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Stellenbosch backs down over study into cognitive function in Coloured women

In the face of sustained criticism, Stellenbosch University has apologised for the ‘pain and anger’ caused by a study assessing cognitive function of a small sample of SA Coloured women and will now conduct a ‘thorough investigation into allegations of breach of research norms and standards’.

The study, published in Aging Neuropsychology and Cognition was widely labelled racist and offensive since it was circulated on social media over the Easter weekend. Professor Elmarie Terblanche, of Stellenbosch University's faculty of medicine and health sciences, had said in a Cape Talk interview that it was "very unfortunate" that the study had been criticised for playing into racist tropes.

She said that though she agreed with critics who argue the term 'Coloured' is not one that can be applied to a homogenous group, as scientists and researchers, different racial groups need to be specified as they may exhibit different health problems.

News24 reports that says initially, the university's deputy vice-chancellor for research, innovation and postgraduate studies, Professor Eugene Cloete, said the findings, conclusions and recommendations of the article were those of the authors alone. At the time, Cloete also said that although the university acknowledged the importance of the "rigorous academic discussion and critical debate" following its publication, it was "concerned about the pain and anger" the article solicited within the academic community and broader society.

But, the report says, in an email sent to students and staff on Tuesday, Cloete said: "We apologise unconditionally for the pain and the anguish which resulted from this article. We also have empathy towards current and past staff members, our students and our alumni who have had to endure criticism for their association with our institution."

"The rectorate has therefore decided to request a thorough investigation into all aspects of this study, guided by the Stellenbosch University's Policy for Responsible Research Conduct, as well as the university's procedure for the investigation of allegations of breach of research norms and standards. Based on the outcome of this investigation, we will take corrective action, as required."

Cloete added that during the university's centenary year – which was in 2018 – they adopted a restitution statement acknowledging the university's role towards the injustices of the past. He said they would proceed with the investigation (of the breach of research norms of the article) and provide the outcome when it has been concluded.

The report says the Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA) division for research and methodology (DRM) denounced the study saying it was "strongly opposed to the practice of misusing classification in scientific research and the consequent perpetuation of stigma, discrimination and racism within society" as exemplified by the study.


Initially Stellenbosch reacted to the criticism defending the research, reports MedicalBrief. Professor Elmarie Terblanche, of Stellenbosch University's faculty of medicine and health sciences, said in a Cape Talk report that the study had been criticised for playing into racist tropes but Terblanche said: “It is very unfortunate that that is the view because it was absolutely not the idea to highlight what is going on in a specific population. Rather, this is a group that is not often studied while there are similar studies on other population groups.

She said this group in South Africa has the highest levels of hypertension and cholesterol, physical inactivity and obesity. All those factors affect cognitive functioning. The report says she agrees with critics who argue the term 'coloured' is not one that can be applied to a homogenous group but says as scientists and researchers, different racial groups need to be specified as they may exhibit different health problems.

“Because of the unique characteristics of each community, we have to understand what is going on amongst those individuals before we can devise interventions or health programmes. There was huge debate in the department about using the term 'Coloured'.”

Terblanche said: “The apartheid legacy had a profound impact on the development of black people in South Africa – and lack of access to proper education was a key factor."

Terblanche says access to education over the past 20 years has not improved. Those not exposed to proper education are at very high risk of developing a neurocognitive disease of which dementia is one.

“The study did not address intelligence but rather a cognitive functioning which is the very specific functions of our brain which helps us to pay attention to things, to remember things, and plan tasks. It is not a question of intelligence.”

This cognitive functioning is affected as we age and is also impacted by education, she explains. Improving fitness is an important way of countering this problem.


But then, in the face of sustained criticism, Stellenbosch University expressed its regret over "the pain and anger" that the paper has solicited within the academic community and broader society. According to a Daily Maverick report, the university said that as an institution it is opposed to racism, including intellectual racism or attributing cognitive capacities such as intelligence in terms of race, and reaffirms its support for academic freedom and critical debate.

Martin Viljoen, media manager in Stellenbosch University’s Corporate Communication division wrote: “Stellenbosch University would like to respond to the article Heteronormative stereotyping leads us down the path of cognitive dissonance by Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar, published by Daily Maverick on 23 April 2019.

