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Where have all our intellectuals gone?

The strange nature of South African democracy in its static economic condition makes the position and function of so-called intellectuals and thought leaders within it very complex and almost dysfunctional.

Those who consider themselves intellectuals are not, at face value, critically engaging with the patriarchal, racist and capitalist superpower structure which makes it almost impossible for democracy to thrive.

The reality of the South African political and economic condition is not only that it is untenable but destined to fail because of, above all, inherent economic injustice.

But the intellectuals whose work is to monitor and evaluate trends and developments in society cannot say so because to function successfully, they have to pretend not to be aware of the contradictions of their own conditions.

The governing African National Congress – which turned 100 years at the beginning of this month – has very little control over the economic elites that not only monopolise the wealth but dominate the country they rule. In fact, it relies on them for taxes that keep the state machinery functioning.

There are an increasing number of cynics and critics like land activist Andile Mgxitama who, rightly or wrongly, perceive the ANC as nothing else but “bodyguards of white economic interests”. They allege that their role is to not only protect but to promote and perpetuate enabling conditions for an unjust economic system to thrive.

These anti-capitalist critical voices are not only muted but so-called intellectuals avoid critical engagement on such utterances because the latter have allowed themselves to be manipulated by the capitalist system to remain silent in the face of this economic contradiction.

Therefore, intellectuals have yet to learn to, as John Milton said, “speak freely according to conscience” without any consideration of self-interest to preserve their position, status, power and prestige.

Since the money-worshipping and status-loving dynamics of South African society reduce everyone to a tool or consumer of over-glorified capitalist products, the intellectuals have an incestuous relationship with power that makes them wary of fulfilling their historical mission, which, presumably, is to be the conscience of the nation.

Instead of intellectuals – including the creatives like musicians, writers, fashion designers, movie makers, academics and thought leaders – gravitating towards the poor and oppressed, they have succumbed to the lure of the moneyed class and what they have to offer. As a result, intellectuals have unavoidably become part of the social problem. Those who should be critiquing the unjust economic society are scrambling for the crumbs, too. Yet they should be pushing the boundaries of unimagined possibilities towards transformation and change to the economic system.

Although intellectuals say there is democracy in South Africa, this is, largely, confined to the masses voting once in five years. This perspective not only reflects the social and cultural values of those who control the economy and worship money, it also perpetuates the system.

Among the creative intellectuals who should articulate new thoughts and reflect the soul of the nation there is, instead, an intense competition for acknowledgement and recognition to join the ranks of the economic elite.

What is truly the role of intellectuals is to make all citizens of this beautiful nation realise that as long as wealth monopoly is concentrated among a handful and charges of land dispossession remain, South Africa will not cease to be a house divided against itself.

Also, the intellectuals must not be allowed to forget that constitutional non-racism does not mean that as much as this country is part of the globalisation phenomenon, it is an African country. What we see is that, to paraphrase Aubrey Matshiqi, the numerical minority are the cultural majority in that their conduct, attitudes and values have become a way of life. African culture is on the periphery. Most people, including Africans themselves, have conveniently forgotten that this land belongs to the indigenous people.

Sadly, the world of the rural from where the African majority originate, is left abandoned and neglected beyond the study and examination of the intellectuals, too. Instead, what is pushed through the compulsion of the capitalist system and its power dynamic is that which entrenches it, especially political infighting and so-called economic empowerment. The prominent framing of these issues by the media, for instance, is a convenient distraction. But the intellectuals cannot fulfill this role because the one who pays the piper will not approve of anyone who does not play prescribed tunes.

As the ANC turns 100, we need to remind ourselves that, traditionally, it was the home of intellectuals – albeit they were what American author James Baldwin called “bastards of the West” – who were educated and trained to become part of the very system they pretended to oppose.

The programme of critical intellectual engagement must activate an illuminating discourse that speaks truth to all forms of power and not just focus on the inherent weakness in the ANC because of deep-seated factionalism and infighting. This implies that intellectuals must be recognised not just for analysing what happens in the governing party, but in the opposition, corporate boardrooms, the media, the church, the judiciary and, above all, poor communities and their leadership.

Therefore the functional role of intellectuals which limits itself to pointing out weaknesses in the ANC or its leader, Jacob Zuma, but does not apply the same rigorous standards to other levels of power, cannot be taken as fulfilling its role. It will always be suspected of and condemned for pursuing a clandestine agenda that not only preserves its power, position and status but lives up to the expectations of the economic elite who call the tunes.

Today, intellectualism neither has tinges of Pan-Africanism, nor any intuitive or organic links with the poor, unemployed and those afflicted by disease. Instead, it posits the South African problem as growing out of the infighting in the governing party. The problem with this approach is that it ignores or underplays the fact that the capitalist economic system not only remains untransformed but promotes selfishness, greed and a winner-takes-all attitude.

The intellectuals neither give original insight nor are they able to solve the problems of this country, for their role is basically the promotion, protection and preservation of the capitalist economic status which they benefit from. Their so-called independent think tanks are sponsored by the South African Breweries, Anglo American Chairman’s Fund and the Ford Foundation, among others. Thus their analysis reflects corporate interests.

So, we claim that the analytical thinking of intellectuals is sick and biased not just because of who pays for it but because it is in no position to help us grow out of the malaise of monopolisation of wealth, land dispossession and economic injustice.

As long as the intellectuals are beholden to capitalist sponsors but are preoccupied with status, power and prestige, their role becomes not only hollow but dysfunctional.

The intellectuals, just like everybody else, cannot be opposed to a history and economic setup that benefits them. To a large extent, the intellectuals have become the new opium of the people by promoting the illusion that the South African political fantasy is what the national liberation struggle has been about for more than three centuries. This political settlement is less than half of what the ANC sought in the last 100 years. As long as intellectuals promote this myth, they are condemned not to provide valuable insights but a quotable quote.

Yet one thing is very clear: South African society urgently needs independent intellectual voices, especially as the ANC marks the beginning of its journey towards 200 years of existence.


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