Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Populism vs Intellect: A growing divide?
Xolela Mangcu writes an interesting op-ed in the Business Day this morning, detailing the danger for intellectuals from the increasing favour of populist leaders (such as Zuma) and it's influence on the ANC's leadership decisions.

He writes:
"How then can we go beyond this 'us and them' mentality? First, I have the utmost respect for the people Memela mentioned as government intellectuals - Pallo Jordan, Itumeleng Mosala, Charles Nqakula, Keorapetse Kgositsile. I doubt very much they would have sent him on his vitriolic mission. I would instead suggest a triangular relationship between government intellectuals, independent intellectuals, and organic intellectuals. At the apex of the triangle would be government intellectuals who feed into public policy the ideas emanating from the independent and organic intellectuals at the base.

The intellectual engagement would occur in its full complexity inside the triangle. For that interaction to be fruitful and productive there would have to be an understanding that government intellectuals, independent intellectuals and organic intellectuals operate according to their own logic.

Government intellectuals tend to be informed by the logic of practicality, organic intellectuals tend to be informed by the wisdom that emanates from everyday struggles, and independent intellectuals tend to be informed by the logic of critical autonomy. But all of this requires government intellectuals who are willing to enter the inside of the triangle fully prepared to be taken on by both the independent and organic intellectuals, without a resort to name calling.

This triangular intellectual model has implications also for the political sphere. As things now stand we have a standoff between a technocratic professional class that sits at the apex of the triangle, thinking it has everything worked out for the rest of society. Its discourse is that of economic progress, and it is mostly associated with President Thabo Mbeki.

At the base you have left-wing intellectuals, social movements and disaffected youth to whom someone like Zuma has great appeal. But it is clear to me that both men are so stuck in their own worlds that they would never be able to traverse this divide.

There is therefore no ducking the question: will the ANC give us a leader who can enter the inside of the triangle and manage what is clearly a cultural clash within the organisation? That would require a senior member of the party who is widely respected on both sides of the divide.

Who shall it be: Pallo Jordan, Cyril Ramaphosa, Mosiuoa Lekota, Kgalema Motlanthe, Tokyo Sexwale? In short, the ANC and SA need someone who can grasp and transcend 'the meaning of the situation as a whole'."

It's a nice premise, and I would love to have an intellectual, especially one with a business mindset like Tokyo Sexwale, but the political animal does not move in such wishful ways. I would be very surprised if any of those listed would end up as our next president.