Prejudice thrives when knowledge systems are biased

"The idea that one can observe a human being, in all their complexity and discern cognitive ability, is highly problematic." (John McCann/M&G)

"The idea that one can observe a human being, in all their complexity and discern cognitive ability, is highly problematic." (John McCann/M&G)


Preceding weeks have seen widespread reaction to the study by Sharné Nieuwoudt, Kasha Elizabeth Dickie, Carla Coetsee, Louise Engelbrecht and Elmarie Terblanche that suggests coloured women exhibit low cognitive functioning, influenced by low education levels and lifestyles. Among the critics is the Psychological Society of South Africa, which released a scathing critique of the study, citing problematic methodology, poor scientific rigour and the formulation of reckless generalisations on the basis of colonial stereotypes.

Though these arguments have merit, many discussions do not address the main problem with this article: the nature of hierarchies that persist in knowledge systems, the notion of “objective” scientific knowledge and how conclusions are derived from what is regarded to be objective science.

To understand the significance of this study, we have to confront the fact that South African’s transformation into a nonracial society is incomplete. The negotiated settlement addressed issues of political franchise, but failed to address the issue of political power.
These power structures in academia and education, the economy and social spaces were left unchanged.

The #FeesMustFall protests of two years ago sought to address this concern. The demand for fees to fall may have been heard the loudest, but the movement also demanded the decolonisation of the curriculum, which would allow for more critical assessments of the type of knowledge that dominates our society.

Knowledge systems do not exist on a level playing field, particularly in the academic sphere. There remains the belief that knowledge derived from the Western experiment is superior to indigenous knowledge systems.

The fault line is that racial class is endemic to South African society and this construct needs to be understood to grasp the significance of social interaction. The truth is, the more we think of our transition as a miracle, the longer it will take to address the underlying forces in our society. So far, we have only assisted in replicating these power constructs, barely scratching the surface of what should be done to effectively address these issues.

One should not underestimate how well the apartheid and colonial systems of knowledge were constructed. Apartheid prime ministers Hendrik Verwoerd and DF Malan were trained social scientists with a deep understanding of social interaction and have succeeded in shaping the outlook of two generations of white people.

The popular notion of the world consisting of nations that are either superior or inferior was dominant during this time period. The white class was even referred to as a nation with its own history, language and genealogy considered superior to other nations. This belief informed the way in which many white people dispensed their power in the economy, social spaces and all other spheres. Particularly when considering the economy, there was a need to define a race-based society, premised on the notion of racial categories, existing of European stock and natives. Apart from these two groups, there was a group that they had great difficulty classifying; at one point “coloured people” were known to have 14 subcategories in the apartheid classification.

When former president FW de Klerk’s former wife, Marike, stated that she pitied “coloured” people because they did not have a history and culture, it was fundamental to expressing how “coloured” people were seen by the larger white population. There are some Africanists who believe in the same construct — the racial superiority of “pure” white people and “pure” black people, with no other possibilities.

Sentiments by Blackman Ngoro, who in 2010 was the media adviser to Cape Town mayor Nomaindia Mfeketo, expressing stereotypes of “coloured” people who are stupid, with no front teeth, were not very different from the statements by Mzwanele “Jimmy” Manyi in 2010, when he was the director general at the department of labour, that there were too many “coloured” in the Western Cape.

Encouraged by the rise of national socialism in Germany and the scientific notion of race, systematic methods were used in South Africa to enforce power relations by disabling a system where other races were more educated than European stock.

Before the introduction of Bantu education, missionaries played a significant role in educating “non-whites”. In 1805-1806, the British government in the Cape was petitioned by white farmers to introduce the first real pass laws. The governor was commissioned to oversee the requirements of this petition, which included the restriction of so-called coloured people from moving freely in the Cape colony and the prevention of coloured children from receiving education from missionaries. Many “coloured” children residing on mission stations such as Genadendal and Wupperthal were able to read and write, whereas many white children who assisted in cultivating farmlands remained illiterate at the time.