“Stellenbosch University acknowledges the importance of the rigorous academic discussion and critical debate that followed the publication of an article titled, Age- and education-related effects on cognitive functioning in Coloured South African women, in a scientific journal on normal and dysfunctional development, Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition.

“‘We are, however, concerned about the pain and anger that the article has solicited within the academic community and broader society,’ says Professor Eugene Cloete, deputy vice-chancellor: research, innovation and postgraduate studies, at Stellenbosch University.

“‘As an institution, we are opposed to racism, including intellectual racism or attributing cognitive capacities such as intelligence in terms of race,’ he added.

“The university has a process of ethical clearance of all research projects on human subjects, and the relevant committee that reviewed the project from which this article emanated, approved a broader study proposal on the risk factors for heart disease, physical activity, fitness, eating habits and cognitive functions of Coloured women in Stellenbosch.

“The specific article reports on the effect of environmental factors on the cognitive development within one of South Africa’s most vulnerable groups that were marginalised during apartheid and remained so during the post-apartheid era. As clearly indicated in the article, the findings, opinions, conclusions and recommendations are those of the authors alone. The university as an institution neither condones nor evaluates the opinions reached by its scholars as participants in this academic debate.

“Stellenbosch University is committed to both academic freedom and open and critical scientific debate, of which peer-reviewed scholarly research is the cornerstone. All scholars are aware that scientific output will have to withstand the scrutiny of fellow researchers, not only to determine its suitability for publication in accredited journals, but also in the public domain.

“Research for impact, one of Stellenbosch University’s six strategic themes, is guided by societal needs and challenges. We support research themes that advance the civil, political, economic, social and cultural human rights as set out in the South African Bill of Rights.


Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar, an admitted attorney with recent exposure in the public sector, a Mandela Washington Fellow, a Mandela Rhodes Scholar, and a WEF Global Shaper wrote in the Daily Maverick: “This week, I stumbled on an authored article by Sharné Nieuwoudt, Kasha Elizabeth Dickie, Carla Coetsee, Louise Engelbrecht and Elmarie Terblanche from the Department of Sport Science, Stellenbosch University, which purports to be rooted in facts and figures. The article seeks to consider the issues of ‘cognitive functioning in Coloured South African women’, which as a starting point is deeply problematic and a full-on display of cognitive dissonance, especially when the sample size of their study was simply based on 61 women ‘fulfilling the inclusion criteria’ (and a limitation that is only noted but disregarded at the end of the article).

“A number so small that many teachers in under-resourced schools across South Africa would be wrestling each day with the needs of a class that size, and knowing far more than simply the colour of their skin.

“My own take after reading that article is that the research in question, if one may call it that, conducts a survey from a minute dataset and then seeks to extrapolate further information, context and analysis off this tiny sample size by referring to other statistical work that has been done – all on the basis that there is normative value in other studies done, for instance, in America. I am baffled at the number of assumptions and the summation that has recklessly been engaged in drawing conclusions as if they are supported by extensive research and integrated and layered datasets.

“However, I am not surprised, as this is not unique to academic articles, but rather symptomatic of how little effort is made when engaging on issues that affect or are about vulnerable groups, (anyone that does not fit that heteronormative and patriarchal normative culture).

“If we are ever going to confront the question of who we are, we are going to really have to begin challenging the normative culture in South Africa, which is still underpinned by white privilege, the privilege that is unwavering and unforgiving, unable to hold itself accountable or to measure itself.

“This study does not show any glimmer of reflection or consideration that identity and race are complex and layered, but relies on the notion that race is a collective sentence – a sentence that is rooted in the idea that agency does not exist but rather an entire group of women in South Africa (based on an engagement with just 61 women) display what they term ‘risky lifestyle behaviours’.

“This piece of ‘research’ then seeks to rely on the following statement, a statement that it clearly accepts as factual reality, ‘that Coloured women present with a high incidence of risky lifestyle behaviours including tobacco use, excessive alcohol consumption and recreational drugs’.

“The underlying message of this research and paper issued by the gaggle at the department of sport science is simply that the ‘Coloured community is, in terms of social class, considered the most homogenous group in South Africa and are generally described as a poor, lower working-class community’. A statement so uneducated, so divorced of nuance that it reminds me of Jimmy Manyi’s offensive rhetoric when he spoke of the ‘over-concentration of coloureds in the Western Cape’.

