Psychological Society of South Africa
Psychological Society of South Africa

Is psychology serving humanity?

By Suntosh Pillay

Do we have the intellectual courage to ask what is “post” about “post-apartheid” South Africa?

This question was, interestingly and perhaps not coincidently, raised at two separate conferences happening at the same time in Durban last year September.

At the Steve Biko National Conference, Veli Mbhele raised this provocative and necessary question about social transformation as he lamented the “anonymity of black death in South Africa”.

He lamented that “by celebrating Freedom Day [in April] we blacks are essentially celebrating our own robbery”.

The black consciousness rhetoric was thick in the air as the political commentator questioned whether Biko’s methodology still has a role in current efforts at nation-building. The search for contextually and historically relevant solutions to our social ills dominated the conversation, which included Professor Saths Cooper, former Robben Island prisoner, and now president of the International Union of Psychological Science, who addressed racism and tribalism.

Frantz Fanon

Frantz Fanon

At the 20th anniversary congress of the Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA) Eusebius McKaiser facilitated a stimulating roundtable debate in which UCT psychologist Dr Buhle Zuma raised the question again. He problematised our post-apartheid rhetoric, specifically wondering what freedom might mean from the perspective of those who are poor.

Sociologist Ashwin Desai animatedly critiqued “the illogical madness of Parliament that is run like the Mad Hatter’s tea party!” Keenly aware of speaking at a psychologists’ conference, he chose the apt metaphor of society being “straightjacketed” by a government seen as ineffectual, patronising, and sometimes corrupt.

These tough questions reflect fractures in our ability to make this country work. South Africa is indeed straightjacketed into sedation as the ruling elite lets citizens down by over-promising and under-delivering on developmental goals, and then further pursing an active anti-transformation agenda – seen in Marikana, the Secrecy Bill, the R700 billion lost to corruption since 1994, and President Jacob Zuma’s head-in-sand approach by refusing to answer parliamentary questions, or even acknowledge the drama that played out at the State of Nation Address.

An active citizenship is the one pragmatic solution, if indeed the price of democracy is eternal vigilance. There are some promising examples in education, leadership development, the media, and youth development. Rather than waiting for “service delivery”, these organisations are imagining and actualising the society that has been promised to them. They refuse to volunteer to become victims of the system.

But does this active citizenry contain a sustained and audible voice from social scientists in general, and psychologists in particular, beyond the insular and closed spaces of academia, or the rent-an-expert approach that values quick sound bites?

Dr Zuma, for example, questioned the role of our profession’s public intellectuals.

“Is there a memorandum of understanding between PsySSA and society?” he asked, “and are psychologists contributing to public discourse?”

Unlike apartheid, when 18 000 books were banned and the state repressed progressive media and critical voices, there is no deliberate muzzling of progressive analyses today (of which there is plenty from a range of writers). But there does appear to be a general reticence from professional communities to voice their socio-political opinions in the media, or to offer critical psychological analyses of social problems in public forums. Thought Leader, for example, has only a handful of psychologists who write their own column; and even globally, there is a dwindling of the elusive “public intellectual“.

The first problem may be a skewed system that only rewards outputs in academic journals and conferences. The transition from writing polished academic pieces to the messy, hotter zone of interactive public debate is avoided at best, or disparaged at worst. The second problem is an overreliance by journalists and the media to use psychologists only as mental health experts. While mental health and emotional distress is an important part of what some psychologists are trained in, all psychologists at the very least have a master’s degree with research experience; most academics have a PhD; and most training happens from a social sciences and humanities background, offering psychologists an arsenal of theoretical tools to use in their analyses.

This opening article on this newly launched PsySSA column is therefore both an invitation to the intelligentsia in general, and psychology scholars in particular, to amplify their voices in the public domain and help deepen the quality of public debate in South Africa. Though I was still too young to witness it at the time, the history of PsySSA’s formation 20 years ago emerged from a fractured and racially divided professional community that has been critiqued for their complicity with the apartheid system — either through active collaboration, or head-in-the-sand denialism (bar some dissidents).

Closed — dare I say, elitist — spaces like conferences and academic publishing can and should co-exist with dialogical, open spaces that are socially responsive, or we risk repeating this complicity with a currently problematic government and society. If we can’t transform the complex theories of Sigmund Freud, Frantz Fanon or Michel Foucault into easily digestible arguments for a discerning public audience, what’s the point of our convoluted, closed conversations? Questions such as the one posed at the start of this article need robust but publicly readable analysis. This is a step towards psychology serving humanity.

Suntosh Pillay is a clinical psychologist in a public hospital in Durban and writes social commentary for various print and online media. He is a PhD researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He is an executive member in PsySSA’s Division for Community and Social Psychology, and a core member of the PsySSA African LGBTI Human Rights Project. He is also the acting chair and board director for the Mandela Rhodes Community. He can be contacted on [email protected] or tweeted on @suntoshpillay

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