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BUSANI NGCAWENI: Arise ye prophets, intellectuals and innovators

OPINION

In his seminal work in defence of democracy titled The Open Society and its Enemies, Karl Popper writes: “If our civilisation is to survive, we must break with the habit of deference to great men”.

For a number of years, our academics and intellectuals have been retreating from the public space, and to a certain degree, even from the political space. It is time they returned.

We have seen a near lapse into Orwellian groupthink that does not serve the needs or ends of a vibrant democratic society. Now more than ever, we need intellectual engagement, critical enquiry, progressive ideas and courageous advice: arise ye intellectuals!

As we chart the course towards the next 25 years of democracy, no progress can be achieved without the contribution of an engaged intelligentsia. At a time when we seek to return to the founding values of our polity, to build a better life for all through an effective developmental state that enjoys public legitimacy, South Africa, more than ever, need its prophets, intellectuals and innovators who must break with the habit of deference to great men and women.

The country needs true poets who narrate the truth the way it is and prophets who foresee the future we choose; scholars who critique the outcomes of the future we chose. Here we are talking about the conveyors of hope who inspire and reawaken consciousness. Even the naysayers actually do have a role; if they prick our conscience and remind us of what happens when we become complacent. Being a conscientious naysayer is not only about criticism that is focused on the surface, but also about critique that burrows down to causal issues and suggests applicable solutions.

We need our poets and prophets to be our voices of reason and also to help us advance the vision of a truly anti-racist, anti-sexist, united, democratic and prosperous South Africa. By tracking all socio-economic indicators, the recently released Towards a 25 Year Review report tells us society has significantly changed since the advent of freedom and democracy in 1994. However, we are far from achieving prosperity for all; and the demon of gender-based violence taints our women empowerment efforts.

As a nation, we are alive to the many challenges we are facing and we all have a stake in building the South Africa we want. This requires that we, amongst others, work together to craft innovative and high-impact solutions, with our intellectuals acting as innovators, sounding boards, reviewers and scenario planners. In many instances, they need to act as mentors, coaches and guides.

Conscientious intellectuals should not relinquish this duty simply because they are ‘strictly’ researchers or ‘just’ academics. Arise ye pathfinders!

Being part of the intellectual detachment does not preclude them from using public platforms to shape discourses on the state of affairs in the polity to support nation-building efforts, and from delivering academic output that is primarily preoccupied with the improvement of the human condition.

The important role of conscientious intellectuals goes way beyond speaking truth to power. In his famous Reith Lecture series on Representations of the Intellectual, Edward Said posited the role of the public intellectual against what he termed ‘the insiders’. It is these insiders, he said, “who mould public opinion, make it conformist and encourage reliance on a superior little band of all-knowing men in power”.

The conscientious intellectual, by contrast, does not promote special interests, but is at the forefront of questioning narrow nationalism, oligopolies and a sense of class, racial and gender privileges. These public intellectuals give a social analysis that challenges the status quo, that interrogates the influence of vested interests in public life, and that is concerned with the production and dissemination of knowledge that is interventionist by nature. In short, they produce counter-hegemonies.

In the absence of their valuable insights on policy, societal power relations and our very character of democracy, the nation is weaker; it ossifies and regresses on its hard-won gains.

A situation had arisen where the void had been filled by the voices of intolerance and illiberalism, captured by the ‘insiders’ of vested interests and dominated by a narrative that seeks to undermine our democracy instead of protecting it.

Working with government is not tantamount to ‘manufacturing consent’ which Noam Chomsky writes about. It is about using one’s expertise in defence of democracy, of equality, scientific innovation and social justice. It is about being an engaged innovator who claims the rightful space in the national effort of creating a national democratic society.

It is testament to the degree to which the sixth democratic administration values the expertise of intellectuals and researchers that they have been called upon to serve in structures such as the Land Reform Panel, National Minimum Wage Panel, Fourth Industrial Revolution Commission and, more recently, the Economic Advisory Council.

In the context where we all agree that the capacity of the state has previously been compromised through, among other things, juniorisation, outsourcing and agencification of public services, it is therefore essential to mobilise the expertise of South Africans to stress-test ideas and programmes necessary to engender a renaissance in the management of public affairs. Restoring rigour to the work of government is an urgent and necessary task.

For our part, as the newly re-established Policy Unit in the Presidency, we are ready to engage and seek innovative ways of championing policy coherence and reducing turnaround times whilst also adhering to the legal prescripts that guide policy formulation. It is imperative for us to open the debate on the value of Green and White Paper processes, the unintended consequences of proposing legislation without the backup of policy frameworks that outline political aspirations.

We are already engaging think tanks, research institutions and universities to bring about evidence and rigour in the work of government. Of course, such engagements will not be adventurist but are guided by the electoral mandate which outlines what needs to be done and achieved.

When we table the Macro Social Report in the first half of 2020, we would have benefited from the relationship with the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, University of Johannesburg and many other scholars who contributed papers at the 25 Years of Democracy Conference hosted in Johannesburg in July this year.

When we study social trends, similarly when we make public policy, we must listen to songs and poems for they tend to express the feelings of the people and the social dynamics on the ground. Even more challenging now is the need to keep abreast with what is in social media as a medium that communicates the people’s daily experiences of public policy.

This is the challenge of time. And we are sure that our scholars are yearning to engage through various opportunities and platforms available to them.

Ultimately, as Said writes, being a public intellectual is not always a matter of being a critic of government policy, but “rather of thinking of the intellectual vocation as maintaining a state of constant alertness, of a perpetual willingness not to let half-truths or received ideas steer one along”. Both inside and outside government, we have to constantly challenge these “received ideas” that Said talks about.

We must challenge the politics of consensus, of co-option and of groupthink. To end poverty, inequality and unemployment, and to build a more egalitarian society, it is essential that we bring all of society on board to craft and implement solutions. We have to openly and scientifically interrogate whether what we think has worked before.

We must be open to public critique and debate, as part of our democratic tradition. As President Cyril Ramaphosa stated at the 25 Years of Democracy Conference in July, this is a government that is not afraid of new ideas, of new ways of thinking.

In the immortal words of our sage and pathfinder of African unity, Kwame Nkrumah, it is time for the gown to come to town; arise ye prophets, intellectuals and innovators.

Busani Ngcaweni is deputy director-general in the Presidency and co-editor of 'We are No Longer at Ease: The Struggle for #FeesMustFall'. Follow him on Twitter: @busani_ngcaweni

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