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Counter-hegemonies, black swans and Polisee Space: Whither African intellectuals?

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Busani Ngcaweni is Principal of the National School of Government.

The public is yearning for the re-emergence of committed intellectuals grounded or preoccupied with effective governance of public affairs and the general wellbeing of the nation. This emerged at the virtual launch of the Polisee Space on 25 February 2021. The Polisee Space is a new thinking platform created by David Maimela.

Allow me to begin with an important citation from a respected intellectual, Professor Issa Shivji.

“Today I want to address those intellectuals who still consider themselves producers of knowledge rather than assembly line supervisors of packaging industries. In a capitalist society divided into classes you have broadly two types of intellectuals: There are those who produce rationalisations, justifications, and mystifications to maintain and reproduce the status quo of inequality and inequity in favour of capital. These are the producers and purveyors of what we call hegemonic ideologies. Then there are those who question and challenge dominant knowledge and try to demystify and debunk hegemonic forms of knowledge and ideologies.

“Some (intellectuals) go further to produce and articulate alternative forms of knowledge and ideologies to propel the struggle of the ruled, the oppressed and the downtrodden. They are involved in constructing counter-hegemonies. Thus, there is a battle of ideas. One of the foremost sites of the battle of ideas is the university. The battle of ideas precedes battle at the barricades.”

Necessarily, from this generous citation from a speech by Shivji in Dar es Salaam in February 2019 emerge a few fundamental questions. These questions are worthy of pondering as we launch the Polisee Space by the agile mind of David Maimela:

Have the liberation movement-oriented and more generally black intellectuals been producing counter-hegemonies that locate the African (poor) majority at the centre of their intellectual pursuits?

Or have they been “scholars at the marketplace” embroiled in ruinous battles of relevance (having a public profile), survival (by moving up in the citation hierarchy and tenure system) and association (proximity to power)?

Or do we have intellectual activists who perceive themselves as completely outside of the immediate needs for social and political construction, such that they remain outside of interactions with the hope that the revolution will unfold without any effort or agency on their part?

Frantz Fanon is more brutal on “scholars in the marketplace” – the term Mahmood Mamdani advanced in his book by the same title. Fanon wrote: “The intellectuals who on the eve of independence rallied to the party, now make it clear by their attitude that they gave their support with no other end in view than to secure their slices of the cake of independence. The party is becoming a means of private advancement.”

Put differently, those who consider themselves progressive intellectuals – do they regard themselves (at least at the level of self-imagination) as the vanguard of transformative ideas, the brains trust of strategy and tactics in the struggle to “move the centre” in order to re-member the black majority from the position of otherness in pursuit of their ontological density? Ontological density, in this context, refers to the self that is deemed insubstantial and is seeking in self-defeating ways to substantiate the self.

One asks these questions knowing full well the hazard of igniting the Olympic torch of self-defence, posturing and credentialising the discourse on the role of intellectuals in national liberation and more specifically in the fight against Euro-American hegemony.   

By credentialising the discourse, I mean people asking, “what gives you the right to question what you know nothing about?” and “who do you think you are calling us out like that?” Your qualifications and publications record, the college you went to might be questioned also, especially by those with higher degrees.

We are all too familiar with that type of thinking in the realm of what I call deployment politics, where comrades are asked “which structure did you lead” and “where were you during the Struggle?” In this case, legitimacy is sought not for “fit for purpose” but out of the context of historical factors. 

If you answer “I was in prison” or “I was in exile”, you gain some form of political capital, which helps you ascend (or emerge it is said in the political streets), notwithstanding the fact that the Struggle was waged through four pillars, and the pain of colonialism and apartheid transcended prison and exile.

If we proceed from the premise that the national democratic revolution also involves a fierce battle of ideas waged to seize the means of knowledge production (alongside the economic means of production – via political power), shouldn’t we also question whether our knowledge battalion is fit to fight (epistemologically speaking) and on whose side they are fighting?

Well, we ask the same of those we deploy to run public affairs, so we are merely extending the application of the same barometer.  

It seems to me that most of our progressive intellectuals are caught in the dilapidating battle of relevance, survival and association, either as a factor of choice but largely because of the prevailing political economy. Some even degenerate into the dilapidating state of helplessness where they either claim “we need to pay bills” or “we don’t have space to engage” or “we are overwhelmed by teaching and marking scripts”. 

To the former, I respond: what space? Why must intellectuals ask for permission to challenge injustice or advance ideas that take society forward, as David Maimela is trying through this new Polisee Space venture?

There must be no barriers to thinking. The doors of learning and culture should indeed be wide open to the intellectual capital produced by the whole of humanity. Often many solutions are hidden behind the very barriers that we have ironically created to safeguard the common interests of society.

At the level of abstraction, it remains relevant to ask: are our think-tanks producing enduring ideas about ways and means of rescuing society from the jaws of racial capitalism and sexism, their marginal location in the consumption value chain notwithstanding? How do we explain “known knowns” that are mesmerising us as black swans (unknown unknowns) – like the reality that economic discontents post-Covid-19 will be social instability?  

At least at the level of public discourse, sometimes it seems as if some of our thinkers are preoccupied with taking sides in the ongoing battles of elite formation and attrition instead of producing counter-hegemonies that seek to illuminate paths towards economic and spatial injustice. There are many things happening in society that perplex leadership across the sectors. Often, responses to social excesses miss the mark because they are not based on deep studies of society that surface both the origins and manifestations of crises as a precondition for solutioning.

