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Research Projects and Thrusts

The Apartheid Archive Project

Principal Investigators:
Prof. Norman Duncan
Prof Garth Stevens

Several researchers across the Faculty of Humanities (but largely in the School of Human and Community Development) are currently involved in the Apartheid Archives Research Project, a project that is co-lead by Professors Norman Duncan and Garth Stevens of the School of Human and Community Development. The Apartheid Archives Research Project is an international research initiative that aims to examine the nature of the experiences of racism of (particularly ?ordinary?) South Africans under the old apartheid order and their continuing effects on individual and group functioning in contemporary South Africa, so as to better understand intergroup and social cohesion dynamics in contemporary South Africa. The project is fundamentally premised on the understanding that traumatic experiences from the past will constantly attempt to re-inscribe themselves (often in masked form) in the present, if they are not acknowledged, interrogated and addressed. Specifically, the project departs from the assumption that it is important for South African society to review, so as to acknowledge and deal with its past, in order to better manage its present and future.

To this end, the project collects, documents and provides access to a large corpus of personal or narrative accounts of the impact of apartheid on the lived realities of their authors, with the aim of analysing these narratives of the past as a means of arriving at a sufficiently nuanced understanding (informed by extant psychological and social psychological research and theory) of the dynamics of current intergroup relations and social cohesion in South Africa. The predominant methods of data analysis employed are qualitative, and more specifically narrative in orientation. The project was conceptualized and initiated in August 2008 by 22 core researchers located at universities spanning South Africa, France, Australia, the United States and United Kingdom. The research team includes Professor Christopher Sonn (Victoria University, Australia), Dr Leswin Laubscher (Duquesne University), Professor Derek Hook (London School of Economics, UK), Professor Gill Straker (Sydney University, Australia), Professor Patricia Mercader (University of Lyon, France), Dr Brett Bowman (Wits), Ms Thandi Buso (Wits), Mr Hugo Canham (Wits), Professor Norman Duncan (Wits), Professor Carol Long (Wits), Professor Garth Stevens (Wits), Professor Pumla Gqola (Wits), Mr Warren Nebe (Wits), Professor Tamara Shefer (UWC), Professor Kopano Ratele (UNISA), Professor Melissa Steyn (UCT), and Professor Sechaba Mahlomaholo (UNW). Collectively, this group has produced a significant ensemble of publications in the field of intergroup relationships, and specifically, racism and the study of whiteness.

The project was launched at a conference held at the University of the Witwatersrand in June 2009 and has already produced several post-graduate research reports, presentations at international conferences and publications. It is envisaged that the research that forms the basis of the project will take place in several phases and over a minimum of 5 years. The research was originally supported by a large research grant from the Carnegie Foundation.

Reducing group prejudice and attenuating hostility

Principal Investigator
Prof. Gillian Finchilescu

Research investigating hostility between groups and obstacles to positive intergroup relations has been ongoing in the School for a number of years. Professor Gillian Finchilescu has been conducting research on these issues since her appointment at Wits. The research was originally supported by a large research grant from SANPAD. This project focused mainly on exploring the persistence of inter-racial segregation.

Intergroup contact has been identified as the factor most likely to result in positive intergroup relations, particularly when this contact has the potential to result in friendship. While the relationship between contact and prejudice reduction is robust, there are many other factors that prevent this positive outcome. These include:

  • Perceived threat, both realistic (from competition for scarce resources), and symbolic (when it is believed one?s cultural identity and beliefs may be endangered.
  • Reluctance to interact with the other group for fear of being stigmatised or rejected in the interaction
  • Prohibitions and lack of support for intergroup mixing from peers, families and communities.

The predominant methods of data collection and analysis employed in this project are quantitative in nature. However the project has also employed a range of innovative qualitative methods.

In addition to the postgraduate students who have contributed to this work, Professor Finchilescu has been collaborating with a number of international and local academics on research on these issues. The international academics include Professor Thomas Pettigrew (University of California, Santa Cruz, USA), Professor Linda Tropp (University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA), Professor Ulrich Wagner (Philipps University, Marburg, Germany), Dr. John Dixon (Lancaster University, UK) and Professor Miles Hewstone (Oxford University, UK). Local collaborators include Professor Colin Tredoux (University of Cape Town), Professor Kevin Durrheim (University of KwaZulu-Natal), Mr Hermann Swart (University of Stellenbosch) and Ms Lucena Muianga (Eduardo Mondlane University, Mo?bique). It is anticipated that many of these academics would like to be involved with a centre dedicated to intergroup research.

