Dr Christopher Sonn MAPS is an Associate Professor at Victoria University, where his research interests are the development of sense of community, social identity, immigration and intergroup relations. These areas reflect themes in his own journey as an immigrant to Australia and as a person who grew up during the apartheid period in South Africa. Christopher is also a lead researcher on the international Apartheid Archive Project, which aims to examine the nature of South Africans’ experiences of racism under the old apartheid order and their continuing effects on individual and group functioning. Christopher recently returned to South Africa for the 30th International Congress of Psychology (ICP) in Cape Town, his birthplace. The ICP was held under the theme ‘Psychology serving humanity’, and here Christopher shares his reflections on the psychology of racism and colonialism that was highlighted in various presentations at the Congress. 

A growing body of work on the emergence and history of psychology in South Africa documents the discipline’s complicity, as in other countries, with cultural and institutional racism (e.g., Duncan & Bowman, 2009). However, since the demise of the apartheid system there have also been concerted efforts to liberate psychology from its racist past and to develop and articulate a psychology that can work against all forms of oppression. This complex undertaking has in part meant promoting a psychology committed to the lived experiences of excluded people, involving them in research and finding solutions to problems, and using multiple theories and methods for developing knowledge. The commitment to liberating South African psychology has driven many exciting and innovative nation-building developments there. Within a broader global reality, South Africa has been admired as an exemplar of social change and transformation because of the removal of apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and ongoing efforts aimed at peaceful post-apartheid reconstruction. It is in this dynamic context that the ICP was held in South Africa, the first time on the African continent.

The ICP took place in the beautiful city of Cape Town. I was born and grew up 12 miles away in Bellville South, half-way between Stellenbosch and Cape Town. That was during the time of apartheid, which meant I lived in what was then a so-called ‘coloured’ suburb. Much has changed since then, and since the time I moved to Australia. Yet judging by my old neighbourhood, much on the surface at least seems to have stayed the same, especially the racialised manifestation of poverty and social inequality. I have returned several times to South Africa because, like Australia, I see it as home – I belong to multiple places. But, I have mostly returned because on arriving in Australia I made a commitment that I wanted to contribute to my, and South Africa’s, liberation. Fortunately for me this has been possible, and through community psychology I have managed to create a space from which to engage issues of race, social inequality and liberation – structures and processes I have come to recognise as shaping people’s lives right around the world. In Australia, my journey has included coming to terms with racism and colonialism here, in relation to Indigenous people, migrants of colour, and in more recent discourses, ‘boat people’, Muslims and visible Africans. So with this brief background I offer some specific reflections about the ICP.

At the Congress the scientific program was divided into 44 topic categories, reflecting the growing diversity of the discipline of psychology. I was centrally involved in two of these: ‘race and racism’ and ‘critical psychology’, and to a lesser extent ‘community psychology’. This was the first time a critical psychology stream was included at an ICP, and it was very successful, showcasing theoretical, applied and methodological advances aimed at disrupting cultural and institutional racism and promoting relevant and progressive approaches to research and practice. It is of course difficult to capture all that was impressive about this Congress, so I will just comment on a few strands that stood out for me. These all somehow reflect the fact that the world is a changing place and a socially responsive psychology as a discipline and practice can be part of, and set the direction for, the changes we want to see. 

Liberation psychologies

It was pleasing to see colleagues from Latin America and the Caribbean at the Congress. Latin American scholarship has significantly influenced community social psychology through the work of Brazilian educator Paolo Freire and also liberation psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró, both strong advocates for developing and applying psychology to serve the poor and excluded, and to work alongside the excluded to achieve social change. Liberation psychology has been taken up in different countries and a central concept that guides the work is the idea of ‘conscientisation’ – developing awareness amongst the excluded about the sociopolitical conditions that oppress them. 

Also among the Congress delegates were a number of founding members of the Black Psychology Association, based in the US, and numerous presentations signalled a range of African-oriented psychologies emerging in different African countries, including South Africa. These psychologies, like Latin American liberation psychologies, reflect broader decolonial or anti-colonial efforts. Reclaiming psychology for humanity involves making explicit its past role in colonialism, showing how it can continue to work in harmful ways, and creating new ways it can be used to promote the wellbeing of people and communities. The complex relationship between psychology (and other disciplines) and colonialism and its legacy is well reflected in calls for indigenising psychology, that is, grounding our research and practice in local histories, worldviews and sociopolitical realities. And, while the terms indigenising and Indigenous have a range of meanings, many scholars argue that indigenising psychology is a necessary part of the decolonisation process. 

