Studying Forensic Psychology in South Africa

Before you read the article below, we recommend you take a look at our post "Looking for a graduate program in forensic psychology?".

Intro

South Africa is home to a number of excellent universities, and many international students decide to study here. Our country is known for its diverse population and cultural mix, which makes it a unique location for studying social sciences and conducting research. And there is a reason why South Africa is known for its beautiful, natural landscapes and friendly population – it is true!

The academic year begins in late January/early February, and continues until October/November. Most postgraduate degrees are (slightly) more flexible with their registration dates, but this does depend on the degree and whether it includes coursework or not. There are two long holidays during the year: the June/July holiday that divides the academic year, and the December/January holiday at the end of the academic year. Even though there are 11 official languages in South Africa, if you can speak English relatively well, you will manage without any difficulties. Most universities teach in English, or are bilingual (English-Afrikaans).

Forensic Psychology as a Professional Psychology Category

In South Africa, forensic psychology is practiced mostly by clinical psychologists, as it is considered a subspecialisation of clinical psychology; however, there is a small group of psychologists who work in the field of forensic psychology through research only.

At this stage, it is not possible to register officially as a forensic psychologist, although the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) is busy finalising the details of this category and defining the scope of practice. The relevance of this is that there are no formal academic programmes in forensic psychology in South Africa yet. But do not despair! There are a number of ways to get involved in this area.

To become a psychologist in South Africa, you need to complete a Master’s Degree in Psychology. These degrees can be completed with or without coursework (i.e., dissertation only). South African universities offer Master degrees in clinical psychology, research psychology, educational psychology, industrial psychology and counselling psychology. Forensic psychology and neuropsychology are pending specialisations at the time of writing this article. To be accepted into a Master’s programme, you need to complete a Bachelor’s Degree with psychology as a major, and an Honours Degree in psychology. However, even though forensic psychology is not a registered stream yet, some of the modules/subjects in these graduate courses cover topics in forensic psychology. For example, if you complete an Honours degree in Psychology at the University of Cape Town, you can include ‘Psychology and Law’ as one of your subjects for your degree.

There are three ways to become involved in forensic psychology in South Africa:

1. The best way is to choose a topic in forensic psychology for your dissertation/thesis, and work with someone who is considered an expert in forensic psychology. This is not degree-specific, so you can do this at Master’s Level or PhD level. You can follow this route for any of the Psychology Master’s or Doctoral degrees.

2. Additionally, if you are a clinical psychologist (or want to study clinical psychology), you could pursue a position at a location where you can gain more experience in forensic psychology, for example at a prison, a rehabilitation centre or a psychiatric hospital. Since most forensic psychologists are registered as clinical psychologists, their specialisation arose through their research and working experience. (Otherwise, you could also apply for an internship at the Centre for the Study of Violent and Reconciliation, or the Restorative Justice Centre. You do not need to be a clinical psychologist to apply for an internship here.)

3. Although not strictly forensic psychology, you could consider studying Criminology/Criminal Justice at a Postgraduate level (for example, see the Centre of Criminology at the University of Cape Town; Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Limpopo; Criminology and Forensic Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal; or Department of Criminology, University of the Free State) or a Master of Social Work (Forensic Practice) at North-West University. You will need to check what the academic requirements are for these degrees.

South African Universities and Academic Staff who are Forensic Psychology Experts

In South Africa, most universities offer psychology at a Master’s and PhD level; however, not all of these universities have academic staff who are experts in forensic psychology. If you would like to read about South African universities, then you can view a list of them here – however, keep in mind that this list is quite comprehensive, and includes traditional, and   comprehensive universities, and universities of technology. Comprehensive universities offer academic and vocational degrees and diplomas, whereas universities of technology offer only vocational diplomas and degrees.

The universities that do have active academic staff members who are listed as forensic psychology experts include:

University of Cape Town: Professor Colin Tredoux (All aspects of Psychology and law, but especially eyewitness research, legal decision making, detection of deception; He is the head of a research team that focuses on eyewitness psychology and face recognition); Professor Don Foster (Crowd violence, political violence); Terry Dowdall (Child custody issues, and alleged sexual abuse)

University of Free State: Professor Dap Louw (Critical forensic psychology, psychopathy, female offenders and sentencing [especially restorative justice]); Professor Anet Louw (Assessment of child sexual abuse, and custody evaluations); Dr Florence Tadi (Forensic Psychology. Her subspecialisations are not listed, and she is listed as a potential co-supervisor.)

University of Johannesburg: Larise du Plessis (Forensic psychology and malingering).

University of KwaZulu-Natal: Professor Douglas Wassenaar (Law and psychology; ethics); Professor Steven Collings (Child sexual abuse); Bev Killian (Validation of child sexual abuse, and custody assessments)

North-West University: In psychology, Associate Professor Esme van Rensburg (Forensic work); In social work, Professor Herman Strydom (Crime), Dr Cornelia Wessels (Forensic social work)

University of South Africa (UNISA): Franco Visser (Serial Violent Crime); Elmarie Visser (Child custody evaluation and mediation)

Other notable experts in forensic psychology, who currently reside and work in South Africa, include Dr Louise Olivier, Dr Micki Pistorious, Kobus Coetzee, and Brigadier Dr Gerard Labuschagne.

Applying for Postgraduate Studies

Most of the universities will offer clear instructions about applying for postgraduate studies as an international student. (For example, take a look at the document written by the University of Cape Town here.)  However, there is a bit of bureaucracy involved, and you will be required to obtain a study permit. This can be quite an annoying process, but it should not hinder your decision to study in South Africa. If accepted into a programme, you will be able to register while you are waiting to receive your study permit, so long as you have proof that you applied for a permit. (See the announcement on this website.)

When applying for a postgraduate programme, keep in mind that you will be required to submit certified copies of original academic transcript of all university degrees, and some universities may require you to submit copies that were certified within the last six months. However, you should not have as many problems applying for postgraduate studies as you would experience when applying for undergraduate studies. Most applications are due close to the end of the year, for example September/October, so do not wait too long to submit your application.

Final Comments

In South Africa, forensic psychology is practised by a handful of psychologists, most of whom are clinical psychologists. If you want to study forensic psychology in South Africa, you will need to make a decision about whether you want to pursue a Master’s degree in clinical psychology, and specialise in forensic psychology through your thesis topic and clinical experience, or a Master’s degree in research psychology. If you choose the former, your specialisation and expertise will, most likely, be in the clinical aspects of forensic psychology; whereas the latter may lead to expertise in the experimental and applied aspects of forensic psychology. Bear in mind that in the near future, these may not be your only options, since the HPCSA aims to finalise the scope of practice and definition of forensic psychology, and this will lead to formal academic programmes. However, it is not clear whether this will be at a Master’s level, or at a Doctoral level. Ultimately, whatever your decision, if you do study forensic psychology in South Africa, you could be part of a new wave of academics who help to revolutionise and better outline this field – and that sounds like a pretty good reason to me!

Best wishes from sunny South Africa!

-Alicia Nortje

 


 

Below you will find links to the articles from our studying abroad series: