PsySSA Founding Member, Lionel Nicholas, PhD, passed away on 24 December 2020 in Cape Town.
The fourth PsySSA President (1999-2001), Lionel Nicholas was key to bringing together the white-led Psychological Association of South Africa (PASA), the Psychologists Against Apartheid group, and other psychologists who sought to unify psychology and rid it of its shameful past. He was instrumental in organising the Inaugural PsySSA Congress that was held at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in the third week of January 1994, some three months before the historic general elections of 24-27 April, which put South Africa (SA) on a democratic and human rights trajectory. PsySSA was thus the first anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-sectarian professional association that was formed in SA. This, without in any way attempting to deny the past, which he constantly warned had a way of rearing itself in the present to disturb the unleashing of its beneficent possibilities amongst humanity in SA and globally.
Lionel Nicholas and his colleagues succeeded against tremendous historic tradition, socialised inferiority, and the prevailing ethos in bringing together all psychologists under one banner. He was determined to sever psychology’s umbilical cord with its erstwhile repression and abiding limitations that precluded the training of more demographically appropriate psychologists, opening up psychology to SA, and making SA receptive to the enormous benefits of psychological knowledge, policy imperatives and endless intervention possibilities.
The history of psychology in South Africa for well over the past three decades is indelibly etched by Lionel Nicholas’ dogged chiselling of the rock face of psychology that was profoundly limited, limiting and exclusionary. Psychology’s current denouement – still reflective of its origins – owes a debt of gratitude to the fearless championing of Dr Nicholas, despite the great cost to his personal advancement. Whilst a prolific scholar who wrote widely in the behavioural field, social work – where he began his professional journey – and sexology, where he obtained another doctorate, many in or aspiring to leadership of the academy (which was deeply segregated) and the regulatory Professional Board for Psychology were threatened by his outspokenness, enabling of nascent and fresh voices, and pushing the confines of historic and self-imposed boundaries.
One could not be indifferent to Lionel Nicholas, whose large and gregarious personality one either understood, tolerated – what you saw of him and what you heard from him were the sum of the man – or were offended by. Nevertheless, most who knew and interacted with him – notably in psychology in SA and abroad – have memorable encounters that will continue to be regaled at psychology events. He will be the first to heartily laugh and see the irony in his dying on Christmas eve. Psychology has lost a champion, but his inimitable contributions to clearing the way for more of us to get a liberating education and training experience and enter a restricted profession will remain etched in our collective history.
PsySSA extends its heartfelt sympathies to the Nicholas family.