted Galtung’s triad of cultural-structural-direct violence to fit South Africa’s unequal, transitional context. I used the Paulo Freire approach that assumes all people are ‘knowers’.  In this approach the facilitator brings concepts and a framework, sparks facilitated discussions, brings in all voices, acts as resource, draws on others as resources, and draws key insights together. The framework is continuously refined with new knowledge

Phase Four: Breaking silence

Phase four of the research was conducted during 2017 in partnership with The Trauma Centre for Survivors of Violence and Torture in Cape Town. I again conducted Freire style action research workshops called ‘Co-producing knowledge on Denial’. After the first workshop, many participants reported on the re-traumatisation they experienced as a result of breaking silence, albeit in a safe space. Some of them wrote and submitted poetry or reflections as requested. The stories that emerged during these workshops also impacted me as the facilitator. During the next workshop, I introduced exercises to help participants and me, to hold and contain our trauma, with the help of experienced trauma facilitators.


On reflection, I realised that the reason why people were breaking silence one after the other, was because our similar stories triggered memories and pain that many of us had buried. These stories ranged from experiences and memories of subtle and explicit racism on a day to day basis, institutional racism, forced removals, sudden deaths associated with forced removals,  domestic violence, sexual abuse, rape, child murders, gangsterism, homophobia, and a range of interpersonal, intra- and intergroup, community and societal issues that intersected to generate trauma. It felt as if we had opened up a Pandora’s Box – but one that held the potential for collective healing if the complexity of violence was confronted. We constantly ran out of time and many people asked for follow-up activities.  Despite the seriousness of the topic, humour and laughter seemed to be a thread that ran through all the workshops. This and other aspects of resilience, resourcefulness and courage displayed by traumatised people, provide a key to further research and action on low and no cost ways of de-escalating violence. It does however not provide a solution to the structure of violence.

I invited participants to co-write publications with me. It later emerged that many people had a fear of writing for publication, as they doubted their ability.  The number of very capable people who expressed this fear made me realise that this was part of internalised oppression which could be part of the constellation of historical trauma responses referred to in chapter 6. The oppression related issues that were raised, and connections between these issues grew, and were discussed beyond the workshops. When one of our peers, Joanna Flanders Thomas, who attended all the workshops, informed me in December 2017 that she had stage four cancer and that it was terminal, and once again impressed on me that I must write books on invisible/visible violence and denial and not wait for them to join me, I finally acquiesced.

Phase Five: Cohesive action

In the knowledge domain those who try to exercise what the leading Argentinian semiotician and decolonial theorist Walter D. Mignolo termed “epistemic disobedience” are disciplined into an existing methodology, in the process draining it of its profundity.

During phase five, the book writing phase, I decided to continue to make the knowledge production road while walking it into existence, with an extended and growing network of peers inside and outside of the academy. It is more an act of empowerment than of disobedience, a quest for social justice, rather than making knowledge produced in a purely Western mode central, or ignoring it. There was a need to sidestep gatekeepers in the colonial academy who have silenced this knowledge for decades.

I engaged the services of an independent publisher to guide me in creating a ‘workshop in a book’ that would combine practitioner scholarship with collective voice. In other words, life as it happens in its complexity but committed to words on paper that engage and stretch the reader to use all their capacities and knowledge beyond the rational, trained mind. The intention is to move to a new conceptual, embodied and collective terrain of knowledge production where we hold multiple truths in tension.

An open call for 800-1000 word copyrighted vignettes of memories and observations of life under oppression(s) was made, to people of any educational level. Within days 156 people were added to a social media interest group. The 44 submissions in this book were written and submitted within days of conducting a write-shop with those who were able to attend. From there a smaller social media group was formed where information about the progress of the book was posted.  

The book contributors’ group became another space where we simply opened up in the spirit of ‘disrupting denial’. Other than the open invitation, I provided broad ideas about what people could consider writing about. These prompts were not compulsory. Each writer interpreted the open invitation in her or his own way, as can be seen in each story.

The mental map according to which the stories, poems, and analyses are organised, shows how different aspects of violence individually and in combination produce trauma. By rendering the denied interplay visible, we hope to raise questions in the mind of the reader about the null, hidden and official curricula in the study of violence.  Specifically, the book reveals the futility of pathologising and criminalising only individuals; while society’s invisible traumatising and violent practices are left virtually untouched.