Intellectuals, where art thou in these times of crises?

Thobani Zikalala is an independent political commentator. Picture: Supplied

Thobani Zikalala is an independent political commentator. Picture: Supplied

Published Dec 15, 2023



Every turn of world events has been marked by an intellectual insurgence. Intellectuals and intellectual production have always been at the centre of social change.

This can be seen in the contemporary from the French Revolution to Ghana’s independence. Everywhere in the world where change can be seen to have been done, intellectuals can be seen leading, analysing, explaining and predicting. This is what intellectuals have been throughout history, where they are needed.

The situation in South Africa in recent years demands us to ask where are the South African Intellectuals? What are they doing while the country goes through such crises? In the past, we had AC Jordan, Pixley kaSeme, Anton Lembede and Steve Biko – intellectuals dedicated to making us understand our situation and how best to change it. The intellectuals or what others may call the intellectuals are the vanguard of society. They are the first line of defence.

Intellectuals are those who dedicate their lives to thought and discourse but not discourse for discourse’s sake – discourse to change society. The intellectual is conjuring ideas not for the sake of proving how smart they are but instead to contribute to social change.

The real intellectual subordinates themselves to ideas and the greater ideal of change. They are never about themselves but the idea itself. At most, the real intellectual is never much about adulation and praise; the real praise comes from the usefulness of their ideas. I imagine Steve Biko saying: ‘It is better to die for an idea that will live.“ This is a true embodiment of a real intellectual.

In the past 10 years, the country has seen a decline in real intellectuals, especially in the socio-political space. The intellectual work done around socio-political phenomena as it happens has been appalling. I imagine the state-capture era as one era or period where real intellectuals chose to hide and charlatans whose names are not even mentioned faked their way into the media spotlight without any real tangible intellectual prowess.

To this day, the citizen is unable to explain what state capture was but so-called intellectuals “pontificated” on mainstream media every day about it. This is an indictment on real intellectuals who sleep on duty while the country is in crisis. Where are they and what are they doing? They must answer.

Intellectual production does not mean just writing big academic books or academic papers for the sake of meeting key performance agreements. It means writing for a purpose greater than self-upward mobility, the subjugation of self, the intellectual must be implicated by their own ideas. For real intellectual work goes beyond writing for writing’s sake.

This invokes a question asked by UCT academic, Dr Lwazi Lushaba: “Nibhalela obani?” (Who are you writing for?) This is a critical question as every day, we are bombarded by published books or journal publications but who reads the writings? Who are they intended for? Are they intended for the people being written about? Are the people aware that such work exists about them or was it never intended for them?

The intellectual must be found within the people, in the combat zone as people battle through living in this society. The intellectual must get their hands “dirty” in that they must get involved in the making of a better society, not just from the university office or library but for the people.

Real intellectual production is built from real concrete material conditions, not from the figment of someone’s imagination. The intellectual cannot afford to zone themselves out of the equation as political phenomena happen in front of them.

There are many strange ideas being perpetuated in the country. In the age of trends and social media, these spread like wildfire. The sad part is that as we face economic decline, unemployment, currency manipulation, the banks’ onslaught on business, and migration issues, the intellectual is not at the forefront of explaining and making sense of the issues.

Society needs not only to understand the crisis we are in but also find a way to get out of the situation. Intellectuals should be holding the light and showing the way, along with society, to get out of the mess. Unfortunately, the only time we see some of them is when the status quo must be defended. Then, they and come out guns blazing, not in defence of society but of the economic interests of those who pay their bills. As the saying goes: He who pays the piper picks the tune.

What is happening is a shame, especially on the socio-political scene. Society is at loggerheads with itself and the situation it faces. Every day we see debates or social media trends on issues of gender equality, race relations and so on. One can see that there is real confusion about how best to deal with the issues and, sometimes, ideological debates emerge but the intellectuals are nowhere to be seen. In this way, wrong ideas are perpetuated in society as the holy truth.

Even real intellectual discourse levels have decreased and everything is about trends and saying the most controversial but intellectually empty things for the sake of likes and trends. There is a saying that all ideas must be tested in the fire, but with such intellectual levels in the country, where is the fire?

Where are the intellectuals? Hiding somewhere and feeling too important to interact with society and the problems they face? Or sitting somewhere debating among one another, using the most complex language?

It must be noted that the work of the intellectuals is to simplify the most complex issues. The intellectuals must be able to say the most complex things in the simplest way. In this way, they also do not lose touch with the society they are talking about.

The intellectual must always be connected to the community. They can’t afford to isolate themselves or allow their ideas become abstract at best and useless at worst. They must always have a sense of connection with the world one is thinking about because the ideas have a base.

Where art thou, intellectuals? Cry the beloved country left to the wolves, without its defenders and shield at the forefront to defend it. Intellectuals must come out of hiding and take responsibility for the situation.

We cannot afford to be a country on intellectual autopilot while intellectuals are afraid of possible rejection and ostracisation or just simply securing the pay cheque.

Intellectual to the front! The best among us must emerge and lead the intellectual charge against the status quo. We can no longer afford to freestyle our way through reality as it happens. We need real ideas. Intellectuals cannot afford to abdicate their duty. We can no longer afford this abscondment by the intellectual layer who are the first ones to decry the situation when it gets worse, yet are unwilling to get their hands dirty. And no, I am not an intellectual.

Thobani Zikalala is an independent political commentator.

Daily News