We need to protect intellectual thought

Academic freedom should go beyond creative teaching and dynamic research. It must include contributions to public discussions and debates.

It was in this spirit, arguably, that the vice-chancellor of the University of South Africa, Barney Pityana, addressed the annual general meeting of the Law Society of South Africa and put forward a critique of the country’s challenges as it enters an era he described as “shrouded in anxiety and uncertainty”.

In the tradition of an intellectual, Pityana focused his microscope firmly on the “assertive” leadership of South Africa with Jacob Zuma at the helm.

“[It] must be stated, the new ANC as a political party perhaps holds the promise of a new era,” said Pityana.

But consistency of thought is as attractive today as it has always been. Pityana, as he had done before Polokwane, criticised the abilities and qualities of the incumbent ANC president. Predictably, this unleashed a barrage of criticism from Zuma supporters.

In the early years of liberation, academics like Njabulo Ndebele often gave outsiders a rare insight into and analysis of the movement that many South Africans were grappling to come to terms with after exile.

Pityana highlighted the resilient nature of South Africans and their ability to withstand turmoil. Some of this turmoil, admitted Pityana, happened in the Mbeki era.

Many would argue that the Mbeki era was characterised by the exclusivity of the intellectual as part of the Native Club.

Academics, some would say, played along with this exclusivity and kowtowed to our intellectual-philosopher president.

Does Pityana’s speech and the criticism that followed mean we are heading for an era where he is going to be the lone intellectual voice against the new ruling elite? Or does this mean academic leaders and their institutions are going to claim back public space and move away from the exclusivity of the native club?

University of Limpopo vice-chancellor Mahlo Mokgalong believes that academics need a mind-set change. He says that academics must “criticise government constructively”.

“Whether or not a vice-chancellor criticises government, you’re [the University] still going to get your subsidy, which is based on a formula,” adds Mokgalong.

A new political era, he says, could signal an opportunity for greater intellectual debate.

“The national executive committee [of the ANC] won’t have big ideas on higher education, if you look at the history of these people. It is up to the vice-chancellors to give the sector direction,” says an insider, who requested anonymity.

Peter Mbati, vice-chancellor of the University of Venda, believes that not much will change and academics will continue to have the space to play their role.

He says that academics and intellectuals should “jealously guard” academic freedom and intellectualism in South Africa. He believes that academics should criticise in a “well-balanced manner and constructive way”.

While the debates continue to rage around Pityana and his voluble attack on Zuma (ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe joined the fray on Thursday), we need to urge that distillers and messengers of thought, like our philosophers of the past, be protected. That is our collective responsibility.

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