Colonialism, psychology and Indigenous Australians

In the Australian context, there have been significant efforts in recent times to challenge the mono-culturalism of psychology as well as the hegemony of certain models of knowledge production and practice. At ICP these issues were reflected in one of the daily ‘Controversial Debates’ chaired by leading psychologists, titled “Psychology cannot be indigenous and scientific”. It was chaired by Norman Duncan (RSA) and debated by David Fryer (Australia) and Douglas Medin (USA). The fact that two ostensibly white men debated the topic was very peculiar, in fact problematic. Yet the debate raised significant questions about the meaning of ‘science’ and ‘indigenous’ or ‘Indigenous’, as well as deeper issues about the power to name and the role of science and psychologists in naming. As I reflect on the debate, I think of how Indigenous people in Australia have sought rights to self-determination, and on the complexities of reclaiming and reconstructing identities in an era “when people are struggling to reconnect with family and broader sense of Aboriginality after the fragmentation, dislocation and disintegration of assimilationist policies" (Dudgeon, Mallard, Oxenham & Fielder, 2002, p. 262). 

As an immigrant to Australia, for me this has meant navigating Australia’s history of race relations, which shares much with South Africa in terms of land dispossession, racialising people of colour, criminalising asylum seekers, economic exclusion and exploitation, and paternalistic and victim-blaming responses to the plight of vulnerable people. I was also reminded of how terms are understood in different settings. In Australia, the term Indigenous is used to denote First Nations people here, while indigenous is used to refer to indigenous people globally. Elsewhere, it seems ‘indigenous’ simply means ‘home-grown’ as opposed to imported (as it relates to knowledges, theories, methods etc).

The Apartheid Archive Project

In the South African context, the challenges of decolonisation, post-conflict and post-apartheid rebuilding may appear similar to the challenges of peace building and reconciliation in Australia, but the language used is different, as reflected in the development of African psychologies (and also Asian psychologies). Thus the Apartheid Archive Project that was presented at ICP (www.apartheidarchive.org) can also be viewed alongside global efforts to decolonise and transform societies characterised by poverty and social inequality. The Apartheid Archive Project is a memory project concerned with the telling of stories of growing up during the apartheid era. It is argued that these stories, told by everyday South Africans, need to be surfaced and accounted for so they can be processed. Without this telling, processing and legitimising, psychosocial transformation cannot be achieved and many people’s realities will continue to be denied or silenced. 

This dynamic of silencing, or telling those who have suffered the brunt of systematised racism to ‘move on’, is also evident in responses to Australian Indigenous peoples’ claims to self-determination and naming of racism. Importantly, the South African Apartheid Archive Project research has highlighted many ways in which everyday exclusion continues, and how race and gender intersect and work together in oppressive practices. The Project is firmly based on a transformative and liberation-oriented praxis engaging psychological notions for social critique, for contesting the denial of racism, and for opening spaces for people to reclaim and own their histories – in fact to have a say in the making of a country’s history.


The ICP sessions that I have reflected on in this article stood out for me, but there were many others that could have been included if space allowed. I have chosen these sessions because they demonstrated the emergence and perhaps reconfiguring of ‘psychology serving humanity’, which was the Congress theme. This psychology is cultural, anchored in local and global realities, and fully aware of histories of slavery, colonialism and other processes of domination as they manifest in different contexts. This psychology is necessarily political if it is to truly serve humanity. In fact, this is the type of psychology reflected in Fine’s (2012) push for public science “to document the sprawling historic and contemporary stretches of injustice and contestation; the circuits that link privilege and marginality; structures, histories and lives; dispossession and resistance” (p. 14).

The author can be contacted at Christopher.Sonn@vu.edu.au


  • Dudgeon, P., Mallard, J., Oxenham, D., & Fielder, J. (2002). Contemporary Aboriginal perceptions of community. In A.T. Fisher, C.C. Sonn & B.J. Bishop (Eds.), Psychological Sense of Community: Research, Applications and Implications (pp. 247-267). New York, NY: Plenum Publishers. 
  • Duncan, N., & Bowman, B. (2009). Liberating South African Psychology: The legacy of racism and the pursuit of representative knowledge production. In M. Montero & C.C. Sonn (Eds.), Psychology of Liberation: Theory and Applications (pp. 93-114). New York, NY: Springer.
  • Fine, M. (2012). Troubling calls for evidence: A critical race, class, and gender analysis of whose evidence counts. Feminism and Psychology, 22(1), 3-19.

InPsych October 2012