Chapter in: P.C.L. Heaven (Ed.) "Authoritarianism: South African studies" Bloemfontein: De Villiers, 1980.


Patrick C. L. Heaven and John J. Ray


Previous research would suggest that white South Africans are not only racist, but authoritarian too. This study attempted to determine the level of authoritarian personality among a community sample of Afrikaners in a predominantly Afrikaans-speaking city. Results showed that this sample was less (p < 0.05) authoritarian than a sample of Afrikaner students and that the level of authoritarianism among the respondents is comparable to that found among a community sample of Londoners. These results therefore suggest that Afrikaners' greater racism may not be the result of personality factors but rather be due to circumstances peculiar to South Africa.


Given the smallness of its size (4 million) the community of white South Africans has succeeded in attracting to itself an inordinate amount of world Press attention. It may be regrettable therefore that the amount of social scientific attention that has been given to this community has been so little. Since the cause of South Africa's notoriety (racial prejudice) is a phenomenon much studied by social scientists elsewhere, one would at least expect that hypotheses to guide serious study of the South African situation would not be lacking.

One of the leading hypotheses for the explanation of racial prejudice is that advanced by Adorno et al (1950). These much-quoted authors claim that racial prejudice is the outcome of a personality disposition known as "authoritarianism". Applying the hypothesis to South Africa, one would have to argue that at least part of the explanation for white South African discrimination against blacks was the greater degree of personal authoritarianism in this white population.

While there is some history of attempts to test this hypothesis in South Africa (Orpen, 1975; Pettigrew, 1960) most such attempts have in fact been studies of University students rather than studies of the average white South African. The one exception is a recent study by Ray (1980) -- wherein a random sample of the residents of Johannesburg were interviewed. As access to higher education is quite limited even for whites in South Africa, generalizations based on student samples are of very little use in assessing South Africans as a whole. We are then forced to be particularly reliant on Ray's results.

One of the more obvious limitations of the Ray study was its setting in Johannesburg. This city is a traditional focus of Anglo-Saxon influence and is comparatively little influenced by South Africa's otherwise dominant Afrikaner (Dutch-origin) culture. This Anglo-Saxon influence is so pervasive in Johannesburg that it was precisely the demand that they learn Afrikaans rather than English which caused even Johannesburg blacks to riot in the now well-known Soweto upheavals. (Soweto is the black satellite township for Johannesburg). Given the deeply-felt differences in South Africa itself between the English-origin and Dutch-origin whites (witness the Boer war), a study based in Johannesburg cannot be taken as being very informative about Afrikaners. It was to remedy this defect that the present project was carried out.


Ray's (197b) "Directiveness" scale (in its short form of 14 items) was mailed out to a random sample of 500 white Afrikaners in the city and environs of Bloemfontein, Orange Free State. Bloemfontein is a predominantly Afrikaans-speaking city and a traditional centre of Afrikaner influence. (It is the Republic of South Africa's judicial capital). The sample was randomly drawn from the Voter's List of 1977 and -- given the objective of the study -- care was taken not to draw English names or those whose occupation was given as "student". It was felt that students had already been studied sufficiently as a separate population (Heaven & Stones, 1979; Pettigrew, 1960; Orpen, 1975).

The Ray (1975) "Directiveness" scale was chosen as the index of authoritarianism not only for the sake of comparability with the Johannesburg work but also because of its validation as a measure which predicts actual authoritarian behaviour. It would seem to represent some advance over the Adorno 'F' scale in this respect (Titus & Hollander, 1957: Titus, 1968).


Ninety-one questionnaires were returned (41 male, 50 female). The median age of the respondents was 43 years. By education, it was found that 35 respondents had had a College education, 34 had completed high school and 25 had less than a full secondary education. It would appear then that it was mainly the better educated element of the population which responded to the survey.

The mean score (and S.D.) on the Directiveness scale was 31.74 (4.54). This score is in fact significantly lower than that observed for the same scale on a sample of Afrikaner university students previously surveyed by Heaven & Stones (1979). The t was 2.15 with d.f. of 179 - giving rise to a p of < .005.

The greatest interest in the mean obtained here, however, lies of course in the comparison with means obtained in white populations outside South Africa. For this purpose, a recent study by Ray (1979) is useful. In that study Ray applied his scale to random doorstep samples of the population of London, Glasgow and Sydney (in England, Scotland and Australia). He found that his three samples gave mean scores which were virtually indistinguishable -- thus furnishing a solid foundation for what might be termed an "international" set of norms. Using the London mean, then, as such an "international" norm, it was found that the Afrikaners in the present sample were not significantly different in degree of authoritarianism.


