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Present concerns of survivors of human rights violations in South Africa

Social Science & Medicine
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2003.11.012
  • Postraumatic Stress Disorder
  • Torture Survivors
  • Political Violence
  • Apartheid
  • South Africa
  • Economics
  • Medicine
  • Political Science


Abstract Most research on persons subjected to physical torture for political reasons has framed this experience as traumatic, with the sequelae approximating the diagnostic criteria of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, responses to checklists, questionnaires, and structured interview schedules may reflect the effect of demand characteristics more than the actual concerns of respondents. Thus semi-structured qualitative interviews were conducted with 20 South Africans who were detained for political reasons during the apartheid era. The interviews were transcribed and analyzed with the assistance of the Atlas.ti 4.5 programme. Results showed that the major concerns expressed by the sample were somatic problems, economic marginalization, non-clinical emotional distress, and dissatisfaction with the present political dispensation in South Africa. Respondents also expressed concerns that reflected symptoms of traumatization, but these were not salient in comparison with the other themes that emerged. These data suggest that a model of trauma and the diagnostic category of PTSD may be less appropriate than suggested by most of the literature in accounting for the concerns of many South African former political detainees. This paper critiques the hegemony of the psychiatric model of traumatization in conceptualizing the needs of this population, and suggests an alternate perspective that is broader and more inclusive than a psychiatric paradigm. It also discusses the research and possible clinical implications of the results in terms of addressing the needs of former detainees in South Africa.

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