The extent to which symptoms of PTSD were salient for South African former detainees was the focus of this study. We conducted semi-structured qualitative interviews with former political detainees who experienced torture during the apartheid era. While many concerns participants expressed were unrelated to traumatization, participants also indicated that they experienced symptoms of posttraumatic stress. It therefore remains necessary to consider the possibility that former detainees may experience symptoms of PTSD. Critiques of the trauma discourse as a western phenomenon are important but should be counterbalanced with evidence of the lived experiences of former activists that include symptoms of traumatisation.
I adopted a qualitative approach to the study. I recruited 20 Xhosa-speaking South Africans (7 women and 13 men) who had been detained for political reasons in the 1980s and who been tortured on at least one occasion into the study. Their ages ranged from 29 to 68, with a mean of 46. I used snowball sampling to recruit the participants, which is often used to locate participants who are not easily accessible through conventional recruitment methods. Working with local NGO’s in the Western Cape region of South Africa, I identified a network of former detainees in the Western Cape region of South Africa and invited those interested in participating to join the study. I conducted the interviews either in participants’ homes or in the home of a key person in the community. All participants were assured of the confidential nature of the interviews. The interviews were conducted by myself and two interviewers who had previous experience in conducting interviews on sensitive issues. We asked open-ended questions to understand participants' perspectives of how detention and torture affected their lives. These questions then led to other points of conversation, with appropriate probes aimed at eliciting further details about the respondent's experience.
The major concerns expressed by the sample were somatic problems, economic marginalization, non-clinical emotional distress, and dissatisfaction with the post-apartheid political dispensation in South Africa. Symptoms of traumatization also emerged as a theme. Participants spoke at length about the nature of the abuse that they experienced and appeared to appreciate the opportunity to discuss their experiences. Specifically, the following symptoms of PTSD were mentioned:
Recurrent, intrusive distressing memories of the traumatic event.
Recurrent distressing dreams in which the content of the dream are related to the traumatic event.
Dissociative reactions in which the individual feels as if the traumatic event were recurring.
Intense or prolonged distress at exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event.
Feelings of detachment or estrangement from others.
Irritable behavior and angry outbursts typically expressed as verbal or physical aggression toward people or objects
Problems with concentration.
Funding & No Conflicts Declaration
Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation United States Institute of Peace