SOUTH AFRICA: Intellectuals, the state and universities

More than ever before, intellectuals are more likely to be found outside rather than inside the South African university. The transition from legal apartheid to a young constitutional democracy created major dilemmas for the anti-apartheid intellectual.
This is a chapter from Poverty of Ideas: South African Democracy and the Retreat of Intellectuals.

First, where does the loyalty of the post-apartheid intellectual lie? Years of struggle couched in an anti-apartheid discourse had not only been built on strong personal and emotional attachments to the liberation movements, principally the African National Congress, but it had not imagined a realm of ideas and politics beyond that struggle.

Thus, when a new state emerged in the 1990s, many university-based intellectuals on the left found themselves in a moral and political quandary about how to respond to the new conditions of politics, economics and society under what is, effectively, a black government. As I will demonstrate later, this quandary arises in part from a misconception of loyalty, and therefore disloyalty, on the part of the intellectual.

Second, what would be the costs to intellectuals of working outside the state? The word 'costs' refers here to material, reputational and political costs.

On the one hand, and to put this bluntly, there was money to be made, promotions to be gained, tenders to be won, invitational recognition at major functions, and senior university or civil service positions to be attained, by those who announced - and made visible on public platforms - that their loyalties lay with the promotion of the Reconstruction and Development Programme or the Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy, GEAR (it did not really matter which, given the material interests being foregrounded) in their various fields (for example, education, health or social welfare).

On the other hand, very severe sanctions were applied to those intellectuals who dared challenge the state on the three most contestable public issues of the Thabo Mbeki presidency: the defensive position of government on Zimbabwe; the dangerous position of government on HIV-Aids; and the dismissive position of government on crime and the fragility of domestic security.

But these are only the big-media issues on which university intellectuals were largely silent. So many other public issues call out for critical response and engagement on the part of intellectuals, such as the demonstrable failure in delivery of key social services such as municipal governance, education and housing, and the collapse of key governmental functions (try calling a police van to a crime scene or an ambulance to an accident scene and measure the time spent waiting).

There are many powerful and personal consequences that could and should be documented about the costs to the university academic of intellectual engagement on these issues. I will elaborate on this later.

But there is another problem that faces the university-based intellectual, and that is the ways in which the institutional conditions under which thinking proceeds have themselves changed the terms and the territory on which public engagement can take place. The shorthand for this complex of conditions is called 'managerialism' in the academic literature and it is characterised by the following key shifts in institutions:

* The shift in the authority of academics from individuals to the broader collective, the management; an example is the punishing of individuals at certain universities for daring to launch critical seminars on subjects of public interest without the approval of the senior executive.

* The shift in the authority of faculties from the academic unit to the managerial complex; an example is the appointment of academics by central management instead of by the department or faculty as in the past.

* The shift in the authority of deans from a primary responsibility downwards, to the academics who appoint them, to a primary responsibility upwards, to the senior managers who now contract them under the new and revealing title of executive dean.

* The shift from the authority of academics over their own work to the ever-greater surveillance of external authorities, such as the Council on Higher Education, which also make decisions about whether programmes are worthwhile or not. This is not a case against the practice of ensuring quality; it is a case against the immediate and long-term consequences of such a practice being enforced from the outside, on behalf of the state.

* The shift in the authority of academics over their right to decide what is worth teaching within universities. An example is the recent intrusion of a government department into what was once the sacred grounds of university autonomy - the right to decide what to teach - when the national Department of Education introduced a qualification into universities (an Advanced Certificate in Education for school principals) that would effectively close down other such certificates by tying its qualification to promotion and advancement in schools. Never before in the history of universities in South Africa has any government ever usurped such authority; it would have been seriously contested even under apartheid.

* The shift in the authority of academics towards greater and greater decision-making over routine matters by academic administrators with less and less control over the core functions (such as finance) that enable academic work to proceed. The irony of decentralisation in institutional contexts is that academics actually end up with less authority than under previous managements.

The point of this discussion about the changing conditions of academic work is the dilemma for the university intellectual: at the very moment when the cost of external engagement with the state was compromising and silencing some of the most visible and prolific university intellectuals on the left, the conditions of their work within institutions circumscribed their academic authority and re-routed their activities into an accumulation of administrative tasks and functions.

Universities, in this age of managerialism, have opted for less visibility on the major social issues of the day, rather than greater and more critical engagement with those issues. Where engagement takes place, it is defined as implementation of or delivery on a preset development agenda. The agenda itself is not questioned.

One reason for this change is that universities have turned inwards on themselves after the high-publicity stories of institutional corruption and collapse in the 1990s that led to the take-over of certain institutions by a legal oddity called an administrator.

Another reason has to do with the real and imagined sanctions that institutions could face if they or their members are seen as speaking against or standing outside official mandates placed on universities. For example, university finances are now determined not according to a predetermined formula based on inputs and outputs, but are also subject to the discretion of the minister, to a political decision that makes institutions increasingly subject to the year-by-year actions of a government minister.

