Press "Enter" to skip to content

We have no black thought leaders

One thing that I find pathetic is the whole notion of a black thought leader. Such a thing does not exist.

It’s rather striking that in the new South Africa you don’t find anyone making a big deal about “white economic domination” or a “white thought leader”, for instance.

Not that this particular breed does not exist. In fact, it does.

But black thought-leadership? There is not much of that in mainstream sciences, media or academia. It just does not make sense because, essentially, black people are not given the space to do their own thing on a white (managed or owned) platform.

Oh, no! Blacks are just not allowed to make mistakes, which include saying things that whites will not be pleased about. Instead, everything that blacks must say is what the whites want to hear. Period.

I know that there are many blacks and whites who will tell you that I am wrong. They will go on to suggest that I am insulting the intelligence and independence of free black commentators, thought leaders, editors, writers, journalists and other people with opinions.

Well, people will have to understand that I am not going to do better next time. There just is nothing like courageous, independent, black thought leaders.

I mean, you only have to trace this back to the 1850s when the imperialist Cecil John Rhodes sponsored the founding and launch of the so-called first “independent” black newspaper, Imvo Zabantsundu.

Of course, too much credit has been given to one John Tengo Jabavu, who is considered a founder of what today passes for so-called black journalism.

But nobody wants to remind us that this was done to get Jabavu to influence blacks who owned some small property and had some Christianising education to vote for a system that would promote and entrench white paternalism.

The doctrine of media-created black thought leaders is, if you figure it out, to be loyal servants of white paternalism who permanently echo their white master’s voice. Simply put, this is to protect and preserve white hegemony, the monopoly of the wealth and control of the land.

This is exactly what places the current situation of transformation in the media closer to the 1850s atmosphere than the political realities of 2008.

What people who know history can say about black thought-leadership and the media is that there has been no significant paradigm shift since the mid-1800s.

Thus the existence of black thought leaders, if you think about it, is just a myth. It is a phenomenon that, in the context of today’s world, is still alien to genuine African self-determination.

White paternalism — which continues to express itself through the selection of thought leaders, what to publish, control of middle management and ownership of the means of production — is still the norm.

So, black thought-leadership, pan-Africanism that demands self-determination and a black person who is true to that which “stirs in his primitive soul” are censored and pushed to the margins. They are blasphemy and sacrilege, a threat to the system.

Any black person who is intuitively connected to the genuine aspirations and hopes of the African majority must be pushed to the margins, weeded out and condemned to a political no-man’s-land.

It is unfortunate that not enough attention is paid to blacks who disappear from the media after many years of being considered heroes or “credible voices” by their own people. In fact, we all know that if you were a Steve Biko, you had to ram your head against iron rails just because you were a problem in that you did not obey and conform to the expectations of your white bosses.

Instead, the views that are legitimate, relevant and thus given prominence are those that channel us to focus on Zimbabwe, Aids, the succession battle, Zumania, corruption and the failure of black political leadership.

So, notions such as black “voices” or thought leaders must not be entertained much in this new South Africa.

Part of my problem with the issue of race and gender representativity in the media, including the Thought Leader blogs, is that the problem of 1860 repeats itself simply because white fathers and their arrogant descendants do not learn from historical mistakes.

It seems to me that even to discuss something like “free, courageous and independent” black commentory is a waste of time. We are making a very big mistake to look at the colour of an editor and assume that he is either black or white.

In South Africa today we don’t discuss the ideology of some of the leading white columnists. Why not? It would be crazy for anyone to put the issue of white conservatism and how it perpetuates an unjust economic status quo on the table.

Of course, this would be tied to the issue of land ownership and the historical reason of how the land was taken. Now, that would upset the apple cart.

This is an oversimplification of the political reality, some would say.

Instead, they have much to say about so-called black economic empowerment where Africans still own less than 1% of the economy. The focus, rather, is always on a handful of blacks who owe banks to own a 25% stake in some large white corporation. Yet those who own the 75% are the ones who are left to sleep in peace at night.

I may be wrong in my expectations of genuine black thought-leadership. In fact, I tend to oversimplify reality. But if we want to improve race relations in this country and create a more stable society, we have to allow blacks to express themselves in a way that reflects their historical reality.

It is not that the sort of blacks who are editors, public intellectuals and thought leaders is not very smart or deserving of breaks to super-achievement. All kinds of reasons can be emntioned about how they understand the rules of success.

After all, that is how the system really works: you have to obey and conform to the expectations of the shareholders, especially those who pay your salary.

It is just that as soon as you set up a theory or create a debate about race and thought-leadership, you have to deny historical reality and abandon rationality at the same time.

It seems the question a rational person ought to ask is: Whose interests do thought leaders in the new South Africa serve? What is it about them that would, for instance, make more than 4 000 ANC delegates in Polokwane not bother about what they have to say about what is going on in South Africa?

In fact, when you read media-created thought leaders of post-1994 and examine how Africans finally vote, you can see that there is no connection between the world the media reflect and what is actually going on in society. Why?

The thought leaders created by the media are living in a self-delusional world to get white bosses to listen to what they want to hear.

Do I have a solution for this dilemma? I am not sure if what I have to say is of any value, to tell the truth.

But until the media and their thought leaders get this society to engage critically with the issue of the land question, wealth monopoly, co-option of the African intelligentsia and erasure of white racism from the public radar screen, we will remain stuck in a 1652 political mode.

There is nothing that today’s thought leaders and high-flying black editors have learnt from John Tengo Jabavu.

Ziph’ imvo zabantsundu? Where are the honest opinions of African people?

We have no thought leaders!


  • Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic, columnist and civil servant. He lives in Midrand.