David van der Want

MA Clinical Psychology (RAU)

Clinical Psychologist

4 Halvery Holt
46 Camp Ground Road
Cape Town
083 703 2398
Contact details


There are voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Dreyer at 80 : An interview with Dreyer Kruger

Dreyer Kruger aged 80
Dreyer Kruger in his front garden in Cape Town

Dreyer Kruger turned 80 in April 2004. He says heís waiting for death but death doesnít want to come". He also mentions that his memory is ailing. I interviewed Dreyer in late 2004.

He is charismatic and spry as he lopes down his garden path to unlock the gate. "Iím very fit" he replies to my greeting and leads the way to his study.

Fit is a good way to describe this elder of the profession. His slight frame belies a "largeness" of presence. His eyes are clear and express warmth and curiosity. They sparkle with direct and earthy humour as he tells me, "My memory is gone, short term and long term so Iím not as sharp as I used to be. Iím no longer practicing, Iím old now you know. Iíve only got one patient left and after him Iím finished".

Poor memory notwithstanding, Dreyer still has many pithy insights and much wisdom to offer. Here are some excerpts from a conversation I shared with him recently.

David : What is your experience of getting old?

Dreyer : Well as I say, I was 80 in April (2004) and now Iím waiting for death but it just doesnít want to come. I donít know why. Iíve had a lot of problems in my life, a lot of opposition to me as a person and what I represent and a lot of happiness too. Thereís nothing now in my life that I feel sad about. The workís done. Iím in my fourth marriage, Iíve got a wife to look after (well sort of, sheís very independent) and Iíve got grandchildren and children so I still look forward to every day but the work is done. You know, death used to be something of a taboo subject but these days people speak about it quite openly and people face death calmly which is different to when I was young. In fact I feel more free now than I did at 21. But getting old, Iíve never found getting old to be a problem - I get older every year! You can live a growth process until a very old age - at 60 or 65 you can still learn something new. At my age I donít think there are any more big changes left for me - I can barely manage the small ones. The difficulties in getting old are about loneliness. Colleagues die, students migrate and so there is lots of loss to deal with in old age.

David : Four marriages Dreyer?

Dreyer : Ja four. My first lasted for 21 years and my second for shorter than that, and my third even shorter and now this one is the last. Iím determined to make this one last until I die. I think that thereís a rare thing called love and if you know how to love then you wonít change partners so often.

David : Is there a phenomenon amongst psychologists that we tend to marry each other more often than say dentists do?

Psychotherapy is not a science. Its not just a different subject in the field of science - itís a qualitatively different discipline

Dreyer : I have never thought about it. My wife Carol is a psychologist, not a psychotherapist but perhaps its about intimacy. As psychologists we are concerned with what lies beyond the surface of things and this involves intimacy with people and understanding. Maybe itís a case of "You understand me, I understand you. Hey, letís get married".

David : Do you believe in God?

Dreyer : I believe in a Christian ethic but I donít believe in a personal god. Thereís something transcendent in the universe - I believe that but what it is, well, I donít know. A senior academic told me when I was a young man that a belief in God is always part of identifying with your father. Well I didnít like my father at all and I am not afraid to say it. Even as a child I doubted that there was a personal god. I think I was about eleven years old when I first started to question this.

David : How did you come to be a psychologist?

Dreyer : I went to university to study law but luckily I did not do so because, if I had, I would have stayed on the superficial level of life and only taken the rules of law seriously. These are not always connected to the human reality and so Iím glad that I chose to become a psychologist. At that time there was not a career of psychologist in South Africa so I became a social worker in East London at the age of twenty-one first. Then I took a job as a statistician and only after that as a psychologist in the department of labour.

David : Who has influenced you in your approach to psychotherapy?

Dreyer : Well as a student in Stellenbosch in the 1940ís psychology was very quantitative. We seemed obsessed with trying to turn everything into a mathematical formula. I didnít say anything to my lecturers but I didnít think that this was a great idea. In fact I thought psychology was mad to be trying to do this.

I think that we should not speak about human nature but about human existence. And important part of this is freedom

Then in my early years I experimented with the integrity theory of Mowrer and also the behaviourist approaches and their conditioning of people. And Freud too. I donít think any psychologist can completely do away with Freud unless heís a thoroughgoing behaviourist. But I think my saving grace throughout my life has been that I read a lot. I love to read. And I could read German so as a student I read JH van den Berg and Medard Boss and Heidegger in the original German so I encountered the existential phenomenological approach. I would say that my approach changed over the years from being very impressed with Freud to where I am now with existential phenomenology. Iím not keen on Freud anymore. Heís had a great influence for sure but I have absolutely no interest in the libido for example.

David : You say you thought psychology mad to be so busy with quantitative methods yet even today, the funding agencies are placing increasing pressure on psychologists to demonstrate the effectiveness of their work empirically. Whatís your feeling about this?

Dreyer : Psychotherapy is not a science. Its not just a different subject in the field of science - itís a qualitatively different discipline. Quantitative approaches can do nothing for psychotherapy. They are useless except maybe for measuring intelligence. If you want to see if therapy is worthwhile you have to ask the opinions of three people - the therapist, the client and a third person who looks at both. The useful approach is to break the therapy down into natural meaning units. You must be busy with the investigation of meaning rather than of quantity.

