Dear Reader: The new barbarism

South Africans are in serious intellectual trouble – in danger of losing our hard-won cultural capital to a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations.

Oh, all right, I’m not enough of an intellectual to have written something as clever as that. It was said recently about Americans by Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason. But one doesn’t have to be an intellectual to know that her statement is absolutely true of our society today.

It’s rather unusual for me, a first actually, to be writing about intellectualism without rubbishing the entire concept without reservation. In my experience, most people who call themselves intellectuals are terrible bores and unbearably pretentious.

(Actually I have met a few real intellectuals in my time. Van Zyl Slabbert is one, as was philosopher Gabriel Setiloane from my hometown, Kroonstad. I never met Steve Biko, but I think he must have been one. Which raises the question: is Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki really an intellectual? Some would say it was exactly his pseudo-intellectual nonsense that created the gap for the present wave of anti-intellectualism.)

Be that is it may, I do think South African society is under threat of a dangerous mix of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations.

The fact that one of the stupidest, crudest people I’ve come across, the ANC Youth League’s Julius Malema, is now a national leader we encounter regularly on our front pages and television screens, is one proof of this.

When I recently heard the spokesperson of the Congress of South African Students say in broken English that the Chief Justice of South Africa was a “counter-revolutionary shebeen queen”, I knew we had plunged to new lows.

When the SACP’s Blade Nzimande – a man with a PhD in industrial psychology and elected leader of the political grouping that had always prided itself in being the intellectual vanguard of the people – becomes a political tsotsi trawling the gutter with racist remarks and threats of retribution, it’s a sure sign we’re in trouble.

Need more evidence? Then I offer you the baseness of Mr Justice John Hlophe; the crazy ranting of Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang; the brutal threats of Cosatu leader Zwelinzima Vavi; the crudities of parliamentary sports portfolio committee chair Butana Komphela.

I also remind you of the dumbing down of our newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations; the vulgar power battles at the SABC; the mindlessness of our national obsession with dim-witted so-called celebrities.

In fact, the reckless neglect and abuse of one of the most precious jewels of our national intellectual life, the National Library (see lead story) is proof enough that we are in danger of “losing our hard-won cultural capital”.

When I think about the new culture creeping up on us, ugly words like populism, brutality, tribalism, racism, and naked greed jump into my mouth.

Insults and threats of violence against those who don’t agree with you are replacing debate and discussion. If we are in the majority, we are right and if you don’t agree you’re a racist/traitor/reactionary/counter-revolutionary/enemy of the people. And if you don’t stop we’ll kill you. In the name of the democratic revolution and the liberation of the masses of the African people blah blah blah.

Please note, I’m not referring to the rather shocking recent finding that a third of South Africa’s municipal councillors can’t read and write. I am also not referring to ANC president Jacob Zuma’s lack of formal education. In my experience he is far more intelligent than many people I know with PhDs. Trust me, JZ is no fool.

But it is true that Zuma is consciously riding the wave of anti-intellectualism, because its proponents are his main backers. We should liberate our future president from the clutches of these elements. (Time for the Free Jacob Zuma Campaign?)

We shall fight this new barbarism. We shall fight them on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets. Bravely, uncompromisingly and unapologetically. Because if we surrender we may as well go and live in Chechnya – or Zimbabwe.

So here I am, acting as editor of my favourite publication while Martin Welz is away. What fun. If anything changes during my tenure, it wouldn’t have been on purpose – it would be because I didn’t understand what exactly makes this beast tick. I suspect it’s because no-one understands it that it works so well.

The Acting Editor


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Submitted by : Claus Andrup of Maple Ridge on 2008-09-29 15:29:01
The intellectual deficit rages worlwide. When you editorialize the notion that we should fight the Barbarism of the dumbed-down on the beaches and other Churchillian arenas I suggest that you may missed the most important arena of all; our schools, and dare one mention the home.

Claus Andrup
Maple Ridge, Canada


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