I am certainly not suggesting that in some simplistic way a funding decision is based on the degree of allegiance of a specific institution; rather, the new basis for funding institutions creates, alongside other official actions, an environment in and around universities in which they are increasingly conscious of their public behaviour in relation to the state.

This kind of mindless subservience has led to the somewhat laughable decision of certain universities to hand out honorary doctorates to the heads of research funding (such as the National Research Foundation, which decides on the volume of institutional and individual funding) and statutory bodies (such as the Council on Higher Education, which determines programme accreditation status), not because of exceptional standards of scholarship on the part of these heads, but because of anticipated benefits that flow from such hand-outs. It also explains the over-representation of the same senior ANC officials and their family members in the position of chancellor at these universities. It would, in my view, constitute an ethically astute position not to make such awards or appointments to funding and accreditation agencies or to leading members of political parties.

The point of all this is that university-based intellectuals no longer work in the same kinds of campuses that, for the most part, were once sites of intellectual productivity, problem-setting and politics against the apartheid state.

It is in these kinds of campus contexts that the failure to problematise the concept of loyalty enables the silences or allegiances of university intellectuals. Since loyalty is understood as party-political loyalty, there emerges the kind of family-knit allegiances that Njabulo Ndebele [former vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town] so eloquently described in his attempt to explain the bizarre behaviour of pro-Jacob Zuma activists outside the courts where the former Deputy President [now President] was on trial for rape.

When loyalty is defined in terms of clear principles - such as the right to speak one's mind without fear of reprisal or to exercise independent thought on critical matters of public concern - then of course there ought not to be a conflict when really difficult issues, such as a rape allegation against a senior politician or corruption within the state, comes to the fore.

It will of course be very difficult to engender such an elevated sense of loyalty in a country where the past is still very much with us, where racial emotions are still raw, and where the struggle to build a new society remains a very long-term project amidst dire inequalities that have not diminished since 1994.

What is at stake, though, is serious business, much more important than the visibility, independence and criticality of intellectuals. The kind of democracy South Africa builds for the future depends crucially on the space and support available to university-based intellectuals during these formative years of the new society. It will determine the kind of engagement allowed and inspired on university campuses; the kind of citizens to emerge from institutions; and what kinds of mindsets are nurtured among students and academics of this democracy.

There is a real danger that the combination of external surveillance and internal self-censorship could alter the very meaning of university life in South Africa and lead to the permanent demise of institutional intellectuals.

There is also the drift factor - some of the most prominent university-based intellectuals in the apartheid period have migrated to government and the corporate world where their official positions and material interests have effectively negated any strong emergence of critical intellectuals. More seriously, as a result of this drift universities have lost their best intellectuals, and this further limits the possibility of intellectual vibrancy on campuses.

It is, however, once of those curious observations of life in the new South Africa that university-based intellectuals are once again racially distinguishable in the post-1994 period.

The most fervent intellectual debates and leadership in this period have come from a group of people who might call themselves Afrikaner intellectuals. What drives them is a single cause - the perceived decline of Afrikaans in public life generally and on university campuses in particular. It is a debate without national consequences at the moment, because it is largely an internal debate of the white Afrikaans-speaking community, one that sells Afrikaans newspapers and raises Afrikaner sentiment like no other issue. But the debate on Afrikaans has serious institutional consequences and could become the flame that lights all kinds of white nationalist causes.

The prominence of conservative intellectuals like Danie du Toit of the University of South Africa or Hermann Giliomee of Stellenbosch has replaced the visibility of progressive intellectuals on major subjects of the day. The Afrikaner intellectuals no doubt seek a restoration of the dominance and privilege of Afrikaans in institutions even if this means denying access to non-Afrikaans speakers and, therefore, the vast majority of black students and academics. There is no parallel movement among black intellectuals.

But the grounds for the development and nurturing of black intellectuals are further eroded by the mass promotion and employment of black academics at senior levels in universities without any substance or scholarship. I have referred in previous writings to the growing tendency to appoint black academics as professors without any significant knowledge to profess, any substantive scholarship to promote or any record of excellence in the academic domain.

Black nationalists are doing after apartheid exactly what Afrikaner nationalists did under apartheid: promoting people on the crude basis of colour, this time to meet employment equity pressures and through a misguided sense of parity with white academics.

Academics of course are not necessarily intellectuals, but my point is that by engaging in this reckless behaviour it is even less likely that conditions are being established within institutions whereby intellectual life can flourish and intellectuals can be identified and nurtured. We have, effectively, dumbed down our institutions, which is why the level of investment in research capacity runs in directly opposite lines to the aggregate production of research outputs. To simply blame this on the retiring white male is disingenuous.

