Pallo Jordan will have to pay the price of his error in judgement in shame, writes Imraan Buccus.
Intellectuals have always been a critical component of attempts at building the social forces that can achieve progressive change. In Durban, Steve Biko and Richard Turner, both murdered by apartheid forces in the 1970s, stand out as two of the most important figures in building social movements.
There is also a long tradition of intellectuals, sometimes operating as lone voices, speaking truth to power. As the attack on Gaza continues, many of us remember the late and great Palestinian academic Edward Said, who was based at Columbia University in New York. Writing from New York this week where I am visiting universities, I thought of Said’s cutting-edge intellect, and the fact that the US, and indeed the world, need more Edward Saids. The anti-intellectualism that has come to the fore in South Africa in recent years does our society no favours.
Our society desperately needs a lot more “clever blacks” in and out of university. Xolela Mangcu’s exposure of just how few black professors there are in our universities is an important wake-up call.
But we also need to remember that, from George Orwell to Tariq Ali, many of the leading intellectuals of the world have operated outside of universities.
In view of the anti-intellectualism that has come to the fore in our society in recent years it is interesting to note that some of our leading radical thinkers are returning to Antonio Gramsci, the Italian philosopher, who did so much to theorise the role of the intellectual in struggles for social change.
For Gramsci, contending social forces all had their own intellectuals and their work was pivotal in the process of building a common sense around what constitutes an acceptable social order.
We are starting to lose some of the intellectuals who, in and outside of universities, played such a critical role in bringing down apartheid.
Last year we lost Phyllis Naidoo, a brave fighter and thinker. We have recently lost John Daniel, a leading academic and lifelong activist.
From his student days, through his long years in exile and his last years back in Durban, Daniel always took a principled stand on questions of injustice. He is remembered as a brave man, a brilliant academic and a gifted teacher.
There is plenty of back-stabbing in academia, and the left is full of brutal rivalries and intrigues, but Daniel always navigated these sometimes treacherous waters with impeccable decency. I was honoured to have worked closely with him on a university study abroad programme until his passing last week.
With important exceptions, many of the younger generation of academics see their positions as careers rather than as callings to justice.
This is part of a global trend in which universities are increasingly running like businesses and operating as servants of power rather than as sites of critique or engagement.
An academic who raises a lot of money is often valued far higher than one who walks side by side with the oppressed and takes the real risks that always come with speaking truth to power.
The academic calling is not to be a researcher working for whichever organisation has the biggest budget. It is to be committed to truth and justice. It is not about building personal empires. It is about being committed to building communities of rational enquiry.
Some academics will write about oppression in journals read only by other academics but are silent as we confront an epidemic of gender-based violence, and when activists are repressed and the world reels in shock at the ongoing brutality in Gaza.
We need people to speak out. But we also need people to engage issues in a thoughtful way that is based on evidence.
Demagoguery and sloganeering are unhelpful and, in fact, often do more harm than good.
Progressive forces have done more harm than good when their engagement is not based on proper intellectual rigour and real political principle.
Over the past few months Pallo Jordan has been a consistently principled voice on issues such as Nkandla and the proposals to license journalists. Jordan’s struggle credentials are impeccable and his voice has carried real weight.
Like many others I have found myself really depressed at the news that he has allowed others to refer to him as “Doctor” for 30 years despite not having been awarded a PhD.
One imagines that this started by accident, with people just assuming that he had a PhD and slowly got to the point where telling the truth seemed overwhelming.
It is a real pity that a wise and insightful voice may be removed from our national conversation as a result of this debacle.
Jordan will have to pay the price of his error in judgement in shame but that should not preclude him from continuing to play his role as one of our better public intellectuals.