Critical Psychology in South Africa: Looking back and looking forwards by Desmond Painter and Martin Terre Blanche 24 Feb 2004

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

This is a draft of a paper written for the Greek journal Utopia.

Contact Desmond Painter at the Department of Psychology, Rhodes University (d.painter at


Martin Terre Blanche at the Department of Psychology University of South Africa (terremj at or visit his blog)


In this paper we sketch the development, current status and future prospects of critical psychology in South Africa. We review critical psychology initiatives across a number of domains, including professional and activist organisations, university courses and programmes, conferences, and publication initiatives. In each case we show how developments in critical psychology reflected and contributed to broader social processes as South Africa emerged from apartheid. We also trace the links between local critical psychology groupings and the international critical psychology movement. Finally, we draw attention to areas, such as mental health activism, forensic psychology and community psychology, where South African critical psychologists have been relatively inactive or have played a politically ambiguous role. We conclude with suggestions for making critical psychology theory and practice relevant not only to academic psychologists, but to all who have a stake in South African psychology.

Psychology in South Africa is more similar to than it is different from psychology anywhere else in the world, and this is true of critical psychology also. Here, as elsewhere, psychology is a product and producer of global capitalism, and here as elsewhere critical psychology is part of a global agenda of resistance. Drawing attention to local specificities - as one might see, for example, in an APA Monitor "country report" on South Africa (e.g. Murray, 2002) - therefore runs the risk of indulging in superficial exoticism at the expense of confronting the real issues facing the discipline and profession internationally. It may also limit the ability of critical psychology to be articulated as a more-than-local form of resistance, and curtail reference to "mainstream psychology" as a nodal point in the social construction of subjectivity, experience and human activity. An overview of critical and reactionary tendencies and traditions in South African psychology may seem somewhat pointless for another reason as well - namely the miniscule size of the discipline locally. There are, after all, a mere eight thousand or so registered psychologists in South Africa - compared to more than a quarter of a million in the US (Louw, 2002).

However, despite these caveats there are some good reasons why embarking on a project such as we have attempted here may be a worthwhile enterprise. First, presenting an overview like this alongside other similar regional overviews might be a way of forging links with traditions elsewhere, and thus of strengthening networks and devising the forms of collaboration that may carry critical psychological practice into more potent forms of global resistance. Second, South Africa is as good an example as any of the way mainstream psychology has positioned itself vis-à-vis neo-colonialism, racism, capitalist exploitation, and neo-liberal market ideologies - as well as of the potential of critical alternatives to upset these ideological complicities and to create pockets of resistance.

In what follows we therefore provide an overview of mainstream and critical psychology trends during and after the apartheid era - attempting throughout to show how local developments articulate with developments elsewhere. We will argue that since 1994 both mainstream and critical forms of psychology have flowered in South Africa. While critical projects increasingly assume legitimate positions in textbooks, undergraduate curricula, post-graduate research and various forms of application and intervention, the growth area of psychology is still in the direction of an American-style, aggressively professional and market-oriented individual therapy industry. In our conclusion we reflect on some of the challenges and possibilities this academic and professional landscape present to the development of critical psychology in South Africa (and elsewhere).

Uncritical Psychology I - Psychology comes to Africa

The development of psychology in South Africa follows a path that closely parallels the discipline’s international history. Dominated from the outset by especially American intellectual and methodological trends, early South African psychologists enthusiastically imported and adapted various psychological tools and technologies, most notably intelligence tests, for use in education and industry (Louw & Foster, 1991). Always favouring applied over basic research, intelligence testing became the trump card in pre-Second World War psychology’s bid to contribute rationally and scientifically to South Africa’s social problems - which were, at the time, dominated by issues of "mental hygiene", "race relations" and the so-called "poor white problem", framed by the challenges of an industrialising economy split along class and race lines (Lipton, 1985; Terreblanche, 2003). Foster (1993) provides a good summary of the conditions that precipitated the importation to and adaptation of psychology in South Africa:

Psychology as a separate discipline was only established in the 1920s. The impetus for its development came from the rise of mental testing and concern about the "menace" presented by the "discovery" - from about 1913 - of a category of people known as mental defectives. It was a time of intense class-ordering in the new South African union and the great political worry at the time concerned a potential class alignment between the emerging black and white proletariat in the cities. Thus problems of class-ordering, labour, "race"-thinking (informed by social Darwinism), mental deficiency and crime were all intertwined. (p. 68)

Psychology’s response to these problems fell far short of being progressive. In both its active advocacy for apartheid policies based on the "results" of mental testing and (increasingly after the Second World War) its apparent scientific neutrality with regards to matters of discrimination and social inequality - in industry for example - psychology carved out its professional niche, and invested its intellectual capital in the service of an explicitly racist-capitalist system. In this latter aspect, it certainly does not represent an anomaly in the international history of psychology. In fact, in its seemingly neutral and scientific contribution to the vocabularies and technologies enabling the "rational" management of areas like "black labour" and "race relations", early (but also later) psychology in South Africa converged exactly with the role Nikolas Rose (1989) attributes to the psychological sciences in general:

The vocabularies of the psychological sciences have made two distinct but related contributions to social powers over the last century. First, they provided the terms which enabled human subjectivity to be translated into new languages of government, of schools, prisons, factories, the labour market and the economy. Second, they constituted subjectivity and intersubjectivity as themselves possible objects of rational management, in providing the languages for speaking of intelligence, development, mental hygiene, adjustment, family relations, group dynamics and the like. (p. 106)

