In his autobiography, ‘Sometimes there is a Void’, prolific South Afrikan author, playwright and academic, Zakes Mda tells of how he became an outsider and was overlooked for government jobs because of his independent and critical stance on the issues of the day. As a columnist for a weekly newspaper he was critical of former president Nelson Mandela when he (Mandela) defended actions which amounted to corruption by members of his cabinet. After the backlash that followed he wrote the president a letter in which he sought to clarify his stance and requested a meeting. But the president sent two of his cabinet ministers to meet him and nothing substantive came out of the said meeting. Mda continued to be sidelined and as a result he sought and got job opportunities abroad, as well as made his earnings from his writing.
This was the case with Dr. Reuel Khoza. Delivering the Chairman’s address at Nedbank’s annual general meeting, he lamented the fact that the moral quotient of the country’s leadership was going down. The subject of leadership is one that Dr. Khoza knows very well; he’s written and spoken widely on it. He could be referred to as a figure of authority when it comes to the subject. But instead of engaging with the issues he raised, the ruling party, through its Secretary General, took a swipe at him. He said that Dr. Khoza had nothing to tell them as he had failed to transform the bank of which he is chairman. What transformation in that instance meant was not explained. The Secretary General went on to say that Dr. Khoza was also trying to divert attention from the fact that he had failed to get a buyer for the bank. At the time there was talk that Old Mutual, as the biggest shareholder in Nedbank was in talks with a few potential buyers for its stake in the bank. But no suitable buyer could be found. And this according to the Secretary General of the ruling party was Dr. Khoza’s failure which by criticizing the country’s leadership was trying to divert attention from.
Delivering a talk at the University of SA, former (SA) president, Thabo Mbeki (a leading intellectual in his own right), raised concerns about the sense of directionlessness in the country. Again, instead of engaging the issues he raised, the Secretary General of the SACP, which is in alliance with the ruling party, took a swipe at the former president calling him an AIDS denialist. This was in reference to the stance president Mbeki took on the relationship between the HI Virus and AIDS.
The above beg one to ask the question; what should be the role of the intellectual in society? Should s/he be society’s watchdog or government’s lapdog? Intellectuals are advanced members of society who because of their knowledge and understanding are able to analyse and interpret objective reality for the benefit of their people. Their primary concern is to lift the level of consciousness of the people to the point where they (the people), will see exactly what is controlling and oppressing them, and therefore see exactly what it is that they must do to liberate themselves. Like Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe said; “Show the light and the masses will find the way.” Liberation, after all is a self- activity.
From that it then follows that intellectuals should be on the side of the people. But this does not mean that relations between them and the government of the day should be antagonistic. As watchdogs, they should point out where the government is missing it and be available to commend the government where it is getting it right. And this they have to do while maintaining their independent line of thought.
But relations between intellectuals and the ruling elites on the continent have been all but cosy. And there have been attempts, brutal in some cases, to keep them silent. These included banning their works, detentions and some even paid the ultimate and supreme price of death. The irony of it all is that this hostile treatment is meted out by governments presided over by people who come from the liberation movement background. No sooner had uhuru been attained than they started to exhibit the same tendencies (if not worse) of the departed oppressors.
South Afrika, as one of the last to attain its freedom (Western Sahara still to attain its own), one would have thought that it had learnt some lessons from its fellow states on the continent. But much has been said about this country’s rulers’ (hostile) attitude towards its intellectuals. That is why, according to Prof. Xolela Mangcu of the University of Cape Town there isn’t a single book on Mandela written by a Black person/intellectual. It seems that to “make it”, one must become a lapdog. You have to write glowing tributes to the man in charge. When you’re a reporter on the public broadcaster and you’re given an audience with the president, you must punctuate your talk with words like; “I see what you mean Mr. President”; “Like you brilliantly put it Mr. President” and so on. In other words you have to do your bit to elevate the man to the level of a deity.
That then is the dilemma of the Afrikan intellectual: writing and thinking freely according to your conscience, when there is a prevalent culture of intolerance and hostility in your country. But in life one must have the courage of one’s convictions. You need to stand your ground. ‘What does it profit the man to gain the world yet lose his soul?” Jesus asked. Isn’t better to be poor and maintain your independence, than live in plenty at the expence of Ubuntu bakho? (what makes you human). Authenticity begins with one moving away from seeking public approval to self-approval. If you can’t be true to yourself, then you can’t be true to the next person.