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Jansen, Jonathan (2002) The (Self-Imposed) Crisis of the Black Intellectual: Jonathan Jansen's Wolpe lecture.  : -.


Professor Jonathan Jansen
“When we think of the public role of intellectuals today, we cannot ignore the role of race, for what writer has ever been accepted without recognition of his race?" (Linda Kaufmann 2002)

Last week the unthinkable happened. The Minister of Education in our young democracy instructed major newspapers to sign an undertaking as to the ways in which they will report the matriculation results at the end of 2002. The newspapers would be required to print the results on release without editorial comment and would also be required to carry an apology for breaking an “embargo” on such editorialisation in the 2001 examinations. The Minister is quoted as saying that “The results will not be released to newspapers that will not have returned the signed undertaking and the published apology by the 15th of December 2002.” Had this occurred during under the draconian “emergency” legislation of the apartheid regime, it would have provoked public outrage and widespread debate. That it could happen under a post-apartheid democracy is one thing; that it could pass without sustained protest and outrage from public in general, and public intellectuals in particular, is what I intend to address this evening.

Professor Jansen with Professor Adam Habib from the Center for Civil Society

Let me first acknowledge that the vocation of the intellectual has fallen on hard times. Persons are under attack, reputations are muddied and lives are even threatened. Courageous voices like Max du Preez, Sipho Seepe and Richard Pithouse have been severely attacked by politicians, academics and the general public for daring to pose uncomfortable questions about health, education, warfare and the presidency itself. In this fragile democracy, it is more important than ever to be vigilant to the conditions under which public intellectuals speak and are compelled to speak. It is nevertheless an unsettling time, but I doubt it could be otherwise.

Edward Said (2002) recently made the point that:

“the intellectual’s provisional home is the domain of an exigent, resistant, intransigent art into which, alas, one can neither retreat nor search for solutions. But only in that precarious exilic realm can one first truly grasp the difficulty of what cannot be grasped, and then go forth to try anyway (p.39).”

It is now 35 years since Harold Cruse published his landmark book titled “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.” What many commentators fail to reflect on is the subtitle: “An analysis of the failure of black leadership.” While I do not position myself with the black nationalist sentiment of Cruse, and his diatribe against the integrationists, it is difficult not to recognise the significance of his reflection on a particular class of intellectuals i.e., the black intellectual. In taking this position I am also not intending to minimise the role and contribution of the white intellectual; there must of necessity remain a place for solidarity and collective action by white and black intellectuals, together. But it would be dangerous to ignore the fact that the objective conditions that nurtured black intellectuals under and against apartheid, and that inform and shape the character of black intellectuals after apartheid, are quite different from those that influence and nurture white intellectuals.

For example, black intellectuals do not enjoy the same access to leading publishing houses and resources as do white intellectuals. White intellectuals are dominant within universities; black intellectuals, with few exceptions, are not. White intellectuals are still the dominant voices in research, in public performances, on international platforms, and in artistic forums. White intellectuals continue to dominate and sustain the powerful knowledge networks that sustain white authority in all kinds of productions.

But the picture is not as grim as it was ten years ago. Black intellectuals enjoy a growing measure of public ascendancy and political visibility in the media—take political science commentators, for example (Habib, Hlophe, Jacobs and Landsberg). And in certain fields, such as medicine (the powerful position of the University of Natal’s medicine men) and education, black intellectuals have gradually gained recognition by sheer force of personality, publication and production, albeit in a world still dominated by white intellectuals.

But the main point I also wish to make is that black intellectuals stand in a very different relationship to the state, in the sense that there is a patriotism that is expected, even demanded, from those who are supposed to understand the struggles and support the projects of the emerging state. Even white radicals, as Jeremy Cronin found out, are easily susceptible to attack using “the race card” from within the ranks of the black nationalist and political elite, because of a deeper, primordial bond among black people which he cannot possibly be a part of—even if he has committed his entire life to the struggles of the black working class. And it is this peculiar position of the black intellectual—dominant in political terms but marginal in intellectual terms—that I wish to address.

It is equally important to realise that much of the classic and contemporary writing on intellectuals has remained raceless. This does not mean that the writers and speakers themselves are always white; consider for example the writings of Cornel West, bel hooks, Wally Serote, Lewis Nkosi, Edward Said, and Partha Chatterjee. But it does mean that the dominant themes addressing the subject of intellectuals seldom provide analyses of the black intellectual, and very rarely the subject of the black intellectual in the third world. One recent example of such omission would be Helen Small’s intercontinental, edited collection titled The Public Intellectual (2002, Blackwell). This is the terrain into which I stray.

