Born free? The burden of apartheid down the generations

17 March 2014

The burden of apartheid-era trauma is carried down the generations, and can still affect university-level students today, explained HIV/AIDS, Inclusivity and Change Unit (HAICU) director Cal Volks (pictured above) at the recent UCT colloquium on intergenerational trauma in post-conflict societies, and the role of higher education institutions in addressing it.

Following on the launch of her book, Are They Really 'Born Free'? Volks discussed her research with UCT students living with HIV, interviewed in 2006 and early 2012, exploring the multi-layered burden of experiencing HIV stigma coupled in some with intergenerational trauma and some experiences of discrimination around race, class, gender, language and sexual orientation.

According to Volks, students interviewed in 2012 exhibit some of the traits Polish-American writer and academic Eva Hoffman speaks of in second and third post-Holocaust generations for example, the need to achieve and overachieve against all odds to make up for losses their parents experienced, as well as rampant perfectionism combined with intense guilt.

One of the students interviewed spoke of his parents' expectations and his struggle to integrate being HIV+ with his sense of self: "I do feel guilty sometimes – because of what was expected ... I'm not sure they understand it's not easy to deliver [on] some of their expectations – I can't tell my mom [about the HIV] ... They expected only good things."

This palpable pressure, ongoing HIV stigma and the legacy of apartheid-era trauma may even affect something like antiretroviral (ARV) uptake - which is why, according to Volks, ARV roll-out should include more social support.

Volks urged higher education institutes to "strive to understand the multiple levels of trauma that some of their students face, and to create spaces to deal with the intersectionality, both in support services and discipline-relevant classroom discussions, in preparing graduates to enter the world with an understanding of how to address these issues".

Story by Abigail Calata. Picture by Michael Hammond.

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