What happens when student ‘radicals’ graduate?

By Kenneth Maine

The prevailing school of thought within psychology in the military has been to problematise the individual and to underplay the role of social injustice and institutionalised discrimination on the psychological wellbeing of African people. How do we have these uncomfortable conversations in the workplace and start to decolonise our industry? Protesting students will soon graduate and enter the world of work and an economy that remains untransformed. How will socially conscious and politically aware graduates function in such environments? From my experience, the system often wins, and slowly their fire burns out. This needs to change.

My journey into psychology began at North West University in 2001. A lot has changed since then, including the renewed spirit of activism that has permeated the higher education landscape. As a psychology practitioner in the military, the bulk of the work that I do involves psychological research, training and development. I am fortunate to work in an environment that is largely multi-ethnic, multi-generational and multi-disciplinary. For some time past there have been subtle tensions between these various dimensionalities that underlie my workspace. The tension has always been about the tried and tested ways of practising psychology and the young and recently qualified psychology practitioners.

These young ‘radical’ professionals often question and challenge established norms and practices. However, over time their fire burns out and the system succeeds in changing them instead of them changing the system.

There is a great deal of pressure to conform. It is my hope that the new products of a decolonised education system are better able to resist the pressure to conform and that they will continue to be attuned to the spirit of decolonisation even where they leave university. On the other hand, it would be wrong to abdicate the responsibility of addressing issues of decolonisation of the workplace to the new graduates. We should also do our part.

Decolonising the workplace: psychology in an African context

With the growth of the decolonisation movement over time, tension will grow. I have witnessed first-hand the frustration and disillusionment that results when politically conscious graduates are pressured into conforming to workspaces that remain untransformed in terms of its understanding and practice of psychology in an African context. So the question that we need to explore is whether we would like new entrants into the profession to bring a new perspective, to challenge, to question and even to be disruptive in order to advance the profession? Or do we want the new professionals to think as we do in order to validate our preconceptions and prejudices?

Military psychology: African spirituality and philosophy is a necessary conversation

The prevailing school of thought within psychology in the military has been to problematise the individual and to underplay the role of social injustice and institutionalised discrimination on psychological wellbeing. Furthermore, the role of African spirituality and philosophy has thus far only received lip service within my work environment. The discussions about the influence of social injustice, discrimination, African spirituality and philosophy on psychological and cognitive functioning have been largely superficial and have not lead to any real change in the research and practice of psychology within the military.

As an African Psychologist in the military I have been complicit in this practice. The idea here is not to criticise the actions of my colleague but to start a conversation that is long overdue. Most of our clients, research participants and jobseekers are African and have thus been and continue to be victims of social injustice and exclusion. The people that we seek to serve also practise African spirituality in some form or another. However, it seems to me that we have approached our clients, research participants and selection candidates in a way that underplays their reality and have sought to impose our western-informed notions of wellness, illness, human potential and ability into an African social context that we do not fully understand.

Psychology undermines African identity

When it comes to our clients, research participants and selection candidates, as a practitioner, I cannot separate myself from their experiences. I look like them, in many cases we come from the same disenfranchised communities, aspire for the same things and I see ‘them’ every time I go to my hometown.

When I reflect on my life I realise how my environment, culture and my ancestors’ experiences influences my sense of self, my identity and spirituality. If I accept that there are fundamental similarities between me and those candidates and participants, and I can recognise the impact of culture, environment, injustice in my life, then I have to make room for the possibility that my experiences mirrors those of my clients, research participant and selection candidates. If that is the case, how do I continue to practise a brand of psychology that fails to adequately affirm the spiritualties and the social injustices that underlie the African identities of the people I claim to serve? And do we begin to practise psychology within the military in a way that does not reinforce injustices and prevailing patterns of privilege?

These are loaded and complicated issues, and I am sometimes tempted to cut and run in search of greener pastures. But I am reminded that sometime life’s greatest opportunities come disguised as its biggest challenges and maybe the places that make one most uncomfortable are the exactly the place where one should be.

What I am suggesting is that we must move these conversations away from the dark corners and move them to the forefront of psychology in the military. I believe that this will enable us to be more responsive to the need to the people we serve and put us in a position to make a real difference. Furthermore, these conversations also should begin to take place at the all levels of industry with a view to decolonise the economy and to ensure that the economy is structured in a way that benefits the masses and not just a privileged few.

More stories in Issue 80

Contributors

Kenneth Maine

Kenneth Maine is a Research Psychologist working in the military and conducts research on various issues within the military. He obtained his MA in Research Psychology from the North-West University (NWU) and has currently commenced with a Doctoral Degree at NWU. His interest is in the influence of African spirituality, social environment, injustice and discrimination […]

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