“I am stunned by the brazen disregard for real thought or engagement in this piece of ‘research’. The authors fail to fully comprehend the complexity and multiplicity of identity, particularly in a South African context, somehow forgetting (but I guess that is them showing the full extent of their cognitive dissonance) that identity and race in South Africa are still a precursor to privilege, power and access.

“The very notion of ‘being coloured’ in South Africa is not a homogenous issue but rather a contested space. The race is a complex issue, and particularly issues of identity are about struggle, and often even self-articulation thereof is constrained. Identity cannot be reduced simply by the flawed argument showcased in this article, especially when that stereotypical thinking and conclusions are based on the engagement with only 61 women whose lives have been used and twisted to an outcome that simply relies on the flawed logic that they are all the same, simply because of their race and gender.

“South Africa has made little progress in reshaping our spatial landscape, to confront our failing educational system and the resultant outcomes thereof, the socio-economic challenges and psycho-social ravages. We continue to muddle along through a quagmire without ever being able to define who we are, who we need to be and how we manage the abundance of diversity of our country. We have not spent enough time on our identity and particularly about the identity of those vulnerable in our society.

“In this vacuum, heteronormative and patriarchal culture has been allowed to play out. The consequence of this is that we have been unable to arrest the culture of impunity that revolves around bigotry, abuse and sexual violence which have been entrenched by patronage, money, access and self-interest.

“These are the issues that you will not hear being spoken of at the election rallies taking place across South Africa at the moment. These are the conversations that are not being addressed in our places of worship, community halls or even on the public square. The question of identity is not a new one, and yet far too many (often those in positions of leadership) have been surprised by movements such as #RhodesMustFall or #RememberingKhwezi. 3

“It is for that very reason that consideration of these issues must be about respect and the complete avoidance of crude stereotypical thinking and generalisations. My view is that this article fails to do so – it acts disrespectfully, it draws wide-sweeping conclusions and displays a flagrant disregard for these women.

“Cognitive dissonance, as displayed by the authors of this article, is not something new or surprising to many South Africans. We often hear about men of the cloth taking advantage of their position, or former State Presidents presiding over an entire State Capture project and Shadow State, or former apartheid regime leaders claiming the moral high ground.

“However, this is a far bigger challenge for our society especially as we begin to shape our future. The solution is that South Africans must begin to speak with their own voice – about their own experiences, their own lives, and refute all those that peddle such dangerous and offensive generalisations and dare to pass it off as fact.

“Saartjie Baartman was dissected and put on display. Black women in South Africa have a heavy burden to wrestle with – always confronted by violence. Violence through deed but also through the word. The authors of this article are but a microcosm of that violence as much as Stellenbosch University has a chequered past – a past that cannot simply be wished away. Incidents of violence, racism and misogyny have taken place often without any real consequence.

“The question that troubles me about this article is whether it was reviewed, debated, considered by peers, by faculty, by mentors, by supervisors and ultimately by Stellenbosch University. The cognitive dissonance is layered throughout the concocted study. A reckoning is required in our minds, our hearts and needs to be seen through our conduct, but in order to do that, we must confront these instances with vigour.

“Unshackling our minds, as urged by Bantu Stephen Biko, is what we should be doing. Embracing our identity and who we are is something that cannot be simply embodied in a speech, but rather it requires South Africans to begin challenging themselves, and their own preconceived ideas, inherent bias and prejudice.

“The authors elected not to check themselves – they did not reflect on the nature of their work and how it would not only offend but also exacerbate stereotypical ideas of what it means to be a coloured women in South Africa. All of that is in spite of the fact that they believe that ‘Coloured women in South Africa are a vulnerable population group’.

“Beyond this article, I am reminded of how complex and layered our history is, and how little effort and time are spent on investing and engaging in conversations about who we are. South Africa is in need of honouring its oral history – allowing South Africans to tell their own story, allowing South Africans to begin narrating their own lives, speaking about their own bodies, speaking about their victories, their aspirations, their hopes and their struggle.

“If we are unable to do this, we will continue to allow half-baked ideas and thoughts on to the public square.”


[link url=""]MedicalBrief report on the research[/link]
[link url=""]News24 report[/link]
[link url=""]Daily Maverick report[/link]
[link url=""]Ageing, Neuropsychology and Cognition abstract[/link]
[link url=""]Daily Maverick report[/link]

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