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Opinionista

The seventh general election and intellectuals in an age of anxiety

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Over the past two decades, several new sites of social anxiety have taken shape. This anxiety has swirled around public and private corruption, crime, nepotism, prebendalism, re-racialising and retribalisation of politics, the disintegration of public institutions and collapse of public utilities, crime, physical and structural violence, poverty, inequality, unemployment and homelessness, xenophobia and a unique brand of ethnonationalism.

We know now what the constellation of power in the ruling ANC will be in 2023 and into the first few months of 2024, when the country is expected to hold its seventh general election. Perhaps now, over the coming 14-16 months, more than ever, the country’s intellectuals have an obligation to disambiguate and bring clarity to the anxieties of our time, and to the politics that reproduce these anxieties. How we approach politics in this putative age of anxiety (so often overused a phrase) how we identify, explain and understand, then relay it all to the greater public, will define the work of intellectuals in the coming months. 

It is passé, to be sure, but there is no harm in repeating that significantly more substantive public discussions can be had beyond the daily disgorgement of 280-character tweets. This is where the intellectual becomes indispensable to society.

Intellectuals and the truth

A clever Italian thinker made it clear, about 100 years ago, that anyone and everyone is, or may be, an intellectual. However, not everyone plays a professional or public service role as an intellectual. Most important are those intellectuals who represent the interests of rich or poor communities; those who may be umbilically tied to ruling elites, and those who feign independence, but serve as functionaries of the class or some other group with which they are affiliated. From these vantage points, they direct the ideas and aspirations of those groups. This applies simultaneously to journalists who “cover” events, and those who apply their minds, insights, and understand and draw on history to produce further insights into events or states of affairs. 

We should distinguish between intellectuals in the sciences — those whose research and output are on, say, theoretical physics — and those who serve a social (intellectual) function. The latter are the journalists, academics and public figures who bring political, economic, social and historical ideas and arguments to the pages of daily or weekly news and information sources. 

(On a lighter note, I cannot ignore a delightful and fairly succinct statement by that Danish fellow, who once said: “The lowest depth to which people can sink before God is defined by the word ‘Journalist’. If I were a father and had a daughter who was seduced, I should not despair over her; I would hope for her salvation. But if I had a son who became a journalist and continued to be one for five years, I would give him up.”)

These intellectuals are tasked with getting as close to the truth as possible, and defending it up to the point where new evidence comes to the fore, and forces a change. The important distinction, here, is evidence — not opinion, or claims that are unsubstantiated by facts. Attention can be drawn to statements on Twitter, which tell us that “the EFF will be the next government — and that’s a fact”. Predictions about the future cannot be factual. It is, at best, speculative and conjecture.

Among the many things that we, as journalists, commentators and critics (and columnists) are bound to, is a type of decency that is expressed in choices of words that are critical, but polite. In other words, we may think (subjectively) that a politician is not very smart, but we have to find ways of expressing that without being insulting. Just writing that reminds me of how, on social media, a fight may break out over porridge, or the thickness of a slice of bread, with predictable tropes about victims and victory, privilege and entitlement.

This is as good a moment as any to make the point that a few years ago the science journal Nature published research findings (on attitudes towards genetically modified food and the environment) that “stupid people are loud and proud”. And so, when we listen to people who base everything they say on notions of their own “superior logic” we may want to be cautious about being seduced by the illusion of knowledge, or knowledge that has breadth without depth, and people who know the least, but would insist that they know the most. 


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It remains only to be said that when truth becomes too difficult to endure, or when it does not suit political expectations, ambitions or programmes of action “alternate facts” may be submitted as truth. And anyway, having inside information on your political opponent is not a reliable source of knowledge, it is mostly gossip. Raising your voice, name-calling or wagging a finger does not strengthen an argument, it simply raises a threat… For what it’s worth, when we listen to Julius Malema “flip-flop,” as he does with stunning regularity, he is simply echoing the fascist, Joseph Goebbels who, lacking in scruples, insisted that propaganda has to be definitively flexible. Malema’s “flip-flopping” may simply be “flexibility”. In other words, Malema can say what he wants, whenever he wants because like the Italian fascist “Mussolini ha sempre ragione” (Mussolini is always right”).

