A brief history of the department

The Psychology Department was established in 1917 with Professor Wilcocks as professor in psychology and logic, and 30 students. From 1919 to 1923 the topics Psychology and Logics were covered in a two-year module which was part of a degree programme in philosophy. In 1925 there was an important new appointment. Dr. H. F. Verwoerd was appointed as lecturer (promoted to full professor in 1928) in Toegepaste Sielkunde en Psigotegniek (Applied Psychology and Psychotechnique) with the hope that this appointment would address the major demand for qualified Psychologists. Having studied in Germany, Verwoerd arrived at Stellenbosch, greatly influenced by German ideas, but supposedly “this influence was ‘more technical and analytical than…nationalist, cultural or ideological”” (Miller as cited by Allsobrook, p.109). As a social scientist Verwoerd was said to be “descriptive, empirical and applied…He laced his lectures with social statistics, telling his classes that they must deal with the facts first – theory would come later” (Miller as cited by Allsobrook, p. 109).

Not only did Verwoerd’s appointment firmly establish the positivist approach that would become dominant and stay dominant in the department for the next 100 years, but his arrival also marked the beginning of the department’s concern with application and relevance. Off-campus Verwoerd concentrated on social welfare activities and saw himself as a “scientifically trained technician” (Allsobrook, p.109) – as was called for by the Carnegie Commission. When he left the department in 1933 to establish the first sociology and social work department in South Africa (Wilcocks became head of the senate in the same year), he was, in the words of Wahbie Long, in fact abandoning “basic psychology and its accompanying irrelevance in order to serve the Afrikaner volk”. In the psychology department positivism’s “embarrassing affair with Apartheid” (in the words of Allsobrook) had begun and the question of relevance (“perhaps the discipline’s most enduring motif”) became the question of central importance.

In the 1950s the department, under the leadership of the legendary A.B. van der Merwe, remained committed to an ideal of public service, although they avoided Afrikaner nationalist discourse in order to broaden their constituency, replicating the strategy of the ruling National Party that was attempting to downplay its republican ambitions. Prof. Van der Merwe (1984) later said “dat die Departement Sielkunde aan die Universiteit van Stellenbosch vanuit die staanspoor eklekties van aard was: eksperimentele navorsing, statistiese metodes, sielkundige toetsing en evaluering van persoonlikheid was die basis van die kurrikulum, Dit was dus ‘n.empiriese benadering wat nie net bygedra het tot ‘n gunstige wetenskaplike klimaat vir die vak nie, maar het die vak ook meer praktykgeoriënteerd gemaak”.

With the declaration of a republic in 1961, however, Afrikaner psychologists (including many at the department) grew bolder and would not countenance the prospect of a racially integrated discipline. There was an open appeal for research of “ethnicnational relevance.” The survival of the volk—and, by extension, the preservation of apartheid rule—demanded research that “involve[d] the scientific basis of separate development” (Robbertse, 1967, p. 11). In a Masters thesis reviewing the history of the department between 1917 and 1980, Van der Merwe’s granddaughter drily remarks in a bit of an understatement: “The Department was often criticised for not being involved in socio-political matters in the country during the apartheid era and that the research done by the department was focused on sustaining the apartheid ideology.”

However, in post-Apartheid times the department, under the leadership of Professors Bodley van der Westhuizen and A.T. Moller, became committed to transforming itself and to rid itself of its Verwoerdian roots. Appointments were made not only to change the demographics of the faculty, but also to develop a department that was intellectually more diverse and more progressive. There was a special effort to appoint people from previously disadvantaged groups. New appointees brought with them different intellectual paradigms and the department became a much more vibrant intellectual space where the biomedical model was exposed to various critiques: a community psychology critique, a feminist critique, a cross-cultural critique, a psychoanalytic critique. a postmodern and postcolonial critique, and so forth. These dramatic changes coincided, perhaps coincidentally, with a much dreaded move across campus to the Wilcocks building, the department now once again geographically closer to other humanities and social sciences departments. Ironically however, the name of this building which houses the Department, still links the Department to it’s conservative roots.

These moves formed the basis for what the Psychology Department has become today. In the Department now there is a commitment to difference, an insistence to debate, a respect for different ways of thinking and doing psychology. We are also interested in the complicated history of our Department and several of us have interrogated this history in academic papers and projects.

History News

R.W. Wilcocks’ legacy- volksheld or apartheid architect?

September 2nd, 2020|

Anthony Naidoo Psychology Department Stellenbosch University 2 September 2020 After a fire destroyed the roof and top storey of the Wilcocks Building on the 10 December 2010, a unique opportunity was afforded Stellenbosch University to [...]