THE strange nature of South African democracy in its static economic condition makes the position and function of so-called intellectuals within it very complex and almost dysfunctional.
Those who consider themselves intellectuals are not, at face value, critically engaging with the patriarchal, racist and profit-driven capitalist super power 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, the inherent economic injustice.
In addition, there is the issue of land dispossession that will not go away.
However, 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 has very little control over the economic elites that dominate the country they rule. In fact, it relies on them for taxes that keeps the State machinery functioning.
There is an increasing number of cynics and critics like self-styled land activist Andile Mgxitama, for instance, 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 to protect but also to promote and perpetuate enabling conditions for an unjust economic system to thrive.
However, 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 worshiping and status loving dynamics of South African society reduce everyone into a tool or consumer of the over-glorified capitalist products, the intellectuals have an incestuous relationship with power which makes them wary of fulfilling their historical mission which, presumably, is to be conscience of the nation.
Instead of intellectuals – including the creative like corporate executives, academics, musicians, writers, fashion designers and moviemakers, for instance – gravitating towards the poor and oppressed, they have succumbed to the lure of moneyed classes 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 but 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 realize 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 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.
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 media framing of these issues, 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.
Yet as the ANC turns 108, we need to remind ourselves that, traditionally, it was the home of intellectuals albeit that 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 recognized not just for analyzing what happens in the governing party but 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 or Cyril Ramaphosa but does not apply the same rigorous standards to other levers of power cannot be taken as fulfilling its role. It will always be suspected and condemned of 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 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 the winner takes all attitudes.
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 not just because of who pays 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 the media and some NGOs, cannot be opposed to a history and economic set up 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 108 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 Africa, especially the ANC, needs intellectuals more than it has in the last 106 years.
- Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic and civil servant.