Again, we argue, without a committed and engaged thinking enterprise, things we ought to know and manage become black swans. If the answer is: “we need to survive too”, then it lends credence to Shivji’s postulation that some intellectuals are “purveyors of what we call hegemonic [capitalist] ideologies”. As a result, they are not in the frontline of the battle of ideas and the generation of solutions. In such an instance, coloniality thrives!

There is no point in asking the same from charlatans with intellectual pretence. for in their case we already expect nothing. They are in it just for “likes” and “retweets” and hopefully some paid gig and/or right-wing opinion.

In the Polisee Space, Maimela is promising to break new grounds by, among other means, leveraging networks from well-established think-tanks like Mistra, where he was formally initiated into systems of organising thoughts.

What is particularly significant is the mobilisation of a younger group of individuals, as associates, who are perhaps not yet driven towards pandering to the marketplace of ideas and hence able to challenge the many who are so caught up in the industry that they lose perspective on their own activism. 

The public is yearning for the re-emergence of committed intellectuals grounded or preoccupied with effective governance of public affairs and the general wellbeing of the nation, as Mamdani puts it. These are the kind of intellectuals that Ntongela Masilela called the New African Movement – the late 19th- and early 20th-century intellectuals who committed their brains and pens to anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggles.

They provided clarity and theoretical meaning to the struggle for self-determination. When Moses Kotane penned the Cradock Letter calling for the Africanisation of the Communist Party of South Africa, it marked an epistemic turn in the party’s self-imagination and its methods of struggle. That was a counter-hegemony which moved the centre (away from dogmatic adherence to what was produced in Moscow). 

There are countless other examples which include AC Jordan, ZK Matthews, Bessie Head, Mzala Nxumalo, Anton Lembede, Govan Mbeki, Phyllis Ntantala, Archie Mafeje, the Dhlomo and Vilakazi brothers and Bernard Magubane. Through their work, theory became a sharper weapon of struggle.

They were not unique to South Africa. In the continent we saw many pre- and post-independence intellectuals working with nationalist movements to advance national liberation. They became one with the masses, not just universal scholars who stood for “excellence” even at the expense of the context they lived in, to paraphrase Mamdani.

Walter Rodney, while based in east Africa, called for intellectuals to be engaged, to be on the side of the masses. That period of late 1960s and early 1970s was great for such debates in liberated west and east Africa. This debate on the role of intellectuals and scholars in the post-colony reverberated beyond the corridors of the academy. 

Here at home, with committed younger thinkers like Maimela, we might be seeing a revival of visionary thinking and a break away from what I call the struggles for relevance, survival and association. 

As we conclude, let us once again congratulate David Maimela, who has elected to embark on this profound initiative which challenges us to return to the basics of what separates us from other beings – thinking. This is not to say that animals do not think. What makes us unique is magnitude of endeavours, their reach and scale that should make us stand out from other mammals.

Unlike animals that take time to adapt, we cannot coexist with abhorrent conditions of inequality and sexism as if we lack the agency to challenge and change them.

The challenge to our individual and collective habit of thinking is exactly what each generation needs, to expand on the heritage of the past, solve complex challenges and recast the horizons of future generation as our gift to them. What is self-evident is that we are beneficiaries of a world that has been shaped by those before us and likewise we have a duty to posterity to leave them a legacy of a better world.

It is precisely on account of this that many erect statues to celebrate the selflessness of our forebears. At the same time, we curse those whose ideas were a burden to our lived experiences.

As we go about thinking, this initiative reminds us that while thinking at the onset starts in one’s brain, it can in fact be institutionalised and therefore become a collective endeavour.

How we think, when we think, why we think, for whom we think, are all questions very important on this subject of thinking. It is my belief that this initiative will help elucidate these and countless other questions I have raised above to help us understand and illuminate the darkness that impedes our collective development as a nation, as a continent and indeed as the entire world.

There must be no barriers to thinking. The doors of learning and culture should indeed be wide open to the intellectual capital produced by the whole of humanity. Often many solutions are hidden behind the very barriers that we have ironically created to safeguard the common interests of society.

Contemporary epidemics and pandemics demand that we change our approach to thinking. Knowledge is no longer the exclusive preserve of those with textbooks as it is now wired into the worldwide web. We desperately need new sages. Not just to counter existing perspectives or the dominant, but as initiators of new possibilities in a way that serves to shift the centre; in a manner that is embedded in the new and hence not subject to the immediate or seduced by the value of conformity and connections. 

But as we have learnt throughout our thinking lives, knowledge carries values, hence we challenge the Polisee Space to thrive by embracing pluriversality, the idea that from various knowledge systems exist progressive values which we can embrace while privileging the knowledge systems of the global South for, disruptions of slavery and colonial conquest notwithstanding, they are distinct in privileging humanity over material.  

As your motto ambitiously states, let us imagine, create and evolve public policy in the best interests of the country. DM

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  • If a liberation movement wishes society to be free from inequality, which capitalism requires as the mechanics of its hegemonic dispensation, then merely moving the hegemonic centre toward the downtrodden and poor cannot be a desire for change but rather for power. Or perhaps I misunderstand ?

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