Brains trust: What is to be done?

2015-03-09 06:00

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What should intellectuals do to make us prosper and develop, and do they know their role in post-apartheid SA? Ferial Haffajee took notes at a recent seminar

South Africa is like its soccer team Bafana Bafana – beautiful and talented, but a serial underperformer.

You can see it in the top line: there’s an anaemic growth rate. And in the bottom line: protests and looting are now endemic. And in the middle: the middle class is detonating under a debt and dependence burden that can toss a fragile, black middle class back down the class ladder.

So I was drawn this week to a roundtable hosted by the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra) on the role of intellectuals in a South African renaissance.

What does the brains trust, or the intelligentsia, think about our condition and what is its role in putting the country on a more stable path?

The role of intellectuals is to help nations think and percolate relevant and cutting-edge research into their societies.

The morning event in Johannesburg was an eye-opener. Meetings about an African renaissance these days are usually about the continent’s identity as a growth node in the world and a story of potential and amazement. A renaissance in action. But not at this meeting.

Zimbabwean academic and leading African scholar Ibbo Mandaza said: “We are in a crisis. The African condition is reflected in African intellectuals.” He quoted another scholar, Issa Shivji, who had spoken at a conference in 1988 on the role of intellectuals in postcolonial Africa.

“[It is a time] of despair and dismay. Intellectuals are mesmerised by the state; captured by the state. And [they] are alienated by inaction,” Shivji said 27 years ago.

Mandaza asked if intellectuals had become “unwitting participants of that animal called the postcolonial state”.

As far as I could see, the room was filled with a cross-section of some of South Africa’s finest minds, and not a single question opposed the dominant mood – the idea that something was wrong in South Africa and the state of the states throughout the continent.

Mandaza lives in Zimbabwe where the legacy of President Robert Mugabe’s policy on radical land reform is being revised in study after study – but life there is still tough.

“What has gone wrong? What is the agency for change? In Zimbabwe, 50% of intellectuals are outside the country. Industry has collapsed; we get everything from South Africa [and] I’m not sure what would happen if your industry collapses,” he quipped to some laughter.

There was no laughter when Ayanda Ntsaluba spoke. This Discovery executive was one of South Africa’s first post-apartheid directors-general – in the health department – and has a stellar reputation and record in the liberation movement.

He said: “African intellectuals find themselves in a schizophrenic position. We ask ourselves: could African intellectuals have done something different and better?”

His questions continued: “Is it difficult to speak truth to power? Do the trappings of power get the better of us?”

Ntsaluba said that in the struggle for liberation, intellectuals joined for purposes of service. When leaders were conjoined with the purpose of service, a culture of self-criticism was common.

He did not say it, but it echoed loudly in the omission: the culture of self-criticism is no longer present.

My reading is not that it is not present. There is a lot of self-criticism present in the governing ANC. You only have to read its policy documents and communiqués to see that.

But criticism from outside the national executive committee is not encouraged – even from seasoned cadres such as Ntsaluba.

Academic and columnist Xolela Mangcu said the condition of intellectuals related to an overreliance on Marxism and nationalism – concepts he said were European.

You could almost hear a collective gasp from the audience as he said so – evidence of how popular these twin ideologies are in South Africa.

It was time, Mangcu argued, to look at a different archive of knowledge to develop future ideas for South Africa and the rest of Africa. He begins doing so on page 3 of this section.

Questions to the three speakers included an important one: In our understanding of intellectuals in South Africa, do we include those allied to radical and grass-roots protest movements?

If you consider the role of people such as Zackie Achmat in any number of civil society movements, from the Treatment Action Campaign to Section27, it is perhaps where intellectuals have had the most impact in the freedom years.

Land policy activist and feminist Nomboniso Gasa has a similar impact in her sphere.

At the Right2Know campaign, the radical intellectual, Jane Duncan, has been the first to record the development of a security state in South Africa amid a flailing intelligence structure.

This week it was announced that the State Security Agency was taking seriously a blog that alleges the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, among others, is a US Central Intelligence Agency plant.

This kind of paranoia is the marker of a security state.

The most ground-breaking piece of analysis at the roundtable came from Mistra director Joel Netshitenzhe, who is also a national executive committee member of the governing ANC.

Netshitenzhe’s theory about the current South African state is that it is being delegitimised for various reasons.

These arise from the unfinished work of freedom. Netshitenzhe argues that the first measure we need to take in this, the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Charter, is whether wealth has been effectively redistributed and where it is held.

He argues that the delay in this debate has allowed apartheid denialism to set in.

The state is also being delegitimised by the narrative of patronage and corruption, as well as structural unemployment. This can provoke a heavy-handed response by authority. He says the killings at Marikana and the violence at the opening of Parliament are examples of such responses.

It is the most prescient description of our state that I’ve read.

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