In line with Neville Alexander’s (2002) depiction of South Africa as "an ordinary country" one can say that psychology here was likewise very much "an ordinary discipline". The parallels between the development of psychology in South Africa and elsewhere also hold true for the era after the Second World War. Once again, in keeping with its countries of origin, psychology, after the formation of its first professional body in 1948, underwent exponential growth and rapid professionalisation (Louw & Foster, 1991; Louw, 2002). The discipline and practice was now no longer tied to intelligence testing and limited to education and industry, but colonised many other areas of social and individual life as well - not least of these, through a growing focus on the training of clinical and later counseling psychologists, the therapeutic industry. Also academically, the South African scene increasingly resembled the architecture of disciplinary formation and specialisation internationally, with clear distinctions developing between the various "sub-disciplines", like developmental psychology, social psychology, environmental psychology and the like, taught in ever-growing, independent departments of psychology.

The major achievement of the psychology mainstream in South Africa was probably the tendency, despite psychology’s expanding influence in various spheres of government, education, social research and intervention, to keep politics out of psychology altogether - or at least, to hide politics. This was done, first and foremost, by playing the politics of scientific neutrality and neutral professionalism. Durrheim and Mokeki (1997) for example, in a content analysis of the South African Journal of Psychology, indicate that while 32% of papers published in this journal from 1970 to 1995 addressed race in some way, most of these, especially during the apartheid era, attempted to do so in a value-free and scientific way. This is their explanation:

Although psychologists ignored issues of race, it is unlikely that very many thought of themselves or consciously acted as racists or the servants of apartheid. Rather, the ideological structure of South African psychology promoted certain themes which supplied warrants for ignoring race. Specifically by adopting the medical model and by understanding their practice as value-free science, psychologists could ‘legitimately’ ignore issues of race. (p. 211)

In a similar vein, Terre Blanche and Seedat (2001) trace how, over a forty year period, the politics of class, race and gender entered into industrial psychology research at the National Institute for Personnel Research (NIPR) - not overtly in the form of racial bias (most NIPR researchers in fact claimed to be opposed to apartheid), but in attempts at professional and disciplinary neutrality. In their very a-political stance these researchers, ironically, displayed an exquisite sensitivity to politics:

This was, however, the sensitivity of a seismograph which reflected, quite unconsciously, the tremors and quakes of the ground on which it had its foundation - never anticipating such seismic events and never attempting to understand the larger geological forces which gave rise to them. (p. 80)

The second strategy whereby politics was positioned outside the ambit of psychological research and practice was the repackaging of politics as "culture". This entailed, in short, that the structural demands for inequality upon which the political and economic dominance of the white minority rested, were treated as objective facts about the social environment; "differences" that could be studied objectively and managed rationally by psychology. Industrial psychology, for example, researched culture, worldviews, and the so-called "African personality", often accompanied with the appropriate liberal sentiments about the integrity and equality of other forms of life, in order to address (lack of) productivity as a function of the "cultural" divide between the worldviews and value systems of (black) workers and (white) management (Nzimande, 1984; Fulager & Paizis, 1986). "Culture" here, fraught with exotic, essentialist references to "the African", successfully masked the more relevant social and political dimensions of black labour under apartheid and of the actual experiences of black workers.

A third de-politicising strategy used by the profession in South Africa was to be "even handed" in censuring overtly political initiatives - irrespective of whether these were progressive or reactionary in origin. Thus, for example, when a section of the South African Psychological Association (SAPA) objected, in the late 1950s, to the membership of a black psychologist and elicited the support of then prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd (the "architect of apartheid"), this was depicted as improper political interference by SAPA and the reactionaries were compelled to form a conservative breakaway group.

Thus, although there are aspects of the history of South African psychology that would be disowned by the discipline internationally (did we mention that Hendrik Verwoerd was himself a psychologist, whose 1924 doctoral thesis was about "The blunting of the emotions"?), it also closely resembled, and in fact often mimicked, the development of psychology elsewhere. These similarities included not only overt scientific and professional trends, but also and especially the more subtle relationship of psychology and its technologies to the rational ordering of various domains of social and mental life - what Foucault (1979) and Rose (1996) refer to as "governmentality".

However, as one might expect, South African psychologists, even as they sought to emulate their Euro-American counterparts, also from the outset felt the need to add "local colour" to the standard product. This was expressed in, amongst other things, some ingenious local psychometric test and theory development (e.g., Taylor, 1994), studies of racism that departed from the dominant American paradigm, such as MacCrone’s (1937) very original historical-psychological work on the frontier personality, ongoing academic musings about "indigenous psychology" (see Holdstock, 2000, for a summary), as well as lengthy debates about "relevance" (e.g., Dawes, 1985, 1986; Nell, 1990). These have left a mixed legacy. While the relevance debate, for example, has arguably played an important role in the political interrogation of psychology and the later development of critical agendas, it also, in retrospect, seems in many cases to have been overly cautious and inward-looking. Similarly, most attempts by South African psychologists during the apartheid years to exhume an authentic indigenous African psychology from below layers of "Westernisation" and "urbanisation" now have an embarrassingly patronising and touristy quality.

Critical Psychology I - The empire strikes back

But not all of psychology was equally guilty of this pattern of either active or passive support for the apartheid system. Since the early 1980s progressive white and a growing number of black psychologists have started articulating alternative programmes and agendas for their research and practice. These scholars and practitioners, both individually and as part of organised opposition to apartheid, not only fore-grounded and attempted to address the escalating political crises plaguing South Africa at the time (the successive states of emergency, for example, with its cycles of popular revolt and heightened state repression so coolly ignored by mainstream psychology), but also started laying bare the political unconscious of psychological science and practice itself.

