Psychology can save the world: Mandela's ex-cellmate Dr Saths Cooper

South African Psychologist Dr Saths Cooper gives a talk on The Future of Psychology in a Globalised World recently. — ROHAIZAT MD DARUS/STAR

He walked into the hall, a tall figure standing head and shoulders above the rest. But his imposing presence belied his diplomatic and down-to-earth character. Dr Sathasivian "Saths" Cooper, who was born in Durban, South Africa, says his surname means "barrel maker" and adds in jest that he might drink out of a barrel rather than make one. His first name is of South Indian Tamil origin, he adds.

Dr Cooper, 67, is president of the International Union of Psychological Science, which represents over a million psychologists. He was at Help University’s campus in Shah Alam, Selangor to give a talk about The Future Of Psychology In A Globalised World. The former South African political activist and human rights advocate believes that psychology is pertinent in all areas of human endeavour.

“No matter what field a person is in, whether it’s advertising, public relations, human resources, sales and marketing or education, psychology is relevant. Without that psychology knowledge, many institutions – corporate, public or private – would be poorer. More and more institutions are adding psychology to their courses because they realise its value,” he said in an interview after his talk.

Dr Cooper, who was also the first president of the Psychological Society of South Africa, believes that psychology can help lessen or prevent a lot of issues facing the world, including workplace stress, suicide among youths, bullying, even terrorism.

“If we use psychological knowledge and insight, we’d be able prevent certain stuff from happening. We can help our children understand from a very early age what issues are likely to impact them and be better prepared to deal with it, rather than end up bullying, using violence or becoming self-destructive,” he said.

Dr Cooper believes that prevention is better than cure, especially in one of the major issues facing young people today – depression.

“Having prevention programmes, starting from school-age children, is better than trying to solve the problem when the symptoms start appearing and giving them a pill to pop. If we implement preventive strategies, we would be better off as a society,” he explained.

Dr Cooper added that confrontations in the workplace can be circumvented. And even if there were to be confrontations, they can be mediated effectively. But he also points out that there is a positive side to conflict in the school environment.

“A young, enquiring mind filled with knowledge might disagree with their teacher, but this is a positive tension because the child feels empowered to raise questions,” he said. “Unfortunately, many teachers deal with this by shutting the kid up or complaining to the parents about their ‘problem child’.

“The kid isn't really a problem child; they're just doing what a child ought to do. If children are complacent, always obedient and subservient, then they're not really exploring their world, and early exploration is vital for healthy human development,” Cooper added.

“It's important to nurture that enquiring mind because it is those who challenge that innovates. Innovation comes from people who are critical, not people who are all kowtowing, who are all dressing the same way, thinking the same way, behaving the same way. It comes from those who think outside the box.”

“I appreciate in some of Southeast Asian cultures, parents want their children to be the most successful, materialistically well-off person in their field. But people need to be re-educated about success,” he said in earnest.

“Rather than a ‘My success is your failure; I’ve won, you’ve lost’ mentality, there can be a different way of mediating life’s challenges, a ‘win-win’ situation whether in education, workplace, personal or public life. There can be ways to prevent negative outcomes to ensure people are less stressed, lead more wholesome, harmonious lives, and are more productive in society.”

Former South African activist, who shared cell block with Nelson Mandela, extols benefits of psychology
Cooper is in his element, when sharing his life experiences.

Dr Cooper started his human rights activism in his student years.

“It was involvement against apartheid in South Africa when there was no other political activity tolerated. The party that Nelson Mandela led had been banned, and as students we felt that we could not be effective intellectuals without challenging that condition,” he said.

“So, we opposed the system and the racial segregation that was very stark. Toilets, restaurants, schools, transport, residential areas – every area of human life was segregated. We created awareness among our fellow university and high school students, larger community-based organisations, cultural and worker organisations, and we created internal opposition to the apartheid state.”

Dr Cooper spent nine years locked away, five-and-a-half (1977-1982) in the same cell block as Nelson Mandela on Robben Island Prison, off the coast of Cape Town. When asked about being incarcerated with Mandela as both were from different generations and political backgrounds, he answered:

“He was a very personable prisoner, and always had the patience and time to engage with other prisoners of all backgrounds and ages. Being young people in our 20s and he in his 50s, we respected him as an elder, but we often debated strongly on our different ideas.”

Dr Cooper added that he and Mandela often agreed to disagree. “Mandela had a fairly open mind on most issues, but he also had very strong beliefs like many of us. We argued vigorously and attacked the ideas, but we never attacked the person, so we maintained a good relationship.”

“Mandela came from an organisation where they believed white people and so-called coloured people should have their own separate organisation. Our view was that we needed one common organisation, because although we come from different ethnic, religious and language backgrounds, all of us confront issues that are similar,” he explained.

Dr Cooper added that Mandela’s organisation eventually changed their perspective. “I’m pleased to say that as young people, our interaction did have an influence on what he did. Some of the old definitions changed, and the constitution right now is a result of that.”

“Interaction with Mandela was a sobering experience. We learned to be a little bit more patient, yet intolerant of the bigotry and narrow ideologies of the time. Before us, people looked at themselves as European or non-European because of South Africa’s history linking Dutch settlers during the East India Company period of the 17th century.

“Then, the terminology was changed to white and non-white. Our view was and still is that you can’t describe one people in terms of another. That’s negative, so we came up with the terminology of black to refer to anyone non-European,” he said.

Their initial political and age differences aside, Dr Cooper and Mandela did share some similarities. “Besides vigorously challenging ideas. I knew his family – his two daughters from his second marriage, and his other children later. Some of them were my contemporaries.”

Dr Cooper’s foray into psychology started on Robben Island. “I had been studying law, but decided that I couldn’t do law and take an oath as an officer of the court to uphold the apartheid system, so I changed courses,” he said.

He eventually focused on psychology and was determined to become a professional, not just a masters level clinical psychologist. So, he completed his PHD. “I did three majors – philosophy, English, psychology – even though I was denied studying privileges until the last two years of my imprisonment. But I had also taken courses before my imprisonment,” he said.

His love for education was evident and he graduated with distinctions. He went on to Applied Psychology at the University of Witwatersrand, and then Masters in Clinical Psychology. “While I was finishing that, I was offered a full scholarship from the British Council, and I had said I’d go wherever they gave me a passport to, because I’d never had a passport before.”

Eventually, Dr Cooper received his passport but it was valid only for the United States. He chose Boston, Massachusetts because he wanted to be in a fully intellectual environment with multiple universities. There, he entered the Community and Clinical Psychology programme.

He admits, with a laugh, that none of his children have followed him into psychology –all three are studying law (although his daughter does have a degree in psychology and women’s studies). But Dr Cooper says he wants them to have the freedom to choose their own paths without influencing them.

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