‘The dilemma of the black intellectual‘

Published Nov 2, 2021


Lekgantshi Console Tleane

Tshwane Metro Police Department executive director Console Tleane who has been falsely accused of lying about his tertiary qualification. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

The late 1980s can arguably be said to have been the beginning of the debate, proper, on the need to revisit the curriculum taught at universities across the country. Equally, the research orientation and output of many academics came under scrutiny.

Initiated mainly by the black student movement with the support of a few academics, the debate was, unfortunately, confined to English-speaking liberal universities and their black counterparts. Conservative Afrikaans universities were still caught in denialism: that things were bound to change.

The middle 1990s through to the early 2000s saw the debate going on, even though in hushed tones, largely due to the euphoria of liberation, but also that singular focus was on the transformation of the governance and leadership structures to reflect the demographics of the country. This narrow approach was a mistake that was to catch up with the country in devastating ways.

The literal explosion of the 2015 Rhodes Must Fall movement, starting at the fountain of liberal higher education, the University of Cape Town, brought into sharp focus the fact that the curriculum and research offerings of our universities continue to reflect the dominance of Euro-American intellectual traditions.

Many university administrators were left scrambling for answers on why it is that the knowledge systems embedded in our institutions fail to reflect the thought, triumphs, aspirations, pain and cries of the African continent.

The simple demand of the Rhodes Must Fall movement was and remains that university studies should re-centre the African continent in both focus and thought. But where would academics start in fashioning offerings that reflected the continent as an equal among its peers in the arena of global knowledge systems?

The collection of essays titled African Voices: In Search of a Decolonial Turn, edited by Siphamandla Zondi, stands out as a concrete contribution to answering the question of how to fashion academic offerings that re-centre the African continent and its knowledge systems in our universities.

In this collection, Zondi leads a company of some brilliant contemporary scholars who stand on the shoulders of the intellectual giants of the black world, exposing their thoughts to the reader to appreciate the intellectual wells that must still be explored.

In the words of Mammo Muchie: “Africans (must) acknowledge that they have spiritual, philosophical, epistemological and struggle heritages that can save not only Africans but the entire universe”. The contributions of those whose thoughts are explored in this book are, therefore, not confined to polemical or esoteric exchanges. Instead, almost all those whose thoughts are explored sought to contribute to the liberation of the African mind, the person, and the people as a whole.

In his 1987 essay titled The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual, the free-thinking African American intellectual, Cornel West first observes that the black intellectual, reflects on and writes about the “objective situation created by circumstances not of their own choosing”.

West also argues that the black intellectual often emerges from the realm of the academy or what he terms the “literate subcultures — especially in the large urban centres — of writers, painters, musicians, and politicos for unconventional educational enhancement”.

The third category that West ought to have added is the crucible of the liberation struggle, whether the independence movement on the African continent and in the Caribbean or the civil rights and Black Power movements in North America.

The intellectuals profiled in this collection range from those who wrestled with ideas as part of the contribution within the liberation movements – Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, and Isaac Bangani (IB) Tabata, those who advance their thoughts within the rarefied spaces of academia – Mahmood Mamdani, Ali Mazrui, and Adebayo Adedeji, those whose chosen arena is literary expressions - Ibrahim al-Koni and Chinua Achebe; and lastly, those like Wangari Maathai who engaged in grassroots activism and later entered state politics.

In terms of scope, the collection is anchored on what this writer terms the Triple Heritage of Black Thought (with apologies to Ali Mazrui), that is, the African independence movement and literary tradition, the African American writing tradition that is sometimes termed the Black Radical Tradition, and the Caribbean anti-colonial thought.

The common thread running through the book is an attempt to demonstrate how those profiled made contributions to the decolonisation project. Currently en vogue within academia, decolonisation has come to encompass all efforts aimed at freeing the African mind, challenging and minimising the dominance of Euro-American thought, and re-centering Africa in all knowledge systems and production. This has brought about a subtle but contested shift from the continuing struggles against neocolonialism as understood by many radical political economists of the Global South. But that is a debate for another day.

With its strengths, which come out readily in every page that one goes through, the book has a major weakness. Out of eighteen intellectuals profiled, only one, Wangari Maathai, is a woman. This is worrying to the core of every intellectual bone. For two reasons, at the very least.

First, by profiling only men, an impression is readily given that black women writers have not produced seminal work worth profiling. This is factually flawed. The black world has produced some of the finest women writers in Ida Wells, Patricia McFadden, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Tony Morrison, Maya Angelou, bell hooks (yes, she writes her name in small caps), and our very own, Pumla Gqobo. The list is too long!

The second and arguably more worrying reason with the exclusion of black women writers is that it perpetuates the stereotype of the black women being cerebrally less inclined. For the black student at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels who will read this book (yes, the book deserves to be prescribed at universities), the lingering question will be: “where is my writer? Where is the writer who is like me: who I would like to emulate?”

For these two reasons only, the book is a source of serious concern. The publisher may, no, must consider rectifying this by either expanding or producing a sequel that will focus on black women intellectuals. Until then, every social sciences and humanities academic must give this collection his/her serious consideration. This is the book to help transform the curriculum and research focus in our universities.

*African Voices: In Search of a Decolonial Turn is published by HSRC Press and is available from bookstores and online outlets. Prices range between R290 and R300.