Dealing with trauma and supporting victims of intergroup violence

Principal Investigator
Prof Gillian Eagle

A prominent feature hampering reconciliation and the fostering of tolerance of diversity is the impact of interpersonal violations and violence. Both historical and contemporary enactments of violence have left significant numbers of the population directly and indirectly traumatised. One of the key features of traumatic events, apart from their potential to render people vulnerable to psychologically debilitating symptoms, is that it leads to alterations to meaning systems. Victims of interpersonal violence particularly, are frequently more fearful and more pessimistic about their life conditions and may adopt a more distrustful and aggressive stance towards others. Traumatised populations are less likely to engage actively in the building of a positive, future oriented society. In addition, the experiences of trauma counsellors suggest that interpersonal violence can foster inter-group prejudice as victims generalise their fear and antagonism towards the perpetrator to whole categories of individuals based on class, gender, ethnicity, race and other salient markers. Overcoming trauma and addressing the impact on victims thus has both clinical and social dimensions and potential benefits.

The Psychology Department at Wits has a long history of intervention, research and publications in relation to traumatic stress. It also has the manifest capacity to engender future research in this area. Researchers within the department with existing capacity and substantial outputs in this area include Professor Gill Eagle, Professor Garth Stevens, Dr Esther Price, Mr Malose Langa and Mr Michael Greyling. It is envisaged that collaborative relationships would be established and strengthened with Professor Brandon Hamber, the Director of Incore, a reconciliation based project based in Ireland, and with the Trauma and Transition Project (TTP) of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) in Johannesburg under the management of Nomfundo Mogapi. Professor Gill Straker (Sydney University and Visiting Wits Scholar), an internationally recognised specialist in the field of trauma studies, will also contribute to this thrust. Based on current research in the department it is also evident that there is a strong interest in traumatic stress related studies amongst a range of potential doctoral candidates. Further, the consolidation of existing national and international research links is very likely.


Principal Investigator
Dr. Brett Bowman

South Africa is committed to providing equitable access to higher education and the production of quality graduates as an important means to addressing the inequities that defined education and higher education under apartheid. This requires the ongoing monitoring of the health, including mental health of its student population toward the provision of timely evidence-based intervention programmes that may be applicable to other populations in due course. Furthermore, South Africa has no formal mental health reporting system. The country?s mental health profile is consequently informed by data generated out of ad hoc mental health surveys and other focused studies significantly limited by sample sizes and scope. As part of a formative attempt to address the need for the systematic and routine collection and housing of mental health data, a team of researchers and developers at the University of the Witwatersrand?s Emthonjeni Centre have produced a digital technology that standardises and records key data upon intake of clients to the University s community health centre, houses all the data related to each case according to the prescribed clinical protocols and provides real-time reports for the key stakeholders involved in the training, monitoring and evaluation of community services within the University. While the system was intended to manage Emthonjeni data in the short term, the up-scaling of the system to centrally locate clinical material related to psychology, social work and speech pathology and audiology training programmes nationally is envisaged in the foreseeable future.

The HIV and Mental Health Research Programme

Principal Investigator
Dr. Brett Bowman

By 2020, unipolar depression and HIV are projected to be amongst the ten leading causes of Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) worldwide. In combination, these diseases imply a significant future health burden to Sub-Saharan Africa and South Africa in particular, which is the region most affected by HIV across the globe. Mental health problems are both a precursor to and a consequence of HIV/AIDS. The intersection of these two key health burdens is commonly referred to as the HIV-mental health nexus. A The primary aim of this programme is to critically explore the impacts of HIV on mental health and the related influences of mental health on the experiences and behaviours of people living with HIV and AIDS (PLWHA) within the Southern African social and political context. The first cycle of the programme aims to describe the epidemiology of common mental disorders and HIV in South Africa?s Gauteng Province, understand the shared pathways and complex impacts of HIV and mental health problems on the economic, political and social landscape of South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa more generally, A explore the prevention and treatment implications of the HIV-mental health nexus for the provision of appropriate health services in South Africa and ultimately theorise entry-points for the systematic prevention and management of the HIV-mental health nexus in South Africa. A

The Health Communication Project

Principal Investigator
Prof. Claire Penn

This is a multidisciplinary research group concerned with the unique challenges of multilingual and intercultural communication in the South African healthcare context. The Project has existed since 2000 and is coordinated by Prof Claire Penn. The main goal of the Project is to apply methods from the social sciences to investigate communication practices across healthcare domains and sites, with a view to formulating recommendations for policy and practice and developing and implementing site-specific communication training programmes.