Opinion  :: Columns  :: Jottings from Johannesburg


SA’s restless black intellectuals
Peter van der Merwe
Published: 31-JUL-06

Africa’s self-styled black intelligentsia has thrown the cat among the pigeons with the announcement that it is to form a Native Club, which says it will discourse knowledgeably about everything from arts to the economy to the state of the onion crop in Burkina Faso.

The name in itself is a major source of hand-wringing amongst the country’s politically correct commentators, who seem to miss the point that it is probably a deliberately ironic reference to a different time. Still, it will evoke a lot of unhappy memories among black South Africans, and alienate a lot of forward-thinking whites who also see themselves as natives of this fair land.

On the face of it, it should be good for South Africa — and the greater African continent, for that matter — to have a grouping that actively discusses issues that can grow democracy and seek real solutions to crises of leadership, development and transformation.

One hopes the club will openly discuss problems that are currently weighing heavily on the country, like the obvious leadership crisis within the ANC. It needs to talk about uncomfortable things that have often been ignored under the guise of reconciliation. It needs to take a stand and provide moral and thought leadership to a country battling to find its own identity.

Part of the problem with the Native Club is that it is seen to be an initiative of the President, by the President. This perception is not helped in any way by the fact that the chairman is none other than Titus Mafolo, who just happens to be President Mbeki’s political adviser.

A good start would be for Mr Mafolo to tell us what the club really wants to do. In a guest column in the Financial Mail magazine, he said its function was to “seek to build a climate congenial to continued reflection and self-examination by the native intelligentsia, asserting itself in the realms of arts and culture, socio-economy and politics.”

That’s just patent gobbledy-gook. Lesson one: be intellectual, by all means, but don’t alienate the people with meaningless double-speak. Indeed, there’s a very strong temptation to draw parallels between the Native Club and the Broederbond, the self-styled white intelligentsia created by the previous regime largely to enrich itself at the expense of everybody else. The membership of the Broederbond was a sycophantic, self-righteous bunch of white men who thought they knew better, and could do what they liked. As history has shown, they couldn’t.

Lesson two: get some dissenting voices into the club, and encourage real debate. A pertinent question to ask would be what solutions the club would suggest to address the plight of the millions of South Africans who have yet to see basic utilities and jobs, let alone the fruits of black economic empowerment.

Or what exactly it thinks of the scandalous decision of the minister of home affairs to abduct a man and secretly spirit him out of the country, merely because he was suspected of being a terrorist, and then defy court orders compelling her to tell the truth about his illegal abduction and delivery to an unknown fate.

It is no use having one of the world’s most progressive Constitutions if the government is going to ride roughshod over it — and it would be extremely useful for a body like the Native Club to say so.

It would also be greatly instructive to have a grouping of keen minds debate publicly the notion of terrorism. To the previous government, many of our greatest leaders were terrorists. To Iraqis, who are the real terrorists: the men who are prepared to blow themselves up for their freedom, or the men in military uniforms who bomb and torture the innocent? It’s all a matter of perspective — and perspective is often sorely lacking in the daily maelstrom of South African life.

Ultimately, if the Native Club is to succeed in its lofty ideals, it cannot afford to make the Broederbond’s mistakes. The people are depending on it.

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