/ 23 April 2013

Gerwel: ‘Class progress or class war?’

Jakes Gerwel: Marxism’s questioning is ‘out of fashion’
Jakes Gerwel: Marxism’s questioning is ‘out of fashion’

In the current wave of populism, one has to ask whether the idea and practice of nonracism really takes the central position in national and political discourse it should — and did — in the Nelson Mandela years.

I think, today, there is a lot more overt racial talk; there is a lot of racial noise. But the nonracial concept is still an informative one. It is not always lived out and it is not always talked about by different groups. But I still have the sense that, on a global scale, South Africa is actually a pretty reconciled nation.

The ANC faces challenges. It has allowed material or materialistic ­factors to influence the concept of nonracism. It was economist Stephen Gelb who made the point that it was becoming clearer that South Africa could not become a workers' or socialist state (at least not in our time) and that the most one could look forward to was a de­racialised South African capitalism. He asked, "If you have that, who will be the greatest rent-seeking or rent-gaining groupings or classes?" and predicted that it would be the black middle class or the black bourgeoisie.

Much is happening under the cover of that re-racialising ­discourse, for even the rentiers you speak of need the support of the masses!

I often contend that there is a kind of rationality to this trend, a perverse rationality perhaps. Africans, in the South African sense of the word, were the most discriminated against, the most exploited and the most ­suffering group in our society, by and large.  

This trend is not good for ­society and needs to be regulated and governed in a particular way that does not become non-nonracial. That is the challenge: How do you put right a past that was so racially determined, without yourself becoming racial in addressing it? That is the great challenge for our society and it is a great pity that the race/class couplet is little addressed in public discourse, at least as far as I can discern.

Is part of the problem perhaps the different critical resources and reference points available in the public mind to different ­generations? What do you think make up the reference points for young thinkers today?

This brings us to our pre-interview conversation about the humanities and education. What happens in universities and how we teach the humanities are important societal questions.

It is, after all, where those debates originated in our time. It was in the humanities that we spoke about these issues, were taught about them and young people learnt about them. Interacting with students at the Mandela Rhodes Foundation [of whose board Gerwel was chairperson] these past 10 years, I find the way that they think encouraging and I am quite sure that there are many more young people like them. But I do not find that they have picked up on the class debate.

Marxism and its form of questioning have gone totally out of fashion, it seems. I should not generalise … but the race/class issue was actually quite a fervent and informing debate during my time as a student and as a teacher; and we do know, of course, that material circumstances influence thinking. Perhaps, today, the demand for material progress is so strong and prevalent that people think of "class progress" rather than "class war".

Would you like to say something more on the question of the humanities, given the debates today?

Ja, well, I remember that I half ­flippantly said after 1994 — when I was still vice-chancellor at the University of the Western Cape [UWC] — that the bar for entry to the humanities should now be raised, so that the cream of national intellect is directed into the humanities and social sciences. But that was in the old days, I suppose. Today, you have to have a better mark to get into the natural sciences.

Yet you yourself, with degrees in literary and social studies and as former vice-chancellor of the UWC, have had a deep ­involvement in humanist ­education for most of your life. What do you make of the ­current marginalisation of the humanities?

One can understand the emphasis on science, technology and innovation because of the history of education in South Africa and the sense after 1994 that transformation of higher education was an imperative. In the old education system, too many black students went into areas like ­"biblical studies" and others and there was a neglect of advancement and the development of human capital in the natural sciences, mathematics, commerce and technology.

So, it is quite understandable why we sought to address that. The question is why the demise of the humanities, if there is indeed this demise, is a consequence of that changed focus.

In a strange way, apartheid played a huge role in the vibrancy of social and human sciences at the time. At the height of apartheid, sociology and historiography, for example, were vibrant and driving forces in the intellectual environment and public discourse.

I often ask myself the question, in our epistemology or our conceptualisation, have we not lost a kind of raison d'étre for the social and human sciences in the years that have followed? Did so much of the energy for the humanities and social sciences come from that oppositional energy that was set in motion by apartheid?

The anti-apartheid struggle was

also, to a large degree, a battle of and over ideas, a battle of the priority of one set of ideas over another, and in this struggle the human and social sciences played a great and liberating role. Is it that we have not properly conceptualised what the human sciences do in, say, a "­developmental state", because that has become another cliché?