Although the study by Niewoudt et al — Age- and Education-Related Effects on Cognitive Functioning in Colored South African Women — may be regarded as scientific on a technical level, its foundations are based on an untransformed knowledge and power construct crafted in a colonial spirit. What’s more is that academic knowledge and constructs of knowledge filter into broader society, influencing the way in which people think, reason and act.

There needs to be an understanding that scientific research is never objective and value-free. It is sometimes based on an interaction that is observed and understood as evidence — consider how Newton’s observing an apple falling from a tree gave rise to the law of gravity. The point is that, in the social sciences, evidence-based research is even more complex. If a “coloured” person is observed in a certain environment through a specific world lens and a research question is designed in a way to make sense of a certain understanding/observation, the findings may very well support the social norms that are inherently held by the observer.

The idea that one can observe a human being, in all their complexity and discern cognitive ability, is highly problematic. The same can be said for the way in which individuals whose primary language is an African-based language (which, I may add, is far more complex than those of Germanic origin) are considered to be of inferior intellect when pronouncing words in English or Afrikaans.

The power construct and how it played out in the study goes well beyond the power dynamic between the researchers and their respondents. The study remains a reflection of norms that are deeply ingrained in our society and is a demonstration of what destruction can be caused when these are adhered to.

Some have come to the professors’ defence, citing the exercise of “academic freedom”, or my personal favourite, “diversity of opinion”. What was practised here was not academic freedom. The basic principles that have governed science since the enlightenment period led to the inception of, among others, the Hippocratic oath for doctors, which significantly includes the part: “In everything you do, do no harm.”

The value of “do no harm” should inform how we interact with others. We are able to do and say anything we please, but if we do not consider the effect of our actions, can we really claim to uphold an enlightened society? During his trial, Wouter Basson, the leader of the apartheid-era chemical and biological warfare programme, claimed that his experiments benefited the scientific community. Can this be considered a practice of academic freedom? Certainly not in my opinion, given that academic freedom presupposes doing no harm.

Freedoms are limited to the degree that they do not infringe or cause harm to the wellbeing of another. Our constitutional democracy and the Bill of Rights is based on and informed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Both of these documents demonstrate that there is no such thing as absolute freedom and, in this case, freedom is neither a viable argument nor an absolute right.

Realising, knowing and understanding the existence of hierarchies in knowledge systems is only the beginning of addressing this issue. This study has been dubbed an onslaught to social cohesion. But what does social cohesion actually mean for us as South Africans? Does it mean that we merely tolerate our differences, or does it mean that we hold shared goals for what our ideal future looks like?

The onus then lies on our institutions of higher learning to take cognisance of these dynamics, in an attempt not to replicate existing power constructs.

As can be seen in Europe, the United States and our latest national election, the extremes are on the rise. Race-based science and the poverty of evidence-based knowledge has been witnessed through the rise of fascism and the germination of Trumpian populist politics. This trend is especially dangerous in the era of social media, when information is generated at an unprecedented speed and there happens to be a nonlinear distribution of power. Small groups of people, or individuals such as Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema and singer Steve Hofmeyr, are able to influence views and the emotional state of people in an exercise of power far beyond their numbers, proving destructive to any sort of unity in our country.

The period post-1994 was meant to introduce a new society of equals, but what remained was a foundation of a system that is inherently corrupt in the way that people are perceived, categorised and treated. Worryingly, this points to the likelihood of a crisis in the value system of especially the nascent elite in our country.

To combat this crisis in the value system, I propose that all universities develop a compulsory first-year course on knowledge systems and how race-based science is not “re-emerging” or “rearing its ugly head”, but rather, that this approach in academia has been consistently present.

The saddest thing is when students enter and leave university with their views of the world unchanged and unenlightened. What I consider even worse is when an institution of higher learning arms and encourages how its students move through the world by reconfirming over and over again a problematic knowledge construct.

Anastasia Witbooi has a master’s degree in political science and international relations from Stellenbosch University

Anastasia Witbooi

Anastasia Witbooi

Anastasia Witbooi has a master’s degree in political science and international relations from Stellenbosch University. Read more from Anastasia Witbooi

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