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Questions on the state of public, critical thought in South Africa: An interview with Xolela Mangcu 2006-03-15

* Public Intellectual Program, WITS University and non-resident WEB Du Bois scholar at Harvard University


1. How healthy is public, critical thought today in South Africa in your opinion?


The state of public critical thought in South Africa is far better than it used to be and far less than it should be.  It is far better to the extent that we do not live under a political regime that as part of the law bans or imprisons  or kills people for their ideas. The twentieth century, which Isaiah Berlin, called the bloody century and Eric Hobsbawm the short century, gave us many things including the licence that governments had over our ideas and our souls.  Robert Sobukwe described the struggle of African people as the right to call our souls our own. And the African people did to a certain degree win the formal struggle to call our souls our own. However, the informal pressures to conform still prevent us from reaching our ideal of free expression of our ideas and full reclamation of our souls. People still speak in hushed voices because they fear one sort of victimization or the other. They may not get the prized job or contract from government departments because they spoke against ‘the chief’- which refers to the president of the country.  They are afraid they may be ostracized by former comrades and friends if they should raise their voices in protest.  This is an unfortunate legacy of President Thabo Mbeki’s regime. However, as Karl Polanyi observed in the Great Transformation, societies operate according to what he called a double-movement. Any attempt to foist one way of doing things will always trigger defensive counter-movements. And so what is negative our political culture has given rise to something positive. The Jacob Zuma saga is just another protest movement against Mbeki’s leadership style.  Even though Zuma may be finished politically the ANC will never be the same again. No political party can sustain a centralized approach. There are also dissenting  voices in the local communities- over services and now some ANC people are going independent for a variety of reasons.  The media has of course contributed a great deal to the opening of the political spaces. What is interesting is that the country’s leading political commentators and columnists are now black people- Barney Mthombothi, Mondli Makhanya, Ferial Haffejee, John Matshikiza, Justice Malala, Aubrey Matshiqi, Sandile Dikeni, Sandile Memela and others.  The short answer is that public critical thought is healthy against a heavy current of  groveling obsequiousness. We have to fight to assert it- at great personal cost.  I recently resigned from the Human Sciences Research Council because I was under pressure from the Chief Executive Officer, Olive Shisana.  A former bureaucrat and ANC activist, Shisana alleged that cabinet ministers, including the country’s first lady, were unhappy with my public writings. She did all kinds of things to try and get me to stop writing under the name of the HSRC.  And so there we have a body set up as a research institution accountable to parliament now being turned into an intellectual handmaiden for the government. This grab for our public institutions, and the collusion by so-called researchers and intellectuals,  is one of the most dangerous  development of our times. It literally smacks of the descriptions you will find in Milan Kundera’s books about  what happened in Eastern Europe or the metaphor of the greengrocer’s store in Vaclav Havel’s essay the Power of the Powerless:  “the manager of a fruit and vegetable store places in his window,  among the onions and the carrots, the slogan Workers of the World Unite. Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely  enthusiastic about the idea of unity among workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals. No, he does it because these things must be done if one is to get along.?” Havel argues that the virtuosity of the society lies in its ability to perform the ritual of hanging banners and “ because of the dictatorship of the ritual, power becomes anonymous. Individuals are almost dissolved  in the ritual.” In the same essay, Havel, presents an alternative scenario where one day the greengrocer does not put up the banner. The  bill is not long in coming. He will be relieved of his post as manager of the shop and transferred to the warehouse. His pay will be reduced.  His hopes for a holiday in Bulgaria will evaporate.  His children’s education to higher education will be threatened. His superiors will threaten him and his fellow workers will wonder about him.”  This is the conundrum facing the public intellectual in South Africa.



2. In a recent radio interview with Tim Modise you quoted Cornel West on “the felicities of bourgeois existence” to explain the apparent lack of public, critical voices from the black middle-class, as if critique by this class would be at odds with its comfort. One got the impression that underneath your remarks lay a sense of despondency that South Africa’s formerly oppressed so quickly forgot where they came from, eventually becoming soft with power, as one has seen so often elsewhere in the world. Did you think that it would be different in South Africa, and why?


