The debate about who/what an intellectual is, or what his/her role ought to be, is ongoing not only in Namibia but throughout Afrika and the world. It is more acute in Afrika today because of the theatre of an unending Orwellian Animal Farm syndrome of us versus them, chronic suspicion, mistrust and boogeyman shenanigans where those in or close to power internalize a psychosis of self-importance that they eat on behalf of all others.
They are in the habit of manufacturing consent to validate their megalomania and invincibility till they expire and are sent off in flag-draped golden caskets and salutes by men and women in uniform and with eyes filled with crocodile tears.
Afrika constantly takes the prize of the laughing stock of the world and where our leaders thrive on fear and vengeance against those who hold different opinions, and where leaders use politics to become landlords and warlords dressed in one. Citizens and intellectuals are watched and monitored by ‘politics police’ and advisors who carve footpaths to State Houses to feed the leaders a daily diet of bangmaakstories as a warranty to keep their trampoline jobs. This Afrikan quagmire in which the Afrikan intellectual attempts to answer the question whether the intellectual has any role in the politics of his/her nation.
These efforts led to a plethora of self-naming and self-serving inclinations to the extent that room is left for all who finished some measure of post-secondary education to regard themselves as intellectuals. In post-colonial Afrika, the intellectual enterprise has borne a great brunt as it is often closely associated with oppositional politics and very little else, and therefore rendering genuine intellectuals to be the easiest prey of dictatorial political leaders and Heads of State.
In as much as the older scholarship on intellectualism, such as notions by Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Hegel, Antonio Gramsci and the like, a more contemporary Thomas Sowell is perhaps more useful for our consideration. Sowell identifies intellectuals in society as “idea workers” whose proffering of ideas, concepts, notions and phenomena have a profound impact on public opinion and by extension policy-makers. These ‘ideas workers’ are ordinarily not directly accountable for the results of their ideas. Sowell opines that the work of intellectuals in history has often resulted in disasters for societies where these intellectuals have had “undue influence”, such as those who influenced the ideologies of National Socialism, Fascism, apartheid, Marxist-Leninism, any supremacist or cultist inclinations that persuaded the rest to follow.
A working clarification is that intellectuals are people whose preoccupation is ideas: thinkers, philosophers, writers, historians, academics and preachers – who are analytically minded and are meta-critical to look at situations from different vantage points to arrive at an objective end-point – a posteriori. The danger here is that these folks can easily fall into the pit of considering themselves as special, anointed, or endowed with superior intellect or insight with which to guide and/or often misguide the masses and/or those who have authority over other people.
Intellect is a double-edged sword – it can produce good or evil. For instance, Hitler’s National Socialism, Stalin’s Sovietism, Malan’s apartheid or Verwoerd’s Separate Development all focused on micro-managing the lives of people; they all employed serious propaganda machineries and apparatuses to manipulate, reframe and readjust reality – for purposes of power. All these systems had strong elite intellectual back-ups outside the visible leaderships. Interestingly, all these types tended to be notoriously anti-intellectual, and harassed all intellectual viewpoints that were at variance with their preferred scenarios and/or outcomes.
The emphasis is that an intellectual’s work begins and ends with ideas, not so much the practical application of ideas. An intellectual is a purveyor of ideas, irrespective of the political and ideological spectrum, even though in most cases the intellectual sides with the pursuit for the alternative rather than individual or parochial interests.
Furthermore, the work of intellectuals is not as subject to external verification compared to the work of a professional architect who builds a bridge. An intellectual can condemn the construction of the bridge for the disruption of existing culture, but has no accountability in relation to the actual outcome or aesthetics of the construction. The architect whose design collapses in the process might commit suicide as payment for the discredit to his noble profession. Intellectuals usually have thorough knowledge in their areas of their expertise, but may also be as uninformed as the average taxpayer. The difference is that the intellectual knows where and how to source the basic knowledge to inform better understanding so as to influence public opinion when/where necessary.
The tension is between whether on the one hand, the intellectuals’ specialized knowledge or insights qualify or entitle them to guide others like experts do in their practical fields, and on the other, the acceptance that ideas proffered by intellectuals are indeed taken up by decision-makers even though the latter would not like to admit it for fear of credit to ‘perceived opponents’, in our case, so-called enemies of the state. To be true, ideas and insights matter, as the intellectuals’ ideas influence the way events are reported by the media, and do render politicians to tread carefully when they try to solve problems. For instance, before World War II, British intellectuals played a critical role in the process of creating the climate for opposition to re-armament, and the intellectual role in the French Revolution is beyond dispute, not to mention the intellectual pressure that was brought to bear on America during the Civil Rights Movement, on the anti-conscription campaign against apartheid and the international solidarity campaign for Namibia’s independence.
Where would the struggle for racial equality in Afrika be without Pixley Isaka kaSeme, Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, Mburumba Kerina, Michael Scott, Haille Selassie, Steve Biko, Tom Mboya, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nelson Mandela, Herman Toivo ya Toivo, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., to mention but a few, whose abstract ideas gave rise to heightened struggles for better societies in our life-time? Where would the Christian Church be without the few men who took it upon themselves to document and spread what they understood to be the core Message of Salvation by Jesus of Nazareth? Chief amongst these men is Paul of Tarsus who, through his letters, transformed towns and communities and upon which the entire Christian doctrine is founded.
Where does this leave the intellectual in Namibia? First, the intellectual country is part of the Namibian society that is still in the process of shaping. Our society is not clearly defined yet and it seems to lack leaders like those mentioned above and who created nations that stand the test of times. The intellectual here ought to think with and for society, not him/herself or the leaders.
Second, the intellectual must re-read Frantz Fanon’s warning about Afrikan elites who are better at thinking before independence. Come independence, there is either struggle fatigue or those who can think and theorize get trapped in the celebrations of their own so-called triumphalism that nothing else matters. The past is so important to the new political elite that the future drowns under the concrete of heroes’ acres, VIP graveyards, Party Schools and churches for themselves at the expense of their nations’ true histories. Their version of democracy, which is amplified by constant intimidation, manipulation and vilification fashions demo-crazy bureaucracies that are there to serve and preserve the interests of the First Couple at all costs.
Third, the intellectual must acknowledge that for 25 years, Namibia was moving in an unusual direction to become a model nation on the Afrikan continent where the principles of citizenship, good corporate governance, tolerance, equality and citizen political participation – principles that made Namibia the torchbearer of peace and stability in Afrika. However, this trajectory has taken a nosedive in the last year.
Inequalities are the norm. It is time to say, with due respect where it is due, that our leaders have feet of clay!
The prognosis by objective observers is that Namibia has entered the stable of post-colonial Afrika where politics is a zero-sum game. Those with power are growing in intolerance and vengefulness, while the state is dismissive of people’s genuine agonies and injects fear in the hearts of those who aspire to live in peace.
Public office is an instrument with which to ‘fix’ those perceived to think freely, disagree, and to curtail political participation with carrot and stick political gymnastics. Citizenship is replaced by party loyalty and blind compliance; merit and contribution gave way to sheer sycophancy. The intellectual ought to assist the nation to diagnose this illness before it becomes a cancer, and point to a cure. In life’s turns and twists, comings and goings, Namibian intellectuals must be on the side of the truth and justice, and prosecute the fight for the truth and a better life for all nobly and valiantly, regardless of the price to be paid. The intellectual must remain authentic in his/her contribution as a mechanic of ideas by pointing towards what is good and valuable – and steering clear of politics as much as practical with conscientious readiness for sacrifice, the Afrikan intellectual of this day must be part of the new dance for freedom.