Adversity and Child Development in South Africa
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In the 1950s, Ebony magazine ran a story on Eartha Kitt's visit to South Africa. Though the white minority had prohibited integration of public facilities, they granted the entertainer temporary "white status" so she could perform. Even as a youth in Louisiana I could see the irony of South Africas stance toward race. More than the brutality of the apartheid system, I was disturbed by its irrationality, frightened by a government that could so nimbly twist reality. Like the backwoods of Mississippi or the Louisiana bayou, South Africa became a place for blacks like me to avoid.
This past summer, forty years later, I found myself traveling to the new South Africa, part pilgrimage and part research. I went as a pilgrim to witness the countrys transformation to a democratic society. I went as a scholar to investigate the adversity that South Africas children still face even after the irrationality of apartheid has ended.
This project grew out of my research on the effects of stress on child development in African-American communities. In South Africa I saw many parallels between the social and economic circumstances of children growing up in South Africas black townships and the situation I have observed here in Detroit.
Many children in post-apartheid South Africa face the triple adversities of poverty, segregation and violence. The country suffers from a distribution of wealth even more extreme than our own. Per capita income for whites is seven times that of blacks. In 1989, while the poverty rate for whites was one percent in urban areas and two percent in the countryside, black poverty was 32 percent in the urban centers and 68 percent in rural areas.
As segregative housing restrictions are lifted, whites are abandoning the cities they once dominated for distant suburbs, repeating a dynamic familiar to many U.S. cities. Blacks in search of better housing swell urban ranks, but red-lining and white flight contribute to a continuing concentration of poverty in the central cities.
Such social and economic divides are well-established conditions for high rates of crime and social displacement, issues that affect all South Africans. While black township residents bear the brunt of the violence associated with poverty, the white middle-class is also preoccupied with crimes against person and property. Security guards and "armed response" signs are ubiquitous. Thousands of homeless adults and boys live in the parks and on the streets.
In South Africa I encountered scholars interested in the effects of this poverty and violence on childrens emotional development, health, and academic achievement. As in the U.S., many South African researchers are examining the family and cultural resources that contribute to the resilience of children growing up with adversity. I felt cross-cultural/cross-national research could deepen our understanding of the relation between social environment and child development.
At the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg I met with scholars involved in a ten year longitudinal study on the psychological and physical development of a multiracial cohort of 2,100 children born in 1990. I began a collaboration with psychologist Linda Richter and Thea Dewitt, anthropologist and project director, to study how poverty and violence affect the behavioral, emotional and academic adjustment of children over time.
Children who grow up in poverty, in poor families and poor neighborhoods, experience more unpleasant, aversive situations, providing the foundation for sustained emotional states such as sadness or fear. Depending on the personal and family resources of the child, these aversive emotional states contribute to depressed-anxious moods, oppositional behavior, aggression, and low academic achievement.
We first test how poverty status relates to the frequency of behavioral, emotional and academic maladjustment, and how childhood functioning changes over time. We then examine the role of family and cultural resources in moderating the effects of adversity on emotional functioning. Our research also examines which aspects of family spirituality, support, racial ideologies, and parental socialization around emotional regulation help children avoid or slow the expected effects of adversity.
Traveling through South Africa, I was not surprised to see the joy and pride of black South Africans who have attained freedom after a long and difficult struggle. But I was unprepared for the reactions of white South Africans. On the radio and in newspapers, many expressed both relief and pride in the New South Africa. Whites too carried apartheids burden — guilt over their racial privilege and resentment toward government restrictions over their lives. They too feel emancipated by the downfall of apartheid.
Yet few South Africans, black or white, naively expect these greater freedoms or the multiracial government of national unity to help them realize their aspirations in one generation. Most understand the difficulty of raising living standards and education levels of the poor majority. Social science research and social work intervention are especially welcome in the New South Africa. Many recognize the need for external support for training and capacitation, especially among blacks long-denied equal access to education.
The recent change of government challenges the South African people and their leaders to build a multiracial, just, and open society. Today, the world watches South Africa and many, myself included, hope they succeed. I also hope we have seen the end of a time when authorities need to grant "white status" to Eartha Kitt or any other person in order to allow them access to the resources of a nation.
Oscar Barbarin is Professor of Psychology and Social Work. His South Africa research is supported by a grant from the International Institute.