As elsewhere in the world, critical psychology in South Africa was thus borne from a two-tiered interrogation of psychology in its relation to politics. First, psychology was accused of being a product of and a sanction for a reigning political system under which inequality was structurally inscribed, and for owing its apparent neutrality and scientific objectivity to the ideological, political and economic dominance of the social sector whose interests it served - in South Africa, of course, the white middle- and upper classes. In this regard critical psychologists in South Africa initially honed in on the relationship between psychology and the colonial and later apartheid systems of racist capitalism (e.g., Ivey, 1986; Whitaker, 1991), but in time expanded its interrogation to include more specific critiques of psychology’s marginalisation of black perspectives (even in critical psychology…), female perspectives (even in critical psychology…), as well as the broader complexes of power-knowledge that linked psychological technologies to the regulation of subjectivities and bodies through government, wrought from a series of (ongoing) confrontations with Foucault (e.g., Butchart, 1998).

Second, once the ideological architecture of scientific and applied psychology had been revealed, the serious work of reconfiguring psychology as a socially relevant, progressive and even revolutionary practice along new epistemological, theoretical and methodological lines begun. And there, of course, is the rub. Such attempts at the rehabilitation of psychology generally proved more difficult than bringing in the initial guilty verdict, and if critical psychology in South Africa (and elsewhere) had been empowering and even exhilarating for many progressive academics, it has certainly been less successful on the level of actually making a political difference or of providing a theoretical rationale and practical guidance for actual political struggles. This is true even of forms of psychology defining itself in terms of social action and change from the outset, such as community psychology - as we shall argue later.

Critical agendas in South African psychology appeared in various forms and locations since the early 1980s. While not a self-consciously defined movement sharing theoretical resources, methods or even a coherent network of scholars and activists, critical psychology in this country between 1983, the year the journal Psychology in Society (PINS) was founded, and 1994, the year of the first democratic elections, did however achieve success in creating institutional spaces for itself - especially considering the severity with which the state at times dealt with dissident voices (the assassination of philosopher Richard Turner in 1978 and anthropologist David Webster in 1989 are two obvious examples from the social sciences, but there were of course many more such assassinations and incarceration of black activists). Among these emerging institutional spaces counted: psychology departments, such as those at Rhodes University and the University of Cape Town, that started offering courses and modules in critical psychology; progressive lecturers in these and other departments who incorporated critical theory into their teaching or training in various areas of academic and applied psychology; the formation of anti-apartheid groupings like the Organisation for Appropriate Social Services in South Africa (OASSSA), Psychologists Against Apartheid and the South African Health and Social Services Organisation (SAHSSO); the establishment of the alternative academic journal PINS; and a number of critically orientated conferences, such as those hosted by OASSSA annually in the late 1980s.

Of course, these fledgling institutional spaces were extremely marginal, even obscure, when compared to the slick, conservative network of university departments and training programmes, state funded research institutes (e.g., the National Institute for Personnel Research and the Human Science Research Council), the South African Journal of Psychology (SAJP) and the annual conferences hosted by the (at that time racially integrated but still white dominated) Psychological Association of South Africa (PASA) - but they provided the initial foundations for what would later (especially since 1994) become a vibrant critical psychology industry; and, probably equally valuable, provided a semblance of morality and decency to a discipline that otherwise had very little. In the remainder of this section we map only some of the significant moments in the development of critical psychology in South Africa from the early 1980s to 1994. Our focus will be on social psychology and community psychology as forms of proto-critical psychology, the more radical deconstruction of power-knowledge complexes in psychology by progressive (but still mainly white) academics, and the still more radical departure from mainstream, "white" psychology by a number of black psychologists and activists adopting forms of Black Consciousness philosophy.

1) Leaving Las Vegas: Proto-critical psychologies

In the early 1980s, progressive social psychologists in South Africa attempted an important theoretical and geopolitical realignment of their field: they embraced the ethos of a more social, more relevant social psychology championed, ever since the mid-1970s, by European scholars as an explicit, programmatic alternative to the mainstream American brand. Best represented by Social Identity Theory (SIT) and Social Representations Theory, this European tradition indeed expanded the scope of social psychology to include at least some consideration of structural dimensions such as class and racial inequalities when dealing with matters of intergroup relations and identity.

In South Africa it was especially SIT that provided some theoretical means to transcend the individualism, narrow empiricism and often trivial nature of American social psychology - a tradition that was, in the forms of prejudice-and-personality approaches, contact theory and attitude- and social distance measures, dominant in South Africa as well (Foster & Louw-Potgieter, 1991; Collins, 2003). In short, SIT added to an existing body of research on racism a theoretical perspective that illuminated some of the structural dimensions of racial and class inequality, the ideological patterns that gave legitimacy to this status quo, as well as the psychological inhibitors and facilitators of social, rather than just individual, change. Together with rehabilitating neglected topics like collective movements and crowds, this left the social atomism and "conservative" political liberalism of the "prejudice-and-stereotype-reduction" approaches to racism characteristic of the American model far behind.

