Traumatised societies need ethical leaders

By William Gumede

Societies that have emerged from traumatic experiences such as colonialism and apartheid need leaders that offers hope, emphasise forgiveness and govern in the widest interests of all, rather than for one ethnic, racial or political group.

Leadership is at a higher premium in societies that come from trauma, are ethnically diverse, have high levels of inequality and where democratic rules, institutions and democratic governance are not fully embraced by all.

Traumas from such regimes deny the humanity of those they oppress, resulting in broken individuals and societies.

In Africa, societies broken by colonialism and apartheid tend to produce a disproportionate number of leaders who themselves are broken and unable to transcend their brokenness. As a result the societies and individuals they govern cannot reach their full development potential, often exacerbating inherited poverty, inequalities and divisions.


Post-traumatic societies have inherent problems that undermine development.

Trauma caused by colonialism, apartheid and long-standing poverty and unemployment can alter the way people make decisions, the leaders and parties they support, and how they vote — often embracing leaders, organisations and cultural practices that undermine their own interests, development and peace.

During trauma, individuals are often forced into moral compromises to survive, which blurs the line of right and wrong. They frequently live for the now because no imaginable future appears possible. Short-term thinking often becomes the norm, because planning for the future appears fruitless.

In a 2012 study, Miri Scharf and Ofra Mayseless, of Haifa University, showed that unprocessed trauma leads to a siege mentality, a scarcity mindset and anxiety for the future.

Such societies may grasp false beliefs to ameliorate their fears, pain and insecurity. They may also hold on to cultural practices — even if they are harmful — that give them a sense of place, self and identity. As a result, some societies may fall into cultural, ethnic and religious fundamentalism.

In the political sphere, many people emerging from trauma may also put misplaced ethnic, language or political solidarity often with organisations, leaders and practices that may no longer serve their interests.

They may attach loyalty to collective organisations and leaders, even if these organisations and leaders in government prove to be corrupt, incompetent and uncaring.


Societies emerging from trauma may fall into victimhood more easily, blaming former colonial powers (often rightly so), outsiders and internal enemies rather than proactively building a new future.

They may also become intolerant to outsiders.

They may fall to scapegoating, blaming “enemies” for development failures, which may in some cases be self-inflicted whether because of poor leadership or poor policies.

The victimhood mindset, ironically, may often be the source of new conflict, unleashed by the former oppressed group, with the victim often becoming the perpetrator.

Many leaders assimilate the trauma-based characteristics of the victim groups they come from. This means many leaders may exhibit such behaviours as short-term and scarcity thinking as well as victimhood.

African liberation movements, particularly those involved in armed struggles, operated as clandestine organisations and have a particular culture, socialisation and identity, which becomes part of the DNA of members and leaders.


It appears that societies in Africa emerging from collective trauma tend to produce a disproportionate number of leaders who are broken, and unable to transcend their brokenness. Since the end of colonialism, apartheid and white-minority regimes, many African countries appear to have had disproportionally large numbers of psychopathic, narcissistic and just mean-spirited leaders.

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For such toxic leaders, grabbing, holding and defending power at all costs becomes more important than compassion, reason or communal interests. Mean-spirited leaders are motivated by cruelty.

These types of leaders in many cases focus on their own self-aggrandisement, often deliberately sowing societal or ethnic divisions for self-enrichment and looting public resources. In power, they also deliberately cause chaos, confusion and uncertainty to perpetuate their rule.

Mass trauma has instilled anger, resentment and opposition against former colonial and apartheid elites.

Sadly, many mass traumatised and formerly oppressed people appear to value as qualities for leadership how angrily “leaders” attack the remnants of colonialism, apartheid and white-minority rule, rather than on their leaders’ honesty, values and competency. 

Such societies often vote for autocratic figures, either father figures or “strong men”, who can supposedly defend them against supposedly former “enemies” such as former colonial powers, “white monopoly capital” and former elites from the ancient regime perceived to be threats.

Traumatised societies also often vote for populists who promise nirvana and offer simplistic solutions to complex problems. These could range from church leaders and traditional leaders to sangomas and offer quick fixes to soothe broken souls.

Traumatised societies often also support autocratic, corrupt and incompetent leaders, because they are “one of us”. Such people may also often find misplaced ethnic, language or political solidarity with political parties that they may not serve their interests anymore.


The challenge is for people that emerge from traumatic events to construct new moral values, build for the long-term and re-imagine a new future based on hope. Such societies need new kinds of leaders.

Honesty is a pillar for effective leadership in post-trauma societies. Self-awareness, emotional intelligence and self-reflection are crucial traits.

Leaders must have a purpose centred on democratic values, inclusivity and sustainability. They should never strive for popularity when it compromises constitutional values, human rights and dignity.

The character of leaders matters. Character should be based on values such as compassion, social justice and forgiveness. Measuring self-worth should not be based on money, material trappings or the reins of power.

Leaders must use the legacy of trauma to lead from a point of justice, fairness and in the widest public interest, not in the interest of only the victim community.

They should not make decisions based on ethnic, racial and community solidarity, but on ethical values.

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They should dismiss both harmful beliefs and traditions.

Leaders must be resilient to lead complex change after traumatic events, and not fall into the trap of victimhood, scapegoating and revenge.

* William Gumede is executive chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation.