Reflections on Shame, envy, impasse and hope: The Psychopolitics of violence in South Africa – a talk by Prof Wahbie Long

It was 25 years ago, get over it“, right?

I came home after a completely captivating talk, I was glued to every word Prof Long said and especially impressed by the interplay of various subjects I used to enjoy in my undergrad years. The fusion of history, philosophy, politics and of course psychoanalytic theory. It was an honest and theoretical process in which I was completely blown away by how this lens allowed the audience to hold the incredible amount of emotive content, trauma and social issues but instead allowed us to metabolize the discussion in a way that bypassed the common overwhelming feelings that come into such discussions. Gender based violence, racism, identity politics, land, colonialism, university protests, spatial apartheid, middle class, poverty, class, inequality and a united by hope and our humanness.

I’d never heard a psychologist address so many topics in one unified body of literature in the way it was done and it reignited part of me that I had lost during my training and in the throw of clinical work. These issues are there, it’s in the room but often it’s pushed to the background because the crisis before you takes precedent. I appreciated a space to sit amongst other psychologists to explore these themes and to use our theories that are often so obtuse and secretive to the public, to create an understanding of the violence in SA that is incredibly public – it transcends to the personal, individual, systemic and interpersonal. The following are my reflections on the talk, and from my notes during Prof’s presentation of his paper: Shame, envy, impasse and hope: The Psychopolitics of violence in South Africa

He spoke of how important it is for human beings to have recognition – to be recognized by another. The lack of recognition either makes us feel resentful that our dignity is not respected, or shamed because the lack of recognition makes us feel inadequate to receive it. Shame. Resentment. Envy. It plays out on a societal level. Prof Long proposed three arguments:

1) “First, I contend that the poor and working classes respond to the shame inflicted on them by structural violence with a scarcely believable interpersonal violence of their own—directed against their own.”

2) “Second, I suggest that the black aspiring middle class—the intellectual elite specifically—responds to symbolic violence by means of a reaction formation, an unconscious ressentiment according to Max Scheler’s rendition of that term”

3) “And third— following Alexandre Kojève’s influential reading of Hegel—I maintain that many white South Africans are mired in an existential impasse that blocks reciprocal recognition, and that they have settled for lives of alienated consumption instead.”

He closed on: Finally, I consider the implications of widespread shame, envy and impasse in this land of terrible beauty—as Yeats might have put it—for the cultivation of life-giving hope.”

SIMPLY BOLD. I loved it.

In my understanding of Prof Long’s talk, there is a level of injured dignity of groups, the invalidating of ones humanness leads to self hate and shame – envy and resentment. He spoke of poverty and how it “hems in anger”. Inequality causing shame is an issue of mental health. He explored Nietzche’s master-slave morality and the politics of resentment. The concept of “ressentiment” gets explored in detail and the philosophical history of its development as a concept.

When approached through a social justice paradigm, Scheler’s book is likely to offend: several commentators have suggested, even, that his work was a massive projection of his own ressentiment at the social levelling of the early twentieth century. His thinking was “deeply aristocratic” and his endorsement of social and value hierarchies meant that, for Scheler, inequality was a natural feature of human existence. In their efforts to preserve the specialized meaning of the term, Scheler’s translators prefer the French ressentiment over the English ‘resentment.’ This is because Scheler himself has in mind something much deeper than ‘mere’ resentment. In his view, ressentiment has several elements. First, a human being experiences some injury and an associated negative emotion. Second, he or she is unable to express this emotion directly, usually on account of occupying a lower position in a given status hierarchy. Third, the negative emotion is consequently repressed. And fourth, under the direction of a repressed desire for revenge that proceeds “via rancor, envy, and impulse to detract all the way to spite,” the subject engages in value delusions and their corresponding judgments, demeaning values that are objectively superior while denigrating those that are objectively inferior.”

He used a relatable example of a mother in law who has to give away her son to a woman and suppress the resentment and still congratulate her at the same time. Imagine the application of “ressentiment” in Apartheid and the group level of continued “ressentiment” in a country that often pushes away its history. “It was 25 years ago, get over it“, right? Prof Long spoke to the pervasiveness of envy and enters Kleinian theory, the paranoid schizoid position, reaction formation, the nourishing breast that is higher education in SA now given spoiled milk or depriving students of milk. Projections and displacements are explored within the history of structural violence and previous systemic failures.

The final argument is one that I have never heard a psychologist explore and at that to an audience filled with white psychologists. “The psychology of the colonizer“. He explored the defence of an inferiority complex searching for a repository for the projection; and post-apartheid SA leading to an existential impasse. Consider: “If my identity is built on recognition, but the source of my recognition is one I do not recognize, my identity becomes empty”. Post apartheid SA bringing about guilt and a clinging to the lost object and identity. An interesting question was around whether the high walls in white areas are not only out of crime and safety, but on an unconscious level a protection of the guilt of the commodities acquired during Apartheid. The talk ended with a reflection of how Apartheid has a clear language and body of literature in other social sciences, sociology and politics especially. But psychology lacks this in using our theoretical language to explore SA’s history, especially on a group level. The talk closes where it started around the importance of recognition and to not be lulled by the cheap opiate that is hope. “Real hope cannot exist within a matrix of shame, envy and impasse when the material base of our disfigured national psyche remains locked in place.

What stood out to me and hopefully assists other psychologists too, is to remember the importance of the small things. The continued acts of recognition; in the therapy room, in community based psychology and the importance of being heard and recognizing the unprocessed trauma in the room. In this way, our theory can allow us a lens to help hold the trauma and work through it within our complex country.

Thank you Prof Long for this talk.

Prof Wahbie Long is a clinical psychologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cape Town. He is the Director the Child Guidance Clinic at UCT. With a Y1 rating from the National Research Foundation, he has held fellowships at Harvard and Durham and was the 2016 recipient of the Early Career Achievement Award of the Society for the History of Psychology. Widely published on the history, theory and indigenization of psychology, he is working on a new book that explores connections between Marxism and psychoanalysis.


Amy Glover is a practicing Clinical Psychologist based in Cape Town. She has her masters degree in Clinical Psychology and Community Counselling (cum laude) from the University of Stellenbosch. She divides her time between a private practice in Vredehoek, Cape Town and developing practitioner-led resources to equip professionals to navigate online platforms for mental health services. She is passionate about preventative mental health and works with individuals and couples. Amy Glover is available to see clients online for therapy. Email: or contact here.

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