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I’m not sure about you, but as a ‘proudly’ South African, I’m not feeling all that positive about my country these days. Given the recent xenophobic attacks, power outages, escalating petrol costs and unstable political climate, it’s no wonder the average South African feels somewhat negative and in some cases, downright fearful about the current state of affairs. The purpose of this article is, however, not to highlight these difficulties (goodness knows we’re all well aware of what is happening) but to explore the possibility of developing an alternative, more hopeful story for our country.

Sure, I know the cynics and the ‘realists’ out there may argue that we are powerless against the harsh realities we’re exposed to on a daily basis and any attempt to ‘think positively’ is simply sugar-coating or side-stepping the severity of the situation. I don’t think anyone needs convincing of how bad things are and this article is in no way intended to minimize the way many South Africans are feeling. I, however, feel that the constant negativity propagated by the media and the constant stories of ‘doom and gloom’ are becoming dangerously contagious, and we are at risk of becoming a nation that has given up the ‘fight’ and developing a condition called ‘learned helplessness’.

This term refers to a condition where a person, through conditioning and repeated exposure to negative events or trauma over which they have little control, develops the belief that they are ultimately helpless over anything and everything. This condition is often present in children who have grown up in abusive environments where they were too young to negotiate any kind of resolution. This can lead to an unhealthy (often destructive) belief system where one operates from a sense of helplessness, experiencing overwhelming feelings of frustration and despair. This sounds all too familiar in our current society, yet there are ways and means to combat this sense of helplessness, and to develop healthier and more pro-active beliefs and choices.

A prime example of individuals in a community making a ‘collective’ pro-active choice is the Tamboerskloof Neighbourhood Watch (TBK watch). This initiative began as a result of a spate of burglaries in the Tamboerskloof area. A group of residents in the community formed a partnership with the South African Police Service (SAPS), Community Policing Forum (CPF), Security Service Providers and local authorities. They all work together to help protect themselves and their properties, and to reduce the fear of crime by means of active, visible citizen patrols, greater vigilance and reporting of suspicious incidents and crime. All these efforts have fostered a community spirit of caring and friendship and the burglaries in the area reduced significantly, but most importantly there is a real sense of having come together to take ‘control’ and individuals having empowered themselves to deal with a situation that could easily have escalated out of control.

Another example of individuals taking a collective stand was the overwhelming positive response to xenophobic violence from the South African public. Reports of xenophobic violence and hatred featured prominently in South Africa's - and the world's - daily press in recent weeks and rightly so. But what didn’t make the headlines was the kindness, concern and support shown by ordinary South African citizens.

Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of Gift of the Givers, commented that South Africans showed their true spirit of humanity through the outpouring of goods, food, blankets and money for the victims of the xenophobic violence. In just a week, Gift of the Givers moved over R1 million worth of goods to refugee centres in Alexandra, Cleveland, Primrose and various other parts of Ekurhuleni. Sooliman remarked that "I've been in this industry for 15 years and I have never seen a response like this”.
On-the-ground volunteers shared stories of the inspiring acts of compassion they witnessed while working in the refugee camps around Gauteng and other parts of the country. One of the most amazing things, that we posses, is the ability to make really significant and meaningful choices.

So the question remains, how do we turn this condition ‘learned helplessness’ around and transform it into ‘learned helpfulness”? It begins with the very basics, on a micro level, where each and every one of us can do something to change the way we think about the situations around us. What many of us forget is that the human brain is a masterpiece in natural engineering (a highly intricate and technologically advanced computer, if you will) that enables ordinary people to achieve great results, even during times of extreme stress. The brain is ‘wired’ in such a way, that one cannot have two thoughts simultaneously. So, if we can ‘train’ our brains to immediately replace a negative thought with a positive thought, we will create new pathways in the brain, that will trigger new thought patterns, a bit like creating several ‘highways’ in the brain as a means of transporting messages (thoughts).

Once we are able to change these thought patterns and essentially re-programme our ‘internal wiring’ we will feel empowered to be more pro-active, and less reactive, to events and circumstances. Imagine the results that can be achieved by putting several of these ‘high tech’ computers together, and motivating one another to remain positive and hopeful. One only has to read Victor Frankl’s, Mans search for meaning about survival in the Auschwitz concentration camps, to gain insight into the power of the human spirit.

In terms of behavioural change, we are all responsible for our actions, as small and insignificant as they may seem. There’s a wonderful old Italian joke about a poor man who goes to church every day and prays before the statue of a great saint, begging, “Dear Saint - Please, Please, Please give me the grace to win the lottery.” This lament goes on for months until finally one day the exasperated statue comes to life, looks down at the begging man and says with weary frustration, “my son…at least meet me half way by please buying a lottery ticket!!!!!!!!!!!!

This story highlights the fact that many of us are not necessarily doing our part sufficiently. Sure many of us are great at voicing our anger and frustration, but if we could only utilize that energy in a more positive manner. If each of us could take a stand against the ‘lawlessness’ in our country, it would mean having to change some of our very own behaviors. Goodness knows, I’m certainly guilty of talking on my cell phone (sometimes I confess, even text messaging) while driving, and WHY…because I know I can get away with it. Some may argue that this is not a serious criminal offence, but the reality it’s the very nature of this mentality “I can get away with it” that feeds a culture of lawlessness. If we could take some responsibility for our own law-abiding actions on a daily basis (no matter how small we may think they are) we are contributing to a greater unity and positivity in our country. The same way negativity feeds negativity, positivity is equally contagious. Just think back to the euphoria and positive energy present in South Africa during the weeks leading to the world cup rugby finals. The energy was so powerful it was impossible to ignore!

So as I write this article, I have made a commitment to myself and to you, the reader that I (as a proudly South African, law-abiding citizen) will no longer be talking on my cell phone while driving (or text messaging for that matter). Secondly, I have subscribed to sagoodnews.com, an inspiring and positive website that delivers a daily (and weekly) dose of good news. And lastly, the writing of this article is my way of taking some responsibility for what I can contribute. I challenge each person reading this article to do something differently today, tomorrow and the next day to make our country something to be truly proud of!


Clinical Psychologist

Cape Town.


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