SOUTH AFRICA: What's an idea worth?

A bitter argument is being waged among some of South Africa's published thinkers. It all began, really, in March, when University of the Witwatersrand Vice-Chancellor Professor Loyiso Nongxa decried the "impoverishment of the national intellectual project". He ascribed it, in part, to low remuneration for intellectual endeavour that had some academics seeking to augment their salaries and resorting to private consultancy, "producing lower-quality work for greater financial rewards, while others become public intellectuals peddling personal opinions and biases as expert knowledge".

First published by The Weekender

Nongxa's thread was taken up by academic book publisher Solani Ngobeni, who argued that many who are called "public intellectuals" in South Africa have not contributed enough in the academic sphere to deserve the title.

"Public intellectualism has to do with those whose contribution to knowledge is beyond reproach, yet who strive to make their profound research accessible via various channels, such as public lectures, seminars, conferencing, radio and newspapers...(bearing) in mind that such public commentary cannot be a replacement for serious, scholarly interrogation," he wrote in the Sunday Times.

Ngobeni made the mistake - unless, of course, it was a deliberate dig - of naming a few people commonly referred to in South Africa as 'public intellectuals', but who he believes "fail to make the cut" academically.

He was rounded on by two of the academics he named, Professor Sipho Seepe, president of the South African Institute of Race Relations, and Dr Xolela Mangcu, convener of the University of Johannesburg's Platform for Public Deliberation.

So what is a public intellectual and what role do they play in society? There is no simple answer. "A public intellectual is an independent thinker who generates intellectual discourse and provokes high-level deliberation in the public sphere," says Nongxa.

"A disputatious stirrer of debate, often sceptical and at odds with society, constantly questioning policy, authority and social establishments, the public intellectual presents clear, logical considered arguments and expert knowledge in the public arena without trepidation or fear of public lash.

"A courageous defender of universal values, the public intellectual has the ability to view common conceptions in new ways, to provide a lens for society to reflect on its norms, and to have the aptitude and audacity to acknowledge that there may be room for erroneous reasoning," says Nongxa.

But activist-businesswoman and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Dr Mamphela Ramphele, believes this is a "nonsense concept. South Africans must get on and talk, there are so many serious things to talk about... (and) you don't have to be an intellectual to talk about them," she says.

Ramphele's work is directed at getting all South Africans to talk. She recently published a book, titled Laying Ghosts to Rest, that calls for social change on a number of fronts, and is one of the instigators of the recently released Dinokeng Scenarios, drawn up by 35 South Africans from civil society, government, political parties, trade unions, business, religious groups, academia and the media who debated the country's present and its future.

While it may be true that one does not need the epithet 'intellectual' to participate meaningfully in public debate, the words of a scholar generally carry more weight, says Professor Robin Crewe, president of the Academy of Science of South Africa, a statutory body established to promote common ground in scientific thinking across all disciplines.

"Everyone has a right to comment. The question is, what kind of weight [is given to their comment]? That is gauged by their academic achievement. The words of a Nobel Prize-winning economist carry more weight than those of a [commercial bank] economist," he believes.

Crewe makes a distinction between a 'public intellectual' - someone who has published seminal work that has changed their discipline, but who also works in the public sphere to make their work accessible to all - and a 'public commentator'.

For him, the important characteristic of all who are worthy of the title 'public intellectual' is that they have simultaneously "captured the very high regard of their academic peers". These, he says, are academics such as University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) palaeo-anthropologist and Professor Emeritus Phillip Tobias, and Wits astronomer Professor David Block, director of the university's Anglo American Cosmic Dust Laboratory.

Crewe says they are public intellectuals in that they have matched extraordinary academic work with the ability to translate it, and its social significance, for the public.

While an academic or intellectual may also choose to be a public commentator - Palestinian-American literary theorist, cultural critic and political activist Edward Said is a good example - using their field of expertise to, "by fairly rigorous analysis", suggest solutions to social problems, not all of them do, says Crewe.

The point, for many, is that much of the public comment provided in South Africa by people who are viewed as public intellectuals, or who style themselves as such, is, in the words of Wits historian Professor Achille Mbembe, "devoid of philosophical reasoning, [and]...not based on any sound scholarly work.

"As one might have expected, they do not lead to new forms of civic or political activism," he says. "Nor do they contribute to the emergence of new forms of creativity in the arts or in the field of literature, cinema, music or architecture."

