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The tasks of a public sector intellectual

27 January 2013, 19:18

Online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, defines an intellectual as a “person who primarily uses intelligence in either a professional or an individual capacity”.

The information super tank goes further to state that while an intellectual need not necessarily be actively involved in the academia, he or she may have an academic background and will typically have an association with the profession.

A vast array of literature elucidate that an intellectual has the following unique characteristics; 1) An intellectual is involved in theories and ideas; 2) An intellectual’s profession involves the production and dissemination of ideas; and 3) An intellectual has sizeable intellectual authority in public discourse.

A legal expert, sociologist, philosopher, economist, media commentator, columnist, and a newspaper editor are some examples of intellectuals.

For the purpose of this article, I will refer to a public sector intellectual as a person who uses thought, intelligence and analytical reasoning and is employed in the public, rather than the private, sector.      

As someone who is employed to produce and disseminate ideas within and for the public sector, either through research outputs or commentary, a public sector intellectual must influence the attitudes of the people towards his or her sector.

Through his work, a state law expert must ensure that the nation has confidence in the state’s legal capacity.

The same applies to all other intellectuals operating in the public sector.

It has become fashionable these days for public sector intellectuals to use, amongst others, social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, electronic and print media, etc., to ridicule the state, particularly government and its leaders.

This ridiculing is meted towards government in the name of impartiality and lack of blind loyalty to the state. I use the word ridicule, rather than criticism, because these messages are often so grossly biased against the state that they don’t deserve to be labelled as criticism.

I believe that there is a clear difference between criticising and attacking or ridiculing.

Criticism would entail the use of theories and models (theoretical or scientific) as well as available information to either affirm or negate a particular position, policy or approach.

This is an act expected of a public sector intellectual.

An act of attacking or ridiculing uses rumour, biased reasoning, speculation and untested information to push for an often factional or questionable position. This is contrary to what an intellectual must do.

Reacting to the views raised by Xolela Mangcu amd Songezo Zibi in their articles, Department of Arts and Culture’s Chief Director for Social Cohesion, Sandile Memela urges that we “celebrate our stars, not scars”.

As if caught in a trance, Memela bashes South Africans, particularly blacks, for turning a blind eye to the progress made by the democratic state and always complaining as if we are still under the apartheid regime.

“Also, there is much talk about poor education and corruption, but no one is interested in blacks who are obtaining distinctions in dilapidated schools or government officials who do not undermine good governance. Most of the time the talk is about how good Bantu Education was and how apartheid apparatchiks stole but did not forget to invest in infrastructure”, Memela pounces.

“So we have to ask why blacks continue to make a big deal about apartheid and its legacy when they run a government whose very mandate is to reverse everything colonialism and apartheid caused. They have the political power to direct the country in a way that serves their interests”, Memela continues.    

While Memela’s tirade was aimed at blacks in general, my focus is on the extent to which intellectuals in government in particular and the state in general celebrates the scars, rather than the stars, of the government they serve. Rather than produce ideas and theories to “reverse everything colonialism and apartheid caused”, some public sector intellectuals behave like village criers whose sole mandate is to lament this and that about the government.

A public sector intellectual is tasked with the following key functions: 1) To be involved in the production and dissemination of ideas for the benefit of the public sector in particular and society in general; 2) To use thought and analytical reasoning to ensure that the state has credible and scientific models to deliver quality goods and services to society; and 3) To use intelligence and thought to improve the credibility of the state.

Any deviation by a public sector intellectual from the above tasks warrants that such a person be classified as a reactionary or irresponsible public intellectual. The state is better off without reactionary or disloyal intellectuals. A public sector intellectual must be loyal to his employer. Failure to do this, he or she must seek employment elsewhere.

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