The CSSR crew made a bold appearance at this year’s annual Congress of the Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA), which took place between the 16th and 19th of September in Durban, and which celebrated 20 years of democracy as well as the formation of PsySSA.
The Congress’s first Controversial Debate happened on the 17th and engaged five guest panellists and the audience with the provocative question ‘Twenty years of democracy in South Africa: Is there something to celebrate and what has psychology’s contribution been in shaping this young democracy?’. The debate was facilitated by no less a provocative figure than Eusebius McKaiser, with individual presentations by Dr Christi van der Westhuizen, Dr Buhle Zuma, Professor Ashwin Desai, Professor Kopano Ratele, and CSSR Chair Professor Catriona Macleod. Whilst acknowledging key developments in critical research and intervention, but also the persistent invisibility of various issues and communities in the psychological profession, Professor Macleod suggested a possible reconciliation of these two “contradictive views” by pointing towards a South African Psychology that goes beyond the health science paradigm, and does not only speak to the corporate and the private sector but also to marginalised subjects and precariousness – a psychology that is willing to reinvent its languages and values. Although the debate somewhat diverted from its central proposition (psychology’s contribution to democratic South Africa), the five panellists provided powerful – and indeed passionate – insights and narratives, allowing for a vibrant conversation about the politics of race, gender and class, as well as the role of critical citizenships in a socially unjust and unequal South Africa.
In the next morning the CSSR presented a two-hour symposium on ‘Sexual Socialisation and Young People’. Nicola Graham drew on a ‘discourse of disconnect’ voiced by school-based sexuality education learners, who see the messages conveyed in the classroom as largely irrelevant to their lives and point to the lack of meaningful parental communication. Using examples of mainstream hip-hop music videos, Dale Moodley problematised the responsibility-centred pedagogy embedded in Life Orientation manuals, and contrasted its narrow focus on risk and danger against the pleasures, tensions and complexities made available to young people by the imageries of popular music culture. Drawing on young men’s talk about their uses of pornography, Ryan du Toit reflected on how the “pleasure imperative” discourse serves today’s re-construction of masculinities, femininities and heterosexual relationships, simultaneously suggesting pornography as a prominent cultural site from where complex meanings of pleasure and sexuality are to emerge – rather than a dangerous subject with no place in the sexuality education classroom. Finally, Professor Macleod wrapped up the various contributions by advocating for a sexual and reproductive pedagogy that uses feminist and queer understandings of citizenship to deal with the limitations and contradictive outcomes of the current educational settings. A lively discussion followed (in a practically packed room), with the audience offering thought-provoking feedback.
At the same time, Dr Pedro Pinto presented a paper on mainstream cosmetic discourse in capitalist liberal societies. His work illuminated a body politics in which women, whilst invited to embrace the newest ‘non-invasive surgeries’, are from the outset compelled into pursuing a lost biological corporeality. He had the opportunity to respond to Dr Buhle Zuma’s challenging question about the role and place of ‘the human’ in a discursive regime that normalises synthetic embodiment as ‘natural’.
On the last day, two compelling papers were presented at the sexuality and gender venue by CSSR research collaborators. In the first morning session, Dr Tracy Morrison and Dr Ingrid Lynch unpacked the neoliberal homonormative ideology embedded in South African media’s constructions of same-sex families. In the afternoon, Natalie Donaldson responded to South African television’s representations of black lesbian women, showing alternative subject positions in participants’ talk which do not conform to familiar discourses of victimisation and powerlessness.
Within paradoxes and challenges, dominant trends and subjugated knowledges, the 2014 PsySSA Congress reflected South African psychology as a vibrant place to be, but also a place where projects such as the CSSR may play a part in questioning the politics of psychological knowledge and reimagining the horizon of its power.