Students on the University of Cape Town campus. Picture: Tracey Adams

In an edited version of his 2014 TB Davie Memorial Lecture on academic freedom delivered at UCT, Max du Preez urges intellectuals to participate actively and visibly in public life.

 If academics don’t live up to their responsibilities as intellectuals actively engaged with society and its challenges, they run the risk of seeing their own freedom diminishing.

The task of a university is not primarily to produce economically active citizens. Universities worldwide are responsible for advancing human knowledge and how that knowledge impacts on society. While this principle is universal, its application is society-specific.

There is thus no way universities in South Africa can go about their business without focusing their minds on the specific demands and needs of our society, on the legacies of colonialism and apartheid, on the transformation of society, and on the issues of identity, social cohesion, poverty, unemployment and inequality.

Society demands that universities produce public intellectuals and participate actively and visibly in public life. This has to do with the second leg of my definition of the role of universities, namely the impact knowledge has on the betterment of society. An informed, considered and tolerant public opinion is a precondition for a true democratic society. It is our one shortcoming as a society as we struggle to establish a proper democratic society in the fullest sense of the word in a short time after such a long period of oppression and minority rule.

Paradoxically, we are probably the most open society outside the major Western democracies. This is more a result of the history of resistance to apartheid and the nature of our political settlement in 1994 and the resultant progressive constitution than of the instincts or culture of our people.

The essence of Afrikaner nationalism, the force that dominated South Africa for half a century, militated against openness and tolerance. The instincts of the liberation movement in exile between 1960 and 1990 were not much different.

But the National Party negotiators suddenly became arch-liberals when they negotiated the political settlement, insisting on every kind of personal freedom so as to limit the future actions of the majority government. The ANC, in turn, could not afford to turn against the liberal principles it had espoused in its international campaign with the anti-apartheid movement against the apartheid regime.

And so we got a dispensation that went contrary to the views of the majority of the nation: a constitutional rather than a parliamentary or majoritarian democracy and a constitution that guaranteed free speech and freedom of the media, the right to abortion, a ban on capital punishment, no discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender or sexuality, and provision for a public protector and a Human Rights Commission.

This disconnect manifests itself regularly with the governing ANC’s hostile reaction to criticism by the media, artists, civil society and political opponents; with the attacks on the Constitutional Court when it decides against the executive; with its threats against press freedom; with its brutal control over the public broadcaster; with its manipulation of the criminal justice system; and with its tolerance of police brutality.

We have now lived with this almost artificial openness for two decades, and some of it is beginning to feel normal to us. While we have this gift, we should make the best use of it.

By the look of things, it might not last forever. The lunacy of the recent war of words between the ANC and the EFF and the ANC’s attacks on the public protector are reminders of that.

What we need desperately is a greater stimulation of nuanced thinking and a decent exchange of ideas across all sectors of society. We have not as a society rid ourselves of the fears and prejudices that come from a lack of knowledge of the “other”. Inequality in income and lifestyle is a huge barrier, but it’s important that, while we tackle the difficult project of establishing a more just society, we should at least talk across the racial, class and urban/rural divides to get a sense of the other’s dreams and fears and struggles.

Enter the public intellectual, that animal trained and equipped to think critically, to expand the parameters of national conversations, to stir up controversies, to bring new insights and fresh angles. In a country poor of privately-funded research institutions and think tanks, we have to rely on our university academics to play this role.

Where are our Noam Chomskys, Slavoj Zizeks, Wole Soyinkas, Edward Saids, Ngugi wa Thiongo’os, Susan Sontags, Camille Paglias? Where are the young bright sparks that will take over the baton from Njabulo Ndebele, Neville Alexander and Van Zyl Slabbert? Why could we never produce another Steve Biko? Instead we rely on old men long dead for our political inspiration, like Vladimir Lenin and Frantz Fanon.

We need academics to step off campus much more often and fill the gaps left by the media, the political establishment and the faith communities. This will also enrich their universities and their students, because to engage with society also means receiving feedback and understanding the zeitgeist better.

I know quite a number of gifted young academics and intellectuals who prefer to stay inside the safe confines of their classrooms and research desks. They feel it is simply too risky, too traumatic to get caught up in the rough and tumble of the often crude and robust public discourse in South Africa.

