Who says analysis is wasted on the young?
One evening late in May, the cerebral space of the seminar conference room at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser) filled up with twentysomething South Africans whose existence often seems to slip between the paving stones of the ANC Youth League and of popular culture.
They were among those who gathered to hear Moeletsi Mbeki's unimpressed account of what the ANC has achieved in 18 years. The engaged, excited and youthful air the event generated was so different from the stereotype of boring academic talks to greybeards in half-empty seminar rooms that it is worth considering how it was achieved and what its success suggests about the uses of the intellectual space Wiser represents.
Mbeki's address on May 24 was a curtain-raiser to an all-day colloquium the following week on the ANC's "second transition" policy documents, held in the same seminar room — the same documents the ruling party debated in its policy conference at Gallagher Convention Centre in Gauteng last week.
Wiser and the Mail & Guardian co-hosted Mbeki's lecture and the colloquium, and the room was filled to capacity.
Students came from departments of economics, politics, history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, media studies, law, engineering, architecture, health policy and business studies across Gauteng universities.
So did professionals from business institutes, banks and corporations; researchers from political parties and interest groups; and activists from non-governmental organisations for land, justice and peace, rural women, gender and sexual freedom, and migration studies institutes.
Simultaneous reportage of Mbeki's lecture from bloggers in the room reached an even wider audience after the event through a podcast, and various Twitter and social media sites buzzed with his trenchant critique of ANC rule.
Mbeki offered a widely comparative examination of the transitions and development of other societies in the global South such as Indonesia, Brazil and South Korea, as well as Britain in the 1970s.
In his scholarly take on the economic development of the world over the past century, he drew on Sarah Mosoetsa's book, Eating from One Pot, published last year by Wits University Press. This study of two impoverished KwaZulu-Natal communities caught up in contemporary struggles around jobs, income, livelihoods, dignity and gender conflict and tension explores Amartya Sen's idea of the "co-operative conflict of the poor".
Interdisciplinarity leads to informed debate
The reception Mbeki's lecture received belied claims that deeper analysis is neither popular nor possible with today's youthful vox populi. Instead, both it and the colloquium the following week demonstrated how higher-education interdisciplinarity can stage a politically engaged and informed public debate.
Seldom does a South African newspaper editor share a platform with a leading historian of postcolonial Africa, but that is how the colloquium kicked off when M&G editor-in-chief Nic Dawes and Wiser's Professor Achille Mbembe reflected on the moral imagination of the ANC nearly two decades after political liberation, in the light of contested ideas of the past and the withering of hopeful futures.
Later in the day Shireen Hassim, Lumkile Mondi, Daryl Glaser and others offered their takes on the special character of the South African struggle here and globally — its discontents, successes, impoverishments and achievements.
Outside the venue, side meetings on art and politics, dignity and race, sexuality and public life made even more urgent the debates inside the seminar room about information and state security, justice, the ANC's commitments to gender equality in the light of traditional assertions of patriarchy, and the place of Marxism and liberalism in the current contests over freedom and economic development.
David Moore, Susan Booysen, Jonathan Klaaren and Stephen Gelb held up for scrutiny our relations within the region and the continent, as well as inside the powerful new trading and financial blocks.
Richard Pithouse, Peliwe Lolwana and Graeme Bloch spoke about the tensions, blockages and dead ends in social development strategies and programmes. Jerry Coovadia and Duane Blaauw debated the dream and the realpolitik of a national health insurance scheme, as part of the wider net of social development and health.
These focuses entailed assessing the hopes and possibilities of anti-poverty measures — such as social grants and infrastructure creation — that have generated and fostered the solidarity, dignity, skills, basic survival and health at the heart of our shared futures.
Historically informed and socially textured policy debates such as these are sure to continue drawing young people to Wiser's scholarly spaces.
Catherine Burns is a researcher in the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research