Psychology in the Legitimation of Apartheid

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Psychology in the Legitimation of Apartheid

by Andrew Colman

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 4, No. 3, May 1972, p. 7 – 10

A South African psychologist in England follows up on “Science in the Justification of Class Structure,” Science for the People magazine, vol. IV, no. I, Jan. 1972

From an historical point of view, the capitalist mode of production and distribution has led to the emergence of two characteristic types of political system: the liberal democracy exemplified by England and the United States of America on the one hand, and the repressive police state exemplified by Nazi Germany on the other. The undisguised and officially sanctioned use of torture by British troops in Northern Ireland, and the genocidal foreign policies of the United States government, do not invalidate this important distinction. It is sometimes edifying to examine the uses of science in repressive police states from the point of view of the relationship between economic infrastructure and cultural superstructure in capitalism generally. Tendencies which are latent or disguised in liberal democracies can often be more clearly perceived and understood when viewed in comparison with more extreme manifestations of such tendencies elsewhere.

One crucial area of investigation centers on the role of science in social control. Men and women living in an industrial capitalist society have to acquiesce in the class structure if the system is to work. Since the class structure is inegalitarian and cannot be made to operate in the interests of the vast majority of the people—wage-earners, for example, are condemned to work at creating surplus value for other people, who need not work at all for their money—social control has to be exercised in order to gain the necessary acquiescence.

Social control takes two forms: coercion(the use of physical violence or the threat of violence by police, army, etc.) and legitimation, or thought control.1 If through legitimation the have-nots can be persuaded of the inherent morality of the existing state of affairs, then the necessity for the use of coercion declines. And if the legitimation process succeeds in convincing both oppressed and oppressor that the oppression is either nonexistent or inevitable, then the trappings of liberal democracy can be safely adopted, and we are faced with the hegemonic and almost universal false consciousness which has permeated many societies in recent decades.

In examining the uses of science in social control, a great deal of attention has been devoted to the role of the natural sciences in coercive control (the technology of armaments, for example) while the less conspicuous involvement of the social sciences, and particularly psychology, in the process of legitimation, has been relatively neglected. B.F. Skinner’s recent book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, represents one approach to the technology of social control which has reactionary overtones.2

In South Africa one is confronted with a monstrous system of class exploitation, reinforced and intensified by racial divisions. White South Africans, who constitute less than one-fifth of the total population, enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world, with a per capita income fourteen times higher than that of the black population. If income were redistributed in South Africa, not equally, but in accordance with the degree of inequality existing in the United States, the average White income would drop by approximately half.3 The per capita income of Africans is approximately $120, and there is wide-spread malnutrition and even starvation in rural areas. In a typical African reserve studied by Professor John Reid of the Natal University Medical School recently, almost fifty per cent of children born die before the age of five, and the situation is deteriorating rather than improving.4 The luxurious standard of living of White South Africans is not unconnected with the inhuman exploitation of the indigenous black population.

In order to exploit a vast population, it is, of course, necessary to exercise thought control. Black South Africans have to be kept docile, and it is necessary “not to enslave Bantu workers to the comforts, luxuries, and tastes of the White man” in the words of the Minister of Bantu Administration and Development. 5 This has been clearly perceived by the psychologically sophisticated white ruling class, at least since the Premiership of Dr. H.F. Verwoerd, himself a Professor of Psychology for several years after obtaining a PhD for a dissertation entitled “The Blunting of the emotions”.