David : There are some trends in modern psychology that I would like to get your perspective on. The first is what do you think of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). When it started in the 50ís it was a slim little book. Now itís a doorstop. What do you think about this?

Dreyer : Well I think its psychology pretending to be a natural science like medicine. When you take a man or a woman into therapy their problem is unique. It is not like in medicine where the person has a lung infection or whatever the case and then you can treat the lung infection rather than the person. Psychodiagnosis is a waste of time. Sure one chap might have anxiety, another depression and another obsessions but we cannot work in a way where the diagnosis determines the treatment. We have to look at the uniqueness of the individual rather than the general diagnosis of a condition. Once its been established that thereís nothing neurologically wrong with a person then psychotherapy is indicated. Therapy is a worthwhile endeavour but it is not a medical procedure and we must remember this.

David : And yet the sale of antidepressants increases year on year.

I believe in a Christian ethic but I donít believe in a personal god. Thereís something transcendent in the universe - I believe that but what it is, well, I donít know.

Dreyer : Well the most difficult thing for a person is to really look at himself. Now if you go to a doctor the chances are he will give you an anti-depressant but itís a short term solution. Basically it works until its time to take the next one.

David : These days the marketplace seems to be dictating that therapists must perform. Managed health care systems are starting to insist that certain "conditions" receive say 4 sessions of therapy and others perhaps 6. What do you think about this?

Dreyer : Really! Well I think itís a great pity because that means that long term therapy will only be for the rich. I think the medical aids are keen to regard psychosis or neurosis as mental illness which simply isnít true. They are problems in living and are about questions about how to live you life. But we seldom allow ourselves to ask those questions.

David : So what is the expertise of a psychotherapist?

Dreyer : It is to listen and to understand. To give empathy and not sympathy and to assist with making meaning out of life. To help them do this, all therapists should have an analysis. I believe we should not accept a student for training unless he has been or is in his own personal therapy. One of the first requirements for a psychotherapist is "First, know thyself". Unless you are a behaviourist. Then it doesnít matter - you must just know the techniques. When I studied psychology in the 40ís and 50ís we did not make enough of psychoanalysis which insists that every analyst has an analysis. I think itís a good thing. I donít mind what approach this therapy is - unless its behaviourist because behaviourism doesnít promote self insight and self insight is the most important thing for a psychotherapist. I had my own therapy in Pretoria and also in 1986 and 1987 with Medard Boss and also with JH van den Berg but it was too short.

David : Another trend in psychology in South Africa currently concerns the governing of the profession. What is your view of recent happenings in this regard?

Dreyer : I think the controversy stems from the continuing professional development system. That is, a lot of people want to be in control even though they cannot do what they tell others to do. So this is a matter of control. It is not a scientific question but it is a matter of people wanting to control things that they simply do not understand.

David : On a different tack - what do you think of self help books of which there is a proliferation.

Dreyer : I donít think they can be harmful but then I have never read one. The thing is - if you read a book then you donít read yourself. Healing does not come through a monologue, it is always a dialogue.

David : How do you think about human nature?

Dreyer : I think there is a human nature but what it is I donít know because what is looked upon as good or average in one environment or civilization is not the same as in another. I think that we should not speak about human nature but about human existence. And important part of this is freedom. Our lack of freedom is the pressure to conform, to go along with and to be a part of the crowd - to never develop our own individuality. When I was at Fort Hare university, I wrote for the Rapport. It was 1969 and I did not go with the set meaning. And this kept me from getting a post at an Afrikaans university. I am an Afrikaner but no Afrikaans university would employ me. This was said to me by Daan Swiegers who was head of department at Pretoria University. The Afrikaans culture wanted confirmation and I was too critical for that. I faced opposition often. When I was at the department of labour a certain broederbond man came into the department. I knew that because I was not a member of the broederbond that I would never advance here and this new man was jealous of me and made my life hell. So I went into private practice which was quite a challenge. But the pressure on people in society is to conform. "Donít get mixed up with the poor" or "Donít pretend that you are one of the rich" or whatever the case is. So we all stay on a narrow gauge train steaming full steam ahead to death. The alternative is freedom and this brings responsibility and also anxiety. But anxiety can also be positive. Donít suppress it but look at it and see if you can work a way out with it. Thereís a quote that I like by Shakespeare that has always stayed with me through the years - "This above all: To thine own self be true, for it must follow as dost the night the day, that thou canst not then be false to any man.". And I have tried to live by this.

David : How do you keep yourself occupied these days? What are you reading?

Dreyer : I am currently re-reading parts of Heideggerís "Sein und Zeit" and also a book by Jocelyn Hellig entitled "The holocaust and anti-Semitism." I also read the newspaper every day. And television. It seems to me sometimes that television is the new "nagmaal". I donít like television and Iíve never watched it before and sometimes even these days I get up and walk out and go and do something else like read a book.

David : Thank you for this interview. I often bump into people who know you or who were students of yours at Rhodes. A friend of mine had some lectures with you in Grahamstown and she and others I know remember you with great fondness.

Dreyer : Thatís good to know. Tell her to come and visit me. But it needs to be quick, before I die.


Dreyer Kruger was Professor of Psychology at Fort Hare and later at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. He is author of four published books An introduction to Phenomenological Psychology A first encounter with Psychology The changing reality of modern man and The problem of interpretation in Psychology.

He has written a fifth book he tells me. It is about dreams but it has not been published. He lives in retirement in Cape Town with his wife Carol.

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