Reviewing the year behind us invariably provokes familiar concerns in which the roles of intellectuals generally, and black intellectuals in particular, have been thrown into sharp relief by critics such as Sipho Seepe, Majakathata Mokoena, Rhoda Khadalie, Moeletsi Mbeki, Denis Brutus and others. Such concerns include the presidential position on hiv/aids, the response of government to the Zimbabwean crisis, the manufactured plot against the president, the so-called Xhosa Nostra in political appointments, and the racist music video of Mbongeni Ngema. The last thing I want to do is enter another dissection on each of these issues; that has been done ad nauseam in the popular press and, to a more limited extent, in intellectual forums. What I want to do, however, is reflect more broadly on the complex roles of black intellectuals within and across these events.

The first thing that strikes one is the silence of black intellectuals on most of these concerns. From one crisis to the next, the voices of leading intellectuals, with or without expertise in the relevant fields, were simply absent. One can only wonder, for example, whether the silence of the medical establishment had to do with concerns about access to vital resources, the loss of prized jobs and access to social and disciplinary privilege; that such losses might explain the silence or the belated and muted response from a few. Indeed, there was evidence of swift retribution visited on those doctors who dared to provide life-prolonging treatments to patients with HIV/AIDS. One wonders also whether the silence of black intellectuals (as opposed to the chorus of white sympathisers) on the Zimbabwean crisis might reflect a latent attitude that “the Rhodies had it coming anyway” given the viciousness of colonialism about two decades ago. One wonders whether the silence of so-called African intellectuals on the Ngema episode was based on similar unspoken retribution for Indians who, like the Rhodies, had it coming their way for a long time, anyway. And one wonders whether the failure of black intellectuals to lead the debate on ethnic and tribal identities in the wake of the Xhosa Nostra is the result of a radical squeamishness about dealing with an unpleasant reality beginning to surface in our non-racial democracy: that is, as resources and the promises of resources dry-up, poor people (and the insatiable black elite) will once again mobilise ethnic identity to make demands on such resources. While I understand the strategy on the part of the rural poor, I am less impressed by the strategy on the part of the insatiable black elite. But more about that in a minute.

It must be said, parenthetically, that while some of the most courageous voices in the anti-apartheid struggle were those of intellectuals-in the face of vicious retaliation by the apartheid state—that those same voices have retreated into the comforts offered by silence.

Jeery Gaffio Watts, commenting on Cruse in his Heroism and the Black Intellectual, makes the point that

“The willingness of many black intellectuals to join the black nationalist bandwagon often stemmed from their desires to legitimate themselves to the broader black activist community and to subsequently gain access to the mobility that the political system offered to black nationalist intellectuals…. Despite its militant sounding rhetoric, black nationalism became an ideology of economic and status mobility for bourgeois intellectuals.”

Playing the race and ethnic card requires commentary by especially black intellectuals, since white intellectuals making this point will invariably be paralysed by the effective but pathetic charge of “racism.” So let me focus on the responsibilities of the black intellectual. It is very clear that the non-racial utopia advanced by the Charterists is receding fast in the exposing light of grinding poverty among the black poor, and greedy ambition among the black elite. I wish to come to the point.

When the chips are down, the comfortable accommodation of an inclusive “black” (that is, the fragile bond of Coloured, Indian and African solidarity) rips apart. The unspoken assignment that “we are all black” quickly disintegrates when resources, position and mobility are at stake. A striking and recent example was the behaviour of a Dr Nyoka, then challenger to Percy Sonn for Chairperson of the United Cricket Board. The ENT specialist made no bones about the basis for this challenge: “I will not rest until the UCB is headed by an African.” The fact that Sonn is a fellow black traveller in the same country, on the same continent is, of course, not of interest to Nyoka. If he can claim that Sonn is different (that is, “Coloured”), then his ambition for power can be justified on the basis of himself being “African.”

For all the poetry of the “I am an African” speech (which, by the way, is brilliant), there are hardline ethnic chauvinists inside and outside government for whom the project of the African Renaissance is nothing less than a means to assert the primacy of the apartheid African. By “the apartheid African” I mean those women and men who had the misfortune of being classified under apartheid as “African”, thereby inheriting a specific racial reference for the identity of a very diverse group of people; and effectively separating-out such a group of people from other continental dwellers inside South Africa. The problem is that there is tremendous political and economic opportunity, albeit for a small elite, in claiming such an apartheid identity as special and unique to the exclusion of other ways of being “African.” I can share stories (and so can you) of persons who lived outside of the country in what for such persons was retrospectively claimed to be “exile”, who assumed (voluntarily) new names, cultures and identities in another country, but who returned, changing their names at the airport, because of the political and economic opportunities tied-up with being an apartheid African. There is an aggressive meanness and blind ambition in the behaviour of such persons, and contempt for black people who had the equal misfortune of being classified “Coloured” or “Indian” or something else.