Intellectuals, those who remain independent and intellectually honest, are bound then to the belief and values, and the programme of (literary) action that the truth must be uncovered, and defended. This has to be the prime desideratum. (We can set aside the wilful obscurantism of postmodernism.)

Our age of anxiety

The idea of an age of anxiety flashes by in historical and literary texts to the point that it has lost meaning, and become reproduced as cliché, even trite. Yet, it is not unreasonable to generalise that in their daily lives most South Africans frequently drift between fear and anxiety — most of the time quite different from one another. 

Here I want to enter social anxiety as a combination of phobias, senses of shame, abandonment and unbelonging (If Africa belongs to Africans, and you’re told you’re not African, can you claim to belong?), displacement, distress, high or misguided expectations that undermine the emancipatory impulse, as well as policies that restrict capabilities to live a fuller life. The assumption here, drawing on Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach, is that freedom to achieve well-being is of primary moral importance, and that freedom to achieve well-being must be understood in terms of people with capabilities. The public must be assured of their real opportunities to do and be what they value — and these capabilities have to be promoted and protected by a state that is committed to social justice

The public are faced, on a daily basis, with actual or imminent crimes (home invasions, murder, rape and physical violence), or they anticipate some negative tomorrow where the electricity supply grid, or the postal service, the provision of public goods and services, or transport networks become utterly unreliable or collapse completely. It is at this point, more correctly a series of points in daily life, when moral panic sets in. 

This is when people don’t know, at the most elementary level, whether they will have money for clothing, food and shelter. In the middle-class people are concerned a lot more about threats to their material well-being, with their own future or the future of their children. At the elite level, there would be the worry about the safety of investments and troves of capital. Having lost all or a lot of faith in the state and in society — it’s fair to say that daily crime and violence is not directly by government or officials, and that the villains are in communities, among the people — South Africans have increasingly, over the past two or three decades turned towards private personal security, and “club goods” for some certainty. Club goods differ from public goods that are paid for through taxation, but individual users turn to such goods, pay for them, and are more or less guaranteed their use. 

Over the next 12-14 months until the election there will no doubt be a lot of posturing, promises made (that the speaker knows may never be kept), name-calling, finger-wagging and drawing on history. An important distinction should be made between what politicians remember, what they tell us about the past (as their own memories), and what actually happened. Memory is not history. The public will be encouraged to vote, as if their choices are actually free. Fear and anxiety seriously restricts freedom in a country where communities and individuals face imminent threats, and a tomorrow that is uncertain and fraught, and induces a nervousness all of which are debilitating.

If intellectuals are to make a contribution to a better understanding of society, and address the social anxieties that mark South Africa, a good starting point would be to subvert, and to rattle, the dominant idea that a better, more prosperous future with justice for all, and high levels of trust among the population lay within existing polities and institutions that, themselves, undermine the Constitution. And anyway, these polities and institutions are now corroded wrecks and crumbling crenulations of the house on the hill, the El Dorado, promised 30 years ago. The programme of action, so to speak, is to clear a path for something fresh and new, and holds the promise of a very attainable and prosperous tomorrow.

This is the task of intellectuals over the months leading up to the seventh general election. I part ways, in this respect, with the French fella who suffered severe exotropia; I believe that intellectuals have to meddle in the social world because it does concern her/him. DM

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  • virginia crawford says:

    Task: stop using words like disambiguate.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      You mean like the currently fashionable in some quarters “special military operation” – a phrase ?

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      The El Dorado promised 30 years ago, was under the stewardship of one steeped in ethics and morality (no doubt inspired by the Arch also) and a team that supported him. Regrettably most of them are now ‘buried’ literally and other survivors have ‘stepped aside’ because of a realisation that a sordid malaise has afflicted the body of the movement, with the only evidence of an ‘intellect’ being vested in one who still believes in the ‘garlic and beetroot’ treatment for a virus.

  • Heinrich Holt says:

    Thanks Ismail. As always a well thought through piece of writing. I have also done some introspection. I will stop saying that politicians generally are not very smart. After the 55th congress of the glorious movement, I will now just focus on the facts. Politicians cannot think, plan, execute, and stay on schedule. They basically lack the intellectual capacity to do the basics right. The congress now serves as a blueprint of how we can expect the country to be managed. Without thinking, planning, and execution, and definitely not on schedule, if at all.

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