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Publication Details

Reference
Nyar, Annsilla (2002) The Inaugural Harold Wolpe Lecture: A Report by Ansilla Nyar. Report for CCS Online July: -.

Summary
It could be seen as yet another posthumous tribute to intellectual luminary Harold Wolpe that six years after his death, the veteran ANC/ SACP activist still managed to draw a crowd of more than 400 people on a winter’s evening in Durban. The occasion was the inauguration of the Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture Series, the place Howard College Theatre at Natal University, and the mood jubilant in anticipation of such prominent minds as Dr. Pallo Jordan and Professor Sipho Seepe, crossing intellectual swords over the ‘the State of the Nation’ at the same table.

Were such ardent expectations met? The exchange between Vista University political scientist/ physicist Professor Sipho Seepe, best known for his Mail & Guardian column, and ANC MP and head of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Dr. Pallo Jordan, could be described as lukewarm at best.

Much of the public discourse in South Africa is defined by rigorous defence of one particular position or the other, without much room for a middle way. Though powerfully delivered, and with a great strength of conviction on the part of both, the presentations by Professor Seepe and Dr. Jordan proved no exception to the norm. With both speakers in any case taking pains to decry their purported intellectual status, the debate itself might have been mistaken for a political rally of sorts. The arguments were disappointingly one-sided and almost wholly devoid of substantive observations. At several points, the presentations threatened to degenerate into sheer political banality. A cogent example of the latter is Dr. Jordan’s oft-used statement “there’s no free lunch in South Africa, everything costs something”, to describe such serious socio-economic shortcomings as the provision of basic services to poor and marginalised communities.


Sipho Seepe Speaking at the Inaugural Harold Wolpe Lecture


Jordan revived Ghanaian statesman Kwame Nkrumah’s famed Pan-Africanist exhortation “Seek ye the political kingdom (and all other things shall be added unto it") without any genuine attempt to elucidate how such a theory could play itself out in contemporary South Africa. He was able to neatly sidestep (and avoid altogether) such critical issues as NEPAD and South Africa’s policy toward Zimbabwe with “maybe we can talk about that later”. Certainly the skilful answers reeled off with a politician’s ease before the microphone clearly exposed Jordan for the political animal that he, in essence, truly is, without otherwise obfuscatory academic labels.

For all of that, there were some humorous moments such as when Seepe displayed a number of tongue-in-cheek Zapiro cartoons. Regrettably these satirical pieces were whisked rapidly off the projector without allowing any discussion of their political significance. Such tactics, clearly designed to score quick points with the receptive audience, inevitably diverted attention away from more sobering issues that were intended to be the subject at hand.

It was interesting to note that the starting point of Seepe’s vigorous presentation was his identification of himself to the audience as a Sowetan. His modest description of himself as an “ordinary Sowetan, born and raised, having been through the 1976 riots" managed to be self-effacing at the same time that it strategically placed his struggle credentials up-front for the audience to deal with. Seepe was unflinchingly critical in his assessment of post-apartheid governance, speaking contemptuously of the rampant careerism within the ANC and what he called “the culture of ‘praise-singers’”. He commented that “the only time our politicians want to be quoted is when they agree with the powers that be”.

Seepe’s observations were keen but failed to resonate, largely in terms of the highly personalised nature of his attacks on President Mbeki. For example, he commented scathingly on the “arrogance of (some-one) who has never been in a laboratory” or “did not have the decency to say ‘I don’t know’". By personalising his criticisms, Seepe misses the point. What he portrays as character flaws in Mbeki may be seen instead as characteristic of the prevailing ANC world-view, rather than simply baffling presidential foibles.

The debate failed on one central level: both presentations lacked a firm grounding in real issues and real complexities ie the complexities of the global economic order and the dominance of both global and local market forces, as well as the country's own internal structure of power. For example, in labouring the point of the “stone-hard realities” which need to be taken into account, Jordan actually misses them himself. There are several that could be pointed out: the increased centralisation of the party around the office of the president, the ANC's slow drift to the right as exemplified by its adherence to the home-grown structural adjustment program GEAR, the narrowing of the space for public dissent etc. To admit to these serious problems requires the 'intellectual honesty' as well as 'humility' that both Seepe and Jordan spoke eloquently of.

Thus they failed in what Edward Said claims to be one of the most important responsibilities of the intellectual i.e. "to construct fields of co-existence rather than fields of battle as the outcome of intellectual labour". Ultimately both were simply talking past each other; Jordan spoke emotively of new-found freedoms and civil liberties as well as the vibrancies of political activism, “no-one could suggest that the people are cowed, intimidated or shy about asserting their freedoms” and dismissing all criticism as 'Afro-pessimism'. Seepe spoke to the contrary, about “people (being) afraid to express themselves” with the corollary of Jordan's contention about Afro-pessimism, “if you disagree, you are unpatriotic”.

The accusation of Afro-pessimism sits uncomfortably with many South Africans. The "I told you so"' rebuttal is common, especially with many and varying voices on the left, particularly those who have all along been suspicious of the ANC. Are such criticisms out of order, especially as one audience member complained, if those critics have no alternatives to offer?

The answer would have to be, emphatically, no. We need to robustly challenge our elected leaders. Anything less is a threat to the democracy that has been so painstakingly built. Yet while we mount such vigorous challenges to the government, we need to recognise the folly of setting up the opposing poles of 'us and them' which promotes the kind of unhealthy antagonism between and amongst those presumably working toward the same goals. Our discourse needs to find a balance between an uncritical acceptance of government and what Jordan would call 'Afro-pessimism'.

How, I wondered, would Wolpe have reacted to such an exchange? When I studied political science in the mid-nineties, it was a seminal Wolpe text 'Race, Class and the Apartheid State' that excited the most discussion under the tutelage of another ANC stalwart, the venerable Dr. Ian Philips. However Wolpe's impact was hardly confined only to students of political science. Wolpe's work was instrumental in shaping the way in which social scientists understood South African society and the means for transformative change. Venerated as one of South Africa’s keenest academic minds, Wolpe was director of the Education Policy Unit at the University of the Western Cape and had literally just finished a report for the central task group for the National Commission on Higher Education, when he passed away. First as a lawyer with a degree from Wits University and then as a committed political activist and academic, Wolpe argued passionately for theory combined with action as a powerful revolutionary principle. He warned against "mere theorising for the sake of theorising" as what he called, "a futile and self-indulgent exercise, a luxury available only to those with tenured posts and enough to eat."

Those are powerful words, powerful enough to give one pause. How much power do we attribute to educated voices? More importantly, what do those educated voices offer South Africa from a transformational point of view? The political science teacher who had introduced me to Wolpe, now makes an eloquent argument for privatisation in his capacity as adviser to Telecommunications Minister Jeff Hadebe, in what may be seen as a a blatant repudiation of the ideals which fired a generation of political science scholars just eight years ago. Are we creating a laager around those figures with considerable privilege, resources, training and of course the means to expression and then stopping all productive dialogue at that point? Where then lies the opportunity for real exchanges that echo meaningfully outside of conference rooms and lecture halls?



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