State Capture has plagued South Africa's public discourse such that its mere mention evokes the strongest feelings of contempt, across the land and beyond. The outbreak of clerical sex-crimes in the Church has evoked similar reactions of disgust. Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya looks to Spiderman for inspiration in the hope that the web-spinner can offer us the motivation we need to act beyond our justified visceral impulses.
Whether you believe Spiderman, Voltaire or Jesus Christ – one thing is for sure – power is equated with stewardship. It must always be used for the greater good of the greatest number.
Chances are that it would be Spiderman and not Voltaire’s name that immediately comes to mind when one hears the remark: with great power comes great responsibility.
It is probably true that, across the age spectrum, there are more people who would have read a Spiderman comic or seen the many TV shows and movies than there are readers of the French philosopher.
Regardless of whom we attribute the quote to, the wisdom it contains is hard to dispute. I prefer the Spiderman version of the same quote because he showed with actions what he meant. Voltaire, on the other hand, proved what Karl Marx had said about philosophers: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
Watching and reading the various commissions of inquiry, focussed on the questionable actions of those to whom the South African state had entrusted power, it is obvious that there are many in positions of leadership who appear to have understood the bestowal of power to be synonymous with the opportunity for personal enrichment while others are being mercilessly oppressed.
A particularly sour taste was left in my mouth as I heard the testimony of Government Communication and Information Systems (GCIS) acting director-general, Phumla Williams.
Williams told the Commission headed by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, how former Minister of Communications Faith Muthambi had made her life a living hell.
Unhappily, the underlying themes in these commissions of inquiry are more or less the same as those that are at play with regards to the ongoing stories of abuse by Catholic clergy.
In both instances, it is about people with power exercising it to get their way over those who find themselves powerless, and who, sadly, assumed that those with power would act in the best interests of the institutions they represented.
In the Church and in the corridors of state power, Jesus Christ’s injunction about how power and influence were to be used, was thrown out of the window.
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their superiors exercise authority over them. It shall not be this way among you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave…” (Matthew 20:25-27).
The relationship of trust between the between the abuser and the abused is not the only similarity between the perpetrator of abuse and the survivor.
In both instances, the psychological impact is deep and long-lasting.
Writing on this platform, Dr Annermarie Paulin-Campbell, a psychologist and spiritual director at Jesuit Institute South Africa, who has received and counselled victims of clergy sexual abuse, highlighted the depth and pervasiveness of the abuse on the survivor.
In many ways, they are not different from those who survive power-abuse.
“Its effects tend to be felt in many different areas of a survivor’s life. Symptoms may include panic attacks, insomnia, nightmares or sensory flashes, emotional shutdown, numbing, repression of memories, anxiety, depression, disrupted emotional relationships and low self-esteem.”
“Physical symptoms like sexual dysfunctions, chronic fatigue, gastrointestinal and gynaecological disorders are not uncommon in victims of sexual abuse. Survivors of sexual abuse are at extremely high risk for long-term mental health problems,” wrote Paulin-Campbell.
She added: “They may experience depression which can be intense and long-lasting and which may put them at risk of suicide. Chronic anxiety is often a struggle for survivors who may suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress such as flashbacks and hyper-vigilance.
Compare this with what Williams, an ANC military wing member who was arrested in 1988 and tortured “for weeks”, said of Muthambi’s treatment.
“The effects of my torture were back. I was no longer sleeping, I had nightmares. My facial twitches were back. I had panic attacks. I saw torture going through my body again,” she said. “I never thought in this government people can do such things”, Williams said.
She added that she had asked former President Jacob Zuma to intervene but nothing was done. Indifference to the outcries of the victims is another similarity with those who have survived abuse in the Church.
In Williams’ case, as in the Church, the reaction has been that of denial or of seeking to blame or impute motives on the survivor.
To be fair, there have been pockets of sincere reflection on both issues too. While the interventions are far from adequate, the Church is at least a step ahead of the South African governing party in that it has acknowledged and asked for forgiveness for the trauma it has caused the survivors and their families.
If the Church is to exercise its moral authority over the State and secular institutions, it must work harder not to operate as a parallel state with the same ideas of what power is about and must be used.
The great power that Christ has given the Church demands the most loving responsibility. As things stand, it is not so obvious as to who is governed by the teachings of Christ.
Images: Flickr | Clara Jordan