Stripped of all the sanctimonious posture, the current crop of public intellectuals reflects poorly when compared to the continent’s best minds of yesteryears. The continent’s socio-political history is rich with great minds that sought to use their intellectual talent to advance the interest of their people. The likes of Frantz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba come to mind.
Closer to home we have the likes of Robert Sobukwe, Stephen Bantu Biko, Mandela, Luthuli, OR Tambo and the impressive founders of liberation movements. Unlike the current crop that looks down with disdain on their own, the likes of Mandela, Sobukwe and Biko used education to advance their own people. Education became a tool for liberation and not for cultural alienation. They were able to craft liberation messages that resonated with their people. But most importantly, they did not sit on the sidelines or wallow in endless analysis of their challenges. The liberation of the continent is attributed largely to their contribution and selfless examples.
Referring to the intellectual legacy of Pan-Africanism, Ngugi wa Thiongo points out that to be drawn from our intellectual ancestors is "that ideas, once grasped by the masses, become the material force". It is this material force that led to the defeat of colonialism. For people who were brutalized, imprisoned and enslaved, the defeat of colonialism is no mean achievement - Ngugi calls it 'the gift from our ancestors' which must at all times be valued.
The intellectual posture of the Mandelas stands in glaring contrast to the current crop whose claim to fame is to sit on the sideline and complain about government, this and that. This lot could better serve its community by assuming leadership positions in society. Fault-finding and moaning are a poor substitute for active involvement. Barack Obama serves as a good example. After spending time as a university professor and a community activist against the state and federal laws that were negatively affecting the poor people, he decided to run for both the State and National Congress, to become the lawmaker. This culminated with him becoming the U.S. President. He realised the puerility and bankruptcy of standing on the sidelines and decided to assume the difficult task of taking the bull by its horns. This is exactly what Mandela and company did.
There is little doubt that public intellectual protest constitutes a critical function. But its influence is limited if it is disconnected to any social formation necessary to effect social and political change. The Treatment Action Campaign is perhaps one of the most recent examples of mass mobilisation. It would seem that the current so-called public intellectual’s role does not go beyond the comforts of air-conditioned offices. It refuses and is probably unable to move beyond its isolated posture to the terrain of collective solidarity and struggle.
It projects itself as being made of free-floating individuals, independent of issues of class, culture, race, power and politics. While it may titillate the sensibilities of those whose world does not go beyond the media, it remains nonetheless irrelevant when it comes to shaping the content and direction that a society should take.
Its influence in the communities, where it matters, is zero. Faced with this sense of irrelevance and impotence, it is wont to harbor apocalyptic visions about the future of this country. Problems are presented as the end of a glorious era rather than challenges that need to be overcome.
What South Africa needs are transformative intellectuals whose work would contribute to changing the values, practices and ideologies that reproduce the current socio-economic inequalities. These individuals would advance an emancipatory tradition within and outside, the public spheres. And yes, using the language of critique, they would seek to expose those ideological and material aspects of society that attempt to separate issues of race, class, gender power and knowledge.
This cannot be done without confronting the reality that they, as the educated class, earn a living from the very institutions that are responsible for the reproduction of inequalities. This raises the question: can they can continue working within these institutions and retain their intellectual integrity at the same time?
There is need to move beyond the morally pretentious but empty rhetoric. Let those who think they are better than others take the frontline responsibility of assuming leadership in society.
Professor Sipho Seepe is an independent political analyst.