You reap the intellectual culture you sow

2010-12-18 11:02

There’s a story that goes something like this.

A group of white academics were about to discuss a history research project when one of them asked, rather self-consciously, why there were no black people around the table.

The automatic response, honed over years by an ­exclusionary culture, was that the group had searched for black ­historians, but had found none. ­

Undaunted, the self-conscious ­academic ­insisted, saying: “But none of us are historians!”

The story illustrates what I once described in an article as the ­problem of a “knowledge-ideas complex” that consists of ­interlocking, incestuous relationships among white ­academics.

Not only do they sit atop strategic research networks but they use those networks to fund, publish, cross-reference and promote each other.

But wait a minute, you might ask, aren’t some of the country’s leading universities run by blacks?

Quite right, but that does not make the problem disappear; it makes it even more tragic.

As I put it in that same article: “It is indeed ­worrisome that the subject of black intellectual empowerment has not received the same level of national attention and visibility that political and economic empowerment have received.

I submit that unless the ideas of black people are part of this knowledge-ideas complex, our freedom will be incomplete.”

Was I right, or what?

A cursory look at the slew of public ­policies – from housing to economic ­policies – demonstrates that blacks have not been the authors of their own fate.

Interestingly, this was not always the case.

During the heyday of the black consciousness movement, black people ran their own community-based research institutions, and even published their own journals and newspapers.

Among these were the Institute for Black ­Research, Black Review and Black Perspectives.

Steve Biko’s signal contribution to black political ­culture was the idea that what ­matters is ­consciousness of one’s ­history and of one’s agency in the making of one’s future.

This tradition of community-based intellectual production came to an end in the 1980s when the Mass Democratic Movement and the returning ANC farmed out policy ­research to the “knowledge-ideas complex”.

This country’s housing policy was literally written by the Urban Foundation while our economic policies were crafted by the World Bank in partnership with economists from some of the country’s leading banks.

Without any sense of irony, the governing party now turns around to complain about racism in the very same complex to which it mortgaged our future.

Well, you reap what you sow, comrades.

A planning commission was created not long ago, but its fate will most likely not be different from that of the much-vaunted ­African ­Renaissance.

This is not just a political ­problem but an epistemological one.

I recently addressed the ­National Research Foundation on what it would take to translate ­research into policy.

My message was that lasting policy solutions to our problems will persist for as long as we stick to the “researcher-as-expert” model that has shaped policy making in this country for the past 16 years.

The problem with this approach is that it leads to what my former teachers, Donald Schon and Chris Argyris, called the problem of “single-loop learning”.

You can make recommendations only after you have reached the end of the research ­cycle and those recommendations are always predictable.

An alternative model would put communities and public dialogue at the centre of the search for ­workable, community-generated ­solutions.

This model is often called action research and it yields a different kind of learning, where problems are identified and ­resolved every step of the way through continual community ­action and public dialogue.

Since Steve Biko died, we have not had leadership with both the sensibility and the commitment to community-learning processes.

Instead, the political party has ­replaced the community as the place for social learning.

And yet, no political party can absorb the millions of young people in search of purpose in our communities.

As a result, our people have lost that most precious of human ­qualities – the ability to do for self, which in turn requires the existence of strong community institutions and a vibrant community-based ­intellectual culture.

The community’s intellectual development has thus become ­coterminous with and reducible ­to that of the political party.

I know of no more tragically circumscribed view of human experience.

For us to create an intellectual commons for the co-generation of ideas would require a shift in ­intellectual culture.

Thus far, our ­storybook is full of stories we do not understand ­precisely because they were not written by us.

» Mangcu is convenor, Platform for Public Deliberation, University of Johannesburg

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts

Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Jobs in Western Cape region

Junior Chef

Century City
Pro Placements Recruitment Agency
R8 000 - R9 000 Per Month

Graphic Designer

Cape Town Northern Suburbs
Creative Sourcing
R7 000 - R9 000 Per Month

CSR Inbound

Cape Town Northern Suburbs
O'Brien Recruitment
R14 000 - R16 000 Per Month

Property [change area]

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.