Incidentally, the same racial meanness and provocation can be found in the Western Cape legislature where a senior politician recently claimed that “in this province there are only two kinds of people: Coloureds and whites.” To say this in a province that had a systematic campaign under apartheid of denigrating and destroying the lives and cultures of those classified “African” is an even more despicable act of racism, given the history of the Western Cape.

In this regard one of the major tasks confronting the public intellectual, and especially the black intellectual, is to employ what Cornel West calls a “prophetic pragmatism” which seeks an “active redefinition of the publics to whom we speak.” This means actively recasting the received categories of racial and ethnic classification which reinforce a divisive apartheid language. But the task of the black intellectual, in particular, is not simply to deligitimise these received categories as if it were an exercise in correcting vocabulary; the broader task is through everyday social practice—but also through artistic performance and academic writing--to create and sustain solidarities at all levels that will ultimately render such classificatory systems obsolete and meaningless. This will not be easy, since such symbolic systems often serve powerful material interests long after its initial logic (apartheid) has legally disappeared.

Nevertheless, the silence of black intellectuals, whatever their motivation, on this growing rift within the black community spells danger for the building of a strong civil society. It is crucial that black intellectuals begin to take on the sacred cows of non-racial pretence and “speak truth to power.” But this also means dealing with the silence of black intellectuals with respect to whiteness.

The most prominent example, in this regard, is the plight of Norma Reid Birley at Wits University. Whatever the merits of the case against the Vice Chancellor, the surrounding discourses are frightening. Norma Reid Birley is accused, among other things, of being a foreigner, of displacing the more favoured black candidate at the time, and of not understanding the culture and behaviour of Wits. Not a single black intellectual attacked this dangerous ploy of dismissing a university vice-chancellor because of her status as a foreigner; and this in the context of institutions which should, per definition, be open and accessible, even celebratory of our broader humanity and our universal quest for knowledge and excellence. This is not to say, however, that the appointment of an overseas academic as vice chancellor is not a statement of a lack of self-confidence in black intellectual and academic leadership in South Africa; or that the exchange of English vice-chancellors and directors between South Africa and the United Kingdom is not made possible by the facility of race, language and a dual passport. Can you imagine Adam Habib being appointed the Vice Chancellor of the Open University? My point for now is a different one: the silence of the intellectual on the terms of exclusion and vilification, in the case of Norma Reid, betrays a deeper pathology with respect to the identity and politics of the black intellectual. Curious, is it not, that the inquiry into Norma Reid had hardly begun when the black deputy vice chancellor (research) was suddenly “tipped” as the favourite to succeed her? I dare to ask the question: was Norma Reid set-up to fail as the unlikeable foreigner who took on the (black) President, with the aid of black senior managers, the quid pro quo being her replacement with an authentic African?

To conclude this point, it is clear to me that the problem of managing Wits has very little to do with the personalities and styles of individual or aspirant vice-chancellors. The potential of this great university is held hostage by the twin dilemmas of liberal cynicism, on the one hand, and institutional self-righteousness on the other; remember, they had nothing to do with apartheid! Only exceptional leadership will be able to take Wits forward into another era of greatness. And in this quest, the land of origin of its vice-chancellor ought not to matter.

But the problem of the black intellectual is, to a large extent, self-inflicted. I am deeply concerned, for example, about the practices in which we engage as institutions to actively deny the emergence of a next generation of black intellectuals. Allow me to speak for a moment about a particular species of intellectual, the academic intellectual. One of the most dangerous practices is what I recently referred to, on the occasion of the Annual Meeting of the Council on Higher Education, as “the dumbing down of the professoriate.” As a result of equity pressures on the one hand, and the desire of technikons to be universities on the other, institutions have promoted a large body of young black academics into professorships without any record of scholarship. The effects of this damning act is to destroy the career of these young black scholars who now, as a result of the position attained, have no further incentive to develop. These senior positions now require, not the gradual building-up of a record of scholarship (such as evidenced in research and teaching excellence), but the burden of administration and management for which these young minds are completely under-prepared. But not only do such practices effectively terminate the career of a potential class of intellectuals, they yield to higher education a layer of academics with no capacity to reproduce the critical persons and skills required for a developing country. The same mediocrity that produced a lost generation of dubious Afrikaner academics as a result of affirmative action in the previous century, is now being visited on black academics through institutional malpractices of the kind described. If the next generation of academics do not produce the public intellectuals critical for our social and moral well-being, I have no doubt that this failure would be traceable to the pressures of employment equity, opportunistic institutions and a misguided sense of liberal guilt..

