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Shifts in societal perception of mental retardation concurrent with social, economic and political change.

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This thesis assesses shifts in societal perceptions of mental retardation in South Africa from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1990s and investigates the influence of political, economic and social change on such perceptions. In order to assess the subjective nature of perceptions, evidence appertaining to legislation, policy changes and facilities provided for persons with mental retardation was sought in historical records. Relevant acts of legislation and reports of governmentally appointed commissions in the field of mental health are examined for evidence of prevailing trends. The study commences with an overview of the provision made for so-called lunatics in the early years of the Cape Colony and, because of the strong influence of British medical practitioners during the period of British rule, a comparative study of the English asylum system is included. The onset of institutionalisation in South Africa during the final quarter of the nineteenth century is examined and the standard of accommodation is discussed. This includes references to the differing criteria for any race other than white. Allegations of constant overcrowding investigated by reference to tables of statistics, wherever available. Document analysis reveals that prior to World War I little mention was made of provision for children with mental retardation. Records reveal that during the Depression which followed in the aftermath of the war, attention was focused on feeble-mindedness among the progeny of the poor whites. Investigations disclosed that the children from this social class were alleged to be morally as well as mentally defective. The introduction and application of intelligence testing in South Africa is considered, and in particular the role this played in creating the perception of allegedly inferior intelligence in certain race groups. The special educational and training facilities introduced for the various race groups are also discussed. The eugenics movement, particularly in relation to the allegedly feeble-minded, is considered. The thesis concludes with an examination of accommodation and amenities available for persons the mental retardation, both children and adults, in post-apartheid South Africa, and the legal provision afforded them in the new constitution. The conclusions substantiated the notion that societal perceptions of mental retardation do vary during periods of social, economic and political change.


Thesis (Ph.D.)-University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, 1996.


Theses--Education., People with mental disabilities--South Africa.