Various steps have been taken in an effort to prevent black aspirations from rising, and perhaps the most crude has been in the field of schooI education. Since 1955 the annual budget for African education has been pegged at under $20 million, which is one-thirtieth of what is spent annually on coercive social control, i.e. Defense, Police, and Prisons. With inflation and a growth in the number of schoolchildren, the per capita expenditure on African education has naturally declined since 1955. At present $17 is spent annually on the education of each black school child. $187 is spent on each White school child.6

More subtle attempts at legitimation can be seen in the activities of some of the white intelligentsia. Psychologists are constantly being exhorted to seek scientific justification for the system which exists. The role of the Psychological Institute of the Republic of South Africa (PI RSA) has been quite unambiguous in this regard. In order to demonstrate the overtness of these exhortations, it is worth quoting from Dr. P.M. Robbertse’s recent Presidential Address to PI RSA.7 According to Dr. Robbertse, the wide acceptance by American psychologists of “the equalitarian dogma” is attributable to a number of factors, such as “the 1954 decision of the American Supreme Court in regard to the admission of pupils to schools” and “the efficient way in which the communists spread the concept of equality for their own purposes”. More specifically, “by using pseudo-scientific arguments, based on questionable research results, and mass communication media, the integrationists are attempting. to present a picture indicating that there are no innate differences between people and that all differences may be ascribed to environmental factors only … Those who are convinced of innate racial differences are not engaged in research and publication to the same extent as the integrationists … Members of the Psychological Institute of the Republic of South Africa are encouraged to undertake research in this field on a greater scale because it concerns the scientific basis of separate development and strikes at the root of our continued existence.”

The traditional idee fixe of “scientific” racists is intelligence. If black people can be shown to be congenitally and unmodifiably stupid, then surely there is no objection to using them for cheap manual labor, and surely they can make no responsible use of the franchise. The recent publications of E.J. Eysenk and R. Herrnstein will undoubtedly be used by white South Africans in the legitimation of apartheid in the way that the “scientific” racism of A. Jensen was used. 8 Jensen’s notorious article in Harvard Educational Review in 1969 was ecstatically received by psychologists and others in South Africa, as “proving scientifically” what white South Africans had known all along. At one prominent university, the article was prescribed for students in the Department of Education and the subsequent issue of Harvard Educational Review, containing critical evaluations of Jensen’s views, mysteriously vanished from the university library as soon as it arrived. The press coverage of the original article, needless to say, was wide and uncritical.

Not all psychological research in South Africa is narrowly subservient to the interests of the dominant class, and work is occasionally published which is subversive of the ruling ideology. In connection with the race-intelligence issue, a minor flurry of embarrassment was caused by a study by Biesheuvel and Liddicoat, published in 1959.9 This study investigated the average IQ scores, not of Africans and Whites, but of Afrikaans-speaking and English-speaking Whites (Afrikaners, who are of predominantly Dutch descent, have traditionally formed the power elite: every South African Prime Minister has been an Afrikaner. The English-speaking Whites, who are of British descent, have traditionally formed the commercial and financial elite, although Afrikaners are ascendant in this field.). Biesheuvel and Liddicoat found a seven-point average I.Q. difference between huge samples of these sub-groups, with English-speaking Whites scoring better than Afrikaners. This difference was shown to exist (to a greater or lesser extent) at all socio-economic levels, and remained when education up to university level, and rural-urban differences were controlled.

These results, apart from appearing unflattering to the power elite, were also somewhat awkward for “those who are convinced of innate racial differences” to explain away. When the dust finally settled, official psychological bodies had concluded that the difference was entirely explicable in environmental or cultural terms, rather than genetic terms10. The authors of the original study had to remind the “scientific” racists: “Unlike non-Whites, who are sometimes reluctant to do an intelligence test because they believe that the test results may be used to prove genetic inferiority on their part — as has in fact been done — Afrikaans-speaking pupils have nothing to fear on this account, as the suggestion of genetic causation has not ever and is not now being made”11. This came as a great relief to Afrikaner racist psychologists. It did not lead to the abandonment of the geneticist doctrine in the interpretation of black-white I.Q. differences, however; quite the contrary, as Dr. Robbertse’s remarks quoted above imply. The “official” line is that the English-Afrikaner I.Q. difference can be fully accounted for by cultural factors, but that black-white I.Q. difference is primarily due to genetic factors.