I have always been intrigued by the idea of the black middle class. I never thought much of the Marxist notion that the middle class has an ephemeral existence and that it will give way to the more radical working classes.  Marx and Engels said the history of mankind is the history of class struggles. I don’t think so. I think the history of the world has been the history of the middle classes. Perhaps Aristotle, one of the first advocates of a middle class society,  had a better conception of these things than Marx. The middle class perhaps does not appeal to the more vulgar Marxists because it is for the most part the repository of culture, particularly highbrow culture. But more sophisticated Marxists such as Raymond William’s spoke brilliantly about the role of culture in the making of modern society.  The liberal philosopher Matthew Arnold wrote that: ‘ The great men of culture are those who have had a passion for diffusing , for making prevail, for carrying from one end of society to the other, the best knowledge, the best ideas of their time, who have laboured to divest knowledge  of all that was harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive; to humanize it, to make it efficient outside the clique of the cultivated and learned, yet still remaining  the best knowledge and thought of the time, and a true source, therefore, of sweetness and light.’  These men of culture have of course been the intellectuals- some them conservative apologists of the status quo and some of them revolutionaries.  Edward Said argued that : “ there has been no major revolution in modern history without intellectuals. Intellectuals have been the fathers and mothers of movements… and of course sons and daughters, even nephews and nieces(1994-10-11”). Mahmood Mamdani put it this way: “every renaissance is first and foremost a re-awakening of thought (Mahmdani 1999:130). And so whither our middle class and our middle class intellectuals?  The answer is somewhat similar to the first one: our intellectuals are scared to death to lose the comfort of their existence or what Cornel calls the felicities of bourgeois existence. Instead they have sought refuge in the comfort of government or the private sector.



3. Compared to the 1980’s, one can argue that a lot less university academics today, especially in the humanities, raise critical voices in public. How would you explain this? Are our universities becoming more subservient?


Even universities have not escaped this culture of conformism.  The corporatization of universities means there is pressure on departments to produce useful or practical research or implementation based research – leading to a vulgar empiricism worse than that of the 1950’s. Any talk of values is seen as pie in the sky or wishful thinking. The  humanities, which is wher critical thought is cultivated,  are under attack in favour of  business or  engineering. Its all done under the  guise of skills development. However, the great American academic Harry Boyte calls this a politics without a name. it is a politics of  technocratic conformity in service of one way of looking at the world.  Our intellectual culture is thus in the throes of this vulgar technocracy, which sits very well with what Cornel West has called the felicities of ‘bourgeois existence.’  He makes a distinction between the obsession with success- which is what the technocratic world sells to our students- and the yearning for greatness – which is what gave us the world of Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko , Robert Sobukwe, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and others:   “I don’t know about you in South Africa but in the United States we have got a middle class, especially a black middle class, that has become so intoxicated with the felicities of bourgeois existence. The black middle class in the United States has become drunk with the wine of the world,  of materialism, narcissism, and hedonism. And then we wonder why the younger generation does not have access to the traditions of the struggle? They don’t see enough of it in the older generation. There is no such thing as young people’s behaviour that is not in part an imitation of what they are exposed to. You preach to young folks to be successful rather than to be great then they will think it’s all about success. Do you really believe that Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, A Phillip Randolph, Malcolm X died so that you can just be successful? Do you think they died so that you can be just peacocks walking around producing foliage and saying ‘look at me, look at me, look at me, look at me.’  Somebody needs to tell them peacocks to stop because they can’t fly. Mandela comes out of a tradition where black folks are flying in the air  like a Toni Morrison novel, rising in the wind like a blues melody, like an eagle. But in America they shoot eagles to feed pigeons, which is another way of saying all of  that materialism- the clothes, the cars, the houses, the mansions, the status are nothing but the paraphernalia of suffering- an  attempt to distance yourself from the suffering because you have had so much of it.”

