Let me pose the question: can someone like Jan Christiaan Smuts be considered the father of African psychology? Because, I have suggested, many whites, even after generations of living in Africa, disavow or are excluded from the identity of African. Because African is confounded with blackness. The question of colonialism reappears: the colonialism in knowledge. The question of racism and its racialising effects in the development of disciplines. That is to say, in how racism turns some into whites and others into subordinate races. How are we then to think of fathers of knowledge fields in the context of colonial, racist and sexist domination and exclusion?
In 1895 Jan Christiaan Smuts, a student at Oxford University and later twice prime minister of South Africa, completed a manuscript in which he analysed the personality of American poet Walt Whitman. Considered financially unviable for publication at the time, the manuscript ‘Walt Whitman: A study in the evolution of personality’ was eventually published in 1973 (Smuts 1973). Could Smuts be seen as the first father of African psychology?
The answer to this question depends on, among other things, what is to be done with the racist roots of psychology in Africa. It depends, given a history in which ‘bastard’ offspring could be enslaved by their fathers, on how we want to think of white men who fathered African offspring. I am aware that whatever answer is given, it will not be unanimous. But I contend that Smuts did African psychology, if in passing, because of the mere fact that he lived in Africa. As to what kind of African psychology his study of Whitman was, that is a more interesting question.
Nevertheless, here, then, in the picture of the young J.C. Smuts, a student at Oxford with a psychological interest in an American poet, is a sign: psychology students and psychologists from Africa have always been part of the world. They still are.
In addition, psychology students and psychologists from other parts of the world have contributed to African psychology – even if that knowledge was not always for the good of the majority of people of the continent.