Intellectual challenges for South Africa


A gulf has developed between intellectuals and the political economic elite in South Africa. Many intellectuals either conform to the dictates of the new sociopolitical environment, out of the sheer pressure to maintain middle-and upper-class lifestyles, or they concern themselves with mundane issues that do not advance society in any qualitative way. Others end up as shrill voices in the wilderness or threatening voices allowing for no contest. Dr Hester du Plessis reports.

Wits university students shut down the
university and clash with police during
protests over free education.
Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee, GroundUp

South Africa comes from a past embedded in intellectual ideas from “elsewhere”. Some are based on debates around ideologies such as Marxism, liberalism (in its close relation to capitalism) and Afrikaner nationalism. The Indian Gandhian spiritual approach embedded in Satyagraha was part of non-violent civil resistance in the country. Religions, such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and animism, also played a role.

Many of these debates became “hijacked” by political issues perceived to be more pressing at the time. South Africans tend to follow the route of considering themselves as being victimised by the “other” or by turning against the “self”. Therefore, the last 25 years witnessed a growing obsession with analysis of oppressive political systems, exposure of political corruption and articulation of post-independence, post-colonial ideals. However, despite all efforts, the question of inequality remains, and, from a global perspective, it is deepening. Has the neglect, poverty of depth and marginalisation of the humanities and social sciences undermined the contribution intellectuals can make to social transformation?

Reality check
South Africa remains in a political grip that is preventing progress and the cultivation of a healthy intellectual environment in which we can nurture a progressive, intellectually founded, political mindset. A “system of rule”, established by the British colonial period in South Africa from 1795 to 1910, remains firmly in place and is driving the agenda for the colonisation of land and feeding a trend towards fascist politics. A second factor is the massive bureaucratisation in our research institutions and our public lives.

Research seems to be in service of capitalism, bringing increased distrust, as Nassim Taleb wrote in Anti-fragile: things that gain from disorder (2012), “… academics (particularly in social sciences) seem to distrust each other; they live in petty obsessions, envy, and ice-cold hatreds, with small snubs developing into grudges, fossilised over time into the loneliness of the transaction with a computer screen and the immutability of their environment”.

Against this unstable, manipulative background, intellectuals in South Africa are somewhat ‘nowhere to be seen’.

Global intellectual challenges
The world is so much larger than South Africa. What happens “out there” is influencing, or rather, should influence, the way we think and develop. There is evidence of massive planetary disruption, called the Anthropocene or human-made epoch, as the main cause of climate change, and global economic, capitalist, imbalances surround us. A biogenetic revolution is also blurring perceptions between humans and machines or humans and nature, whereby the disruptive development of technology has escalated humanity into a 4th Industrial Revolution.

New social formations and social divisions are shifting beyond historical notions of race and class. With the growth of technology, we are facing new labour challenges. Work is being generated outside of institutions, academic privileges are diminishing and the way we generate knowledge has shifted to the precariat, a new social class that lives unpredictable lives with little job security. As economist Guy Standing describes in his book The precariat: the new dangerous class (2011), this is a workforce that exists outside of conventional labour and social support, where we encounter “crowd-work” platforms such as labour brokers that manage “clickworkers”.

Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni collects a memorandum outside Parliament ahead of the annual budget speech in February 2019. Members of the South African Federation of Trade Unions protested against joblessness and the unbundling of Eskom. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks, GroundUp

Social challenges
On a more social level, we are facing challenges to the nation state by means of the current massive migrations from rural to the metropolitan centres, the flow of legal and illegal migrant workers upon which transnational corporations depend, and the millions of dispossessed who flee famine, war and ever-expanding climate disasters. In these uncertain times, we encounter the growth of antisystemic movements that are dominated by “social movements” (oppression by employers) and “national movements” (oppression of ethno-national groups).

In our technologically dominated new world, it is the poor that are still likely to suffer disproportionally. We face a growing lack of skills, lack of housing, lack of access to electricity and for the poorest and most vulnerable, no access to technological devices and systems. There are still many computer illiterates who will become less informed, less educated and occupationally least qualified. Contrarily to that, we witness the growing strength of the “misfits”: the creative artists, writers, poets, musicians and the so-called subalterns. These represent the sections of society that reject the regulated standards of behaviour required by political conformity; they are those seeking alternative lifestyles and those with a preference for autonomy and freedom of choice above economic security.

Is our intellectual legacy facing ruin?  Yes, but not due to a lack of ideas or a shortfall of intellectuals, but primarily because we have turned into a state where bureaucracy is stifling original intellectual endeavours. We have embraced technology without understanding its relation to capitalism and we have lost the support of political leaders in recognising scientific contributions that are for the public good, as funding is withdrawn on a large scale from science councils.

The digitised world has no respect for contemplation or reflection; it delivers instant stimulation and gratification, forcing the brain to give most attention to short-term decisions and reactions with no space for humour, difference of opinion, care for others or disagreement. We need thinkers more than we need machines.

Author: Dr Hester du Plessis, chief research specialist at the HSRC

Students witnessing the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from the University of Cape Town
Photo: Desmond Bowles, Wikimedia Commons