/ 11 July 2006

The Native Club versus the status quo

In an essay entitled The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual, Cornel West writes of black intellectuals: ”An intelligentsia without institutionalised critical consciousness is blind, and critical consciousness severed from collective insurgency is empty. The central task of … black intellectuals is to stimulate, hasten, and enable alternative perceptions and practices by dislodging prevailing discourses and powers.”

In a country like South Africa, where prevailing discourses are formulated and propagated by mostly white institutions, white thinkers and white writers, what West terms as a central task of black intellectuals becomes urgent.

Let me qualify the foregoing analysis. In a paper for the International Conference on Books, held in Oxford Brookes University in September last year, Monica Seeber reported that out of the 123 publisher members of the Publishers Association of South Africa, only 21 were headed by a black person at managing director or chief executive officer level. This in a country where less than 5% of the population (and that 5% mostly white), buys books for purposes other than to pass a school or university exam.

It is no great intellectual leap to draw the conclusion that these demographics exert a form of pressure on the publishing industry to publish white authors for a largely white market. Based on this, one can even predict that although the publishing industry will publish a handful of black authors, the ”white” interpretation of reality will remain the standard according to which other interpretations will be judged.

The academy in South Africa remains largely white. The intellectual milieu in South Africa is predominantly white. Needless to say, this is due to the legacy of apartheid. If we are in agreement that this situation ought to be changed, then keep reading; if you feel that there is nothing wrong with the picture I have just painted, there is no point in continuing with this article.

What is to be done to change the status quo? One attempt to address this crucial question is the option of the Native Club. However, one negative point about the Native Club is that it has political backing of the government, something that arguably can compromise the ”central task of the black intellectuals”.

Much of the criticism of the Native Club published thus far has been angry and emotional. Little of this criticism seems to have been designed to engage. Instead the point has been to trash the Native Club and any black intellectuals who might be associated with it.

Instead of ”realising the extent of one’s unearned white privilege” (Bruce Dixon, www.blackcommentator.com, many white critics of the Native Club have likened the club to the Broederbond. The mere fact of comparing a black forum, which was created as a strategy to subvert a repressive and ubiquitous white power structure, to a racist Broederbond is simply too unbelievable to merit any further comment.

Black critics of the Native Club have been at pains to paint a picture of a vibrant, inclusive intellectual culture that exists in South Africa. In reality, these critics are in denial and have only managed to fool themselves. Some black critics have bruised egos simply because there exists a black intellectual forum that they were not consulted about. And, regrettably, some black critics serve as proxies for the white power structure.

None of the critics who are opposed to the idea of the Native Club has argued convincingly about what an alternative might look like. One reason for this might be that there exist only a handful of forums in South Africa that aim to unconditionally include and empower independent black intellectuals. That goes for the semi-leftist institutions as well. As one will have it, most black intellectuals in these institutions are hired to occupy low-level posts in areas such as ”outreach”. All along, white intellectuals do all the conceptual and empowering tasks.

This is not an irresponsible generalisation, but a general description of the operational pattern of how these institutions reinforce conventional social roles.

If we fear that a forum that has governmental support might compromise the intellectual project of such a forum, what do we propose as an alternative? The assumption is that those who take this question seriously recognise that the existing intellectual spaces create fear and doubt in independent black thinkers that, as Bell Hooks said, ”one’s ideas could not possibly be worthy of a hearing” .

Mandisi Majavu, a cultural critic based in Cape Town, presented this paper at the Native Club conference in May