The Psychological Impacts of Apartheid on Black South Africans

Term Paper, 2012

15 Pages, Grade: 1,5




I The Psychology of Oppression

II Apartheid and the Colonial Superiority Complex

III The Consequential Treatment of Blacks and Its Psychological Sequelae
a. Verbal and Physical Abuse
b. Deprivation of Rights
c. Bantu Education


List of Reference

The Psychological Impacts of Apartheid on Black South Africans


Apartheid was a highly colonial system. Its main issue was not so much the segregation of races – as the name suggests –, but rather the severe inequality that came with racial classification and segregation. Because Whites believed themselves to be superior to people of colour, they reserved for themselves rights and privileges which were not granted to members of other racial groups. Consequently, the life of Blacks (Africans, Coloureds, and Indians) was marked with restrictions, prohibitions, and ill-treatment.

Recognizing Apartheid as a form of colonialism, this paper espouses the argument that its legacy is not only one of physical or economic sequelae, but also one of psychological damage on the former oppressed. It attempts to prove that any form of ill-treatment leaves some sort of psychological impact on the person concerned, which then leads to a change in behaviour as an outward expression of his or her changed inner state. For this purpose, this paper will start out by giving a short introduction to the psychology of oppression. Next, it will look at the formation of the white South African mind-set during Apartheid, as the foundation and cause of oppression, leading up to the main subject of this paper. Finally, chapter three will deal with the kind of treatment black South Africans experienced under the rule of the National Party and what psychological research has found out about the possible affects of such treatment.

Since most of the research done on Black psychology and the psychology of oppression stems from overseas countries such as the USA, the literature used in this paper has a wide range. Nevertheless, it was endeavoured to continuously link the existing research to the South African context and situation.

A recent newspaper article on the importance of teaching struggle history at schools and a critical discussion on interracial marriages in modern South Africa first triggered my interest in studying the mind-set of white South Africans during Apartheid. This eventually lead me to my research question with the aim of wanting to find out more about the psychological impact this kind of mind-set had on the country’s oppressed population.

I The Psychology of Oppression

As psychological research has confirmed, there is a general tendency for members of oppressed groups to assimilate themselves to the way of the oppressor, while simultaneously despising their own heritage. [1] In present-time South Africa, it can be observed that about 80% of black females frequently straighten their hair or wear extensions to fit the Western world’s standard of beauty. Also, many black South Africans feel troubled by and try to get rid of their Black accent, because Western society associates it with being less intellectual.[2] Thomas F. Pettigrew, an expert on race relations in the USA, interprets such behaviour as an outward expression of the inner state of a person and links it to a psychology of oppression. He holds the opinion that because “their ears have been filled with the din of white racists egotistically insisting that Caucasians are innately superior to Negroes” [3], many Africans have eventually come to believe in their inferiority – whether consciously or subconsciously. [4]

Most hypotheses about Africans having a lower self-esteem than other racial groups go back to a study done on stereotypes in the 1930s in the USA, where a majority of black children chose a light-skinned doll over a black one.[5] While the findings of this study have repeatedly been confirmed by follow-up studies, the approach of addressing issues of race relations and of self-concept within certain racial groups has changed over the years, especially as a consequence of the African-American Civil Rights Movement.[6]

Today, W.E.B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon are known as the two major twentieth-century theorists on the psychology of oppression. Being part of the Pan-African Movement, they were especially concerned with the psychological impacts which colonialism has had on the colonized. In addition, the psychology of oppression focuses on the oppressor-oppressed relationship, whereby its findings and theories are not confined to colonialism but can be transferred to any form of oppression, whether individual or institutional. Therefore, they also apply to Apartheid.

II Apartheid and the Colonial Superiority Complex

Long before the National Party came into power in 1948, South African society was already divided along racial lines.[7] Although white South Africans only made up one fifth of the country’s population, and even lessened within the coming years as Blacks increased in number[8], they managed to maintain supremacy by passing law restrictions on their non-white co-citizens. Blacks (Africans, Coloureds, and Indians) were clearly disadvantaged in terms of living and working conditions as well as in the field of education.[9] This was mainly due to the way white South Africans viewed them. They thought of them as the `weaker´ and inferior races[10], and therefore less worthy of respect and dignity[11].

The superiority complex white South Africans believed in and acted on during Apartheid was not a new one. It has existed ever since Europeans encountered Africans for the very first time at the onset of colonialism. For, colonialism describes much more than just the seizure of territory and the domination of a foreign people[12]. It entails the economic exploitation of a country[13], the elimination of cultures[14], and the degradation of its inhabitants to “less-than-human entities”[15]. It stands for the manipulation of the mind of the oppressed[16], the make-belief that their ways of living and thinking are inferior[17], and that the only way to civilization is through westernization[18]. This violent invasion of a foreign people and the “strategic dehumanization”[19] of non-Whites was first justified by ethnocentrism and then pseudo-scientifically explained on the basis of Social Darwinism[20].


[1] Cf. Du Bois 1965: 78.

[2] Cf. Sibiya 2012: 6.

[3] Pettigrew, cited in: Rosenberg/Simmons 1971: 2.

[4] Cf. Pettigrew, cited in: Rosenberg/Simmons 1971: 2.

[5] Cf. Rosenberg/Simmons 1971: 3.

[6] Cf. Anderson 2003: 6; cf. Schultz 2003: 57.

[7] Cf. Fiske/Ladd, 2004: 20.

[8] Cf. Fiske/Ladd, 2004: 18.

[9] Cf. Fiske/Ladd, 2004: 3,17.

[10] Cf. Memmi 2003: 8.

[11] Cf. Cudd 2006: 163.

[12] Cf. Fanon 2004: 182.

[13] Cf. Mayson 1985:38.

[14] Cf. Mayson 1985: 41.

[15] Gaines 1996: 25.

[16] Cf. Mayson 1985: 39.

[17] Cf. Mulandzi 2004:18.

[18] Cf. Boahen 1987: 36; cf. Fiske/Ladd 2004: 24-25.

[19] Memmi 2003: 23.

[20] Cf. Mulandzi 2004:23.

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The Psychological Impacts of Apartheid on Black South Africans
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Susanna Harper (Author), 2012, The Psychological Impacts of Apartheid on Black South Africans, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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