At the end of March this year, an article claiming that “coloured” women in South Africa have low cognitive functioning was published in the academic journal, “Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition”. The article used a sample group of 60 women between the ages of 18 and 64.
The authors were all scholars at Stellenbosch University. They came to the conclusion that:
coloured women have an increased risk for low cognitive functioning, as they possess low education levels and exhibit unhealthy lifestyle behaviours.
Given the controversy around the term “coloured”, and South Africa’s history of racial segregation, the article sparked outrage. On social media users challenged the article’s racial biases, claiming that it was an example of how racial stereotyping can be passed off as “scientific research”.
This is understandable given that the study was based on apartheid’s racial categories. In South Africa, “coloured” is a highly contested term dating back to the late nineteenth century. Under apartheid, it was used to racially classify and segregate people of mixed race.
Members of South Africa’s academic community also spoke out. A prominent English professor, Barbara Boswell, wrote an open letter to the editorial board of the journal calling for its retraction. She argued that the article failed to account for the fact that
racial categories are highly unstable, fluid, and provisional.
The Psychological Society of South Africa’s Division for Research and Methodology also issued a response. It called the study “fatally flawed”, pointing out that it drew on colonial stereotypes of “coloured” women.
Stellenbosch University’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor for research, innovation and postgraduate studies, Professor Eugene Cloete, issued an apology,
for the pain and the anguish which resulted from this article.
Cloete said that he would investigate how the study passed the ethics review board at Stellenbosch University – the institutional mechanisms meant to ensure ethical research.
The article – written by Sharné Nieuwoudt, Kasha Elizabeth Dickie, Carla Coetsee, Louise Engelbrecht and Elmarie Terblanche and titled “Age- and education-related effects on cognitive functioning in Colored South African women” – was subsequently retracted by the journal.
But the bigger issue was why this kind of research was being produced 25 years after the end of apartheid.
There are many examples of flawed scientific research around the world – particularly, “scientific” theories based on the false idea that race is a biological “fact”. One example was the rise of eugenics in the early 1900s. It was the “science” of improving the human species by “breeding out” so-called undesirable traits from the world’s population. It was later used to justify Adolf Hitler’s belief in the inherent racial inferiority of “non-Aryan” races.
There is important historical background to Stellenbosch University, some of which formed part of my PhD research on Afrikaans higher education institutions in South Africa, and its role in producing knowledge that would justify apartheid policy.
Stellenbosch functioned as the intellectual home of Afrikaner nationalism during apartheid. It also produced sociological research on people designated as “coloured”, particularly in the 1950s. This research was in part, produced through the apartheid party’s think tank, the South African Bureau of Race Relations, which was concerned with helping “coloureds”‘ develop cohesion as their own separate “group.”
Under apartheid South Africans were delineated into racial “population groups”: white, coloured, Indian and black. This meant that these “groups” were not only organised into a racial hierarchy with whites at the top, but that a historically diverse group – having little in common except their “mixed” ancestry – were classified as “coloured” and expected by the apartheid state to form their own sense of identity and cohesion.
Along with other disciplines in the social sciences, such as psychology and social work, sociology at Stellenbosch produced research that purported to highlight that “coloured” communities were socially dysfunctional. This in turn reinforced various stereotypes about “coloured” people, such as endemic alcoholism.
One of Stellenbosch’s best known apartheid “experts” on “coloured affairs” was Professor Erika Theron. She was a sociologist who worked from the department of social work and sociology started by Hendrik Verwoerd in 1932. Verwoerd, who heavily influenced Theron’s work, held a doctorate in psychology, and was to become South Africa’s prime minister in 1958. He was to earn the title of the architect of apartheid.
In a 1955 report, titled “The Coloured and his Social Problems”, Theron claimed that alcoholism was,
one of the most important factors in the deterioration of a significant section of the coloured population.
So alcoholism, rather than the pernicious effects of apartheid legislation, was the “explanation” for these social problems.
Theron later changed her views with recommendations to repeal two of apartheid’s more pernicious laws.
But her earlier work set the precedent for similar forms of knowledge production at the University of Pretoria.
By the 1970s, sociology students at the University of Pretoria appropriated Eersterust, a local “coloured” township. There they conducted research on its “social” problems. They identified alcoholism as the foremost demonstration of “coloured” dysfunction.
By 1979, the university’s department of social work partnered with the Human Sciences Research Council (HRSC) to conduct a study on Eersterust. “Eersterust: A sociological study of a coloured community” drew on pervasive tropes of coloured pathology and alcoholism. It claimed that,
out of all the various ‘groups’, the coloured population is probably most exposed to the negative influence of alcohol abuse.
It is 40 years later and the Stellenbosch University journal article based on apartheid tropes of “coloured” dysfunction came as a shock to many. But should it be a surprise? It is a university that has a deeply-embedded history of producing this kind of knowledge in the first place.
If the debates over the university last few years have revealed anything, it is that the claims for the decolonisation of the university have left the very basis of knowledge formation untroubled.
Until universities are prepared to fully grapple with the racism and violence that form the basis of their disciplines, the project of transformation will remain incomplete.
Janeke Thumbran does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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