It is not simply the termination of black academic and intellectual careers, however, that is at stake; it is also the self-imposed culture of silence on black (and white) intellectuals on our campuses today. Have you noticed, at this self-acclaimed liberal bastion of the academy (Wits University), how many staff and students are refusing to be quoted by name “for fear of victimisation?” We need to ask how this happened on all our campuses. Is it possible that the pervasive influence of a new managerialism has left in its wake institutional cultures which are starved of the oxygen of public criticism and intellectual engagement? How is it possible that in many universities, there are suddenly rules and “protocols” for individual academics talking to the media? This practice is of course commonplace in Afrikaans universities, a point I made at length in a campus-wide address to my colleagues at the University of Pretoria, titled Why Tukkies Cannot Develop Intellectuals. It is, however, increasingly common practice in both black universities and the liberal English institutions. Something shifted in the critical ground under our feet, and I suspect that institutional restructuring requires fresh scrutiny with respect to its impact on academic and intellectual life in universities. Something else shifted in the critical ground which fosters intellectual life, and that is the changing nature of autonomy in our universities.

It is simply unthinkable, ten years ago, that government would impose on institutions a regime of accountability that would systematically erode the autonomy of universities. The Minister of Education, for example, appoints the Chairpersons of interim councils in institutions proposed for mergers. The Minister of Education has power to appoint an Administrator to ungovernable institutions. The Minister of Education decides which institutions will merge. The Minister of Education, through his bureaucratic offices, decides which programmes will receive state funding and which will not; which institutions will offer what kinds of delivery modes in higher education; and which institutions are quality assured, and which not. The Minister has also hinted at the possibility of getting involved in the curriculum decisions and debates in higher education—an intrusion which, if happens, would bring government into confrontation with last frontier of liberal autonomy i.e., the right to decide what to teach.

I am not arguing that some of these dramatic interventions were undesirable, given the multiple crises engulfing several institutions in the 1990s. My point is simply that taken together, important ground has been lost in the defence of autonomy and that the regime of accountability that governs institutions has created a new climate of operations for academics and intellectuals. It is in such an environment in which we hope to see the emergence of black, public intellectuals. And I argue this evening that there is little ground for optimism.

I tested these new institutional and societal waters recently, in part to measure the nature and the origins of the public response to a position paper in the City Press (a paper with a largely black readership), where I made the argument for “the closing down of the historically black universities.” My main thesis was that all our public universities should be deracialised and, moreover, Africanised—thereby creating a few institutions of high quality that all our students could access.

It was a nuanced position, arguing for the closing down of a conceptual vocabulary that was antiquated (historically black and white!), as well as the possibility of the closing down of defunct institutions. I learnt a lesson about making nuanced arguments in the public press. The retribution was swift. It started with a one-hour programme the next evening on Radio Metro, in which I was accused by several callers of being a “boer.” One caller was blunt: “I have a real problem with that boer on your programme.” Half an hour later, on hearing that this boer was a brother (whatever that means), the tide shifted as callers “agreed with that brother.” The print media was no less forgiving: letters to the editor were laced with arguments about my racial identity, and therefore the invalidity of my arguments. Feature articles were written by black union leaders and (mainly) black university academics attacking my person and, as an after-thought, the arguments being made. One black person charged that “this is the lobotomised view of a non-white who had forgotten about the strategic interests of a black readership. She argued (having spent ten years at Wits)—remarkably--that white universities were not for black people.

What struck me about this attempt “to start an argument”, as I put it, was the blunt, racist sentiment that underpinned the positions of the unionists, the academics and the black public in general. I was struck by the force of what amounted to a barricading of racial interests within what were, effectively, homeland universities that were never intended to be thriving intellectual centres or world-class research laboratories. I remain struck by the incapacity of the black intelligentsia to even countenance an argument for genuine African institutions of higher education—a new basis for intellectual life and scholarly pursuits. Black public figures, I concluded, remain trapped in a vicious language of racial defeatism on the one hand, and racial self-interest on the other hand. And this self-absorbed and self-interested behaviour is one of the main factors explaining the failure of the emergence of a new class of black public intellectuals.

How do we create conditions under which black public intellectuals might once again be identified, developed, nurtured and sustained?