Of course, European developments in social psychology, notably SIT, still maintained a basic ontological split between psychology (as a domain of cognitive-perceptual and affective processes) and society, along with a faith in traditional epistemologies and methodologies. These aspects were later subjected to devastating epistemological and political critiques by Marxist, post-structuralist and social constructionist social psychologists (e.g. Henriques, 1984), and discourse analysis in time all but replaced SIT as the preferred critical social psychological approach to racism, identity and categorisation processes. However, proto-critical social psychology in its various guises made, due in no small part also to the political integrity of some of its adherents (Don Foster is an obvious example), important contributions to the struggle against apartheid in areas like mental health provisions for political prisoners and victims of torture (Foster with Davis & Sandler, 1987), court testimony for struggle activists (Friedman, 1989), as well as advocacy for changing legislation regarding collective action and crowd control (Heymann, Brown, Fijnaut, & Foster, 1992).

Community psychology always promised to be more than merely a semi-departure from mainstream, mainly American approaches to psychological intervention. In the words of Seedat, Duncan and Lazarus (2000, p. 4), "community psychology came to be associated with broad democratic movements seeking to dismantle oppressive state structures and ideological state apparatuses" and "embraced a radical challenge to the discriminatory foundation, theory, method, and practice of psychology". This promise was fulfilled only partially, and perhaps mainly by becoming a site where psychology, mental health and the nature of psychological service provision could be radically interrogated. It is not surprising then that community psychology was the second most frequent topic addressed in PINS between 1983 and 1988 (Seedat, 1990).

However, community psychology was, despite its revolutionary promise and a number of exceptions, still an American product, and still a psychological approach that located itself mainly in conventional academic and clinical training programmes. As such it reproduced many problematic assumptions about knowledge production and application, social action, and psychology as a profession - not to mention assumptions about "community", "culture" and "race". That community psychology as such was (and is) not a panacea for all social and psychological ills is made clear by the limitations identified by authors like Seedat, Duncan and Lazarus (2001), Pretorius-Heuchert and Ahmed (2001) and Hamber, Masilela and Terre Blanche (2001): some conceptions of community psychology, by celebrating or simply accepting the categories of community, culture and race, have come dangerously close to reinforcing the racial and cultural divisions used to justify and practically organise apartheid; community psychology has remained largely dominated by white middle class practitioners and mainstream approaches to research and intervention; there has been surprisingly little substantial confrontation with issues of race, class, political violence and collective social action, accompanied also by a general lack of translation of macro-level critical theory into actual political practice; community psychology often adopted the typical conservative self-preservation strategies characteristic of professions; while community psychology at times served as a progressive set of practices, it might also have helped to simply divert and absorb challenges to mainstream psychology and mental health services. In the words of Hamber et al (2000), then, "South African community psychologists, despite some noble efforts to engage with ‘relevant’ social issues, have historically fallen prey to (…) individualizing, idealist, and relativizing tendencies" (p. 63).

2) Deconstructing (and sometimes reconstructing) psychology

Proto-critical forms of social psychology and community psychology generally aimed their critiques at psychology’s lack of relevance, application or political commitment, but still granted psychology the scientific refuge of empiricism and methodological prescriptions. Contrary to this a growing number of progressive psychologists started critiquing the discipline at a more fundamental level. Critical psychology proper thus developed in a productive confrontation with different critical traditions that all understood the existence and broad currency of psychological knowledge and expertise to have emerged, not from neutral scientific interests, but from the construction, codification and regulation of human subjectivities in relation to the particular social, industrial and political demands of the developing West and its colonies. The following quote by Ivey (1986) is a good example of this more radical style of critique, here developed from a Marxist perspective on the role of psychology in the development of capitalism:

Capitalism, in other words, provided the socio-economic conditions for the emergence of the individual subject, a historically contingent form of personality organization dictated by capital’s need for a population of relatively free producers and consumers whose activities and consciousness were no longer determined by the institutions of feudal authority. Psychology, the scientific study of the individual agent, was thus called into being by the capitalist mode of production. (p. 16)

We have indicated earlier in this section that other approaches were later added to Marxism or historical materialism, such as critiques inspired by Black Consciousness, feminism, Foucault, postmodernism, Lacanian psychoanalysis and postcolonial theory. With these critical tools at their disposal, critical psychologists subsequently deconstructed various areas of psychological science and practice in South Africa, carefully laying bare the bourgeois, racist and gendered modes of subjectification operating in (and operated by) knowledge domains like counseling and clinical psychology (Anonymous, 1986; Dawes, 1985, Turton, 1986), industrial psychology (Nzimande, 1984; Fullager & Paizis, 1984; Hayes, 1987), educational psychology (Whitaker, 1991), cultural and cross-cultural psychology (Miller, 1989), the phenomenological and humanist movements (Ivey, 1986; Swartz, 1986) and the psychometric testing industry (Sehlapelo & Terre Blanche, 1996). Similar treatment was meted out against the apparently neutral and liberal research institutes like the NIPR (Terre Blanche & Seedat, 2001) and the later, "reformed" state-operated HSRC (Cloete, Muller & Orkin, 1986).

The 1980s and early 1990s was thus a time of a rapid development of alternative bodies of theoretical tools, knowledges and practices in South African critical psychology. In this the role of the journal PINS, established in 1983, cannot be overstated. In the absence of a theoretically unified critical psychological tradition in South Africa, and in the face of the relative inaccessibility of local mainstream (due to political reasons) as well as many international critical institutions (due to a cultural and academic boycott) to this project, PINS played a vital role in defining, disseminating and archiving disparate critiques, alternative visions, debates and interventions as a South African critical psychology.

