Black intellectual culture has long history

2011-01-02 14:09

The problem I have with Xolela Mangcu is he so often writes like the proverbial frog in the well. A recent article, “You Reap the Intellectual Culture You Sow” (City Press, December 19 2010), is a case in point.

He writes as if the struggle commenced when he became aware of it.

Thus all the intellectual efforts of black scholars ­prior to the emergence of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) are written off.

Yet, had he bothered to examine the track record of publications like The Educational Journal, published by the predominantly coloured Teachers’ League of South Africa, The Teachers’ Vision of the Cape African Teachers’ Association or The Good Shepherd of the Transvaal African Teachers’ Association, he would have a better idea of the wealth and depth of ongoing black intellectual debate on every aspect of policy since the 1920s.

True, these were not academic publications. During those years, with the exception of a few, there were no university-based black academics.

Teachers, ex-teachers and other professionals filled those roles within the black community.

When we cast the net even wider to include such non-academic publications as weekly and monthly newspapers and journals, the immense contribution of black scholars and thinkers becomes clearer.

Inkundla yaBantu, published in both isiXhosa and English for the popular reader and the academically inclined from the mid-40s until it collapsed in the 1950s, still impresses, as do the discussion journals, often mimeographed rather than printed, produced by political activists of various hues.

(The National Library and archives preserve many.)

Mangcu is evidently unaware of these writings. That points to his lack of curiosity, not the absence of such work.

True, South African universities have ignored these outstanding black figures.

Perhaps for the very reasons Mangcu mentions.

But if that be the case, should black academics like himself not be addressing that deficit by bringing these thinkers to light?

If Mangcu would care to, he might well find the quality and standard of material printed in these publications would put Black Review, Black Perspectives and other intellectual products of the BCM in the shade.

And please spare us the humbug that Biko was the first to ­underscore the consciousness of our history and the oppressed as the agents of their own ­liberation.

The pioneers of what is now called “revisionist historiography” were black writers and scholars like the Soga bothers (who published in both ­isiXhosa and English), Samuel Mqhayi, writing in isiXhosa, and one of the ANC’s founding figures, Walter Rubusana.

One need only read The African Claims, authored by a blue ribbon committee of African activists convened by Dr Xuma in 1943, to recognise how far-sighted the black intellectuals of that day were.

Contrast their vision with the mealymouthed “liberalism” of the 1946 Fagan Commission to truly appreciate the point.

If we are to believe Mangcu, blacks have contributed little or nothing to policy formulation since the decline of the BCM.

The ANC and the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM), he ­alleges, outsourced policy research to non-black academics, presumably located in the universities here in South Africa.

He even makes so bold as to say the housing policy was written by the Urban Foundation. That betrays no knowledge of Joe Slovo and little understanding of what he tried to do.

As one who was close to the ANC’s research efforts prior to 1994, but especially during the 1980s, when this outsourcing allegedly took place, I was ­incredulous.

Regrettably, the ANC’s ­research output is not easily available to South African academics.

Prior to February 1990 our publications were illegal inside South Africa and the movement made no effort to flood our ­universities with them.

But Mangcu does not concede these constraints. With the dogmatic assurance of one who presumes he knows the facts he makes extravagant claims.

For the record, between 1980 and 1990 alone the ANC’s research units – and there were several on education, constitutional issues, the economy, foreign policy and the wider social agenda – initiated over 10 workshops, seminars and conferences involving scholars from the movement and from the region, including invitees from home.

Academics from the universities in Dar-es-Salaam, Eduardo Mondlane (in Maputo), Zambia and, to a lesser extent, Lesotho, actively participated in these.

The Constitutional Guidelines that the ANC disseminated in the MDM were the product of such consultations, as were the base documents for the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP).

ANC scholars also participated in academic conferences and workshops hosted by US, British, Swedish, Soviet and German institutions and academic associations.

Unesco, as a UN agency, was also obliged to invite liberation movement scholars to its seminars relevant to South Africa. Owing to its own weaknesses, the PAC rarely was able to field scholars on such occasions.

The very argument that ­Mangcu advances, again under the impression that it is new, was the thrust of a challenging paper co-authored by Blade ­Nzimande and Ivan Evans for a conference on education held in Grantham in the UK during 1987.

The “incestuous relationships among white academics” he complains of were explored again in a second, shorter paper Nzimande produced for an interaction between ANC researchers and academics from three of the historically black universities in Harare in 1988.

I hold no brief for “single-loop-learning” but the validity and worth of the research methodology Mangcu proposes still has to be demonstrated.

Black Review, Black Perspectives and the Institute for Black Research were unable to arm any of the BCM’s affiliates ­either for the constitutional talks, which Azapo preferred to boycott, or the electoral politics which preceded the 1994 ­elections.

Even the ANC’s most vicious critics concede that we out-negotiated the Nats, who had the benefit of state-supported research bodies, the think-tanks in Afrikaans universities and the output of privately funded research.

When Mangcu says “our people have lost ... the ability to do for self ... ” I am uncertain who he is referring to.

From all the evidence to hand, “our people” do a great deal for themselves, especially thinking.

Given our circumstances for more than three centuries, it was inevitable that much black intellectual endeavour focused on the political struggle and was channelled through such ­bodies.

Every black intellectual worth his or her salt ­consequently sought first the “political kingdom”.

It would help matters greatly if Mangcu evaluated what they thought, wrote, said and did then, as now, instead of disparaging the intellectual culture they produced.

» Jordan is a member of the ANC’s national executive committee

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