DIESCHO’S DICTUM: Is there a Role of Intellectuals in Politics? (Part I)

by Professor joseph diescho

DIESCHO’S DICTUM: Is there a Role of Intellectuals in Politics? (Part I)

A number of respected colleagues have challenged us all to offer some responses to what role, if any, intellectuals have in politics in general and in Namibia specifically.

We have to be grateful to these good citizens for reminding us that the conversation about the roles, not only of so-called intellectuals, but all sectors of society, in the evolution of a nation generally and the stewardship of its resources, is as important as having intermittent general elections to select personages, who must account for how we are governed and how our rules are observed without, fear, fail or favor.

Perhaps unlike in feudal societies, where the predispositions of the rulers were invariably inseparable from their subjects, in democratic societies, such as the one we have been fashioning over the last 26 years, today’s governance is dependent upon rules that are blind and institution-based.



Traditional authorities, faith-based communities, gender and sexual orientation communities, youth formations, civil society representative entities, as well as all state/government organs are regulated by agreed upon rules of the game. All these rules derive their livelihoods from the Constitution of the Republic. It is in this context that the behaviour of any individual, organisation, interest or pressure group must be considered and appraised. This includes our intellectuals and the youth.

In post-colonial Afrika, there has been some confusion about the role of intellectuals. It might thus be helpful to commence the conversation with a basic definition, without which we might be looking at different things and ascribing to them the same definition.

For instance, in the scheme of birds, the eagle, the pion, the ostrich and the chicken are all birds. We can hardly disagree that they are all birds, because they all have wings and feathers and beaks, and they are part of the human diet. We can, however, determine that they are different in the manner in which they behave as birds. Even though they have similar features, the ostrich and the chicken cannot fly like the eagle and the pigeon.

Part of the problem with our understanding and/or appreciation of intellectuals in post-independence Afrika is rooted in the following paradigms of self-understanding and self-definition. First, many educated Afrikans, especially those who have been to universities outside of their own countries, have internalised an unhelpful notion to describe themselves as intellectuals by virtue of their education, fluency in a foreign language and even their alienation from their own cultures and traditions.

The latter, namely alienation from who they are, causes them to suffer a deep psychosis of self-doubt, self-pity and self-hate, so much so that they begin to hate their own traditions and look with disdain upon the older people, whom they tend to blame for their notion of underdevelopment. This sickness is rife amongst the youth of Afrika today, who have no or little appreciation of what was done for them with virtually nothing except the determination to create a better world for them.

Many of us who had the fortune of getting an education higher than most people believe that we are the intellectuals who know the solutions to the problems we did not even define or identify. The lion that bites you does not declare its lion-ness before it bites you – it just eats you, because that is what a lion does.

The belief that because we are educated, we can reinvent the wheel and still call it a wheel is like trying to convince ourselves that there are trees without roots, or even seeds. In other words, a formally educated person is not an intellectual a priori, but earns the reputation as an intellectual a posteriori.

Secondly, formal education is a necessary, but not sufficient condition, to make an intellectual. There are millions of educated people, who are not intellectuals, and many people who did intellectual work without formal education credentialisation as such.

This is not say that education is not important, for education, ontologically, is both a means to an end, as well as an end in itself. Differently put, there are people who completed their seminary training, who are not priests or pastors because they do not practice the craft of religious and in the Roman Catholic tradition, sacerdotal duties.

Third, the ascription of intellectuals in our contexts invariably goes towards those who are seen to be fighting their political systems, or who, by virtue of their oppositional political views, end up in prison, regardless of whether they committed seditious acts or not. In other words we begin the conversation at the wrong end.

To be fair we must look in a rather simplistic way at what/who/where/whowith/why the intellectual is. Concepts and definitions matter and are important in the scientific world, for they allow us a common understanding and appreciation of the phenomena we are talking about, before we agree or disagree.

Who is an intellectual? One cannot be a husband without marrying a wife. One cannot be a pilot without a legal license to fly an aircraft. What we become derives from what we do. Most surnames in the civilisations were surnames that originated from the trades the persons were known for, such as Hunter, Carpenter, Schumacher, Taylor, Dabulamanzi, Tjipangandjara, Rukambe, Motsamai, Moloi, Kaveto, Sarukwarukwaru, Shambuto, Kandjimi, Shankore, Iilonga, Muluti, Munoli and the like.

The original logic of intellectual life is in the dictum of pre-Christ philosopher Socrates: ‘A life unexamined is a life not worth living’. Following upon that were the works of art and poetry that raised the consciousness of Socrates’ student, Plato, who started the identification and internships of members of communities, who were connected to their communities and who were to be tutored into philosopher kings.

