Experts, intellectuals with voices and why they matter

The departure of former University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) vice-chancellor Professor Adam Habib, who has just taken up the position of director of the School of Oriental and African Studies or SOAS, University of London in the United Kingdom, leaves a yawning gap in thought leadership in South Africa. This gap is not confined to the university sector, but to South African society as a whole.

The highly vocal political scientist is known for his outspokenness against corruption and social injustices and had the courage to take on politicians.

The Economic Freedom Fighters must have heaved a collective sigh of relief after Wits announced last year that Habib was leaving, as he often took on the political party.

This intellectual had a highly visible public persona and found a home at Wits, which is, in its own right, the vanguard of change among universities.

This is where the #FeesMustFall revolution in 2015 started – a memorable campaign by students, for students and against the financial exclusion of students.

In his last video message to the Wits community, Habib stressed that there were and will continue to be attempts by politicians, activists and so-called progressives to silence and derail the university “but we stared them down”.

He added: “People will use all sorts of excuses like race and ideology to silence this community. It must never be silenced.”

Habib was vocal in the late 1990s from his time as an academic at the former University of Durban-Westville (which merged with the University of Natal to create the University of KwaZulu-Natal), where he was critical of issues in a changing society.

He exercised the academic freedom created through the constitutional protection of freedom of expression.

In this space, he has also distinguished himself as a man who knew how to push his views to the public via the media.

Accessible to journalists, he was the go-to person for controversial comment. He knew how to interact with the media, which built his public profile.

It did not matter where in the world Habib was, be it in the Amazon or on the beach, he would return calls from the media.

A case in point was when he was on holiday at the beach in early January some years ago and his wife, Fatima, asking a journalist to phone back in 10 minutes while she went to find him. The journalist required comment on the matriculation exam results.

Honesty earns respect

Other veteran academic commentators are Professor Jonathan Jansen of Stellenbosch University, who has been commenting in the media about issues in education since the late 1990s, along with activist scientist Professor Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council (MRC).

Scientists such as these produce research that attracts media attention and, over time, they become expert commentators in their areas of specialisation.

Gray was a student activist who later on took on the government under then president Thabo Mbeki over its HIV/Aids denialism and then the government’s refusal to provide AZT to pregnant women.

Last year, she had the courage to speak out against some of the government’s COVID-19 regulations.

There was an attempt by the department of health to sanction her for an erroneous comment, but the scientific community stood by her. A few weeks later, she brushed off the public debacle by being in the media spotlight again.

In December, she took on Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, who led a controversial prayer in which he said the COVID-19 vaccine could “infuse triple six in the lives of people”.

She explained that vaccines are the cornerstone of public health and basically implied the judge should stick to his knitting and leave scientists to do their jobs.

Sometimes, prominent scientists make errors in their public comment but then climb back onto the horse.

These scientists are revered by the media, who respect them for their honesty. They are courageous scientists who have society at heart.

Gray lives the mission of the MRC which is ‘to advance the nation’s health and quality of life and address inequity by conducting and funding relevant and responsive health research, capacity development, innovation and research translation’.

A licence to speak up

In South Africa, there is a small group of academics who feature regularly in the media for their expert comment. What are the others doing?

South Africa desperately needs a diversity of academic voices in the media.

By academics commenting about contemporary issues as well as discussing their research, they make science accessible to the public.

Academics are in the business of having the brightest of minds, which is a licence to speak up and speak out, with authority, about their area of specialisation.

Also, academics are in a position to argue against contentious policies, based on scientific facts.

However, there tends to be a feeling of nervousness among many academics about commenting in the media – they believe that, if they criticise issues, they could be viewed as anti-government or racist.

The essence of a democracy is people speaking up. If experts are silent about issues, this is tantamount to their being complicit to injustices.

Very few people have the ability to acquire PhDs and to be called ‘knowledge producers’. So why not share their knowledge and informed opinions?

To do so they could and should partner with journalists who could unlock their expertise to a wider audience.

Tips for academics interacting with journalists

• There is no need to be scared of the media unless you have dabbled in large-scale corruption or are trying to hide something.

• Approach your organisation or your higher education institution’s communications office for media training.

• Ask your communications office to get your latest research out to the media.

• You could contact journalists directly with your research or submit opinion pieces to them.

• Start off small by writing opinion pieces for one publication then, as you gain confidence, graduate to commenting on radio and television, which have huge audiences.

• You need to be available at short notice if the media needs comment from you.

• Build a relationship of trust with one journalist, then widen your network. This could take time.

• Use language that is accessible to the public. Reserve scientific jargon for journal articles.

• When interacting with the media, regardless of its being on your research or your commenting on an issue, think of three points you want to make and support this with data. Explain this as though you were speaking to someone who does not have a scientific background.

• When a journalist misquotes you, do not write them off. Ask them to correct the factual error.

• Don’t be rude if they ask you silly questions. Remember you have the word ‘doctor’ or ‘professor’ in front of your name, not them.

• The more you speak to the media, the better you will get. Watch videos of media interviews with the likes of Gray, Habib, Professor Shabir Madhi, dean of the faculty of health sciences at Wits, and Professor Salim Abdool Karim, chairperson of the COVID-19 Ministerial Advisory Committee. Also read comment pieces by Jansen and Habib to get tips.

The benefits of speaking to the media

• You get to build your brand and that of your institution.

• It is possible that donors or companies could approach you with funding.

• You could attract top postgraduate students who follow prominent scientists, whom they want as supervisors.

• Academics from other countries might want to collaborate with you.

Nickie Cammisa, a young vocal scientist at the University of California Los Angeles Institute of Environment and Sustainability, writes that many scientists try to stay ‘neutral’ and ‘unbiased’, avoiding being political activists.

However, “science is inherently political and claiming that any person can be unbiased actually hinders the public’s understanding of the scientific method,” she says.

She explains: “By staying out of ‘political issues’, we fail to communicate and defend the value of our research and our careers.

“Scientists that do research and find important, novel results but refuse to actively stand behind them and discuss their implications are hurting their field.”

Going back to the vocal Habib, his shoes are too big to fill, but there is nothing stopping other academics from having their own voices in society through the media. And it is free.

Ameera Haq is a science communicator based in Johannesburg, South Africa.