Racism and class exploitation are not peculiarly South African phenomena. The range of inequality in South Africa is, however, greater than that found in liberal democracies. The amount of absolute deprivation of the bare necessities for life which is generated at the bottom of the class structure is correspondingly greater.

The more rigid the racial barriers against class mobility and the more extreme the injustices and inequalities, the more overt become the processes of social control. In some cases, the excesses of coercive control have resulted in the erection of a full-scale police state. Since 1950, there have been no fewer than 8 million arrests under the South African Pass Laws. The average rate of arrests under these important instruments of coercive control is currently 2,000 per day. Consequently, the average duration of a “trial” of an African under the Pass Laws is about two minutes12.

Like the process of coercive social control, legitimation and thought control have been implemented overtly in South Africa. As a consequence, psychology plays a conspicuous role in reflecting and reinforcing existing social structures. On the other hand, of possibly greater potential significance is the fact that psychology sometimes provides the tools with which ruling class ideology can be ruptured. Often in comparatively muted or disguised forms, the processes discussed and illustrated with reference to South Africa can be observed in all capitalist societies.


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  1. This distinction was, as far as I can determine, first made by the German sociologist Max Weber. Erich Fromm went on to argue that a society must reproduce its human resources as well as its material resources, i. e. it must reproduce people who are contented to be miners, etc.
  2. See Noam Chomsky’s brilliant refutation of this new book on social control in The case against B. F. Skinner, New York Review of Books, December 30, 1971, Vol XVII, Number 11, pp. 18-24.
  3. The most recent detailed study of income distribution in South Africa was done by W. Langschmidt of Market Research Africa (see Financial Mail, April 18, 1969). In the United States, the top 1/5th earns 44% of the national income, according to the U. S. Bureau of Census pamphlet How Our Income is Divided. The calculation was based on data contained in these two sources.
  4. Professor Reid’s extremely careful research has been confirmed by informal surveys in mission hospitals in other areas. A summary of these findings, together with some startlingly vivid descriptions of destitution and degradation among Africans in resettlement camps, is contained in Cosmas Desmond’s recent book, The Discarded People.
  5. Cape Times, October 27, 1966.
  6. The per capita expenditure on Africans is decreasing; it was 24 dollars in 1954. Figures are taken from the Cape Argus, April 24, 1968. Just for good measure, African school children are now the only ones who have to pay for their own school books and stationery.
  7. Robbertse, P.M., Racial differences and psychology: summary of Presidential Address. Proceedings of the Psychological Institute of the Republic of South Africa — PIRSA, 1967, 6, p. 7.
  8. The book by H. J. Eysenck referred to is issued in the United States under the title The IQ Question. The article by R. Herrnstein, published in the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly, was superbly analyzed in Science for the People, January, 1972, Vol. IV, No.1, pp. 6-12.
  9. Biesheuvel, S., and Liddicoat, R., The effects of cultural factors on intelligence-test performance, Journal of the National Institute for Personnel Research, 1959, 8, pp. 3-14.
  10. Langehoven, H. P., A note on “The effects of cultural factors on intelligence-test performance” by S. Biesheuvel and R. Liddicoat, Journal of the National Institute for Personnel Research, 1960, 8, pp. 151-152.
  11. Biesheuvel, S., and Liddicoat, R., Reply to Dr. Langenhoven’s comments on “The effects of cultural factors on intelligence-test performance,” Journal of the National Institute for Personnel Research, 1960,8, pp. 153-155.
  12. The official figures are given in the annual Survey of Race Relations, published by the South African Institute of Race Relations, and edited by Muriel Horrell. The 1969 volume gives the average daily number of prosecutions as 1900. The Rand Daily Mail newspaper instituted a probe in 1968, and sent observers to trials for Pass Offences in several different courts. The observers heard 123 trials in 225 minutes. See Rand Daily Mail, January 19, 1968, or Survey of Race Relations, 1968, p. 172.