By Sduduzo Mncwabe

In South Africa racism and psychology had a difficult marriage consummated by Professor Hendrik Verwoerd in 1948 and dissolved by Professor Sathasivan “Saths” Cooper and company when the Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA) was founded in 1994. As a profession we have gone from having “one of our own” construct the grand system of apartheid, to finally being egalitarian and consistent with the post-1994 Constitution’s non-racialism ideal. Regrettably, racism is often dismissed as a subject of the past and we do not engage it enough; yet, I wish to highlight that psychologists are adequately skilled to play a meaningful role in the quest to deter racism.

Grand racism
Racism is enacted ideology, based on a socio-economic oppression of particular socially constructed groups by a group that deems itself superior and acts to enforce this perceived superiority. Stated differently, racism entails one group violently oppressing other people on the basis that they are lesser beings. Racism is about control, power and money. Race is not just about black and white – think Jewish Germans in Adolf Hitler’s times. However, by all and sundry, the victims of racism in South Africa have always been black people. Any other conceptualisation is erroneous. Slavery, colonialism and apartheid have consistently oppressed the Khoisan, native blacks, Indians initially imported as indentured labourers, and so-called coloured people.

If we accept this definition we can further differentiate between grand racism and petty racism. Grand racism is the superstructure that emanated from grand apartheid legislation that removed land from black hands, blocked their economic pursuits and destroyed their cultural and education prospects. Petty racism is not necessarily inconsequential but it derives its power from the grand system that makes it possible for one to call another by derogatory terms. For this purpose I will ignore petty racism and will not refer to individuals and their social media exploits. They are a symptom and not the root problem.

To understand the impact of racism in South Africa one does well to peruse the tenets of the Freedom Charter. The document is striking in its demand for basic freedoms: work, free association, a place to stay, education, human rights, etcetera. Engaging about racism with no intention of tampering with the economic superstructure is synonymous with farting in the wind.

Racism remains institutionalised in South Africa – even though it is no longer legislated. A brief glance at the statistics indicates that the majority of black people are poor and that white people have higher incomes and lower levels of unemployment. Professor Ruth Hall recently said it would take 144 years to settle all land claims at the current pace. Thus, attempts of redress via affirmative action and black economic empowerment (BEE) have had minimal success.

Curiously a combination of ignorance and supremacist arrogance have some complaining that these policies are racist and serve the interests of black people by unjustly blocking the aspirations of white people. All indications are that this is untrue. Even “broad-based BEE” has not had the intended effect. I await “even broader-based black economic empowerment”! Until then the only complaints we should entertain regarding such redressive policies is that they are not working efficiently enough.

Racism is not a mental illness
In 1992 Jane Elliott, an American teacher and diversity trainer, said “racism is a mental illness. If you judge other people by the colour of their skin, by the amount of a chemical in their skin, you have a mental problem. You are not dealing well with reality”. I think it is important to problematise her statement.
While she acknowledges the power-privilege aspect of racism elsewhere in her work this particular statement warrants at least three critiques:
1. Racism is a learned response. To be dramatic, no white child has exhibited symptoms of anxiety when suckling at a black nanny’s breast.
2. Mental illness can be treated and medicated. I dare you to try treating or medicating racism.
3. If racists are the ill people in all of this and require “help”, do the real victims of racism have any chance of receiving justice?

The above shows that, firstly, contemporary psychology is often an ill-fated attempt to correct social disquiet at an individual level. Black psychologists joining the field often find themselves assimilating to the western ways as opposed to revolutionising the profession. Perhaps social psychology should be studied with enough vigour to infuse the ideas of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Bantu Biko and Paulo Freire into our analysis, diagnosis and intervention ideas.

Secondly, meaningful interaction lies in psychologists identifying as experts in learning. If we agree with the ideal of education as the ticket out of disenfranchisement it is time we look at Zambia’s diversity studies within their school system and ask why our school system produces people who engage in xenophobia and other hate crimes? Let us engage in matters of policy-making; our research and social science background qualifies us to.

Thirdly, for any meaningful race interventions to be done – reconciliation in its current format, appeasing and obviating the anxieties of the oppressor – must be turned on its head towards a proportionate share of resources. Inequality undermines any talk of non-racialism. Inequality on the basis of race, sex, sexuality, religion and culture remain a stumbling block and we will continue to see the privileged fuel their dominant ideologies. Biko left black people with the arduous task of gifting the country with a more humane face. Needless to say the negotiated transition and reconciliation efforts were benevolent acts to effect change but they have failed dismally as those with the economic power to ensure that the country’s resources are used equitably have stubbornly held on to the ill-gotten gains.

Towards becoming race conscious, not racist
Black people are angry and anger-management tactics won’t pacify us much longer. The source of the problem requires fixing. Topical petty racism is merely highlighted rambunctious mutterings that hide a more serious problem of persisting inequality veiled as the supremacy of whites and inferiority of blacks. The onus is on psychologists and other social scientists to engage in an accurate diagnosis of the problems and start offering alternatives that consider the lived realities of South Africans.

Plans to hold fleeting national debates, patronising #colourblind movements, making party members sign pledges and converting Human Rights Day to an Anti-Racism Day will only serve the purpose of placating people without solving the problem – fixing the symptoms and not tracking the “developmental cause”, to dabble in therapist talk.

To part with a simple matter, each one of us must endeavour to learn to be race conscious and not racist. Sometimes this starts with acknowledging that it is I, as the therapist who does not speak my client’s language, and not the ridiculous insinuation that the service-seeking client does not speak my language.

Sduduzo Mncwabe is a clinical psychologist in public practice who writes in his personal capacity.


  • PsySSA, the Psychological Society of South Africa, is the national professional body for psychology. Committed to transforming and developing psychological theory and practice in South Africa, PsySSA strives to serve the needs and interests of a post-apartheid country by advancing psychology as a science, profession and as a means of promoting human well-being. This blog hopes to engage psychologists and citizens in debating issues, from mental health to the socio-political. Visit


Psychological Society of South Africa

PsySSA, the Psychological Society of South Africa, is the national professional body for psychology. Committed to transforming and developing psychological theory and practice in South Africa, PsySSA strives...

Leave a comment