It is important to understand the common mechanisms by which intellectuals, black and white, are silenced in South Africa. It would be reckless to claim that there is the kind of direct, oppressive sanction that imprisons intellectuals or that exiles the university critic. South Africa has been fortunate to construct a relatively open and democratic society in which white intellectuals especially have discovered that vicious attacks on the state, often fuelled by a crude racism in the Afrikaans papers, have not met with direct retaliation.

But the mechanisms of censure are often much more subtle and in many ways much more effective than the direct and oppressive silencing of intellectuals. I will avoid giving specific examples, though these are available, and concentrate rather on general observations about how censure happens within this young democracy.

First, university-based intellectuals find that their access to certain kinds of research resources quickly dries up if they are seen as working outside the political will of the powerful in government. Much of the large research funding flowing into South Africa requires government approval, such as the very lucrative funding available for health research in general and HIV-Aids research in particular. It is the approval process that can work to fund cooperative institutions and marginalise the critics. This simple fact might explain the relative silence of university intellectuals on the perplexing positions of Mbeki on Aids. It is not only the large research grants, but also the routine government contracts for training, research and evaluation that suddenly become out of reach for such intellectuals.

Secondly, university-based intellectuals will also find that their expertise is ignored within government commissions and expert panels. This is an effective way of sending a message of disapproval, and it not only robs the country of high-level local expertise, but also means that large numbers of external consultants, often from rich countries, are brought in to do what could have been done locally. Because our young democracy still finds it difficult to reconcile criticality and loyalty, South Africa pays a heavy price for such small-mindedness when it could otherwise be enriched by the multiplicity of voices on any subject.

Thirdly, university-based intellectuals will also find themselves disqualified from seeking senior positions within the academy, not because of their managerial of leadership capacities or because of their academic credibility, but because their public profile is interpreted as negative, as something that runs counter to the managerialist ethos and political sensitivities of the post-apartheid university. It is for this reason that university vice-chancellors are increasingly non-academics and more likely to be senior civil servants, heads of statutory bodies or low-profile, unremarkable academics who are unlikely to ask tough questions about the relationship between the state and institutions. (There are of course notable exceptions.) They are also unlikely to lead the academic and research community with any credibility, but at least their political credentials are intact.

And so public intellectuals within or outside universities in South Africa are forced to make a cost-benefit analysis: do they speak truth to power and thereby run the real risk not only of the ridicule of the powerful, but also of the marginalisation of their expertise within a developing context? Do they accept that the vocation of the intellectual necessarily means standing outside the allure of power and privilege? And do they accept that their specialist expertise within the disciplines will be shelved in the reasonable pursuit of making a contribution to national development?

These are tough and even painful questions, and only a fool would risk superficial and trite answers. But what makes these questions even harder is the fact that the withering away of the public intellectual has meant that those who stand up and speak truth to power are more likely to be seen as oddities or even eccentrics precisely because there are so few others doing the same.

For example, I write this piece at 3am from a hotel room in Chicago, where jetlag has robbed me of a decent night's sleep; so I write and I read. The morning newspapers are in, and there are dozens of editorials in both the electronic and the print media highly critical of the immigration policy of the President. It is hard to single out individuals as unreasonable in this culture because the critical voice is everywhere even though university-based academics like Noam Chomsky clearly rise above the sea of critics and intellectuals because of sheer eloquence, consistency and commitment.

In South Africa, it is very different. There are literally less than a dozen university-based intellectuals who are likely to speak out on public concerns that challenge the powerful and unsettle the status quo. And because the same few voices emerge on the range of public concerns, they are labeled as irritants, as unreasonable, as having one or another personal or political agenda. These persons are more likely to be respected and recognised outside their national borders than within them. And even among these few university intellectuals, several have already disappeared from the radar screen because the costs are simply too high.

In every country, the quality, depth and sustainability of democracy depend crucially on the treatment of intellectuals. Even established democracies such as the US still struggle with freedom of speech and have to fight the wiretapping of the telephones of citizens, the demonisation of Mexican immigrants who keep the economy afloat, and the dehumanisation of Muslim peoples as a pretext for bloody war.

A young democracy like South Africa no doubt feels the same strains, but its future will be determined not so much by its past history but by its present actions with respect to the universities and intellectuals within them.

* Professor Jonathan Jansen is Vice-chancellor and Principal of the University of the Free State. He was the former dean of education at the University of Pretoria. His recent books include Mergers in Higher Education (2002), Education Policy Implementation (2001, with Yusuf Sayed) and Changing Curriculum (1999, with Pam Christie). His latest book is Knowledge in the Blood: Confronting race and the apartheid past.

* This article is a chapter in the recently released book, Poverty of Ideas - South African democracy and the retreat of intellectuals, edited by William Gumede and Leslie Dikeni. The book is published by Jacana, Johannesburg. The chapter is reproduced with permission.

* Poverty of Ideas - South African democracy and the retreat of intellectuals can be bought through or by emailing