‘Decolonize the Mind’: Black South Africans Are Figuring Out How to Heal From the Mental Damage of Apartheid

Students cheer as the Cecil Rhodes statue is being removed from the University of Cape Town on April 9, 2015, in South Africa.
Students cheer as the Cecil Rhodes statue is being removed from the University of Cape Town on April 9, 2015, in South Africa.
Photo: Charlie Shoemaker (Getty Images)

Black South Africans have been fighting for their right to live with dignity since before the time of King Shaka Zulu.


Millions are still trying to heal from the brutality of an institutionally racist system that placed them in the lowest social status—below the “coloreds,” who were below white people.

Now black South Africans have been hit with a revelation that has compelled some to fight even harder to throw off the cloak of race-based oppression.

Last month a documentary about the life of the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was broadcast in South Africa. The film, called Winnie, is uncomfortable to watch because of the truths it reveals. One of the most chilling moments of the film is when a white South African former intelligence agent named Vic McPherson admits during a sit-down interview that the government had embarked on psychological warfare against black people.

“It was 1989, I was still with the intelligence section and President P.W. Botha said we must come up with a psychological warfare strategy against the enemy. Everything was coordinated between the Defense Force, National Intelligence and Foreign Affairs. It was called covert strategic communication—Stratcom,” McPherson said in the documentary.

The “enemy” that McPherson referred to was clear—anti-apartheid activists, especially the more left-winged ones like Madikizela-Mandela. McPherson revealed just how far the white-minority-led South African government went to maintain institutionalized racism.

They went “psychological.” They went into the minds of black people.

Part of the government’s plan included using a network of 40 journalists to publish negative reports about Madikizela-Mandela in major news outlets and dividing the allegiances of black people to their black leaders, sparking deadly divisions within the black community.


This high-level confession confirms suspicions that many black South Africans already had. And it has sparked a national conversation that can be followed right now on South Africa’s social media spaces with the hashtags #WinnieDoccie and #IAmWinnie, which feature posts of black women wearing all black, in colorful head wraps and punching their fists in the air in a Black Power salute.

The film’s revelations have led to discussions about what it would take for the minds of black South Africans to truly be healed from whatever mental damage apartheid did.


“The apartheid project was a project that made white supremacy so much part of where you lived, where you went to school, what kind of work you were allowed to do, what kind ... of education you had, whether you had access to health care, if you had a house, what kind of education your children could reach and who you thought you were in the world, whether you thought you were worthwhile or not,” white South African scholar Emma Arogundade told The Root. “So it was a project that happened on a physical scale but also on a very spiritual and psychological scale and was enacted with a lot of violence.”

Students, scholars and community organizers are rising up to defy a status quo in the educational system that maintains remnants of institutional racism. Activists in South Africa are using the phrase “decolonize the mind” more frequently, inspired by the celebrated Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, whose 1986 essay, “Decolonising the Mind,” sparked a deeper advocacy for promoting African languages in literature and political spaces. The Decolonize the Mind campaign was the center of talks at a public event held in April in Cape Town.


The decolonization movement took off in April 2015 when students at South Africa’s University of Cape Town campaigned for a month to have the school remove the statue of businessman and founder of De Beers diamond firm Cecil Rhodes from the campus because they saw it as a symbol that glorified an unworthy colonial conqueror. Rhodes once said, “I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for the human race.”

Since then, decolonization campaigns have spread, garnering followers and critics across class and ethnic groups. This year, the University of Johannesburg introduced a compulsory course for undergraduate students called “The Africa Insight Modules.” It’s part of an effort to decolonize the curriculum, requiring students to study the works of African writers.


“One of the major projects in this will be to undertake to write 10 biographies of African leaders who have played critical roles in our lives, such as Lillian Ngoyi, Gertrude Shope, Queen Nzinga Mbande and others,” professor Tshilidzi Marwala, the new vice chancellor of the university, explained in a recent interview.

The teaching of other subjects, like economics, is being reshaped as students become more conscious that they are being taught theories that were developed in universities in the West. Students want a curriculum that centers on the economic realities of South Africa, particularly on the black majority who call the country home.


