Can our Intellectuals Rise above the Constraints?

Below find Prof. Turok’s presentation to a roundtable on The Role of Intellectuals in the State-Society Nexus. The event was convened by The Mapungubwe Institute (MISTRA) and Liliesleaf on 4th March 2015.

I am asked to respond to the paper by Joel Netshitenzhe. This is always a pleasure since he has played a magnificent intellectual role during the struggle years, in government and now outside government. I agree with what he argues in his paper and especially the last sentence “if the country proves unable to choose and pursue the positive development trajectory that beckons, South Africa’s intellectual community should accept a large part of the blame”. The challenge to this forum is therefore clear.

But we need to stand back to examine under what conditions intellectuals can make a difference. I draw on the essay The Role of the Individual in History by G V Plekhanov in the volume Fundamental Problems of Marxism. “by virtue of particular traits of their character, individuals can influence the fate of society. Sometimes this influence is considerable, but the possibility of exercising, and its extent, are determined by the form of organisation of society, by the relation of forces within it. The character of an individual is a factor in social development only where, when, and to the extent that social relations permit it to be such” (p162)

If Plekhanov is right the intellectual may be constrained by the environment in which he exists. The question for us therefore is, is the present environment in South Africa conducive for a special role for intellectuals?  I would answer in the affirmative, indeed I believe that the conditions actually demand that intellectuals intervene in public discourse in order to illuminate problems and find solutions.

However there are some constraints. Vishnu Padyachee has argued that although many intellectuals played a major role in supporting the ANC and its government, when economic policy moved to the right some were captured intellectually while others drifted away. This has been referred to by other speakers at this forum, and it is common cause that many intellectuals have retreated into conformism and orthodoxy while others have withdrawn from public debate.

Joel says that “rulers can by commission or omission create conditions for a chain of d-legitimation” which can affect the whole society. He refers to “processes of de-legitimation and a sense of crisis in society”, and asks whether there may be corrective impulses to negative tendencies within the ruling party before matters “catch fire”.

In his introductory statement Dr Mcebisi Ndletyana referred to some of these issues such as the role of intellectuals as intermediaries motivated by nationalism in state formation. But his view of nationalism in Africa is too limited. Many intellectuals were imbued with a vision which went beyond state formation, they were imbued with a revolutionary consciousness that came from the Marxist and Socialist tradition. I also disagree with Dr Xolela Mangcu where he argues that we should not be so reliant on Marx because his is a European tradition. Well, Mao Tse Tung was no European, nor was Le Duan of Vietnam and many Africans were inspired by their theories of revolution. Certainly in the ANC led movement, these giants of national liberation struggle were revered.

But to return to the themes raised by Dr Ibbo Mandaza and Prof Vi Nkomo, it is the task of intellectuals to challenge current orthodoxies which hold us back from making progress to a better South Africa. I refer in particular to the conservatism and orthodoxy that is hegemonic in government and indeed in the country at large which insists that financial austerity is essential and that we must conform to the dictates of the rating agencies and foreign investors as if there are no alternatives. I find it strange that we should choose to impose a measure of austerity when there is a new tendency in the developed countries against austerity and for stimulus, even arguing that inequality is bad for growth, hence the need for state intervention.

So, I hope that this forum will release the energies of our intellectuals, especially those in economics, to press forward with alternatives to conservative orthodoxy.


G V Plekhanov (1969) Fundamental  Problems of Marxism. Lawrence and Wishart, London

Vishnu Padyachee (2011) Ideas and Power: academic economists and the making of economic policy. Dr A B Xuma Memorial Lecture, Rhodes University


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