As was found by Ray (1980) in Johannesburg, the present study has shown that South Africans are not particularly authoritarian by international standards. By such standards, Afrikaners are as likely to be non-authoritarian in personality as they are likely to be authoritarian. This suggests that the Adorno et al (1950) theory of racial prejudice is inapplicable at least to the South African situation. The discriminatory institutions of South African society must be explained not as the outcome of a deviant modal personality among South Africans but solely as the outcome of historical, economic and demographic circumstances. As Ray (1980) has suggested, the behaviour of such an outnumbered white community might best be seen as the outcome of fear rather than as the outcome of more complex motives.

One objection that might be levelled against the current findings is that they emanate from a sample with a bias towards higher education. In reply, it might be noted that the sample is at least more representative than all except one of the previous studies in the area and must for that reason represent at least some advance in the information available. More importantly, however, Ray (1976) has shown that his scale is positively correlated with educational level. This means that the effect of the educational bias in the current sample is to inflate the mean authoritarianism score. The current sample shows Afrikaners to be more authoritarian than they in fact are. Thus the fact that even so Afrikaners could not be shown to be significantly more authoritarian than Londoners is very strong proof that they are not authoritarian in general.

To those familiar with the South African situation, however, the present findings may seem somewhat at variance with everyday reality. At least among South Africa's English-speaking community, Afrikaners have a reputation for greater authoritarianism -- particularly towards blacks. How can this be reconciled with the present findings? To do so, one has to refer back to just what it is that the Ray scale does and does not measure and to what frame of reference Afrikaners are likely to adopt in answering the scale's items. The Ray scale, unlike the California F scale, does not aspire to measure rigidity or stubbornness. It does not even measure aggressiveness. It aspires only to measure what Ray (1976) regarded as the irreducible core meaning of the authoritarianism concept -- the desire or tendency to impose one's own will on others. Ray (1976) points out that the evidence for authoritarianism in this basic sense correlating with the host of traits proposed by Adorno et al (1950) as being associated with authoritarianism is not good. We cannot assume that by measuring authoritarianism in one sense we have measured it in all others. Thus it is perfectly consistent with existing findings that Afrikaners may be stubborn, rigid, self-centred, independent and tough without at the same time being domineering towards their fellows. Since blacks and whites in South Africa live in such different worlds psychologically, Afrikaners are likely to evaluate themselves in answering scale items not in relation to blacks but rather in relation to other whites. Hence the fact that they habitually boss blacks around need have little impact on their own evaluation of their characteristic interpersonal behaviour.

A remaining puzzle is why Afrikaner students show especially high scores. It is impossible to know whether this is a general characteristic of students or of Afrikaner students only. Ray (1976) did report one application of his scale to students but did not give the resultant mean and S.D. -- presumably because the sample was not such as to provide useful normative information. All subsequent work would appear to have been done with general population samples only. If the elevated mean is generally characteristic of students, it might perhaps be understood as having something to do with the traditional arrogance of youth. The way revolutions are often led by students around the world is certainly consistent with a view of students as people who "desire or tend to impose their own will on others".


ADORNO, T. W., FRENKEL-BRUNSWIK, E., LEVINSON, D. J. & SANFORD, R. N: The authoritarian personality. New York : Harper, 1950.

HEAVEN, P. C. L. & STONES, C. R: (1979) The authoritarianism of white South Africans. Journal of Social Psychology,

ORPEN, C: Authoritarianism revisited : A critical examination of "expressive" theories of prejudice. In S. J. Morse & C. Orpen (Eds.), Contemporary South Africa : Social psychological perspectives. Cape Town : Juta & Co. Ltd., 1975. Pp 103-111.

PETTIGREW, T. F: Social distance attitudes of South African students. Social Forces, 1960, 38, 246-253.

RAY, J.J. (1976) Do authoritarians hold authoritarian attitudes? Human Relations, 29, 307-325.

RAY, J.J. (1979) Authoritarianism in Australia, England and Scotland. Journal of Social Psychology 108, 271-272.

RAY, J.J. (1980) Racism and authoritarianism among white South Africans. Journal of Social Psychology, 110, 29-37.

TITUS, H. E: F-Scale validity considered against peer nomination criteria. Psychological Record, 1968, 18, 395-403.

TiTUS, H. E. & HOLLANDER, E. P: The California F-scale in psychological research. Psychological Bulletin, 1957, 54, 47-74.


*This chapter was written especially for the volume. The research was supported by a grant from the Central Research Fund of The University of the Orange Free State.

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