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Pantomime of the parvenu

South Africa is a particularly fractious society. Rarely does a week pass without something stirring the country’s intellectuals from their silences. The noise generated by this fractiousness says more, perhaps, about South Africa’s collective neurosis, than it does about anything else. What is amusing to behold, though, is the theatrics of intellectuals that play out in public every week.

One of the strands that runs through the concatenation that holds together the string of somethings (incidents, events or states of affairs) that stirs so many of our intellectuals is a type of danse macabre fed by self-fulfilling prophecies of a democracy in the final throes of its brief life. So pervasive has the ‘death of democracy’ meme become in South Africa that it has become assimilated, culturally, while (at the same time) provoking increased hysteria in a toxic cycle fed by intellectuals acting in bad faith. Not unlike the danse macabre evoked by the misery and gloom of 14th century Europe – from the 100 years’ war to the Black Death – intellectuals present us, almost daily, with notices of imminent collapse, and some among them dance, prematurely, on the grave of democracy in South Africa.

Most of these intellectuals, across the media, in government and academia, locked in silos of a priori knowledge (and bearing conclusions that have ossified over time) would have us believe that South African society was unique for the way it is plagued by chaos and bad news, and by an overall sense of hopelessness. One suspects that for the most part our intellectuals know that ours is a society that is grappling with itself, and that our democracy is in its infancy. One may be forgiven for suspecting, also, that the danse macabre may well be a pantomime in which parading knowledge becomes the main objective. It would appear, in fact, as if discourse has become a type of duel in which argument has become a weapon – and not a means to furthering knowledge.

Even when one is most generous, it is difficult not to get the impression that most intellectuals, the parvenu in particular, fail to imagine that their own knowledge or conclusions may be false. Things simply have to be the way intellectuals believe they are or ought to be, and they have great difficulty believing that anyone could think long and hard (and honestly) and still disagree with them. At best, and in Hobbesian terms, the intellectual is perfectly capable of acknowledging intelligence on the part of others, but believes its own to be superior. Hence intellectual exchanges are reduced to personalised criticism and playground bullying, name-calling, sarcasm, machismo and attempts to embarrass people with whom there is disagreement. It is all terribly puerile, sometimes.

What is, perhaps, most toxic is the contestation of all agency on the basis of ossified theories and ideas. This ossification stems from the belief that all (existing) theories and all ideas retain full validity over time. In terms of this belief, the life world of human beings can, and ought to be parcelled off into neat little packages that are, themselves, shaped by rigid a priori categories and classification schemes. When the social world is approached in this manner, opinions trump necessities of specific situations. Rigid a priori knowledge and ideas divert critical demands for agency founded on experience, and agency that brings together theory and practice. Such thinking dissolves the specificity of people, events or states of affairs into formal categories of thought – secured from criticism! This ideological rigidity is as apparent among liberal capitalists, obeisant to the neoclassical economics orthodoxy, as it is among the vulgar and lazy Marxisms located in the peaks and valleys of the intellectual landscape.

In his defining work on method, Jean-Paul Sartre explained that using sets of labels (he referred at the time specifically to Marxism) which substitute for specific knowledge, rather than as a set of regulative ideas to help us in our work (scholarly or otherwise), is an a priori method. This approach does not stem from experience “or at least not from the new experiences which it seems to interpret. It has already formed its concepts; it is already certain of their truth; it will assign to them the role of constitutive schemata. Its sole purpose is to force the events, the persons or the acts considered into pre-fabricated models … What is necessary is simply to reject a priorism.”

One especially good example of this crude a priorism was evident during a recent book launch. At the event, a critic (of the book) launched a set of terribly incoherent, inconsistent and rather offensive claims and statements about the author of the book without any apparent knowledge of what was presented in the book. The book was discredited by the critic on the basis of the author’s racial identity and intellectual identity (categories that precede the act of writing the book); the author was considered to be wrong because he was white, and therefore an imposter who had no right to write about black people. It was rather telling that throughout the event (the book launch) the critic could say little or nothing about the contents of the book. This suggests that the critic had carried his ideas, beliefs and methods to the book launch (without having read the book) and simply applied them – abgesichert!

For purely deontological reasons, we are obliged to be generous and honest in our engagements with fellow human beings. This notwithstanding, the picture that seems to be emerging in South Africa, is one in which the ideas and writings of intellectuals seem to be self-serving and quite irrelevant to the political action that requires immediate, forceful and meaningful agency. It would, of course, be unfair to generalise about all intellectual activity. We have some quite outstanding thinkers who do a lot of good work; it is rather ironic that they are the ones who are not as noisy as the parvenu…

To register an incontestable claim, South Africa faces a multi-dimensional crisis that is most forcefully manifested in unprecedented inequality, unsustainably high unemployment, of which young people between 16 and 24 carry a disproportionate burden, an education system which has failed and may for the foreseeable future continue to fail a generation of students, infrastructure that is crumbling, a state that seems to have lost its capabilities and ominous centripetal forces that conspire to conflate the sensibilities of the centre with those of the whole of South African society – notwithstanding its diversity, contradictions and contestations.

It is difficult to believe that we are on the verge of self-destruction in South Africa. Our democracy is young and fragile, but conditions are not unique, nor do they seem precipitous; at least for now they don’t. A most cursory look at the failures of the Enlightenment’s promises of peace and prosperity (in the light, especially, of the conflicts of the past 100 years), may induce some sobriety into our intellectual discourse.South African democracy may seem fragile, but it may yet outlive most of us. If one may proffer advice, the challenges before our intellectuals are to establish stable links between theory and practice that will help us engage directly with the multi-dimensional crisis that besets the country; to know and understand its causes and significance, and to help us deal with this crisis freed from a priorism. A good starting point would be to abandon the tendencies towards self-dramatisation and apostasy that serve, in the grand scheme, only to reduce the role of intellectuals to pantomime.

Appreciations to JS for comments on a previous draft of this post.


  • I am a political economist. In earlier incarnations, I worked as a journalist and photojournalist, as a professor of political economy and an international and national public servant. I rarely get time to write for this space as often as I would like to.... I don't read the comments section