It is a time of change and renewal – or, at the very least, a time of upheaval - in the continent and the country.
These are times when intellectuals – however defined – need to take stock of the role they will play. Their role in change processes is not an exclusive role – there are other forces at play, including class forces, popular forces, economic factors and shifts in global power relations. But given their role in mobilising new ideas – organizing interests, mobilizing consensus and, as Edward Said put it, changing minds and expanding markets – their potentially have a substantial part to play in moving things in positive and hopeful directions.
Intellectuals are active on many fronts, and operate extensively beyond the ‘traditional’ spheres of intellectual activity. They are used and deployed by all kinds of interests – in roles as consultants, journalists, professionals, policy advisors, marketers, makers of cultural products, and so on – and it is high time they reviewed what it means to be an intellectual and what responsibility necessarily accompanies this function.
From the progressive viewpoint, intellectuals should side with what is right, should be part of making a better world and should strive, as Said has noted, to combat prejudice, to advance justice and to be free of double standards as regards their attitudes to treatment of human beings.
Various voices have commented on the role of intellectuals in South Africa during its complicated transition process. President Thabo Mbeki has lamented that intellectuals are not playing their role and wept, so to speak, for black intellectuals. Xolela Mangcu hit back, arguing that the ruling party muzzled intellectuals, and has used its powers to restrict intellectual activity. Mangcu rails against (to lift from a chapter title in his recent book) "Mbeki's assault on black intellectuals". The dispute aside, there is agreement that, going forward, the country needs more vibrant debate, more open discussion of options and alternatives and more evidence-based engagement around burning issues.
There is now much more open space for discussion and debate in South Africa. This is so for various reasons. There has been a dramatic change in leadership at the ANC’s Polokwane conference last December – and it seems that since then, we regularly witness divergent positions emanating from within the ruling party on key policy matters. Leading up to Polokwane, a surge of grassroots pressure has thrown wide open the debate about the pace and the methods of social change.
Furthermore, the winds of change battering Zimbabwe seems to be good for the democratic climate in other regional countries. We in South Africa must face up to the possibility of a second transformation in recently-liberated countries; and we must discuss under what conditions that may occur (or should occur), and what the political goals of such a change should be. Also in the present period, various societal issues – resurgence of racism, service delivery crises – are coming to the boil and a range of governance issues demand attention – the role of parastatals; the relationship between parliament(s) and the executive.
It is a good time for intellectuals. They can be in the fray as South Africa’s precious democracy – so robust in many ways and yet so fragile in parts – gets reengineered.
They can play a much more prominent role. They can be much more vocal, they can, to a greater extent, stand up for generally recognized human rights, eschew narrow interests, transgress when blind compliance is required; they can debate and ask questions, speak with/for the marginalized and – most of all – encourage democratic debate.
Intellectuals can play a dynamic role in fanning the democratic participation that seems to be a prerequisite for the economically vibrant, well-functioning, just and winning society we are building.
For intellectuals, the moment is ripe to be in the forefront of generating ideas and options to sustain/improve our democracy and to vastly improve service-delivery to the poorest. To contribute to getting better policies, to ensuring better policy implementation, to strengthening accountability systems and to expansion of effective leadership in government departments.
Speaking as a progressive (and admitting my bias), intellectuals have the opportunity – more than ever – to be clear about supporting our democratic transformation as it strives to eradicate the pain and division of the past and build a prosperous and just future for all.