I think we should begin by actively creating forums in which public intellectuals---journalists, artists, academics, community activists, among others---find common ground in which to exercise the right to criticism and action as a matter of course. This Wolpe Series led by the Centre for Civil Society is one of the most progressive and exemplary projects in this regard. By arguing for such intervention I do not, however, mean the display of a radical cynicism in which everything and anything that government does is trashed simply for the heck of it: I think such behaviour is anti-intellectual. I also do not mean the re-hashing of outmoded vocabularies that do more to align the intellectual with a particular ideological perspective than to cast new light on resilient problems of poverty, policy or pain. It should be possible, in this regard, to fulfil the role of the public intellectual while at the same time working with and through committees and projects of government.

For example, I serve simultaneously as the Chairperson of the Ministerial Committee on Further Education and Training (a project seeking integration of the senior secondary schools into the FET Band) while retaining the right to public criticism and engagement with government. This demonstrates a public position that I have often taken: that criticism is not the opposite of commitment. Indeed, criticism is for me a deep intellectual commitment to development, change and—if you will—transformation. I am under no illusion that this is a test case of a personal intellectual project: whether governmental authority will be able to accept this co-existence of the public intellectual, with a fierce independence of mind on matters public, who simultaneously commits time, energy and talent towards progressive projects of the state.

And this brings me to the role of the bureaucratic intellectual , if such a species is in fact allowed to exist. The most common route followed to oblivion has been the co-option of black intellectuals within government. I am still amazed at how quickly black intellectuals, once they enter the halls of power, not only change how they dress and speak, but how they understand external realities. A new vocabulary is quickly acquired. Words like ‘drivers’, ‘moratoria’ and ‘rationalisation’ replace more familiar terms like ‘stakeholders’, ‘transparency’ and ‘retrenchments.’ Any request for information (and I am not speaking here about nuclear secrets) is met with puzzling delay and bureaucratic redirection in an environment where fear, fiction, and façade remain as troubling legacies from our apartheid past. Some still pretend to be intellectuals. But the black intellectual has been co-opted into the machinery of government where compliance and conformity are more highly valued, even to the point of dishonesty and self-denial. As one government official put it to me recently, obviously thinking he was paying me a compliment: “I told them to select you onto this Committee; that way you cannot question the work of the Committee or its results!” If only he knew.

But there is another way of nurturing black (and white) public intellectuals. And that is by re-thinking the curriculum of public institutions. It is true that the new regime of qualifications, unit standards, and competences has led to a very narrow, vocationally oriented curriculum in which programme compliance (and therefore funding approval) has overshadowed traditional preoccupation with what is worth learning and teaching in the first place. This ground must be regained so that the intellectual content of the public curriculum in higher education is restored; and values of critical disposition, intellectual engagement and public dissent are promoted beyond the constrictions of vocational competence.

I would like to use this occasion to promote the idea of a national institute for advanced studies that specifically targets young academics (by which I mean new PhDs) for training in the art of scholarship and intellectual endeavour. It is clear that many young and promising black scholars and intellectuals are lost to universities within the first three years of employment. Why? Because young academics face working conditions that are palpably unattractive for long-term career development. Such new PhD’s are loaded with large first-year classes and no teaching assistants to wade through the assessment tasks of hundreds of students. Teaching loads, administrative commitments, and the demand for research invariably take their toll on the young academic. Worse, these working conditions do not inspire the kinds of nurturing and development crucial for directing young academics into the more noble art of intellectual life and scholarship. This proposed new institute will take young academics for three months every year, for three years in a row, into an institutional environment designed to encourage academic writing, intellectual engagement and the development of scholarship. It would expose these young scholars to peers working in different disciplinary traditions. It would also expose the young academic to leading authorities in their specific fields of study. It would bring global intellectuals into seminars and discussions on trans-disciplinary concerns, thereby breaking the low-level disciplinary obsessions of most departmental cultures and encouraging thinking and reflection beyond such confines. It means nurturing the art of posing public questions, whether the original discipline is genetics or history or electronics. It is the art of posing public questions that constitutes the most important skill in the arsenal of the public intellectual, and it is unlikely to develop exclusively within the confines of university life as currently constituted.

In conclusion, I wish to remind you, and hopefully also encourage you, through reference to what is easily the most eloquent expression on the character and vocation of the intellectual. I refer, of course, to the words of Edward Said (1994), in his Representations of the Intellectual (London, Vintage):

The central fact for me is, I think, that the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by government or corporations, and whose raison d’etre is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug. The intellectual does so on the basis of universal principles: that all human beings are entitled to expect decent standards of behaviour concerning freedom and justice from worldly powers or nations, and that deliberate or inadvertent violations of these standards need to be testified and fought against courageously (p.9)

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