While its early years were largely dominated by historical materialist styles of critique and debates about community psychology as a political praxis, relevance, Africanisation, specific political crises and the foundations of critical psychology, the late 1980s and early 1990s saw the appearance and growing importance of other theoretical resources and debates, like psychoanalysis, feminism, and Foucauldian discourse analysis. The journal, during this time of South Africa’s gradual re-entry into the international community, also repositioned itself relatively successfully in the global network of critical psychology, with prominent critical scholars like Ian Parker and Erica Burman, for example, becoming regular contributors. It also started dealing with what was perhaps its biggest limitation: the under-representation, during the 1980s, of black and female contributors (Seedat, 1990; Shefer, Van Niekerk, Duncan & De la Rey, 1997).

But critical psychology in South Africa during the 1980s attempted to be more than a style of scholarly critique and to do more than develop theoretical resources. Organisations aimed at mobilising political dissidence and orchestrating practical interventions, such as the already mentioned OASSSA, thus made an equally important contribution to its development. Positioning itself outside of the inadequate social and mental health services of the apartheid state, OASSSA, consisting of psychologists from all the critical traditions discussed above but also other progressive mental health practitioners, defined itself as:

…a progressive service body concerned to address social service and mental health needs in keeping with a commitment to a non-racial democratic South Africa. The voluntary membership comprises people from a number of related disciplines, both professional and non-professional, who have chosen to align themselves with the broad democratic movement for social justice in South Africa. Our work includes direct service work, research, media, media production, organization, education and consultation… (Eagle & Hayes, 1989, p. 1)

Apart from actual community interventions, advocacy and some research on issues like street children, political violence and later HIV/AIDS, their conferences (e.g. those in 1988 and 1989) and the resulting publications (Eagle, Hayes & Bhana, 1989; Hazelton & Schaay, 1990) were important fora for the discussion of alternative health care services and structures, often in comparison with countries other than the US or the UK, such as Nicaragua (Kovel, 1990) and Mozambique (Muller, 1990).

To summarise, the main theoretical and pragmatic achievements of the developments discussed in this sub-section were, first, that they begun to forge ways to talk about class, race, gender and other structural factors in a discipline beguiled by metaphors of an isolated, self-transparent subjectivity; second, that they started propagandising students and trainees into more political takes on psychology; and third, that they began forging international links as well as links with other social and health workers in South Africa, leading to some significant interventions. Unfortunately, not all of these more practical initiatives survived the shift to democracy, and as we shall argue later, there is still a lack of links between critical psychology theory and political mobilisation and organisation at the level of civil society. What is more, the progressive movements surveyed here had, as was mentioned, some other limitations: it involved only a minority of black and female authors and practitioners.

3) Black skin, white masks: the Black Psychologists grouping

Despite its obvious confrontation with apartheid, the progressive and critical psychologies discussed thus far shared an important feature with mainstream or "uncritical" psychology: it was still largely dominated by white scholars and by Western forms of political imagination, such as liberalism and socialism. While this dominance could be attributed to the fact that black psychologists were, due to practices of racial exclusion and limited training opportunities, inevitably a minority in critical psychology as well, some black psychologists nevertheless argued that simple racial integration would not solve the problem of racism in psychology and society. While liberal and socialist alternatives for South Africa, in psychology and elsewhere, acknowledged racism and the importance of race as a line of cleavage, they failed to explicitly analyse the psychological and social erosion that had been brought about by it. Without such an analysis and a subsequent racial mobilisation around black identity and black experience, both liberal and socialist alternatives would, despite paying lip service to non-racialism, merely reproduce the psychological and social oppression of black people. An increasing number of black psychologists thus responded to "white" critical psychology by organising their political resistance at a deliberate distance from it - by resisting, in other words, even the non-racialism endorsed by fora like PINS and OASSSA.

These kinds of ideas were stimulated by a number of African, South African as well as American traditions: the important anti-colonial writings of Frantz Fanon (1967) and his heir in psychology, Husein Bulhan (1985); the Black Consciousness philosophy of the South African activist and intellectual, Steve Biko (1989), as well as American Negritude voices and the development of Black Psychology in the US and elsewhere since the 1960s (Cross, 1971). In line with these ideas the black psychology project devoted itself to an analysis of black identity, and a subsequent reconstruction of that identity in the context of political struggle and racial empowerment. The development of black identity was theorised, simply stated, as following a step-wise process: first, white values are internalised, which leads to self-loathing and various forms of psychological and social erosion; second, whiteness is radically rejected and blackness romanticised; and finally, black identity is disentangled from white values altogether.

Apart from introducing these novel theoretical ideas to critical psychology in South Africa, the black psychologists grouping contributed significantly to an important alternative body of knowledge, as well as alternative publications and conferences. Although they at times made use of venues like mainstream conferences and publications like PINS and even the SAJP, their focus was mainly on Black Consciousness focused conferences and the publication of books, including Nicholas’ (1993) and Nicholas and Cooper’s (1990, 1993) edited volumes on psychology, apartheid and oppression and Chabani Manganyi’s, one of the first black psychologists in South Africa, now classic Being black in the world (1973) and Treachery and innocence: Psychology and racial difference in South Africa (1991).

Just as Black Consciousness philosophy in other areas had been slightly marginalised in recent years by the more liberal democratic rhetoric of non-racialism, the politics of racial reconciliation and notions of black empowerment reduced to neo-liberal ideals of economic integration and mobility, this is an aspect of critical psychology that is marginal and even misunderstood - for example, that it is merely a reverse form of racism, a judgment that certainly does not do justice to someone like Biko’s writings. While a proper historical treatment of black psychology in South Africa still awaits, there are some positive signs that a more serious confrontation with this body of work is emerging in contemporary South African psychology - for example, the thorough discussions of Biko and especially Fanon in recent South African psychology textbooks (Hook, 2004; Nicholas, 2003; Ratele & Duncan, 2003), as well as the increasing interest in and utilisation of various forms of post-colonial theory. While responses of reverse racism are arguably simply a knee-jerk reaction resulting from (often liberal) misunderstanding, there have been some more serious critiques of Black Consciousness psychology, notably its lack of sensitivity to the politics of gender.

