The following blog is my attempt to do a book review. The title of the book is Faces in the Revolution: The Psychological Effects of Violence on Township Youth in South Africa, and it was written by Gill Straker. The book was actually part of the reading requirement from one of the classes that I took last summer, Global and Cultural Bases of Health and Dysfunction. I actually have a strong objection to the word “dysfunction”, but unfortunately it is a commonly used word in the field of pyschology. The word is commonly understood to mean the opposite of healthy. In my opinion, every behavior or action we do is a form of function, even if it is actually a non-healthy behavior, such as drinking excessively or taking illegal drugs.
Anyway, the following writing was actually written when I took the class. This is just the beginning of my attempt to publish some of the writings that I’ve done during my journey here at the Adler School. Yes, if you are wondering whether I changed some things, the answer is definitely yes. I did change the wording or some of the sentences to illustrate my point better, but the main themes and the intended message have stayed the same. Enjoy the reading.
In Faces in the Revolution, Straker focused on the psychological impact of violence on the Leandra youth from South Africa during the apartheid era in the 1980s and early 1990s. She chose to portray the consequences of violence through the Leandra youth. She provided a little bit of historical background of the apartheid conflict in South Africa, but it is clear that the book is not just another book about apartheid. Instead, it focuses on the psychological well-being of the Leandra youth affected by violence. Straker also picked a few major and critical violent events that happened in Leandra which many of the youth in her book either participated, witnessed, or experienced the violent aftermath of those events.
What I like about Faces in the Revolution is how Straker used multiple case studies to provide evidence of individual uniqueness in dealing with stress, violence, and unpredictability, while at the same time drew similarities between those cases. I appreciate her approach in describing the youth’s psychological effects by analyzing cases individually instead of providing a blanket statement about the youth’s struggle and suffering as a result of violence and war. Often people would describe violence such as what happened in South Africa as senseless. After reading Straker’s book however, it was clear that the war was not senseless to the people who lived in the area and experienced oppression on a daily basis. The violence had a meaning to them, even though outsiders would probably have a difficult time to apprehend it.
Straker’s approach again was done by taking the emic perspective in understanding the psychological impact of the violence rather than the etic perspective. I notice that she did not even once make a diagnosis on any of the case studies. She would perhaps say that a particular person in the case studies had been identified as anti-social, but the term was used more as a description of the behavior, not as a label. Instead of describing symptoms only, she would also describe the result of her behavioral observation, background history with a great emphasis on family dynamics, and personality characteristics that included strengths, limitations or vulnerabilities, defenses, and coping mechanisms. As a reader, I received a shorter version of a personality evaluation report on each case, but without a diagnosis. I got the sense that getting a diagnosis was not a priority for the team. Their goal was to describe to the world what happened to the youth and how they responded and coped. I could only imagine the amount of work that Straker and her colleagues did in order to get all interviews done and fairly represent each participant in this qualitative study.
Faces in the Revolution is a confirmation that not everyone responds to violence and trauma the same way. Even when two people have a similar background, each one of them may still have a unique way of responding to violence. Vice versa, two people from different backgrounds may end up having a similar reaction to violence and their lives may closely resemble each other as a result of experiencing violence and trauma. What Straker and her team did was to discover the possible reasons that made a person responded in a certain way to violence by looking into his or her background history. Through her attempt to understand the youth, it seems that Straker was also attempting to understand how violence started in the first place on an individual level and how it was passed from one person to another, from one group to another, and then from one generation to another. In other words, she was analyzing it from the individual system (micro) and then moving into a slightly larger (macro) system (i.e., her analysis of the dynamics at Wilgespruit).
Although South Africa is still in the midst of its own struggle now, not exactly about apartheid, but they seem to have accomplished more unity and a reduction in violence compared to during the apartheid time. I consider this fact as remarkable considering that apartheid existed less than 20 years ago in that country. Conflicts, however, still happen on a daily basis based on race, ethnic and social class. What is needed now I think is a follow-up study to Straker’s research or even a new study looking at the long-term psychological impact of apartheid and post-apartheid on both the young and older generations, particularly with those who experienced violence first hand 20 years ago. The timing for reading Faces in the Revolution is just happened to coincide with the recent news about Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe. Why did I bring up Mugabe? It is because Mugabe was part of the freedom fighters who were actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement.
Unlike Mandela, Mugabe has taken a position completely opposite to Mandela’s peaceful and non-violence stand. Although Mugabe could arguably be an effective president in his younger age, it turned out that he has also been promoting violence in his country and using a dictatorial method of ruling. As part of the apartheid era, the two famous men, represent the many people like them in South Africa. The question to ask then is to what degree their active participation in the anti-apartheid movement and their direct experience with war contribute to their adulthood development, decision-making, thinking, values, and overall being and adjustment. In the end, it is important to point out that there are not enough books or articles that have looked at or studied the impact of violence and war on children. As it is now, the trend in many wars around the globe is to take advantage of children and adolescents by recruiting them to be part of a guerilla group or military. The push behind this phenomenon is the assumption that the younger the age of the soldiers, the easier to control them and their minds; hence, the booming development of using child soldiers in many places. Many of these children were forced and some were enticed to join. Regardless of the reason, there needs to be more studies on this population. A recent memoir of a child soldier that came out last year illustrated the evil and ugliness of war and a life as a child soldier. Yet, the survivor was able to survive, change his life, and function well afterwards, even with some difficulties at first. In that situation, the question that I am interested to know is regarding the protective factors that make him and other former child soldiers to surface out from the psychological chaos of being in a war and able to function afterwards. At the same time, a follow up question should also be presented regarding the risk factors that made many of them unable to function in mainstream society after the war.