/ 5 June 2023

Eusebius McKaiser: A democratic intellectual

Eusebius Mckaiser
Eusebius Mckaiser. (Photo by Oupa Bopape/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Democracy is a practice as well as a set of political arrangements, and shared spaces for disputation are central to its practice. Within national states, and national dramas, there are always multiple publics and multiple public spheres, some of which are structurally subordinated to others. A discussion on Radio 702 or a debate in the pages of Business Day is a very different form of participation than, say, a meeting on a land occupation.

Democracy as practice is always a matter of degree, and there are powerful forces, from the will to power of individuals to capital and authoritarian movements and states that push back against democratic gains when they can. Across space and time insurgent forms of popular democratic practice have frequently been met with violence, as we have recently seen with the eKhenana Commune in Durban. 

Expanding the practice of democracy requires the creation of new spaces for public discussion and disputation, especially among groups of people who are structurally excluded from the elite public sphere. There are states that have supported this through public interest media and, in rare cases, supporting forms of popular organisation that constitute nodes of counter power. But, given the tremendous influence of the elite public sphere, democratisation as a process also requires a more democratic approach from within the elite public sphere.

This is not something that comes naturally to many university-trained intellectuals. Since Plato, the philosopher who founded the Academy in Athens in 387 BCE, academically trained intellectuals have often seen themselves as an enlightened caste with a right to rule the realm of the ideas. This is as true of many of those who speak in the name of the nation from above as it is of a good number of technocrats and the little left sects that demand deference from the people they assume a right to lead.

There is a difference between entering a public conversation with the aim of ending it and entering it with the aim of enriching the conversation by clarifying it, bringing others in, and holding the line against those who aim to circumscribe or poison it. There is a difference between understanding public conversation as a performance and understanding it as an invitation. 

Those who assume that engaging an audience beyond the usual bounds of those authorised to participate in the elite public sphere requires a reduction in intellectual seriousness, patronise and stultify. “Everything”, Frantz Fanon insisted, “can be explained to the people, on the single condition that you really want them to understand.” When needless jargon and assertions of authority that exceed technical expertise are set aside and people are addressed as equals, the space for serious conversation can be rapidly expanded. 

Eusebius McKaiser was trained in analytic philosophy, a now very Anglophone deviation from the ancient search for wisdom on the questions of truth, justice and beauty, that has produced little, if anything, of general social value in many years. Its strength, though, is its insistence on the logic and clarity of the steps taken to reach a conclusion. 

McKaiser, correctly briskly dismissing prejudices of various kinds as unworthy of anything but dismissal, brought this practice into the elite public sphere. He spoke in plain language, clearly explaining jargon when its use was unavoidable. Without ever being laborious he deftly gave his audience an understanding of how he had reached his conclusions. Like any thinker who puts the integrity of thought before a claim to personal superiority he changed his positions when he thought it necessary and explained why he had done so.

He was at his best on radio. The big man had a very big brain and an extraordinary gift for thinking on his feet. He had an equally remarkable gift for simultaneously inviting people into a conversation and demanding that they participate with good faith and rigour. 

With his quick mind and willingness to draw the line against intolerance and toxic forms of discussion McKaiser irked some people. Inevitably his judgments in the hurly burly of the moment were occasionally off but that is the price of being in the ring. No one can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee without a lapse day after day and year after year. 

Some thought him arrogant but, in a mark of intellectual humility, he constantly engaged a wide circle of people across a range of forms and areas of expertise through private discussions as he prepared for and reflected on his public discussions. Many, and perhaps most of these people, were women. Many disagreed with him on important issues. Some had entirely different worldviews. He was a liberal but regularly spoke to two communist women, one from within the Congress tradition and one outside of it. There was a rare openness in how he sustained this network, sometimes over lunch but more often through exchanges of long voice notes spoken with diamond sharp precision. 

Nobody will agree with every position McKaiser took but that is not the point of public disputation on talk radio, in newspaper columns or speeches. Even when there were fundamental disagreements, many who held ideas at odds with his welcomed the democratic and open mode. This was no small thing in a public sphere in which the public exercise of reason is rare, few interlocutors explain the logic on which their views rest, outright liars and conspiracy theorists are given space, many journalists assume that an unreflective accusatory tone is the pinnacle of the profession, and few operate outside of the intellectual claustrophobia of preformed ideological boxes. 

McKaiser held the line as the project in support of Jacob Zuma and the Guptas descended into outright propaganda, cynically claiming to be anti-racist as it defiled such a noble principle and the centuries of struggle behind it. He also held the line as years of often monomaniacal reporting on state corruption encouraged a grim white revanchism in influential chunks of the media, a revanchism which, unlike the project in support of Zuma and the Guptas, remains in full bloom.

His support for the intellectual life of our country extended far beyond his own presence as a public figure in our media. He also participated in academic life, initiated and worked to sustain organised and generative forms of collective discussion outside of the public eye and made a remarkable contribution to supporting a reading culture, avidly avidly engaging new books and their authors. This was another valuable contribution to democratic life, and important work to build and sustain the infrastructure of our public intellectual life.

McKaiser thought for himself and showed us how he thought and why. In a country in which authoritarianism, paranoia, conformity, bad faith and outright dishonesty are common, this mattered. The big man had a big character and a big presence. 

He leaves his family, partner and a remarkably wide circle of friends and private interlocutors in grief. But the big man also leaves a big hole in our public sphere, a hole that is much more significant than the sense of knowing a person one has never met that comes with certain kinds of celebrity, and perhaps especially talk radio.  

Our national crisis is not solely a result of the pitiful state of the ANC. It is also, among other things, a result of a public sphere wholly inadequate to democratic aspirations. There will never be another “Euby”, as he was known to his friends, but this is the time for others, in their own way, to step into the breach.

Richard Pithouse is the executive director of The Forge, a space for discussion, performance and exhibitions in Johannesburg, a senior fellow at the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and a research associate in the Philosophy Department at the University of Connecticut.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.