“There is a rejection of whiteness going on in those spaces at the moment,” Arogundade explained to The Root. “The protest spaces, social justice spaces, especially the universities, around [the] Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall [campaigns], any kind of conversation that is about race and social justice, there will be a crew of black people that will be asking, ‘What are you still doing here?’ And I think that it’s a very valid argument in this point of time.”

In this moment, more black South Africans are deconstructing what they’ve been told for years. They’re looking closer at what happened in 1994.


The 1994 transition that brought an end to apartheid in South Africa brought peace to the country, for the most part. It effectively steered black South Africans away from engaging in a mass movement to perpetrate violent revenge on white South Africans who maintained the system that oppressed and criminalized black people.

But many injustices remain in the postapartheid era. The socioeconomic inequality gap is getting wider. Anger is rising. Black South Africans are asking if they made too many compromises in the name of peace for the negotiations to end apartheid to be successful.


“We’re recognizing that we’ve been sold a lie, so more and more of us are finding the vocabulary to actually pinpoint what the injustices are, and a lot of the injustices are directly related to issues of race,” said South Africa-based sociology scholar Ragi Bashonga. “So the fight is still very much in us.”

Chika Oduah is a Nigerian-American journalist reporting out of Africa, on Africa for The Root



Let me just (briefly) say this as a white South African (and yes I SUCK at writing summaries):

Many black people in South Africa should start by remembering that apartheid was a long time ago and stop voting on the basis of sentiment. We will always bear the scars of apartheid. We’ve got a colossal amount of ground to make up. But its been 24 years since 1994. Some of the lack of progress isn’t due to apartheid but due to the mismanagement of the ANC. This isn’t a plug for some other political party since no political party is perfect, but the last decade under Jacob Zuma has done us no favours. Even by the governments own estimates we’ve lost at least R27 billion annually and that doesn’t even take into account bailouts of poorly managed parastatals.

And then there’s the lack of momentum on important issues. Who cares about land expropriation without compensation. There’s literally no point unless it leads to enpowerment. Our education system is failing learners in rural area’s and informal settlements. There are schools in these areas that don’t have textbooks and have teachers that don’t pitch up. Its not just about money its about the way we run things.We’re getting poor returns for the money we’re spending not just due to inadequate facilities, or the legacy of apartheid, or crime but also due to a sleeping government and politicians being politicians. South Africa has a 44.6% drop out rate before matric.How are we going to grow out of the situation we’re in if we’re failing the youth and just adding to the unemployment rate. We can’t just tax people more. We can’t stop spending on infrastructure. We can’t stop providing services to taxpayers. We’re really in a bind here and time is moving forward. The country is becoming more violent. Protests are becoming more violent even to the point where idiots torch things that their community needs like schools and libraries. We haven’t even built enough houses for people who lived under apartheid, and we need to move forward with their children and grandchildren and build them homes too because they’re part of the almost third of the country that is unemployed.

I could literally go on and on about a lot of our issues but the takeaway here is that South Africans need to be practical before we get philosophical. Before we listen to the people who can’t quire tell us what decolonization is and how it must come about (because if we’re rejecting “western viewpoints” then I’m sure we need a re-evaluation of communism and socialism too right and perhaps some of those who cried out against monopoly white capital should not take money unrelated to investment FROM monopoly white capital or from morally bankrupt capitalists regardless of their skin colour) , we should first fix the issues we can more easily address. We need to start holding politicians accountable for their decisions. People can’t complain about government and then either go to the polls and vote ANC because of the past or abstain from voting. Even now with a new president the forces of corruption and nepotism in the ANC still hold political sway and still hope to continue business as usual even as they hope the party does well electorally because Zuma’s gone.

On the issue of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes: Rhodes was an unapologetic racist and imperialist. He also donated all the land UCT stands on to the university and set up a fund that supplies bursaries even to this day. History is messy and the issues of the past are not so easily forgotten or rewritten.