Politics and Commentary


Don't despair about South Africa's public intellectuals

First appeared
Wednesday, 21 August 2013


They’re funny things, titles. When you work in an academic environment, you get used to navigating the sensitivities around “Dr” and “Prof” (although the most accomplished scholars are usually the ones who care least about how you address them). In the business world, there are lots of people who are just “Mr” or “Ms”, but still insist on adding letters like MSc or MBA after their names. Then there are the surgeons who prefer to be called “Mr” or “Ms” rather than “Dr”.

Things get really complicated in countries where the very wise are addressed as “Doctor Professor” or “Professor Doctor”. I recently received a letter from a German academic who used the abbreviation “Dr” twice in a list of impressive titles. In America, you become “Professor” the moment you address a class at college or university. In France, of course, every teacher is un professeur. And that’s really all that “professor” means: one who professes, who shares knowledge. 

Our fascination with academic titles and the mystique they carry says a lot about the way we view their owners – we get hung up on the mystique of the ivory tower. We see academic researchers and lecturers as somehow removed from the everyday world; they are obscure oracles, like autistic savants, brilliant but eccentric. This tends to carry over into generalised clichés about all intellectual activity.

There is a strong strain of anti-intellectualism in South Africa. It manifests itself in seemingly innocuous ways, from snide comments that “Those who can’t, teach” to the Pol Pot rhetoric of a figure like Julius Malema. Despite our collective anger at the legacy of Bantu Education, we accept its basic premises by condoning Jacob Zuma’s use of the phrase “clever blacks” as an insult.

We forget, of course, that the herd-boy from Nkandla who became president is, like many of his less tainted struggle colleagues and elders, an auto-didact. We forget about the “university” of Robben Island. We forget about the achievement of visionaries like Pius Langa, whose eloquence on constitutional nuances grew from a background of poverty and prejudice.

Who can blame us for our collective amnesia, when the ostensibly dominant voices to which we are daily subjected are those of serpent-tongued politicians, reactionary or radical ideologues and inane middle-class parochialists? So it’s understandable that Gareth van Onselen, writing in Business Day recently, bemoaned how South Africa is “barren soil for true genius” – going so far as to claim that, while the country has some excellent scientists, it has “no great public intellectuals”.

This is a bold statement, and one worth examining. A necessary starting point is the definition of a public intellectual. As Van Onselen notes, there is “endless debate about what constitutes one”, so we’re in murky territory. For Van Onselen, public intellectuals are those whose disciplinary base is in the social sciences – political and economic philosophers, essentially, who can tackle the big questions about how societies are and should be organised, who can conceive of a world that is other and better than the one we know.

As someone with an arts background, I find this narrow prescription problematic. Can’t our best writers and theatre makers and visual artists also be seen as public intellectuals? I would argue that they can, that there are plenty of them, and that they meet Van Onselen’s criterion of “exploring and critiquing the basic tenets of freedom and liberty”. But a fair counter-argument is that their work is not widely known and their ideas insufficiently broadcast to the greater public, the collective citizenry of the nation.

This raises a further question: is the problem not simply one of publicity, of spreading the innovative ideas that are produced by our artists and academics, ideas that for the most part only have small audiences? If this is the case, it is tempting to look to those conduits through which new intellectual concepts are assumed to filter down to the public – like the newsrooms of media houses, where editors and publishers and producers find ways of simplifying them for popular consumption.

But this traditional model is both condescending and moribund. Never mind that communication technologies are dispensing with the hierarchy of knowledge implied in the very idiom “filter down”, or that the “learned societies” of the past have been replaced by organic virtual communities. The fact is that the role of the intellectual and scholar has changed, as Zygmunt Bauman wrote almost thirty years ago, from being a legislator to being an interpreter.

We have inherited from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe the image of “enlightened men”, those who guide the ignorant masses with rationally and morally superior diktats (merging with organs of state, they became legislators – a notion that goes back to Plato). For Bauman, public intellectuals in a postmodern, postcolonial world have to wrestle with the intractable complexity of clashing worldviews and contrary cultures and mutually enmired histories; their job is to act as mediators and explicators (the more modest function of interpreting).

The constitutions of democratic states are instances of legislation borne out of interpretation: they are messy compromises even as they express a certain idealism. If the US Constitution represents for Van Onselen the intellectual ferment of a particular historical moment in America, the South African Constitution likewise demonstrates that we don’t lack ideas. What we lack is collective commitment to those ideas and the means of turning them into practice. What we lack is political will accompanied by intellectual and moral clarity in the corridors of power.

So what do we do when, as Van Onselen notes, our politicians are the primary barrier to a national public intellectual culture? Here it may be useful to turn to the work of Hannah Arendt, whose theorising of the public sphere emphasised “active citizenship”: civic engagement and collective deliberation. I know, and work with, and follow (not just on Twitter) various brilliant individuals who don’t stand out as self-declared public intellectuals but who are active citizens. They are economists and lawyers; they work as journalists and in not-for-profit organisations and, yes, in government.

It’s also worth noting – and should be encouraging – that great thinkers emerge not only in “healthy societies” where the imagination of alternative ways of being is “valued, promoted and protected”, but also from conflict-ridden or oppressive climates. At least three names on Van Onselen’s list of public intellectuals prove this point: Amartya Sen, Edward Said and Antonio Gramsci.

Other names on his list are reminders that today’s ideological rebels can become tomorrow’s dominant voices, themselves indirectly linked to totalising (if not totalitarian) systems: Plato, Marx, even Hayek. The “public” influence of many intellectuals is only felt, or truly understood, years after their death.

Van Onselen asks, “When we look back on South Africa in 50 years’ time, who will stand tall in history as a great public intellectual?” I have no clear answer. Perhaps we have reached, or will have reached, a point where public intellectual culture is understood in collective rather than individual terms. But I see around me many academic colleagues who are decidedly not “an extension of a political programme”, and I see many non-academic commentators who oppose the hegemony of the African National Congress.

So I resist despairing about our public intellectual culture. South Africa is not exceptional in its anti-intellectualism. Nor is its “active citizenship” bereft of intellectual substance.  



Comments (1)

  • Paddy
    25 August 2013 at 13:47 |

    Sadly Van Onselen made some very pertinent points. I do feel that there are boundaries on "intellectualism" (stupid word, but there it is) in South Africa. We are under the horrible burden of our history and the organisation that has appointed itself as our saviours from it. (Part of the problem is that there is enough truth in their assertion to make their position tenable.) This does lead to the situation you seem to acknowledge, which is that our "intellectuals" are not "public" and they tend to go about what they are doing without drawing attention to themselves.

    Where I do disagree entirely with him and agree with you is that "healthy societies" are not a prerequisite for the emergence of great thinkers. Often the very opposite is true.

    I think where we continue to fall short in South Africa is not because of apartheid or because of the ANC, but because we use both as convenient excuses and/or justifications.

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