Friday, March 20, 2009

In 2005 at the International Society of Theoretical Psychology (ISTP) meeting in Cape Town (hosted by faculty of the University of South Africa Psychology) I had my first encounter not only with South Africa but with South African Psychology. This was quickly followed by attending the International Critical Psychology Conference, hosted by the University of Kwazulu-Natal department of Psychology in Durban. The two associations tend to overlap to some degree in membership and in supporting critical and social-historical inquiries into psychology's sociopolitical effects. With the exception of participating in a similarly co-occurance of these associations in Sidney in 1999, this was my only direct encounter with the ideas of psychologists outside of North America and Great Britain. It was my association with Critical Psychology and Psychologists for Social Responsibility that led me to go to Sydney and now Cape Town and Durban, and so I was anticipating exchanges and relationships with relatively like-minded psychologists who, due to their investment in social justice, exist at the margins of their own national psychological associations.

What I came away with were enduring reverberations caused by the potency of this conjunction of a minority of international leftist psychologists with South Africa in only its tenth year of democracy. I was not interested in psychology at the time of my own country's racial transformation, the civil rights movement; it is only in my role as teacher of US psychology's historical and social contexts that I relate to that time, which included uncovering psychology's contributions to maintaining a racist sociopolitical system along with its role in undermining segregation. Here I found a group of psychologists actively involved in (at minimum): (1) reorienting psychology as a discipline toward a reparation of the wrongs it had perpetrated upon its non-white citizens; (2) recreating psychology as morally bound to promote the health and well-being of those who have been wronged under society's and psychology's dividing practices; and (3) promoting the cultural lives of the oppressed in the service a multivocal, non-hegemonic psychology for South Africans. There could not be a more auspicious time and place for the emergence of transformative psychological theories and practices with implications across the globe.

In South Africa, the history of psychology is quite similar to our own in the US, primarily because we share a colonial history that included slavery of black Africans, which was followed by a system legal segregation of blacks and whites promoted by one segment of the citizenry who saw their way of life threatened by racial equality. Our involvement in eugenics ideology and practices connected with South Africa's steps toward Apartheid in ways that left a lasting imprint on the latter's development of psychology. The eugenics movement was most successful as a combined science-ideology in the US, Great Britain, Germany, and South Africa; intelligence testing was used in research to support a racist agenda in all contexts. That the majority of psychologists wrapped themselves in scientistic neutrality in the face of Apartheid's enormous crimes against humanity is does not make them unique in the profession. It was July 2008 when at last APA resolved that, "[a]ny direct or indirect participation in any act of torture or other forms of cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment or punishment by psychologists is strictly prohibited". The integration of ethnic, racial and other social minorties into APA has made progress since 1970 and still has much to accomplish, though more now in the area of leadership at the institutional and national levels. Just in time, perhaps, for when the US white population is no longer the majority racial group.

It is here, of course, at the question of size of representation where South African psychology, as a 'first world' hegemonic institution, distinguishes itself from the rest. In the US there are now explicit efforts to have the faculty and student population reflect the diversity of our national census (not taking into account the 'feminization' of psychology and other practitioner disciplines). This affirmative action goal, while evidently still difficult for us to achieve, still reserves 69% room for caucasions, 12% blacks, 12.6 hispanics, 3.6% asians, and almost 1% native americans. In South Africa's case, a representative proportion of white psychologists would be 9.1 %, black 79.6%, colored 8.9% and indian/asian 2.5%. The enormity of the change for representation in South African psychology is so overwhelming that it serves to palpably implicate an outsider like me into this tragedy of colonial and postcolonial devastation on indiginous Africans.

South African psychology has an unfortunate historical association with the orgins of Apartheid.
Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd's was a graduate student and later a professor of psychology at the africaner University of Stellenbosch. Verwoerd later became a politician and was responsible for establishing Apartheid in 1959. With the exception of a small number of courageous psychologists, South African psychology did not weigh in against the apartheid regime. There were clearly significant risks involved in protesting apartheid or studying its destructive psychological (among other) effects upon non-white africans, and many emigrated to be free of apartheid's barriers to the profession or from prosecution for exposing its human rights violations. Those who remained and continued to work against apartheid are models for us all; ashamedly, I cannot imagine myself ever having their courage.

At this moment in history, at the beginning of an african South Africa, when small groups of psychologists across the world collaborate with communities and other professions in efforts to change themulti-determined conditions of poverty and oppression, what is possible? Does the enormity of the reparative change distract or defeat us? What services can western, white, critical psychologists contribute as minority players in the development of an african psychology? In what cases do we become a hindrance?

It has become clear to me that I want to make whatever contributions I can to the success of South Africa's democracy and to easing the suffering of those citizens who suffer most; my skills as a critical and clinical psychologist make up the bulk of what I can contribute. My first steps have been guided by humility, curiosity, and gratitude; I have marred these steps at other times with ungratefulness, self-absorbtion, passivity, and fear. When all of me shows up for this challenge, I cannot forget to attend to and repair unintended negative outcomes of my actions in this effort.