Uncritical Psychology II - Making like America

The coming of democracy to South Africa in 1994 was reflected in major transformations in the discipline and profession of psychology also. In the flurry of institutional transformation that characterised early post-apartheid South Africa, the white-dominated Psychological Association of South Africa (PASA) was disbanded and a more inclusive body, the Psychology Society of South Africa (PsySSA), founded. As in many other transformed institutions, the vast majority of members (of whom there were approximately 2500) were still white, but leadership positions were mainly occupied by black psychologists. And, as was happening in the rest of newly-democratised South Africa, PsySSA found itself flavour-of-the-month internationally, quickly gaining legitimacy with and membership of international bodies such as the International Union of Psychological Sciences.

Thus a pattern of racial reconciliation and redress (at least at the top level), coupled with an eagerness to rejoin the Euro-American-dominated international mainstream, was set early on in post-apartheid psychology, and this pattern is still clearly evident in the present - as it is in other parts of South African society at the end of the first decade of democracy. Much the same critique as is now almost routinely levelled against the post-apartheid ANC government - that it has allowed itself to be co-opted by neo-liberal capitalist ideologies and interests (e.g., Bond, 2001; Saul, 1997) - can be applied to governing structures in psychology as well. Early twenty-first century South African politics is characterised by much rhetorical posturing around ongoing racial and economic inequities (South Africa is classified as an upper-middle income country in terms of per capita GDP, but the majority of South Africans are poor and proportionally many more black than white people live below the "poverty line"), coupled with frankly capitalist economic policies such as tax cuts, privatisation of state assets, and the lifting of exchange controls. In the case of psychology the same dynamic manifests as rhetorical appeals to Africanisation and community-oriented practice, coupled with the implementation of measures that entrench and expand traditional standards of professionalism.

The drive towards higher standards and greater professionalism has taken various forms. First, there has been a restructuring of the profession so that a fully-fledged, registered psychologist will be required to have a doctorate (rather than a masters degree as at present), while individuals in a second-tier registration category, requiring a four year degree, will not be able to claim the title of psychologist. Although this restructuring has been much delayed, inter alia by the unwillingness of universities to accredit course work based rather than traditional thesis based PhDs, there has been no effective opposition to the principle of requiring longer and more advanced study to become a registered psychologist. Second, a system of continuing professional development has been instituted, requiring that registered individuals annually earn a certain number of credits through accredited educational activities. Although this system was again at first delayed by vested interests in and around the profession, it is now in full swing and has given rise to a minor boom among accredited training providers.

In many ways these developments reflect positively on post-apartheid psychology in that they confound Euro-American expectations of a second-rate psychology for "third world" settings and instead position the profession as accountable to international standards of good practice and to the need for high quality service delivery locally. The changes are also not uniformly just about further entrenching the narrow guild interests of elite psychologists. The second-tier registration may be a step towards broadening participation in the profession, and the new requirement that trainee psychologists, in common with other South African "health professionals", do a year of community service in a rural setting is starting to expose the upcoming cadre of psychologists to experiences beyond the urban, middle class environments to which most of them are accustomed. The profession is also now clearly more diverse, not only in that black South Africans and women are far more prominent than 10 years ago, but also in the greater diversity of approaches evident in articles published in the SAJP and in presentations at annual conferences. There is also now a greater acceptance of politics as a legitimate area of concern for psychology - albeit only in relation to "safe" issues such as the need to combat racism within and beyond the discipline, rather than, for example, psychology’s role in maintaining the liberal, technocratic state.

Community-oriented work has also, to be fair, started to move beyond mere rhetoric. The mandatory community service training year is starting to have a real impact on psychological practice and all around the country there are small-scale community psychology interventions, such as for example the psychology clinic on the Phelophepa train, which brings psychological services to isolated rural communities (Hargoon, 2003), or Duncan and Van Niekerk’s (2001) youth interventions. Psychologists have also been very active in work relating to, for example, violence (e.g. Stevens & Mohamed, 2001) and HIV/AIDS (e.g. Kelly, Parker & Lewis, 2001).

The assumption underlying these developments are neatly summarised in Murray’s (2002) APA "country report": "South Africa desperately needs psychologists’ help studying and intervening in its problems, according to the country’s psychologists" (p. 50). Seen from this kind of mainstream psychological perspective, the steps that have been taken to ensure better service delivery - an emphasis on good scholarship, mechanisms to incentivise continuing professional development, more international contacts, improved standards in training and accreditation, a greater emphasis on community oriented service delivery - are all signs of good progress being made. And although the focus of much of South African psychology is still on traditional curative clinical psychology for the middle-classes, there are clear signs that the profession is starting to expand beyond the consulting room.

