Stellenbosch University responds to furore over much criticised study on coloured SA women

The findings, opinions, conclusions and recommendations of an article that claimed that coloured women in South Africa have an increased risk of low cognitive functioning, owing to low education levels and unhealthy lifestyle behaviours, are those of the authors alone, Stellenbosch University said on Wednesday.

The highly criticised study, titled Age- and education-related effects on cognitive functioning in coloured South African women has been widely labelled as racist and offensive since being circulated on social media over the Easter weekend.

According to the abstract, the study assessed the cognitive function and its association with age and education in a sample of 60 coloured South African women aged between 18 and 64.

Their cognitive function was assessed using the Montreal Cognitive Assessment and a computerised neurocognitive test, finding that they “present with low cognitive function and which is significantly influenced by education”.

Professor Eugene Cloete, deputy vice-chancellor for research, innovation and postgraduate studies, said the institution neither condones nor evaluates the opinions reached by its scholars as participants in this academic debate.

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 has solicited within the academic community and broader society, Cloete said.

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

‘Not about intelligence’

Following a process of ethical clearance – as it does with all research projects on human subjects – 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 article reported on the effect of environmental factors on the cognitive development within one of the country’s most vulnerable groups that was marginalised during apartheid and remained so during the post-apartheid era, Cloete said.

“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.”

News24 approached faculty of medicine and health sciences professor Elmarie Terblanche for comment.

She told CapeTalk it was “unfortunate” that the report had been criticised for playing into racist tropes. She said racial groups were specified as they may exhibit different health problems.

Terblanche said they did not study intelligence, but specific higher functions of the brain.

Petition launched over ‘intellectually deficient’ study

An online petition calling for the article to be retracted has also been created by Barbara Boswell, an associate professor of English at the University of Cape Town, owing to its “racist ideological underpinnings, flawed methodology, and its reproduction of harmful stereotypes of ‘Coloured’ women”.

“The authors ignore a large body of postcolonial and critical race theory which shows that the idea of ‘race’ is a set of articulated political relations and that racial categories are highly unstable, fluid, and provisional,” she wrote in an open letter to the editorial board of the journal which published the study.

“Instead, they uncritically use the apartheid racial designation ‘Coloured’. Their definition of communities so classified does not problematise the idea of ‘mixed race’; incorrectly suggests that these communities are a homogeneous class; conflates ‘race’ and ethnicity; and suggests what can only be read as percentages of biological inheritance by ‘race’ and ‘clan’. The latter is akin to eugenics.”

She argued that the report was scientifically and fundamentally flawed, pointing out that the title, abstract and introduction infers the results are applicable to all “Coloured South African women”.

“However, the authors acknowledge that they draw on a small sample size; that the 60 participants were from only one geographic community; and admit that their methodology produced a result that ‘is likely not fully representative of the larger Colored population of SA’.”

The article was published as scientific research but “draws on colonial stereotypes of African women, and ‘Coloured’ South African women specifically, as intellectually deficient”, Boswell charged.

“Their own data does not support their assertions. There is no new finding here; just a repackaged Verwoerdian paradigm,” Boswell continued.

By 17:00 on Wednesday, over 2 000 people had signed her petition.