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Black people are poor, not stupid

I am terribly annoyed by academics and political analysts in this country. It has become a Herculean task for me to even read their works and research based on the conditions of black people, particularly in the townships and rural areas. Most of these academic papers and articles, whatever issue they deal with, however different the research methodology employed, seem to be arriving at the same conclusion about the consciousness of our people. The conclusion is that the toiling masses in townships and rural areas, the majority of them black, are ignorant or stupid.

Over the years, we have been subjected to “intellectual” analysis about the reasons behind the African National Congress’s election success and popular support. The main point in many of these analytical contributions is that the ANC, with its majority black leadership and membership, is continuously emerging victorious despite its established problematic conduct because its voters, in their majority black, are too stupid to understand the ramifications of having an ANC-led government, or too gullible to realise that the ANC does not have their interests at heart. Impressive intellectual jargon is used to give legitimacy to this diabolical analysis, to give coherence to an argument that is supposedly cast in stone on the basis of its producer’s intellectual and academic credentials.

This exaggerated sense of importance that is projected by academics and intellectual activists of our time is best expressed at political rallies and campaigns. Many campaigns, even legitimate ones that address genuine struggles of our people, are championed by academics on the behalf of our people. And don’t misunderstand what I am saying. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the learned minority taking an active role in the class struggles that confront our people on a daily basis. It is in fact very progressive to have academics whose involvement with our struggles is not restricted to textbook theories and debates in lecture theatres that have been shut in the faces of millions of our youth. However, what irks me is the approach employed by these academics and intellectual activists, an approach that assumes a superior approach.

Two years ago, I was part of a team responsible for organising a public lecture at the Mowbray Community Hall in Cape Town. This was an initiative of an NGO that I was working for at the time. The focus of this public dialogue was the national health insurance (NHI), which the South African government wants to implement. The hall was packed with black masses that had been mobilised through their grassroots community-based organisations and NGOs. These were uneducated masses in the main, men and women who dedicate their lives to pursuing genuine community struggles of issues that they are confronted with on a daily basis. The panel in that forum was not only dominated by white academics, but even the blacks who were part of it were the elite kind whose contribution to the struggle is mainly intellectual. There were professors and other intellectuals and academics speaking above the heads of our people. This was proven during the question-and-answer session where hardly anyone in the audience raised a hand to engage with the content of the presentations that had been made.

I posed an argument to my comrades that this was not the way we ought to have gone about with the public lecture, but the argument was countered with the assertion that the document outlining the NHI is not necessarily pedestrian. This argument was not entirely false, but it posed another problem: if it is agreed that the NHI document is intellectual in posture, why was a public forum hosted because it meant we converged people to come and decorate the hall. Thinking of it now in retrospect, I realise that the argument I should have posed was: had the NHI document been sent to these grassroots organisations prior to the forum? The comrades there could have at least read through it and come to the public forum better equipped to interrogate the presentations that were being made by the intimidating academics and intellectual activists. But this was not done, perhaps because it served the organisers well to have an unquestioning audience that would support their position on the matter without questioning. Such is how our people are treated even in the civil-society movement where they ought to be having a dominant voice. The same academics who accuse the ANC of using the poor as voting fodder do nothing differently, for they engage the people in the same patronising manner.

Having attended many political workshops and symposiums, I have noted with mild irritation the glib manner in which the real debate about the consciousness of black township and rural people is dismissed. Academics and intellectual activists want to diagnose the struggles of our people and then to provide the solutions to these struggles, because they do not trust the capacity of our people to define and champion their own struggles, because they want to treat the masses of our people like mindless things that cannot rationalise. But our people are NOT stupid and they are NOT mindless. They live their suffering and therefore, they understand better than anyone else the nervous conditions of their existence. They don’t need to speak of their hunger in complex terms. They don’t need to speak of their poverty quoting complex Marxist-Leninist literature. They need to be allowed to define and diagnose their struggles without the diabolical interference of the educated and sophisticated, who speak of these conditions from ivory towers.

I live in Soweto. I have lived in Soweto for the most part of my young life. I know my people and I know for sure that contrary to reports and analysis by academics, these people are conscious of the systematic injustices they are subjected to. Let them tell academics what they want, not the other way around. They are poor, but NOT stupid.