In 1976, South African psychology student Sathasivan (Saths) Cooper was arrested for organizing anti-Apartheid rallies in Durban and other cities. Much to his surprise, he encountered just as many prominent psychologists in prison as he had in school — but instead of professors, they were his captors. In fact, psychologists held the top three administrative posts on Robben Island, the high security prison where Cooper shared a cell block with Nelson Mandela.

As a political prisoner for nine years, Cooper realized that psychology could be a powerful force for liberation as well as oppression. So he resumed his studies behind bars and earned a bachelor's degree in psychology through correspondence courses with the University of South Africa. After his release in 1982, Cooper continued his studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and went on to complete his PhD in the United States, at Boston University.

Since then, Cooper has dedicated his life to ensuring that psychology serves all of humanity, not just a powerful few. As a result, South Africa now boasts more than 8,000 practicing and academic psychologists representing all of the country's many racial groups. Cooper spoke to the Monitor about South African psychology's checkered past and hopeful future, as well as the growing importance of African voices within the profession.

When you were in college in Durban, did many psychologists support Apartheid?

The vast majority of psychologists tended to believe Apartheid ideology, and many psychologists were in very powerful positions in the government. Psychologist Jan Smuts was prime minister of South Africa during the Second World War. Hendrik Verwoerd, a professor of psychology at the University of Stellenbosch, also became prime minister [in 1958] and enacted some of the most horrendous Apartheid laws in the country — laws that categorized all citizens by race, forced blacks and other groups to move to slums, and eventually disenfranchised the vast majority of South Africans. Academic psychologists played a large role in propping up Apartheid as well, producing pseudo-science to support segregationist theories.

Today, these psychologists are well outside of the mainstream of political or academic thought. [But while] psychology has been tainted by its previous association with Apartheid, my view is that there are more good, humanitarian and altruistic purposes that psychology can be put to than the narrow ones that the Verwoerds of the world were responsible for.

Did you come into contact with any of these powerful Apartheid psychologists?

Jannie Roux, who ended up serving as South Africa's ambassador to Japan, was the deputy head of prisons when I was imprisoned with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. He'd come over from Cape Town and have a dinner of lobster and wine — Robben Island was renowned for its lobster because of its rocky nature, you see. As a post-prandial treat, he would invite prisoners to visit him with complaints or requests.

Most of my colleagues would refuse to talk to him, but I and a few others would go because it was a treat to leave your cell. On one occasion, there was an argument going on when I arrived. Aubrey [Mokoape], another political prisoner, was yelling while Roux was ignoring him, just puffing away on this huge cheroot [cigar]. I whispered to my friend, "What is happening?" He said, "Aubrey says he is a medical doctor and guards should address him by his name, but they only say, ‘Hey Jong,'" — a very pejorative term in Afrikaans.

So I interrupted, saying, "Let me tell you some of the [Afrikaans] words I have learned in prison." They stopped me as soon as I had finished my second phrase — these were terrible words, you see, very disrespectful.

Roux said, "From now on, all guards will wear a name tag and guards will address prisoners by their names or numbers."

I realized that I was using psychology against the psychologist, and I had bettered him.

How have you and other post-Apartheid psychologists helped the profession shake its racist past?

In January 1994, three months before Nelson Mandela became the country's first democratically elected president, we formed the Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA) — the country's first psychological organization that accepted members regardless of their race or gender. APA sent a large delegation to our founding conference, including Gwendolyn Keita, who is now head of APA's Public Interest Directorate.

Through PsySSA, we encourage psychologists to take a principled approach to their research and applied psychology, to respect the dignity of all people, to act with integrity, and not to participate in any oppressive or restrictive systems, such as authoritarian regimes.

Also, I recently took the position of president of the International Union of Psychological Science, and for the first time in the group's 123-year history, last summer it held a conference on the African continent. This, I think, reflects the growing importance of African psychology to psychology worldwide, and a broadening of international psychology to people all over the world. We had representatives from Indonesia, Micronesia, Zimbabwe, Ghana — many countries that are not traditionally represented. I think that kind of diversity means that psychology is moving toward a better understanding of the global human condition — not merely in the Western world, not merely in the developed world, but in the entire world.

As psychologists, we can create better human understanding, which can reduce strife, reduce warfare and reduce terror. But first we need to play a bigger role in worldwide political and social leadership.

What is the biggest challenge facing South African psychology today?

Language. We speak 11 different languages, but most psychologists are trained in English or Afrikaans. We need more psychologists who understand Xhosa, Sotho and other indigenous languages so that we can conduct therapy and do accurate assessments. You can sometimes get away with a translator, but you miss important nuances.

We must also train psychologists to understand diversity while also respecting individuality. The framework and cultures our clients come from may be quite different from an Anglo or a Protestant perspective, which is still the background of most South African psychologists.

What can American psychologists learn from their South African colleagues?

We have a burgeoning community psychology movement that is making psychology available to severely impoverished people, especially in remote and outlying areas. Some people think psychology is a luxury — they say, you can't eat it, you can't feed people with psychology, so what's the point? However, when we bring psychology to rural areas, we quickly get overbooked. For instance, we sponsor a psychology clinic on the Phelophepa Health Train, which travels across South Africa providing health care, dental clinics and educational programs. Many people come into our onboard psychology clinic, seeking counseling about family problems, testing for children with learning disabilities and help with other behavioral problems.

This, as well as South Africa's compulsory year of public service for newly licensed clinical psychologists, has created a culture in which psychologists interact with very disadvantaged communities, helping empower them to deal with the pressures of life. Without these programs, psychology would remain an elite domain. As a profession, we must bring our considerable knowledge base to bear on evolving social and environmental problems, and I think that American psychologists are beginning to see the importance of this as well.