One way to discern the weight that should be given to comment is to look to the rating work done by organisations such as the academies of science and the National Research Foundation (NRF).

These ratings can be useful to the public in that they afford a kind of "quality guarantee", suggesting that the opinions of academics who choose to comment on issues to do with their areas of expertise should be taken seriously, says University of Cape Town (UCT) Emeritus Professor of Mathematics George Ellis. He defines public intellectuals as commentators who "lift the level of public discourse from immediate practicalities and shallow issues to longer-term and deeper issues", and who also have a broader understanding and are engaged with wider issues of policy and meaning.

The NRF rates scholars in terms of the quantity and quality of their academic output, but there is no reason for a similar rating system for public comment, no matter who makes it, says Crewe. A good scholar will already have been 'rated', either by the NRF or by admission to an organisation such as an academy of science.

This does not diminish the benefit of good public comment, says Crewe, citing the example of popular American astronomer Carl Sagan who, despite conducting research and doing an enormous amount of work to popularise science and astronomy, was never elected to the academies of science.

Crewe says Sagan's case is "a difficult one", but the suggestion in academic circles is that his work in astronomy was not of a high enough quality to allow election.

While formal rating has a role for some, there is a chilling corollary highlighted by philosopher Philippe-Joseph Salazar, who holds the Distinguished Chair of Rhetoric at the University of Cape Town.

Salazar reminds us that the Academy of Sciences in Soviet Russia gave ratings only to "those who thought right", reserving the Gulag for those who did not. "They were rated, indeed. Dangerous idea: it leads to a policing of ideas," Salazar says. "Society, now and then, wants to allocate a role to thinkers, but [this role] is always based on political expediency."

But, says Nongxa, public intellectuals are not only found at institutions of higher learning and - despite Said's warning that autonomy and freedom of expression are under threat through institutional association and commitment to the agendas of social authorities such as universities - governments, political parties and the media have the ability to be critical thinkers, advancing academia and promoting social change.

True thinkers, whose work is revolutionary, do not need public acclaim. They react to it in much the same way as French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964, but refused to accept it. "Who needs an award for thinking?" he asked.

For Salazar, the definition is concrete. Those who are called public intellectuals by the media fall neatly into three categories: "the clowns, the clones and the drones".

"The clowns mimic ideas they don't really understand but think will amuse the reading public - they often write in the weekend press. The clones impersonate others' ideas with skill and gusto - they like to quote big international names and refer to the latest book in the New York Review of Books list - they read the reviews, they never read the books themselves.

"The drones look like the real thing, they are stealthy, they survey the public territory, they drop bombshells and report back - they are intellectual spies, often seductive, sometimes terrorising, mostly articulate instruments of the powers and counter-powers that be."

Those who think - from philosophers and scientists to theologists and artists - are not public intellectuals unless they step outside their domain and "try their hand at 'going public'". If they do, they "transmogrify themselves into clowns, clones or drones", Salazar says.

Crewe is not as hard on intellectuals who choose to make public comment, saying an argument can be made for more of South Africa's top thinkers, in fields from the sciences to the humanities, to make their research more public.

But it seems many of South Africa's - and the world's - foremost thinkers why away from public comment of any kind for the very reason Salazar has highlighted: they do not want to be categorised among the "clowns, clones and drones".

This could be partly because South Africa's talent pool is very small, and the media has access to only a small group of people willing to make public comments, says Helen Suzman Foundation director Raenette Taljaard, who spends much of her time trying to promote informative public discourse on social issues.

This means that those who do comment publicly run the risk of their opinions - and reputations - being marred by becoming hackneyed.

Mbembe says he is not sure the term 'public intellectual' is either useful or redeemable.

"I am interested in the kind of original, critical thought and scholarship that can exert a powerful influence in diverse areas of human life and knowledge - the kind of work some of the leading philosophers of the late 20th century engaged in: Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Paul Ricoeur, Claude Lefort, Charles Taylor, Jean-Luc Nancy, Paul Gilroy, Judith Butler and so on," he says.

"None of them ever referred to himself or herself as a public intellectual. They just went on transforming the terms of the debates on the shapes of our times by producing solid, original works....For me, therefore, public intellectual is ultimately a polemical term. It is not a project. It is a way of posturing, a pure gesture of narcissism devoid of politics - except, of course, the politics of narcissism itself."

* "What's an idea worth?" was originally published by The Weekender, a quality newspaper in South Africa. It is reproduced with permission.