I come out of the black consciousness movement, inspired by the ideas and work of the late Steve Biko. For years I dedicated myself to the cause of remembering Biko and making sure that this country does not forget his contribution. And making particularly sure that black people do not forget his teachings of pride and self-love and self-determination. In that sense I am a black nationalist. But I have also become weary of the black nationalist politics, especially the essentialism that goes with it and the concomitant politics of solidarity that goes with it. When our president questioned the relationship between HIV and AIDS he invoked race: “And thus does it happen that others who consider themselves to be our leaders take to the streets carrying their placards, to demand that because we are germ carriers, and human beings of a lower order that cannot subject its passions to reason, we must perforce adopt strange opinions, to save a depraved and diseased people from perishing from self-inflicted disease.”   The former leader of the ANC Youth League and now a member of our our cabinet, Malusi Gigaba, appealed to racial solidarity in his defence of the Zimbabwean dictator “ in our country  those who opposed to Robert Mugabe are the same people and forces who  were opposed to the struggle for the liberation of Zimbabwe.” And so did our Minister of Foreign Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini in an interview: “the economic crisis affecting Zimbabwe did not come from a reckless political leadership but out of a genuine concern to help the black poor. We will never condemn Zimbabwe.” Our president described those who exposed corruption in the media as nothing more than racist fishers of corrupt men, the corrupt men being African of course. And yet who could deny the reality of all of these things- that HIV/AIDS is ravaging our people, that Robert Mugabe is a monstrous nightmare to his own people, that our leaders are pilfering the  resources  of our children. This is when I began to question my own politics but now more as an intellectual. I still believe that race matters in South Africa- that many white people have not shed their baggage of racism and white supremacy. We must tackle racism head on, without falling onto what Njabulo Ndebele calls a ‘psychological dependence on racism’-  using race as a crutch for our failings or some of our own shenanigans. That is a nuance that is often lost in the rhetoric of black nationalism- and this becomes particularly convenient to miss this nuance when leaders want to hold on to power or want to challenge those in power. Tony Leon and the liberal opposition have been no less cynical in their deployment of race – from the 1999 campaign slogan to their embrace of  disaffected Afrikaner nationalists. A critique of black solidarity must thus always be accompanied by the herd mentality in white politics as well.


4. In a recent interview you expressed your disappointment at black solidarity, as if this solidarity is in danger of becoming stifling, especially with regards to public criticism by black intellectuals. Do you think this is happening? If so, why?


The media in South Africa has played an interesting and complex role. Let’s start with newspapers. In many ways newspapers have fuelled stereotypes about black people as either being thieves or unreliable- feeding in many ways the defensive black nationalism that I just described. And for the most part this had nothing to do with ownership. The Mail and Guardian did a lot of character assasination of black intellectuals and I wrote one of my columns in response to what I described as a form of media MacCarthyism. This was more so during the time of people such as Philip van NIekerk and Howard Barrell. Whatever happened to those guys? I even had radio debates with them defending the integrity of people such as Njabulo Ndebele, Barney Pityana and the late Sam Nolutshungu against their smears. Black ownership and editorship of newspapers such as the Sunday Times does not seem to have done much in changing the stereotypical way in which the Sunday Times writes about black people.  But the Mail and Guardian is now doing a good job under Ferial Haffeejee- she’s just great. Business Day , despite its white ownership and editorship, is by far the best daily in the country, and a site of public deliberation. A frightening development is how the SABC has turned itself into a government mouthpiece. I hardly watch SABC news, neither do I get invited that much lately. Not that I mind. I have said my bit over the years and I always have a way to reach people. But on the whole I think the print media is doing better than television. Our radio is also very good, despite its ownership. I think what works for radio is the format of the talk show. No government can control who calls in and what they will say. Radio is one of the most democratic media forums in our country right now.  I think that the spaces are there  to turn them into significant sites of public critical thought but the politics of our day do not augur well for such a prospect. The broader political culture affects the function of the media just as badly as it affects everything else.


5. The mainstream South African media is either under government or corporate control. What could be done to make the media a more significant forum of public, critical thought?


