Picture by Judith Doubell
I am very pleased to welcome you to the fourth Social Change award evening.
This award was initiated by the Psychology Department in 2008, and is held annually. Each year, we seek to highlight and to honour a particular member of the Psychology community, who has made important contributions to social change in South Africa. Tonight, we would like to honour the work of the Honourable Deputy Minister Hlengiwe Buhle Mkihize, who, besides being a clinical psychologist, as well as Honorary Professor of Psychology at UNISA, is also the Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training.
The title of her talk this evening is “The Role of Social Psychology in Promoting Democracy and Managing Apartheid Related Legacies and Challenges". This title might well have sounded strange a few decades ago. What has psychology got to do with democracy? Indeed, what has it to do with apartheid?
I would suggest that it is precisely in grappling with these questions that psychology in South Africa has taken a particular shape. During the late apartheid years there was increasing recognition among psychologists in this country that the dominant western models for thinking about people and mental health were problematic; they tended to neglect the social, cultural, political and historical dimensions of experience.
The Honourable Deputy Minister was one of the people writing about these issues at that time. She warned of what she called the “errors in thinking”, in which the idea of mental illness as a narrowly biological or individual affair was foregrounded, which in the process obscured or invisibilised the processes of “political subjugation” that often lay at the heart of people’s lives. The Honourable Deputy Minister was one of the clinical psychologists to recognise this myopic vision, and to contribute to writing about its effects. And of course, one of the effects of this micro/ individualising focus was that it threatened to make psychology complicit in upholding the power relations associated with apartheid.
I think that these kinds of understandings - of the relationship between the micro and the macro - contributed to shaping up aspects of South African psychology towards a concern for, and an engagement with, social, cultural and political issues. Indeed, in our own Psychology Department here at RU, we have many such projects and interests. Consider the following topics being explored in our department: HIV/AIDS in SA organisations, sexual and reproductive health in our local contexts, the development of therapeutic approaches that are relevant to our context, critical gender psychology, and gender based violence – an issue on which the Honourable Deputy Minister has powerfully spoken out about. Also, we have work exploring public health issues, alternative social identity positions with and for psychiatric patients, individual strategies for coping with our inevitable participation in what Foucault called society’s “games of power”, and numerous other community related projects. These seemingly diverse areas of study have in common an attempt to theoretically link up aspects of micro-personal experience with broader, macro-societal issues of power, and our hope is that they might contribute in some small way to a more socially sensitive and socially responsive psychology.
One of the hopes for such a psychology is that our work might impact not only on the lives of the individuals or small groups with whom we work, but also on how we as a society think about and do things. Such a psychology might usefully inform social policy. In a 1992 paper – which focused on diagnostic and classification problems in the field of mental health in the context of South Africa’s deep inequalities – the Honourable Deputy Minister wrote about the need for a community rather than individualistic approach, an approach that looked closely at how people actually lived, not just on their so-called psychological symptoms. In studying closely how people live in their communities, as psychologists, we might end up usefully informing public policy, and perhaps even the thinking of powerful policy makers. As it happens, we in the psychology community are fortunate to have one of our very own in such a position.
Having arrived at that position, it is clear that the Honourable Deputy Minister has been incredibly productive in her career. A clinical psychologist, who lectured at the Universities of Zululand and the Witwatersrand, and who also was visiting professor at the Universities of Illinois and Mississippi in the USA, the Honourable Deputy Minister became, in 1995, Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa and Chairperson of the Reparations and Rehabilitation Committee (1995-2003). From a psychological perspective, it is interesting to note that she has since commented on some of the psychological factors – such as denial and the assumption of false identities - associated with this complex process of telling and seeking out the truth.
Having always been an activist, it is no surprise that the Honourable Deputy Minister has spoken out strongly on women’s issues, and expressed an interest in conceptualising these issues as part of a broader total liberation movement. Indeed, she has highlighted the role of women in numerous historical struggles, including in anti-apartheid protests.
I cannot do justice to her career in this short time, but I can mention that her subsequent posts included being Deputy Minister of Correctional Services and Member of Parliament, and, now, Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training. In between all of this, she has participated in conferences and committees on such issues as gender equality, peace, anti-racism, children’s’ rights and human rights.
From the point of view of psychology, specifically, let me say this: Broadening our focus towards matters of community engagement and public policy; forging understandings of the links between the micro and the macro worlds, while never diminishing the former; helping us to see the politics of local, individual experience; thinking psychology in bigger and more useful ways; reimagining psychology as a contributor to social change. These are just some of the contributions we see being made by the Honourable Deputy Minister; and these are the contributions for which we would like to honour her.
Please join me in giving her a very warm welcome.
Read the speech delivered by the Honourable minister here
Last Modified: Thu, 15 Aug 2013 13:01:51 SAST