There can be little or no doubt that Ronald Suresh Roberts represents the kind of public intellectual this country does not only not need but must reject. And in this regard I put aside the many seemingly credible accusations against him of plagiarism presently.
Some of Robert’s critics may have made the error — admittedly very hard to avoid in the face of his own abrasive arrogance, disrespect and abuse of others — of vituperative responses, somewhat at times similar to the denigration he regularly dishes out to many writers, editors and thinkers in his zealous campaign to defend President Thabo Mbeki and the ANC against the many deliberate distortions and misrepresentations of which he has accused them.
To be credible and compelling, critiques of Roberts must be delivered by maintaining debate at a vigorously engaging but respectable level. When we slip into highly personalised mode with not a small dose of caustic commentary we run the serious risk of deflecting attention from and therefore not responding to and dealing with the important issues surrounding his views and those of Mbeki. It may be hard at times, but try we must to leave even callous adversaries with their dignity intact. It may just help him too to conduct debates similarly.
The question that could then arise is this: Am I not contradicting this approach by the apparent insult to Roberts in the title of this piece? No, I am not, as I will explain later. There are prostitutes and prostitutes, which any good English dictionary makes very clear.
Let me now turn to Roberts. A close examination of his recent book, Fit to Govern: The Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki, and the many articles he has subsequently written in various newspapers unmistakeably shows disturbing traits of what a public intellectual should not be, particularly at this crucial political juncture, when critical scrutiny, fiercely independent thinking and an equally courageous capacity to confront when necessary the powers that be is an irreconcilable imperative.
The interesting thing about Roberts — I certainly find — is that he is often correct in many of his criticisms on issues of race, colour, colonialism and neo-colonialism and how in various discourses he asserts old prejudices — including racism — are perpetuated in constantly mutating forms. Of that I have no doubt.
But as I pointed out in a recent article in the Cape Times, he avoids — consciously I believe — dealing with equal thoroughness with the equally big questions of class apartheid, neo-liberalism and the major policy shifts that the ANC made after 1994, and therefore presents a false and distorted account of both Mbeki and today’s South Africa. He is so trenchantly defensive of Mbeki and his presidency that it probably eclipses even the missionary zeal with which Essop Pahad and other pliable functionaries in Mbeki’s inner circle do so.
Roberts book says little or nothing sociologically about this country after 1994 and what has happened to the legitimate wishes and expectations of the poor black majority. So, while on the one hand, he belabours the perpetuation of racism after 1994, he does not deal with the inherited and perpetuated racialisation of poverty, unemployment and many other social ills after 1994 and how Mbeki’s policies are largely responsible for this.
Nothing does he say about the multiple indignities millions of black South Africans have continued to suffer after 1994. Buckets continue to be used by many thousands of the poorest black people and in some areas it has been replaced by degrading and provably unhealthy pit latrines or, like in Orange Farm, by condominium sewers which require that people — mostly African women — must periodically open manholes and physically remove faeces to prevent sewerage blockages. What does Roberts know about these and much more degrading conditions with which millions of black people daily live when he, at every turn, sings the praises of his great hero, Mbeki?
So much is this evident that Patrick Lawrence aptly wrote earlier this year: “Mbeki, while presenting himself as the champion of the welfare of his racial kinsmen and women, had pursued a policy that was directly inimical to their interests, not to speak of their health and right to life.” (The Star, February 22 2007)
What Mbeki has done since 1994 is to play up questions of race, colour and identity dramatically, and deliberately play down black poverty, unemployment, growing social and class inequalities and the kind of degradation to which I just referred. He has gone further to chastise and even threaten social movements and even his own allies in the ANC alliance when they sharply criticised his policies.
There was a time when Mbeki said that social movement activists — overwhelmingly poor
and African — were enemies of the ANC government and “the people”, as if the ANC were “the people”. Roberts is, in fact, very much like Mbeki. African nationalism, race, racism, colour and colonial legacy are the most pronounced discourses, disguising deliberately the socioeconomic questions that are, in fact, in many ways linked to these discourses. Therefore I recently wrote about Roberts: “Thus, behind the diatribes against racism and colonialism, he is the functionary of the present status quo and its perpetuation.” (Cape Times, June 22 2007)
This brings me to the notion of an intellectual prostitute. Why do I raise this question? When I think of powerful public intellectuals there are many I can name, but Roberts is certainly not one of them. Critical to any public intellectual — in fact, its essence — is the courageous ability to call things by their proper names, whatever they are, and not try to pull wool over the eyes of the public. Roberts has come to the aid of Mbeki in the most despicable fashion any intellectual outside the ANC has done since 1994. A public intellectual helps to raise and clarify the key questions facing society. Providing education, illumination and insights are the key operative words I can think of in my own understanding of a public intellectual.
It is very interesting and revealing to see that Roberts has clearly come out in support of Mbeki — on some of the most damnable aspects of his presidency — at a time when in fact the ANC is facing its biggest political and legitimacy crisis; a time when contentious matters have for the first time in the history of the party been publicly aired by leading members recently.
Therefore he has ingratiated himself to Mbeki in so much of his written work at a time when centrifugal forces are at play in the ANC and thereby a distinctly healthy loosening of the stifling grip Mbeki has had on the party for long is evident. I use the term “ingratiate” because it is discursively connected to the notion of a “prostituted intellectual”. I don’t know what promises Mbeki or Essop Pahad have made to Roberts in return for playing the executioner intellectual role in public discourse, but there is something very uncanny about it.
With regard to his defence of Mbeki in the HIV/Aids controversy in particular, why would he so willingly run the risk of alienating himself from so many people on one of the most sensitive and combustible issues since 1994, in which the criminal neglect of Mbeki in particular is very evident and completely beyond doubt? Questioning whether one can call Roberts in these circumstances an “intellectual prostitute” in the service of a president who has been strongly criticised the world over — and not only in the West — for his approach to HIV/Aids is entirely valid.
While the tenor of his recent book was that Mbeki was intellectually and intelligently fit to govern this country, Roberts has thereby and for other reasons irrevocably disqualified himself from being regarded as a respected public intellectual. Only a prostituted intellectual can do that, especially in such an anti-intellectual and almost grovelling manner. Roberts will go down in history as Mbeki’s primary intellectual functionary during his last term as president of this country, to his eternal disgrace, and from which intellectual rehabilitation will be virtually impossible. The dreadful legacy of the HIV/Aids crisis and the many thousands of lives — women and babies — it unnecessarily took will see to that.
People who draw inspiration from Roberts — as does some hard-hitting black writer who is “telling it like it is” — fail to see the bigger picture in which the diatribes against racism and Mbeki’s supposed leading role in the fight against it masks their culpable role in the decimating HIV/Aids crisis, and the broader devastating social crisis to which it is organically related and which has ravaged the very black community whose interests they pretend to defend.
Finally, emphasising race and African or black nationalism in isolation from related social questions with which they are inextricably linked was not only always an obstacle to insightful thinking and meaningful emancipation, but often done to discursively obscure the social crisis into which the economic policies of African nationalist leaders have plunged African communities. This, in fact, was the common feature of neo-colonialism on the African continent.