Stellenbosch University. File picture: African News Agency (ANA)
Stellenbosch University. File picture: African News Agency (ANA)

Controversial Stellenbosch study on coloured women 'reinforces stereotypes'

By KAREN PRETORIUS Time of article published May 5, 2019

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Cape Town - The now-retracted Stellenbosch University study into the cognitive skills of coloured women is reminiscent of the indignity suffered by Sara Baartman, a Khoi woman whose body was put on display in Europe during the 1800s.

Poet Diana Ferrus, an administrator at UWC, whose tribute to Baartman led to the repatriation and reburial of her remains in the Gamtoos Valley in the Eastern Cape, said 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.

According to the study, which has been roundly condemned, coloured women have an increased risk of low cognitive functioning, as they have low education and unhealthy lifestyles.

An online petition by a group of academics, including UCT English professor Dr Barbara Boswell and Unisa research Professor Kopano Ratele, called for its removal, saying the research had “racist ideological underpinnings, flawed methodology, and its reproduction of harmful stereotypes of ‘coloured’ women”.

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 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 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 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.

Earlier this week, the University of Stellenbosch apologised and said it would investigate all aspects of the study. The university sent a letter of apology to staff and students. Deputy vice-chancellor: research, innovation and postgraduate studies Professor Eugene Cloete said it acknowledged the severe trauma and anger caused by its publication.

“We apologise unconditionally for the pain and the anguish which resulted from this article.

Cloete said the rectorate decided to request a thorough investigation into all aspects of the study.

He said based on the outcome of this investigation the university would take corrective action.

Meanwhile, 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.

On Facebook, its original post garnered 1800 comments and 462 shares, while on Instagram it was liked by 6370 people and gathered 1606 comments.

Weekend Argus

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