Cover Story

When South Africa held its first democratic elections in 1994, international cameras beamed back images of camaraderie among the diverse people waiting in line to vote. Then reality set in. Even as Nelson Mandela boogied in celebration at his inauguration, South Africa's troubles were by no means over. In apartheid's wake, social problems such as violence, poverty, racism and HIV/AIDS loom large and consume the resources of such fields as medicine, social work, and, increasingly, psychology.

In fact, South Africa desperately needs psychologists' help studying and intervening in its problems, according to the country's psychologists. But while this work is under way, it isn't nearly as far along as they'd like it to be. And, in the view of many South African psychologists, it will take a more collectivist orientation, a more indigenous focus, more rigorous scholarship and more international exchange, among other shifts, for psychology to get there.

"South African psychology is not where it needs to be for good reasons," says Cheryl de la Rey, editor of the Journal of South African Psychology. "It was trapped within the service of apartheid and was intentionally underdeveloped. It was also isolated from the rest of the world. Now we need to enter international psychology scholarship, but also to challenge dominant Western paradigms with an African perspective."

What, ultimately, could such a perspective achieve? Insight into the apartheid-wrought psychological trauma that underlies many of the country's problems, says Saths Cooper, past president of the Psychology Society of South Africa and current president of the country's Professional Board for Psychology.

Pressing national concerns

According to Cooper, de la Rey and other psychologists, the areas that most need psychologists' intervention include:

  • Violent crime. Violence against women and children is widespread and reflects patriarchal attitudes related to "emasculation" of black men under apartheid, says de la Rey, also a psychology professor at the University of Cape Town. The former government's migrant labor system separated families by sending off black men to work in the cities, and the family structure has suffered, she says. Recent government figures peg the number of murders--many of them within families--at 49 per 100,000 people, rapes at 120 per 100,000 and assaults at 1,000 per 100,000.

  • HIV. The virus has infected as many as 30 percent of pregnant women in rural areas, creating "a local nightmare," says Andy Dawes, a University of Cape Town psychology professor. Deaths of parents from HIV take a huge toll on children and families, he says, noting that apartheid stoked the disease by dissolving families and allowing tuberculosis and other diseases to spread unchecked.

  • Poverty/unemployment. South Africa's wealth distribution is still hugely skewed, given that 10 percent of people--mostly whites--control 80 percent of the riches. As a result, many blacks continue to experience homelessness, degraded neighborhoods and unemployment, says Dawes. A third of the population is unemployed, and many more people are underemployed and undereducated, he says.

  • Racism. Racial tension continues to plague South Africa as tension builds over strained resources, says Norman Duncan, associate professor of psychology at the University of Venda. Many whites resent such programs as affirmative action and school desegregation, and many blacks resent that whites retain most of the wealth. "A large number of whites have not come to grips with the way that apartheid hurt people," says Duncan.

To be sure, a growing number of South African psychologists have taken on racism and other of the country's scourges--for example, de la Rey and Duncan presented a widely cited paper at a national conference on racism last year. Other psychologists have researched the impact of HIV/AIDS, while others, such as Dawes, have published extensively on the effects of poverty and violence on children and on preventive initiatives.

The challenges ahead

But, to a large degree, South Africa "lacks psychological insight" into its troubles, says Cooper. Partially, he blames apartheid, which not only used psychology in its design, but limited psychology's focus to areas such as psychometric testing.

Another barrier Cooper cites is the small number of psychologists--5,000--relative to the country's overall population--close to 45 million. In addition, he notes, practicing clinical psychologists vastly outnumber research psychologists, which means only a handful of South African psychologists craft broad-scale psychological interventions.

Also problematic, says de la Rey, is South Africa's largely Western, individualistic conception of psychology, which doesn't reflect the country's more collectivist indigenous culture. Plus, whites make up most of the profession--it is 90 percent Caucasian--"and many psychologists are used to waiting in their offices for people to be referred," says Cooper. This, he says, compromises psychology's relevance by cutting it off from the less fortunate.

But, say Cooper and his colleagues, psychology can, will and is already beginning to bolster its relevance by taking a number of steps. These include:

  • Developing large-scale social interventions in addition to providing individual counseling.

  • Recruiting more scholars and researchers, particularly blacks, into South African psychology.

  • Bolstering the quality of psychology scholarship bygetting more critical than the stunted psychology of the apartheid era and improving research training.

  • Focusing more on indigenous, African psychology and what the population's unique needs are, through, for example, oral histories.

  • Boosting international exchange of ideas and interventions. For example, says de la Ray, while international psychology can offer South Africa significant help tackling violence and AIDS, South Africa can benefit international psychology with insight into reconciliation and forgiveness.

While recognizing the work that lies ahead, South African psychologists also applaud how much they've already done to confront apartheid's aftermath.

As Cooper puts it: "We have a post-repression system that is highly democratic and we've got the intention to make it work. Now we need to develop the confidences and competencies that will make the South African Rainbow Nation the real miracle it can be."


Population: 43,421,021

Number of psychologists: 5,000; 90 percent white; 57 percent clinical and counseling; 21 percent educational; 17 percent industrial and 5 percent research.

Racial breakdown: Black, 75.2 percent; White, 13.6 percent; Mixed race, 8.6 percent; Indian, 2.6 percent.

Further Reading

Sources: Central Statistical Service, South Africa.