Seen from a more radical political perspective, however, these attempts at turning organised psychology in South Africa into something like the APA (only better), take on a more ambiguous character. Using Nelson and Prilleltensky’s (2004) dichotomy of ameliorative versus transformative interventions, it is clear that despite protestations to the contrary, South African psychology continues to be mainly ameliorative (assisting individuals, groups and communities in dealing with difficult circumstances) rather than transformative (helping to bring about structural change in society). Henderson (2003) comes to a similar conclusion:

The implicit and explicit claims underlying these changes are that they will not only transform the profession, but also create changes related to social and political redress and transformation in South Africa. However, critical study of the professions have argued that the forces of "professionalization" produce effects that run counter to an agenda of social transformation. (p. 1)

Thus, while the "uncritical" psychology of 2004 is in many respects very different (and certainly much less overtly scandalous) than pre-apartheid uncritical psychology, it shares with that psychology a certain misrecognition of its own politics. South African psychology is now more willing to embrace politics as a legitimate area of enquiry and arena of contestation, but continues to imagine itself as somehow acting on the domain of politics from the outside as a neutral but concerned professional helper - rather than as itself a prime symptom and legitimiser of the modern technocratic state.

Critical Psychology II - Back to the future

During the apartheid years the boundaries between mainstream and critical psychology were already somewhat permeable, and in the post-apartheid era it has become even more difficult to trace a clear line between the two. This is partly due to the relatively small size of South African psychology, with groups and individuals who in other countries may have been pushed to the margins of the discipline, here not infrequently finding themselves in more central positions. Nevertheless, it is possible to discern in parallel with, but separate from, the expansion in professionalism noted in the previous section, a new flowering of critical thinking and action in psychology - especially among academic psychologists.

The flowering of critical psychology in academia has manifested in a variety of forms, including critical conferences, books, articles and university courses. One example is the series of annual qualitative/critical methods conferences (described inter alia in Terre Blanche & Kruger, 1997 and Hook & Terre Blanche, 1998; see also which started in 1995, a year after the demise of apartheid. This conference series has over the years been a forum for the airing of critical views on topics such as narrow empiricism in psychological research, psychology’s neglect of the body (see Terre Blanche, Bhavnani, & Hook, 1999), pathologising tendencies in clinical psychology, gender politics, and the psychology of neo-liberal economics. The 2000 conference, which was run as a stream within the PsySSA conference, had as theme "What is critical in Critical Psychology?" and included papers on theoretical resources (Marxism, feminism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, discourse theory, but also postcolonial theory), academic initiatives (community psychology courses, the role of PINS in fostering critical psychology) and critiques of the status quo in professional psychology.

Other examples of the new critical psychology can be found in the disproportionately large number of critically oriented books that have been published in South African psychology over the last decade. These have included relatively low circulation but influential volumes such as Levett, Kottler, Burman & Parker’s (1997) book on discourse analysis in South Africa and Duncan, Van Niekerk, De la Rey & Seedat’s (2001) book on racism and knowledge production in psychology, but also high volume student-oriented textbooks such as Hook and Eagle’s (2002) student text on psychopathology and social prejudice and Ratele and Duncan’s (2003) social psychology text. This latter text is especially significant. Although it is presented in typical student textbook style, it departs from the organisational pattern of mainstream social psychology textbooks to include an array of specifically South African themes, foregrounding neglected theoretical areas, such as the psychology of oppression. By operating on both the level of introducing important theories such as the above as well as dealing with such pressing topics as street children and violence the book offers more in terms of real engagement with social issues than any local or international social psychology text we are aware of. Also, while fully confronting the politics of race and gender, it expands the agenda by including topics such as lesbianism and, perhaps uniquely so, heterosexuality as a potentially problematic life-style.

The most recent of these various innovative and critical texts is Hook’s (2004) South African introduction to critical psychology. The theoretical materials drawn on in this volume are in part the same as those featuring in similar European texts (Marxism, psychoanalysis, post-structuralism and feminism), but there is also a substantial reliance on Black Consciousness, post-colonial theory, Africanist theory and ‘black psychology’. In addition, there is a wealth of practical examples drawn from community-based, action-oriented initiatives in South African contexts.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that one of the key players in this renaissance of academic publishing in South African psychology is not an academic, but a commissioning editor, Solani Ngobeni, who works for UCT Press/Juta and has seen to the publication of a string of texts by Hook, Ratele, Duncan and others. Other publishers, notably Oxford University Press, have also been instrumental in facilitating psychology publications with a progressive slant.

In addition to books, the growth of critical psychology in South Africa has also been punctuated by a series of special editions of PINS and SAJP - focussing on issues such as gender, postmodernism and black scholarship as well as on contemporary events such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). While these topics were inevitably approached from a range of different angles, not all of which were necessarily critical, on balance they nevertheless in almost every case overwhelmingly fore-grounded a broadly critical psychology perspective.

These developments in South African critical psychology did not occur in isolation from what was happening elsewhere. For example, some of the initial impetus for local critical psychological work was inspired by the "turn to discourse" and the rise of discourse analysis and similar approaches in European social psychology. Since the mid 1990s, when South Africans first started forging links with European discourse analysts such as Ian Parker, Erica Burman and Theun van Dijk, there has been a steady stream of discourse-oriented work appearing in PINS (which continues to be an important forum for critical work), SAJP and in the form of book chapters. Almost all of this work addresses social issues often ignored by other forms of psychological enquiry and fits broadly under the critical psychology rubric. From the outset South African critical psychologists working in a discourse analytic frame were concerned, perhaps even more so than their European counterparts, with issues such as materiality, real practices, and the political impact (or lack thereof) of their work (e.g., Hook, 2001; Painter & Theron, 2001). There has also been an ongoing determination to resist qualitative and discourse analytic methodolatry (e.g., Terre Blanche, 1997).

