Friday, August 12, 2022
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Stellenbosch authors retract 'colonial knowledge' research

The controversial study  by Stellenbosch University researchers, which suggests Coloured women have an increased risk for low cognitive function, has been retracted, The Times reports.

The highly criticised Stellenbosch University study, Age- and education-related effects on cognitive functioning in coloured South African women, has received massive backlash from South Africans. The study was done by four students, who claimed that they found this to be because of low education levels and unhealthy lifestyles.


Academics, who called for the removal of the Stellenbosch University article denounced as racist, say their complaint with the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) will test whether the research was a form of “hate speech”.

According to a Cape Times report, the academics, led by University of Cape Town associate professor of english Barbara Boswell, said they had also begun a process with the Women’s Legal Centre against the controversial research article.

The article, published in an international scientific journal, assessed cognitive functioning and its association with age and education in a sample of young and middle-aged coloured South African women. It found coloured women had an increased risk of low cognitive functioning due to low education levels and an unhealthy lifestyle.

The report says following outrage, the university announced its own investigation into allegations of a breach of research norms and standards in the publishing of the research article. The institution unconditionally apologised for the “pain and anguish” caused by the article.

Boswell said the article was merely one instance of the larger problem of the continuation of colonial knowledge production. “We do not support punishment or retribution against the five researchers who wrote the racist, sexist article. Unfortunately, the management seems to have had a knee-jerk reaction to what is a systemic problem.

“The article should prompt us to have a public, robust discussion on the root causes of how the structures at the university allowed researchers to sustain and abuse positions of privilege, even establishing careers out of a ‘Sara Baartman psychosis’ regarding people of colour as objects to be forever subjugated to examination by the ‘master race’,” she said.

She said remedies sought from the SAHRC included the re-examination of the research ethics committees, research departments and other structures concerned with research and its funding.

Stellenbosch University spokesperson Martin Viljoen is quoted in the report as saying the media would be informed when the investigation was completed. SAHRC commissioner Chris Nissen was out of the country and could not respond by deadline.


The now-retracted study is reminiscent of the indignity suffered by Sara Baartman, a Khoi woman whose body was put on display in Europe during the 1800s. A Weekend Argus reports quotes poet Diana Ferrus, an administrator at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), whose tribute to Baartman led to the repatriation and reburial of her remains in the Gamtoos Valley in the Eastern Cape, as saying the study was in the same vein as the stereotyping of Baartman.

“She was the first one on whose body these theories were made. She suffered for us… and today it is still continuing… with these students who have not been educated properly,” said Ferrus.

The report says on Thursday, the editor and publisher of Aging, Neuropsychology and Cognition, an international academic publishing site, retracted the article. It said while the article had been peer reviewed and accepted according to the journal’s policy, it subsequently found “serious flaws in the methodology and reporting of the original study”. “In summary the article contains a number of assertions about ‘coloured’ South African women based on the data presented that cannot be supported by the study or subsequent interpretation of its outcome,” a statement posted online read.

Ferrus said such research held economic benefit for certain people. She said this practice was the same with the Khoi, who would be ranked the lowest, “unable to manage themselves, their land, etc. It’s the same, stereotyping of people”.

But, the report says, she is critical, too, of tertiary institutions which she says are “being corporatised” through academic grants. “Research is being manipulated to satisfy and pacify corporates,” she said. Ferrus called on universities to look where their funding comes from, saying universities are serving capitalism.

She said in the report that the university, researchers and their supervisors should be trained in diversity and South African history. “They have not learnt the country’s new values of ubuntu, and how false theories were used in the past to benefit a certain group.”

Ferrus believes the controversy will attract worldwide condemnation.
“I actually feel sorry for them because they have destroyed their careers”, she said.

The report says the Psychological Society of South Africa (PSYSSA) also denounced the study, calling it fundamentally flawed and asked that it be retracted. The society’s president-elect, Professor Garth Stevens, said the study must be retracted because the scholars have used academic freedom to violate the rights of others.

“Black people are always put on the back foot just to account for the stereotypes that are directed at them. It seems to me that, actually, what we really have to consider not entertaining them any longer and we should confine studies that link race to intelligence to the dust bin of history,” said Stevens.

Meanwhile, the report says, lifestyle brand Vannie Kaap celebrated the achievements of coloured women on social media when it asked women to post their academic achievements on Facebook and Instagram.


Merlegrace Constance O’Brien writes in a letter published in the Sunday Tribune:
“Dear Professor Wim de Villiers
“I write to you as a graduate of Stellenbosch Business School (Institute for Futures Research), a women’s rights activist and product of the thinking of African luminaries such as Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, Nelson Mandela, emeritus Ppofessor Philip Spies, Professor André Roux, Professor Constance O’brien and Dr Lidia Vosloo – on whose shoulders I stand as a partially disabled coloured woman.

“At doctoral level, my work explores the future of human creative versus artificial intelligence in a 2030 South African scenario of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In this light, Stellenbosch University’s racist research into the cognitive functioning of coloured women takes South Africa back to the Dark Ages.

“Evidently, taxpayers’ funds – via National Research Foundation (NRF) grants – are being used to keep apartheid’s ideology alive.

“The university is instructed to: Publicly apologise to the 60 or so coloured women whose rights were violated by its unethical study; publicly apologise for using an unreliable and invalid IQ instrument and putting ‘research interests’ ahead of the welfare of society/participants; replace all racial references with the term ‘Colourful’ and stop referring to divisive apartheid constructs; submit to Parliament a list of post-graduate research funded by NRF that has racial variables, assumptions, theories, hypotheses and outcomes; retract the article and remove study from annals of history, as advised by the Psychological Society of SA; suspend the five researchers, namely Sharné Nieuwoudt, Kasha Dickie, Carla Coetsee, Louise Engelbrecht and Elmarie Terblanche – they need psychological counselling; #Paybackthemoney to NRF for grants 93445 and 12559 that funded the unethical research; and review its ethics protocol, process checks and balances and publish the amendments for public comment and academic debate.

“If these instructions are not executed in a week, the university will be called to account before the SA Human Rights Commission, public protector, Commission on Gender Equality, Constitutional Court and Parliament.”

[link url=""]The Times report[/link]
[link url=""]Cape Times report[/link]
[link url=""]Weekend Argus report[/link]
[link url=""]Sunday Tribune letter[/link]


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