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25 June 2017 07:18 (South Africa)
Opinionista Gwen Ngwenya

Du Preez, Zille, and the political expedience of public intellectuals

  • Gwen Ngwenya
    Gwen-Ngwenya-copy.jpg
    Gwen Ngwenya

    Gwen Ngwenya is the COO of the South African Institute of Race Relations. She holds a masters degree in International Economics, before joining the IRR she worked in New Delhi as an economic researcher on merger and acquisition deals before the competition authorities. After a brief stint, she was poached by a global financial technology company and relocated to the United Kingdom. On her return to South Africa decided she wanted to work closer to current affairs and joined the SAIRR in 2016.

In a debate the goal of politicians versus that of critical thinkers, let’s call them “public intellectuals” (self-styled or otherwise), must differ in one singularly important aspect: concerns about style and form belong to the politicians, substance must be the terrain of the public intellectual. Leave the politicians to worry about how the debate is spun in their favour, and the intelligentsia must worry about the integrity of the content of debate.

Max Du Preez’s article titled, “Dear Helen, please call it off” subordinates substance to expedience; an act that is nearly always shameful for a public intellectual, but sometimes necessary for a politician. Like any article beginning with “Dear”, such as the “dear white people” letters, it begins with the patronising recognition of her good deeds and intentions in order to more dramatically build up to the ultimate dressing down. The greater the compliment, the more devastating the “but”. And the “but” which follows Du Preez’s article is indeed devastating, not just for Helen Zille, but for the integrity of debate in South Africa.

These are the set of maxims espoused by Du Preez:

1. Debate must be convenient

According to Du Preez, if you realise that a point will not be well received then do not utter it.

“They were bound to cause a huge political storm in our present political climate. How did you not realise that?”

2. Did I mention that it doesn’t matter if you are right?

“Let me just say this: even someone with a very limited intelligence and understanding knows that some of the technologies and infrastructure that came with colonial occupation can be of good use to us now in our liberated society.”

Du Preez like many before him evidently believes Zille is right. But that is not the point, offence is the point. I don’t want to live in a society where people are robots lacking empathy nor do I want to live in one where people’s actions are dictated by the emotions of others. Any attempt to make Zille “realise” the effect of her comments, must be coupled with attempts to make the offended “realise” the effect of offense in narrowing the room for debate.

But here is point 1 articulated with more accuracy: if you realise that a point will not be well received, even if you are right, then do not utter it.

3. Defending facts is arrogance

“Since the storm was unleashed, you have spent much energy defending your own pride and ego.”

This line to me says more about Du Preez than it does about Zille. Just as not causing a huge political storm is a matter of showing respect to offence, in some parlance mistaken with empathy, then conversely causing a huge political storm is a matter of ego. It appears not even a possibility that it is a matter of facts and debate. And would it have been possible for Zille to defend the debate without being accused of defending her ego?

4. Meaning is determined by interpretation not intention

“…I’m also sick of apologising that I’m white and that my white ancestors brought civilisation to Africa. That’s perhaps not what you’ve said, but that’s how it’s been understood by many, white and black.”

And evidently no public intellectual, least of all Du Preez, is going to help those who have misunderstood to understand what was meant instead of what they have interpreted.

5. False equivalencies are justifiable

“The citizens of South Arica are clamouring for an alternative to Zuma and his ilk. You have single-handedly made sure that the party you helped build, could not play that role fully.”

This is the part where Du Preez really should not accuse Zille of lacking political astuteness if he is going to say things as far-fetched as this. South Africans are absolutely not clamouring for an alternative. An alternative does not come in a neater package than an organised opposition with a diverse set of leaders, governance experience, tough on corruption, and centrist policies. Respectfully, what many South Africans are clamouring after is not an alternative but any reason to still vote for the party of liberation.

We are the public

It's mad how Du Preez’s article, and many other responses, essentially amount to, “look what you have done to the public Helen? I know the facts and you’re right, but it’s not about me it’s about the public, the public has every right to be angry.” South Africans must take responsibility for the government of their choice. Who is the public if not you and I?

If we use this as an opportunity not to place our vote outside of the ANC then that speaks to our priorities, not Zille’s ego. Of course the DA might not see it that way but that is because for a party the voter is king.

Let the politicians worry about their brand

For the politician, just like the businessman, the customer is king. And for that reason the DA may wish to take the position that “the public” is always right. But for those who are not politicians, for the purposes of debate the public should be a collection of people engaged in the battle of ideas; some politicians, some academics, some bricklayers, some cashiers and others businessmen etc. All of them equal in the arena of ideas. It cannot be a suitable response that a debate should not happen because people will be offended. More egregious, however, is to concede that the orator is right but then chastise their insistence on the facts as arrogance.

It may be that it is precisely because Zille is a politician that Du Preez places expediency and the party brand above truth and the integrity of debate. He may have been more sympathetic were she a fellow commentator. But I think it is the public intellectual’s role to caution the politician against his baser instinct of expediency. In the same vein the politician must caution the intellectual’s lack of instinct, and what the politician might deem as the intellectual’s base pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

So you see I am being unfair on Du Preez myself because I am not saying he is wrong to criticise Zille, but rather that the basis of his critique is a politician’s critique not the intellectual’s critique. Of course the DA can say it does not matter if Zille is right, she has damaged the brand. But woeful is the situation if the thinkers too say it does not matter if she is right. To whom then should it matter above all else what is right and what is the truth, if not the intellectual? 

Let’s just pretend for a second that intentions matter, the intention of this article is not to defend Zille but rather to defend the integrity of debate, and that in debate the concern of the politicians and for their party and brand should not be the intellectual’s concern.

Zille might need to decide who she is right now, and it is an unbearably unjust ultimatum – still a politician in the battle for votes? Or a thinker engaged in the battle of ideas? Both important fights to be in, and for her not mutually exclusive, but only one right now is compatible with the attitude of “not without a fight”. DM

  • Gwen Ngwenya
    Gwen-Ngwenya-copy.jpg
    Gwen Ngwenya

    Gwen Ngwenya is the COO of the South African Institute of Race Relations. She holds a masters degree in International Economics, before joining the IRR she worked in New Delhi as an economic researcher on merger and acquisition deals before the competition authorities. After a brief stint, she was poached by a global financial technology company and relocated to the United Kingdom. On her return to South Africa decided she wanted to work closer to current affairs and joined the SAIRR in 2016.

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