We must always be careful not to blame structures for what people fail to do. A more open and participatory culture could have given us a participatory representative democracy.  Going to parliament would be a badge of honour and status as it is in other parts of the world. But  as Barney Mthombothi recently noted in the Financial Mail going to parliament is a waste of time. Parliament is nothing but a rubber stamp for executive decisions. I hate to say it but  our parliament operates in exactly the same way as it did under the Nationalists- follow your leader and your party. However, this is not to deny that representative democracy has from the onset been a problem. Representative democracy arose as a response to the growth in population and size in modern societies.  But as Robert Michels noted, having been elected by the people the representatives soon rose above the people, and there developed what Michels called the iron law of oligarchy. The great liberal philosopher CB MacPherson has written about how political parties became instruments of the wealthy and the powerful.  Leaders became authorities unto themselves and servants of class interests. And thus corruption was born as the line between public and private interests got blurred. Corruption in politics is not an African phenomenon, nor did it begin in Africa. All you have to do is read descriptions of corruption in American cities at the turn of the century. Representative democracy in South Africa is problematic also to the extent that leaders are not accountable to any constituency. Under the proportional representation system public representatives are really only accountable to the party leadership – who can get them off the party lists if they are seen to be uncooperative.  And as I said earlier race is a mobilizing tool in the hands of both black and white politicians. Yes representative democracy does lend itself to all kinds of problems, and I have written about this extensively. But let us not make the mistake of blaming the structures and forget the problem posed by the political culture. Now would a different political system yield a different political culture. Not necessarily. An intolerant system of direct democracy could even be worse than an intolerant system of representative democracy. We could find ourselves in a world where, in the words of one of the great advocates of direct democracy Jean Jacques Rousseau,  people might have to be ‘forced to be free’ because they suffer from a false consciousness. We don’t want that. It seems to me more attention needs to be paid to the political culture of our society.



6. A public sphere always has a language. In South Africa, this language tends to be the one closest associated with state power. It used to be Afrikaans and now it is English. Doesn’t this pose an interminable problem to constitute a true public sphere in which everybody can participate in their language of choice?


True but the proliferation of different languages does not mean that they are all treated equally. We should therefore make sure that the struggle for example for Afrikaans is not a struggle that privileges Afrikaans say over Venda or Xhosa. I am hosting a series of public lectures with people like Ngugi wa Thiong’o on the role of languages in national development. As you know Ngugi’s signal contribution- which, were it not for his radical politics, would have earned him a Nobel Prize for Literature, has been his advocacy for African languages.But frankly I don’t think the issue of languages can be separated from the cultural symbols in this country, many of which are still colonial in nature. I still cannot understand why our public architecture is still symbolic of the apartheid era. And so is our toponymy. We still have roads named after people like Hendrik Verwoerd and DF Malan and John Vorster.The president of the country wakes up every day to the statue of Louis Botha. And there is still no public architecture honouring people like Oliver Tambo and Joe Slove and Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe and Lilian Ngoyi and Helen Joseph and Griffith and Victoria Mxenge. There is something wrong and anachronistic about that.


7. Apart from easy clichés about reconciliation, how important is the dialogue between Afrikaner and African intellectuals committed to their identity?


I don’t think there is any dialogue of any substance other than the charade,w hich works for black nationalists, that the Afrikaners are somewhat better than the English. As a black person I find it embarrassing that the ANC would even have such discussions- black people still looking to see which white people like them better.  It is also part of a political game to woo Afrikaners to the side of the ANC , given that the English  have been so virulent in their opposition to the ANC, particularly in the person of Tony Leon. But I don’t think intellectuals should form part of that political game play.   I don’t think it’s a matter of African and Afrikaner identity- because that can easily lead to  political and racial  chauvinism. We need to have a national dialogue about identity, period.


8. One could argue that Afro-nationalism, as it continues to be institutionalised in the state structure, is increasingly becoming an intolerant ideology, exactly like Afrikaner-nationalism some decades ago. How would you react to this? And can we strengthen our historical ethno-linguistic communities to escape the repeating cycles of nationalism in South Africa?


I suppose that’s part of what I am saying. However, black nationalism or Afro nationalism is not in and of itself an intolerant ideology. I do not think people like Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe were intolerant. It all comes down to leadership and the culture they bring to this kind of politics. In the same way I think you would have in Afrikaner history an intolerant nationalism , you also had a more tolerant and progressive nationalism.  I therefore would not want to generalized about black nationalism other than to point always to its dangers.The same holds for ethno nationalism- we need to have a healthy sense of our ethnic identities without putting too much of a point on it. Otherwise they become self-limiting, intolerant and outright delusional-  as in the world is against us mentality. The role of intellectuals is always to point to the importance of identity as well as the  dangers of all kinds of nationalism.  That is the nuance at the centre of my work.



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