The emphasis seems to have shifted from oppositional social ­science to what do we do in a non-oppositional context. As you have said, the issues we are facing are social ones — social cohesion, for example — and just how well are we doing with them? These are questions that are not going to be addressed by the non­human sciences.

Indeed. I think that what's slipped out of the picture, and what emerges very clearly in the example that you use is that the force of ideas in society is a living and vital force. Science and technology can do certain things very well, but it is as if educating ­people in the tools of critical reflection, the assessment, interpretation and criticism of these ruling ideas, is not important any more. What are your views on this?

From my own recollection of what I learned at primary, secondary and high school, ideas were central; or perhaps we might say values, though it is an old sociological term that is perhaps overused and sometimes misused.

If we just think about historiography in South Africa at the time and its role in the societal battle of ideas, part of that struggle was about our conception of our history and the way to go forward from that history. And one of the exciting and major intellectual developments in South Africa was the emergence of the revisionists and neo-Marxists; it changed the way people thought and eventually acted. And I think that much of this debate is now being neglected.

The current plan is that what we need in this country is, above all, more technology and science, but we may be a poorer society for that. Again — and without being ­moralistic — there are a lot of things that are of concern, particularly the erosion of values and good practices, and increasing corruption. How much of the debate around these issues and the action against them is being influenced by those kinds of debates? I do not think that it is, or at least not in the same manner as it was done in the struggle years.

Perhaps, as another dimension of contrast with the present, we could discuss your time in Nelson Mandela's presidential office?

I was secretary of the Cabinet in the government of national unity with the ANC, National Party and Inkatha together: three historical enemies, and enemies in the real, not just metaphorical sense! To be there with those parties, working together, it was a remarkable South African experience. We were all a bit over-optimistically proud of ourselves and what we had achieved, the three sitting together as one government, really working well together as a government of national unity. It was, indeed, an exceptional experience.

But your question was more about working with Mandela himself.

Mandela is a leader who throws up epistemological questions. We all cherish him and lionise him as this leader — which he really was — but he himself had a sense of collective leadership. He always raised the issue of how does the individual relate to the collective, how is the individual's experience and conduct influenced by the collective and how does it feed back to the collective?

What I remember most of all about Mandela as a decision-maker was his ability to project himself from the present, the moment in which he had to make a decision, into the future, almost being able to stand at that future point and look back on the effect of a decision.

Any of his ­generation — the Robben Island generation, at least — would probably have taken the same position he did, but he had in addition this uncanny ability not just to reflect, but, as it were, "forward-flect" on a decision.

Observing from a distance and just, say, from reading Mandela's autobiography [1995], what is so striking is his quite extraordinary depth of self-reflexivity. As you say, the capacity not only to step outside yourself and really take in other people's viewpoints, but also to think through how the consequent decision might look in the future, what its implications are in the real sense, and then also take those into account, is startling.

Yes. And then there was his ­anthropology. He had a genuine belief, and he often argued with me about the provability of it, that human beings were essentially beings who do good.

He really acted on that. He is not naive, but he has faith in the goodness of human beings, no matter how they disagree politically or otherwise, and he always acted in line with that belief. Of course, this attitude also helped to lay the basis for the furthering of social cohesion and national unity in the country.

Why do you think education is in such a bad state in the country, despite the attempts to deal with it?

I think this is largely a question of management. We had a lot of things to undo in apartheid education. But I also think we went "fancy" in too many ways. Take, for instance, outcomes-based education. It is a good thing, if you have the infrastructure, if you have the material to do it. There was an unplanned method of tackling challenges and we just do not have the human capacity to manage it.

Too many school principals are not able to manage schools and teachers are not attending to the basic things that they should be attending to. There is a massive failure of management. And, yes, we did a couple of silly things — I was Cabinet secretary at the time — like closing the teacher training and other colleges and ending the apprenticeship system, which has totally fallen by the wayside. We got a lot of systemic things wrong.

Is it fixable?

It has to be fixable.

This is an edited version of Living Out Our Differences: Reflections on Mandela, Marx and My Country  — An Interview with Jakes Gerwel by John Higgins, published in the journal Thesis Eleven (http://the.sagepub.com), whose current edition focuses on South Africa. The full interview will also appear in Higgins's book, ­Academic Freedom in the New South Africa, which Wits University Press will publish this year. Higgins is a fellow of the University of Cape Town