CREATING THE SPACE FOR INTELLECTUAL ACTIVISM

 Bakang Ntshingane

If there’s one important lesson from Steve Biko’s teachings on oppression, it is that political emancipation is only a one part of freedom. Political freedom is just cosmetic without an attempt at liberating the mind.

Anti-intellectualism is on the rise in major spaces of society where the pursuit of intellectual inquiry ought to be held in high-regard. One of the key reasons that explain this rise in anti-intellectual populist movements is mainly, the “democratization of information.” Anybody with access to Google and five minutes to kill believes that he can become an expert in anything. Consequently, people believe that their opinions are just as good as anybody else’s, including those of experts. But that is not to say that intellectuals themselves have not dropped the ball. We now live in a world or atmosphere where intellectuals engage in pursuits that are disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life. They live in their own ivory towers. And so, I think it’s important to have an honest conversation about intellectuals and their role in transformation, seeing that they do not feature as prominently as they should in spaces of activism and community engagement.

The politics of elitism and the economics of exclusion have generated negative long-term consequences for all people globally, which somehow explains the rise in unconventional ‘outsider’ political narratives, namely your Bernie Sanders, your Donald Trumps and all the like. Considering the daily parade of stories of corruption, ineffective governments, wasteful expenditure, economic growth, it’s no wonder the social climate is worsening. Of course analysts would lament on the sidelines about the lack of ethical leadership that underpins the status quo. In the same breath, one wonders if their intellectual activism would have any real impact. Would protesting in the ivory towers of elitism on ideological or moral grounds translate into any improvement in the national malaise? They certainly represent the polar opposite of the violent or non-violent protestors seen through the activities of activists of the #FeesMustFall movement, the #IShallNotForget movements and many other forms of protest action.

Understanding the dynamics of knowledge and power is perhaps one of the most important tools each conscious person must have. By speaking deliberately to intellectual activism, I do not mean to speak to a particular class of society to the exclusion of another. Intellectual activism is mostly synonymous with professionals and academics. By making this distinction, I am by no means implying that people who are economically oppressed, workers or those without formal education do not have a role to play as change agents. It is critical to give specific focus to this group of people because of how they are postured in society and the avenues they have to shape the future given their unique access to the traditional quotas of power. I think it’s also important to bring the distinction closer and speak about African intellectual activists.

The word activism has been synonymous with only protest action, while ‘intellectuals’ or anyone associated with the tag has been reduced and limited to the backrooms and corridors of universities and think tanks. Protest action as a form of activism has been the defining feature of liberation movements globally. Mass protests have been effective aspects of activism. Activism in itself would be incomplete without carving out a place for conscious activism, which is a result of intellectual inquiry and a constant engagement of ideas. And so, we must bring back the avenue of intellectual activism, at a time when academics and professionals have been sidelined by social media pundits and populist revolutionaries. The academics and professionals, just like the modern university students, the trade union leaders and political parties, have a message, but the message is usually not crafted in simple bread-and-butter terms. They theorize and develop ideas that inform us as to why racism, sexism and economic inequality is wrong and how it is bad for society, but these notions only make sense to the rest of society if they understand it. All too often I find that in as much as intellectual and academic activists understand each other’s arguments and the complex language of racism, trickle-down economics, patriarchy and privilege, the rest of society is left thinking: “So what?”

I would argue that, the most prominent liberation leaders of our time and of yester years were and are thought leaders who gave birth to nations with the foundation of ideas and a love for philosophical debates. Steve Biko, Noam Chomsky, Professor Angela Davis, Thomas Sankara, Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney, Paulo Freire, Dr. Kenneth Koma, Sir Seretse Khama and many others, were incomparable revolutionary leaders who played a significant role in both protest activism and the pursuit of intellectual inquiry. An appropriate interrogation and study of history from the American civil rights movement to the African, Latin American liberations highlights one key fact: Those revolutions were successful because of the presence of ideas that were developed to form the core of advocacy and challenge normative forms of oppression.

As Steve Biko perfectly put it, “as a people existing in a continuous struggle for truth, we have to examine and question old concepts and systems.” This to me remains an embodiment of what intellectual activism is all about.

Similarly, intellectuals in our era have the potential to bring sustainable change for Africa. We are all heirs to an indelible legacy left by Steve Biko, Paul Rantao, Professor Thomas Tlou, Sir Seretse Khama and many of our forefathers. The question is, whether we will take up our inheritance and ‘dare to invent the future’ in the words of Thomas Sankara. How do we create those organic spaces for intellectuals to play a role in activism? I think the whole process requires professionals and academics to reflect on their intellectualism and what it stands for. The simple act of speaking truth to power in 2016 and beyond must be informed by life-changing efforts by intellectuals to produce knowledge that is relevant to the lived experiences and realities of communities. It requires those in other spaces to realize the role that conscious and well informed activists have in enacting real change. It means that knowledge acquisition and the interrogation of it must not merely be reduced to banal discussions on social media. In order to create a conducive space for dialogue that will get us somewhere, we need to find a way to do away with the ability of social media to circulate any and every content without the quality filters traditionally supplied by mainstream media outlets. Currently, there’s a lot more room for total nonsense to circulate widely, thereby perpetuating the polarization of society into different versions of reality. But that’s a debate for another day, because online anti-intellectualism is not the only problem, it’s just a part of it.

Even beyond social media, academics and professionals still walk their corridors of intellectual debate and inquiry alone while other forms of activism carry on.

The culture of activism is naturally rooted in intellectual inquiry. We have no shortage of thinkers in Africa. It is only appropriate that we define the compromise that must exist in spaces of activism. We need scholarship and the role of the University to be informed by the lived realities of our people, and not solely on the concepts and revolutionary language that we learned from Karl Marx and company.  There must be a practical application of scholarship in shaping the future. Secondly, we must uphold a culture of intellectual inquiry that runs concurrently with emerging and current debates of our community spaces. I think what made Frantz Fanon and other intellects of equal esteem so prolific, was their contribution to decoloniality studies and anti-colonization activism at a time when freedom was a global conversation. Even today, when conversations on white monopoly capital and racism are emerging, we turn back to Fanon to guide our protest forms of activism because ‘thinking’ is the first critical step to ‘doing.’

We must choose to equip our activism with a commitment to challenging dominant paradigms based on the experiences and aspirations of African people. This unique approach enables us to be activists wherever we are; not just online, not just at protest demonstrations, but daily in our work as professors, business analysts, journalists, doctors and artists. By this concession, we open up the space to even more people without falling into the trap of the ‘big people’ syndrome. Activism is not just characterized by the big names that inspire us all the time. It recognizes the foot soldiers: the artisans who build the clinics and hospitals and schools and the teachers that craft futures every day of their lives. Our forefathers didn’t have all the answers, and neither do we. When Biko in his search for an alternative that represents the aspirations of black people did not find one, he created one. Intellectual activism and activism in general should be a constant journey to synthesize ideas, not to copy them, but to test them against our communities’ own experiences and develop a world view that advances our cause.

Of course it is easier said than done. But, creating spaces where our people could dare to invent their future is a start. Knowledge and the acquisition of it is such a powerful thing that must not be compromised. It begins with each of us doing what we can, where we can from a methodological point of view.

Bakang Ntshingane is a Political Science scholar and an alumnus of the YALI Regional Leadership Center of Southern Africa.