Plato and others saw the development of the arts, writing and poetry as mental foundations for logical reasoning to capture and comprehend the metaphysical and ethical order of the world and to improve life from what it was when philosophers, such Thomas Hobbes described human beings’ state of nature to be mean, selfish and brutish, wherein each is waging war against all (bellum omnium contra omnes).

The intellectual is neither exempted from the greed as a cancer in our society, nor is he/she from some angel room, which leaves intact of the human conditions of love, desire, disease and dis-ease, despair, disappointment, disillusionment, disenchantment, dread and death.

We, as humans, come with differing abilities and gifts. Some are good with their hands, their feet, and their voices, whilst others have the talent to engage the world wherein they live with their intellect by working with ideas and phenomena by which they live off and for ideas. In essence they are interlocutors between what is known and what is possible on the basis of what was possible before.

People who are referred to as intellectuals are those personages who engage in the enterprise of engaging the world of ideas, as opposed to technical people who work mainly with the ‘techne’ or hand-knowledge. All these people have their respective contributions to make for the betterment of the entire ecological life, with the ability to give society a conception of the end for which people should live.

This basic notion ought to make the intellectual not feel superior to other gifts and contributions made by the non-intellectual crafts in the collective life of society. In the main the intellectual ought to make complicated phenomena simple and simple ones complex for purposes of rigorous analysis and logical reasoning.

The starting point is that human beings, qua persons, are born with intellect and it depends upon their environment and certain conditions, natural and other, to allow the latent intellectual abilities to either blossom or be stunted. Hence only human beings can be both educated and trained. Animals, and to a lesser extent plants, can only trained to behave in certain ways.

Even computers cannot be educated, because they, like plants and animals, cannot ask questions but can only perform what they are instructed to do. Hence, it is dangerous for us as a nation to be pre-occupied with a call for an education system that will make all people computer gurus, entrepreneurs and billionaires.

There is not one country that has been liberated by accountants, computer analysts or billionaires. The act of liberation is an intellectual act, which comes from and with a sense of conviction that they are human beings (‘they’ and not ‘it’) and when treated as non-persons they revolt in search of their humanity.

We, therefore, need to interrogate the genesis of this acclaimed self-description of intellectuals in the context of what they and the circumstances under which they do it. Similarly, we need to discern that not all that is intellectual is positive or life-giving. A true intellectual is neither about self-praise, nor only about political finger pointing, but is mindful that life is a theatre of turns and twists, paradoxes and contradictions.

The preoccupation amongst self-declared Afrikan intellectuals today is devoid of contextualisation and engagement with the current circumstances. For instance, it serves very little purpose to go on singing Gramsci with his seminal description of the types of intellectuals that he was calling for in the heyday of fascist Italy and the likes, who were facing undemocratic systems of government.

We need to come up with our theories about how to engage our modern benevolent leaders, who believe that nations owe it to them to be here. We need to have grace towards those who brought us this far, who in their own right possessed great intellectual prowess to advance a war on several fronts – particularly the diplomatic arena – and to convince the world that there was a place that needed to be free for us and our children and theirs.

We need theories to unpack the pathologies of our government systems – where those who have the fortuitous responsibility to steward the meager resources of the land for the people. Self-righteousness is not the business of a true intellectual, especially a public intellectual.

We need intellectuals who help us question, unravel and in an existentialist manner amplify the possibilities that are there. We need intellectuals who do not celebrate an invitation to the State House as an announcement of arrival at the portals of heaven or wealth.

The intellectual must engage with the ideals and notions upon which our policy makers do their planning. One of the things Gramsci said is that the place of a true intellectual is in prison – in our case not physically (as yet) but ready to go against the grain of the altar of convenience and speak the truth to power, not for own gain, but to mortgage a better future for all in this country, regardless of race, language, gender (orientation), political party affiliation, religion.

This ought to be done in the context of our constitutional freedoms and obligations, the sacrosanctity of our oneness as a nation and our Grand Vision to become a model nation in Afrika. Our needed intellectualism is about relevance instead of political correctness, honour instead dishonour, argument instead of manipulation, logic instead of intimidation, nation instead of party, peace instead of strife, respected instead of feared leadership, persuasive reasoning instead of bullying threats.

As a country we are now finally in Afrika wherein, as Ngugi waThiong’o warned: “You eat somebody or somebody eats you”, and Ben Okri alerted: “Our history has not taught us enough, otherwise this abuse would have ended a long time ago!”

 The role of the intellectuals, artists, traditional leaders, teachers, shop stewards, priests and pastors, farmers, civil society and students is to state their dreams in the context of our HERE and NOW. What time is it in Namibia? We do not all feel safe or included in the Namibian House. Animal Farm is upon us.

We are in trouble. It is time to hear, with fresh ears, the helplessness of our own John Ndevasia Muafangejo, who before he passed on, cried: “I was loneliness!”

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