Written by Camilla Friend //
Under the beautiful mask of majestic mountains and quaint buildings lies the fragile and broken heart of the town of Stellenbosch. With one of the highest Gini coefficients (a statistical measurement of inequality) in South Africa, where the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor live in close proximity to each other and known as the birthplace of apartheid, Stellenbosch still reaps the harvest of racism and injustice that was sown by its forefathers.
It is very difficult to come to Stellenbosch and not notice the vast amount of people who live on the streets. Students know “bergies” by the begging territory they cover and the residents know the “crazies.” It is no secret that Stellenbosch has a large amount of citizens that call the streets and slums their home. As a scholar in psychology and a counsellor by profession, I have observed through interaction how deeply mental illness runs amongst this group of people.
Many psychological studies have been done on the correlation between mental health and poverty (poverty defined as the state of being in extreme financial and material lack). These studies have found that individuals who are constantly being denied basic human needs (as referred to in the well-known psychological theory of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), such as food, warmth, security, shelter, belonging and hygiene, are at a greater risk of developing mental illnesses or having a bad state of mental health. For this reason, I believe that in a majority of cases in this country, mental illness is a justice issue.
It is my belief that the human spirit can only be denied basic needs and live in lack for so long before it slowly starts to break. Please do not hear what I am not saying. I do not believe for one second that people who suffer a mental illness are “broken” people. Quite the contrary, I believe these individuals are extraordinary and beautiful. I am referring to the spirit when I make that statement, not the mind. However, the human mind can only carry a broken spirit for so long before it too gets tired. Are these people weak and frail to have developed these conditions and states of mental health? No, they are incredibly brave and courageous to have stared such great injustices in the face and still have the strength to carry on.
I will never forget the moment when I was driving back onto campus with a few of my classmates after doing psychoeducation in a nearby township during my honours year. We were driving along and one of my classmates was deep in conversation with us. Suddenly, she stopped what she was saying, pointed in the direction of a very obviously homeless looking man- who was in a physical and verbal altercation with the sky- and exclaimed ‘psychosis’, after which she immediately reverted back to her conversation. I was so shocked at what just happened that I burst into laughter and no sensible words could make it off my tongue.
This was a defining moment for me. Here was a man who had a story, who had inherent worth and who had a very obvious struggle. Yes, at that moment we weren’t counsellors, but we were still human. Surely this man on the side of the road deserved a human response. One dripping in empathy, one that could recognise a life of hardship, pain and struggle. Rather responding empathetically, however, this classmate of mine had bestowed on him just another label- ‘crazy’- that devalued him further and brought about an unspoken sense of injustice to him as a person.
What I hope to communicate through this story and text is a challenge: do you value people less just because they appear ‘broken’ to you? I believe that every person has incomprehensible worth regardless of their social standing, race or their state of mental health. This is the heart of justice- the practice of ensuring that what is right and beautiful remains and has the opportunity to blossom. Every person, if for no other reason than their inherent worth, deserves this kind of justice: a justice that values personhood more than possessions, a justice that sees strength more than frailty. Where social norms see labels of poverty, outcast, and brokenness, justice cries out: WORTHY! Worthy of love, worthy of acceptance, worthy of assistance, and worthy of no labels!
Camilla Friend obtained a BA (humanities) degree majoring in Geography and Psychology, a Post Graduate Diploma in Higher Education and an honors degree in Educational Psychology. She currently functions as a Registered Counsellor and campus missionary (working under Every Nation Church) on Stellenbosch University campus. She also serves as a consultant for Conectar Consulting. She is passionate about seeing justice and restoration in South Africa as well as seeing people live free and full lives.
Conectar consulting “Hive Sessions”- http://www.beeconectar.com/hive-sessions-events/