Yes, it can be very problematic. The public discourse is so poor at the moment that we don’t often go much beyond ad hominem attacks and attaching labels. Labels such as neo-liberal, anarchist, house negro, racist, race-baiter, race-traitor, neo-leftist, communist, capitalist, counter-revolutionary, socialist and the latest one the right wing loves to use, libtard. I know, I have had every single one hung around my neck, on occasion even all of them at the same time on the same issue.

The new political culture of cheap populism was introduced after the ANC’s undignified 2007 Polokwane conference and given new impetus by the formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters: politics by slogan, insult and threat. It is strengthened by the failure of the disastrous education system of the last 20 years and the strong anti-intellectual bent of our current president.

If there is anything I can teach academics and public intellectuals, it is this: grow a thick skin very quickly and accept abuse as proof that you’ve reached at least some people. If your arguments are strong, your information sound and you remain consistent, even your worst enemies will eventually respect your integrity, and that’s all you need.

Accept that this is a rough neighbourhood where hyperbole and insult are the currency, and you will be able to witness the impact your voice is making. Demand your freedom to be a forthright public intellectual and then practise that freedom.

Ah, but there is another impediment stopping academics and intellectuals to actively engage with society. It is called snobbery. If you write a piece and it doesn’t quote at least a few international experts and doesn’t have a few footnotes at the bottom of each page and needs a dictionary to decipher, then it’s unworthy of a true intellectual. If you write a book under 500 pages and your book can be read by someone with matric in under a week, then you have compromised your academic integrity.

What utter rubbish. Of course there is a need for specialised and purely academic research and writing. But there is an equal obligation on you as an intellectual in this society to make sure the knowledge you’re accumulating and dealing with also has an impact on the betterment of society, not only your students.

The custom of publishing peer-reviewed articles in reputable academic magazines is an old and good one. But I would propose a new criterion to judge academic excellence by: for every academic article an academic should also be able to show a piece in a mainstream newspaper or magazine or an interview on radio or television.

I’m not saying we don’t have public intellectuals and academics engaged in public life, just far too few.

Let me give you three recent examples of how an engagement by academics in the public discourse have worked well. The first one is the sensational criminal trial of Oscar Pistorius. Law professors, lecturers and counsel went on radio and television every day to explain what was happening inside the court and what it meant. Thanks to them, the millions of people who had followed the trial on television or radio know a lot more about our law and the functioning of our courts than before.

The second example is the controversy raging right now around Tim Noakes and the Banting diet. It is a robust debate with much mud-slinging, but it has raised awareness among millions, and academics have regularly weighed in with their specialist knowledge and insights.

The third example is the Marikana massacre. We saw the TV footage, we heard the statements from the police, the mine management and the trade unions. And then a University of Johannesburg academic and his team went there and pieced together what really happened – it was very different from what the police and the mine management had told us. That was proper public engagement.

Now if we could only tackle and popularise education and health issues, urban planning and economic policy in the same way as the Oscar trial, the Tim Noakes diet and Marikana, we would have a much better informed public opinion.

Twenty years after we became a democracy I feel the need to say that I see signs that our freedom is shrinking. It is imperative that we turn this around before we land on the slippery slope to authoritarianism. Right now we need more freedom, more openness. More freedom of speech, more academic freedom, more tolerance.

Paradoxically, the phenomenon of Julius Malema and the EFF, while not shining examples of tolerance and free speech themselves, could help us expand our openness. Because Malema came from inside the ANC, because he was born in an impoverished township, and because he poses as the champion of the African poor and marginalised, he has licence to say things to those in power that had not been said before, things that previously been called un-African or culturally insensitive.

Malema has seriously undermined the culture of blind respect for the so-called leaders of the people and the elders. He has broken quite a few taboos and made it possible for others to be bolder when they speak truth to power.

We should harness this new opportunity. We should be vigilant that the almost fascist tendencies we have witnessed recently do not take root in our society.

I urge you, the students and academics, to assert your own freedom to fight the good fight for an open society and a deepening of our democracy.

Cape Times

* Cape Times columnist Du Preez is a journalist and author. He won the 2014 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award for his latest book, A Rumour of Spring: South Africa after 20 Years of Democracy (Zebra Press). This is an edited version of his 2014 TB Davie Memorial Lecture on academic freedom delivered at UCT.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.