Disaster triggers solidarity rather than disruption among South Africans – UP resilience expert’s findings

Posted on August 16, 2021

South Africans have been found to tend towards flocking instead of taking flight as a resilience response. This is according to Professor Liesel Ebersöhn, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Pretoria (UP) and Director of the University’s Centre for the Study of Resilience.

“Resilience is not a trait that one is born with,” she explains. “Severe challenges predict negative outcomes, and to circumvent negative outcomes – and promote positive outcomes – a range of responses are triggered. These can be resistance to the challenge, adaptation to changed circumstances resulting from the challenge and transformation to new conditions.”

The responses, whether they are resistance, adaptation or transformation, constitute a process of interaction between the individual and their environment, and is socio-ecological in nature. In any of these responses to adversity, you use the resources that are available to you. “If people are able to adapt in ways that support positive, rather than predicted negative outcomes to difficult circumstances, they resile.”

Flocking was especially evident during the unsettling unrest in South Africa in July 2021, with many opting to support rebuilding rather than reconcile themselves with destruction. Instead of fleeing from scenes of looting and burning, everyday South Africans did what they have done across generations in response to distress: they flocked to share what they have to turn disastrous conditions into a climate of solidarity and functional support.

Some donated their time to cleaning; others mobilised networks to protect institutions (be it taxi cooperatives, faith-based organisations or youth groups); many shared food and clothing where shortages became rife; people even used social media as a means to present a unified voice of hope, optimism and positive civic engagement.   

“Flocking is essentially mass action against defeat – it is about joining forces to achieve a good life for the majority, rather than giving in to apathy, avoidance or peer pressure to succumb to negative responses,” says Prof Ebersöhn.

She adds that this pulling together by South Africans in response to extreme challenges is a manifestation of the ubuntu philosophy: interdependent individuals feel one another’s distress, pool their resources, and find ways to distribute whatever they have jointly.

Flocking involves a group deciding on which shared resources are available to use in order to collectively buffer against a particular communal hardship, thereby improving the collective’s well-being.

Another element of this behaviour entails collectively mobilising social resources for social support: distributing health, economic, educational or environmental resources in ways that enable positive outcomes despite the extreme difficulties being experienced. To ensure reciprocity and prevent dependence on the resources of others, flocking also has accountability mechanisms in place. Flocking responses are low-threshold – they are not costly and are feasible in instances of resource constraint. Collective resilience gains traction by making use of the “low-hanging fruit” of whatever is available to enable well-being.

Naturally, the COVID-19 pandemic has also caused severe distress the world over, and prompted many to look for ways to support one another. There are countless instances of people flocking to mobilise social resources to buffer a significant number against adversity, and to intentionally promote positive outcomes: people sang from balconies, while others started WhatsApp groups to develop ways to share and deliver food.

In distressing situations like a global pandemic, people experience a fight-or-flight or faint-or-swarm reaction. Some take flight in denial and rebel against social isolation and collective hygiene practices – frustration was evident in the way police and citizens clashed, while some hysterically swarmed to bulk-buy groceries and toilet paper.

“With COVID-19, one can’t take the challenges away because they are persistent,” says Prof Ebersöhn. “The best course of action is to assess what bothers you and your loved ones most, and which resources are available; then use them to achieve a positive outcome for many.” Money as a social resource is seldom the only recourse for flocking. To support the well-being of a circle of friends and family, flocking mostly draws on social resources such as existing networks to share knowledge; financial practices like borrowing, lending and sharing to distribute wares; and cultural values and beliefs of care, compassion, humour and inclusion.

Over the past year and a half, many of us experienced waves of positive and negative emotions. “The four basic clusters of emotions are: joy, anger, sadness and fear,” Prof Ebersöhn explains. “Initially, the adrenaline led to productivity. There was a sense of unity around the world, a feeling of solidarity. Then everyone realised that the uncertainty was ongoing, and that our levels of control were really low, yet that our vigilance had to remain high. Negative emotions of anger, frustration, constant anxiety and extreme sadness become exhausting. Ongoing uncertainty means we are constantly afraid of what is going to happen to us, our employment, etcetera. We also become helplessly angry about all the rules that limit our freedom. We experience a sense of loss and sadness over not being able to engage with others. These negative emotions far outweigh pockets of joy, which leads to fatigue.

“Usually, we would be able to pick one another up emotionally, but with COVID-19, everyone feels the same way. The usual places aren’t there to help us feel better, nor are the familiar rituals that we engage in for comfort. So we are required to intentionally decide on actions that can drive positive well-being outcomes and keep negative ones at bay.”

“What we learn from challenges affects how we develop,” Prof Ebersöhn says. “It was, and continues to be, a time of accelerated learning. We have learned to be comfortable with uncertainty. We know that we can plan, but we also know that plans often don’t work out – we are more familiar and comfortable with chaos. More than ever, we now know that resilience-enabling support requires us to put resources towards addressing unevenness in structural support: providing students with laptops, data to learners and healthcare to the larger population. A driving question is: how can our responses to severe disturbances benefit our societies?”

Ultimately, during challenging times, the following practices could be of help: maintaining a belief in the value of collaborating to support one another; innovating to recreate ways to enjoy comforting, joyous, relaxing practices and rituals with family and friends; and accepting that plans are made to be changed.

“We now have a better sense of what matters to each of us,” says Prof Ebersöhn. “If we close our eyes at night and ask ourselves why today was a good day, the answer will probably be different to what it was in 2019. We have learned that what matters is contrary to aspirations for money or status. Answers have become fundamental to how we evaluate quality – in the way and with whom we spend our time.”

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