The F-word: Intellectualism is not a dirty word

2012-11-17 12:22

Who would have thought that in a country of more than 51 million, a small gathering of friends around drinks – the Midrand Group – could make for such unease among those in power and their acolytes.

It is fascinating that the Midrand Group has become an enigma because they dare to gather and talk about their own country and their own government.

You would think that is a pretty normal thing in an open democracy.

It is true that members of this group enjoy greater media presence than other groups and are increasingly airing their views on radio.

And perhaps therein lies the source of the discomfort for those who still think we are a totalitarian state where the supreme leader thinks on everyone’s behalf.

Formations like the Midrand Group should be a dime a dozen.

I know of a similar gathering at a filling station in Soweto, where fellows from all walks of life gather to talk about their country and its politicians.

The discussions are robust and go deep into the night.

The difference between them and the Midrand Group is that their opinions do not get published in newspapers.

The disproportionate interest in and unhealthy fixation with the Midrand Group speaks to a decline in public and intellectual discourse and, more worryingly, the disengagement of everyday people in the politics of their country.

In many other countries in the world, intellectual societies are the norm.

They are to those countries what stokvels are to many South Africans.

Unfortunately, in South Africa many would rather gather to discuss what constitutes a decent funeral than engage in intellectual discussions.

It is as if intellectualism is deemed a dirtyword, worse than what being “ambitious” is to the ANC.

That is why the president of the republic has no qualms in using the pejorative “clever blacks” in describing black people who dare think and state what it is that they think about their country.

The state and governing party are aiding and abetting anti-intellectualism, and it is not only “clever blacks” who will suffer if this becomes the norm.

Fear, the beloved country, when merely thinking aloud about your own country is deemed subversive or, as in the case of the Midrand Group, a Black Swan event.

Those who suffer from Midrand Group envy or those awestruck by them must snap out of it and start their own groups.

It is easier than starting a burial society because you do not need details of every relative and proof that they have indeed died before you dispense the cash.

Thinking and articulating views about one’s country and about who governs it and how it is governed should stop being regarded as the sole preserve of “others”.

It must be elevated to a patriotic duty.

Failure to pay attention to our land is a breach of a duty we have to our grandchildren and a betrayal of the efforts of all the generations that incrementally gained us the freedom we now easily take for granted.

Speaking at the Thabo Mbeki lecture in May, Professor Barney Pityana quoted US journalist Anand Giridharadas who, in his attempt to make sense of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, wrote: “It was suggested that in India for far too long the educated elite and intellectuals had shied away from taking active part in politics and considered it not to be worthy of their consideration, either because politicians were those who had been failures in society, undereducated, lower classes.

“And so prestige went into business, the arts, including film, and, of course, indulging in lifestyles of affluence, and speculative theorising about this and that. Mumbai was a wake-up call. Indifference was no longer cool, because indifference had meant death. The educated, intellectual and elite classes can no longer outsource politics to the mediocre and incompetents without consequence.”

We must never say we were not warned.

»Follow me on Twitter @fikelelo

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