Discourse analysts have also contributed greatly to the development of a critical and theoretically respectable social psychology in South Africa. Here the work of Durrheim, Dixon and their colleagues (e.g., Dixon & Durrheim, 2000; Durrheim & Dixon, 2000; Durrheim & Dixon, 2001; Dixon, Foster, Durrheim & Wilbraham, 1994) may serve as an excellent example. Not getting bogged down in methodological and philosophical debates to nearly the same extent as has been the case in UK discourse analysis, their work, especially on racism and spatial practices, have added greatly to an understanding of contemporary forms of racism, especially as these are articulated and enacted in the mundane, everyday rituals of South African life - such as having lunch in a university canteen or going to the beach. They have also contributed to a much needed focus in discourse analytic psychology on the materiality of practices in general and the importance of "place" and "space" in particular. In further fully embracing the professionalism, internationalism and zealous publication ethos of mainstream social psychology, their work has done much to situate South African realities and complexities at the core of theoretical and methodological innovation in progressive forms of social psychology internationally.

However, despite the political importance of this work, it still operates within the coordinates of traditional social psychology, re-working existing categories such as social identity and attitudes and implicitly appealing to traditional liberal democratic politics. There is, for example, little theoretical discussion of racism above the level of individual rhetorical performance, which means that its relationship - past and continued - to liberal-capitalist ideology is not interrogated. There also still hangs about this work a whiff of methodolatry; as if at some level these social psychologists still wish to resort to method in order to render their position transparently universal and their "findings" of a uniform exchange value in the global marketplace of psychological ideas.

Finally, it should be mentioned that interwoven with other forms of critical psychological enquiry in post-apartheid South Africa, there has been a strong strand of broadly feminist theory and practice. Publishing in both local interdisciplinary journals such as Agenda and in international fora such as Feminism & Psychology, authors such as Potgieter & De la Rey (1997) have helped to ensure that the politics of gender remain at the forefront of critical psychology locally.


As we reach the end of the first decade of democracy, there are worrying signs that organised psychology in South Africa may be becoming virtually indistinguishable from its counterparts in the UK and US. However, there are also clear signs that progressive initiatives are building momentum, and we may even be on the brink of an historical shift where critical ideas and practices for the first time really become mainstream in academic psychology.

Among the opportunities for further expanding the reach of critical psychology in academia are one local and two international conferences due to be held in 2004 and 2005. The local conference is the 2004 10th anniversary congress of PsySSA, with the provocative theme "Democratising the Psyche", which may provide an opportunity for critical reflection on psychology’s place in South African society. The first of the international conferences is the International Society for Theoretical Psychology (ISTP) Conference, which has long been a forum for the development of critical theory in psychology and has over the years been attended by a small cadre of South Africans. With the 2005 conference due to be held in Cape Town, local participation can hopefully be greatly extended. The second international event, the International Critical Psychology Conference, will be hosted, also in 2005, by the psychology department at the University of Kwa-Zulu-Natal in Durban. This department is the home of PINS and one of only a handful of postgraduate critical psychology programmes worldwide.

Another opportunity for critical academic reflection is a forthcoming special issue of SAJP on "South African Psychology: Reviewing the first decade of democracy", to be edited by Shahnaaz Suffla of the University of the Western Cape.

While the burgeoning of critical academic work described in the previous section and these prospects for further extending it are exciting and encouraging, one should not forget that critical psychology is driven by a handful of academics concentrated in only a few departments (often at former liberal English or historically black universities), and that it is still essentially disconnected from larger political movements in South Africa and globally. In order to capitalise on the new centrality of critical discourses and practices in academic psychology, we will need to establish better, more creative relays between critical theory, research and social activism, and to do this, we will need to look outside of psychology and start forging links with academics and activists in other disciplines and settings.

First, the growth in academic publications relating to issues in critical psychology should be extended to encompass livelier forms of media and artistic activism - in defiance of the ways in which higher education authorities currently reward, through funding and promotion policies, the endless proliferation of dreary "accredited" journal articles. The work some critical psychologists are already doing in contributing to iconoclastic, artistic/political journals such as Chimurenga ( should be further encouraged and partnerships built with cartoonists, theatre groups and film makers concerned with destabilising the deadening middle class consensus which currently controls South African politics and professional psychology.

Second, links should be forged with political and economic theorists and activists outside psychology so as to hone our understandings of how the neo-liberal world order and the workings of the "free market" bring about the forms of subjectification which psychology claims to study, as well as provide us with opportunities for developing and acting on a post-liberal, radical democratic political imaginary. Such links should also help us in the task of developing a post-colonial African psychology that takes race and culture seriously, but does not succumb to essentialist or romantic notions of local-global differences.

Third, we should question more vigorously the implicit (often liberal) political utopias offered us by critical psychology itself (Papadopoulis, 2003) and in that strive to establish stronger links with critical psychology traditions besides the UK - such as those in Germany, Russia, Greece and especially Latin America.

Finally, we should explore ways in which the mass of apparently conservative undergraduate psychology students (Louw, 1992, estimates that one in five South African university students takes a course in psychology) may become a force for change. With very few exceptions, these thousands of undergraduate psychology students all buy into the clinical/medical vision of what psychology is about, but every year no more than a handful are selected for professional training in clinical psychology. While such inconsistencies could continue indefinitely, they could conceivably also provide the impetus for a grass roots radicalisation of the discipline.

Such steps are perhaps not that different from what is required for critical psychology internationally if it is to become more than just a form of loyal opposition and instead seriously attempt to take over, or fatally subvert, the discipline as a whole.


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