/ 22 January 2024

South Africa has a political ‘crisis of ideas’

Graphic Tl Qobo Coalitions Twitter
(John McCann/M&G)

In April of this year, South Africa will mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of its 

democratic polity. This occasion provides a serious opportunity for reflection on the importance of the genealogy of ideas and intellectual traditions that have shaped the country’s contemporary political landscape and of recentring intellectual debate and theoretical traditions as a new foundation of its much needed political and democratic renewal.  

Such a renewal would require an interrogation of South Africa’s contemporary crisis of “ideas” where political debate often lacks theoretical depth, and where political discourse frequently invokes concepts and ideas without substantive meaning whether these are socialist, liberal, or Marxist.  

Such a renewal is largely contingent on more thinking and more theorising of South Africa’s historical, political, economic, and sociological realities. It is a renewal that would also require a thoughtful engagement with South Africa’s intellectual history by drawing from the ideas of the past and reimagining these ideas in the context of political thought and action for the present and future. 

Yet exactly what do I mean by this? Intellectual history is rooted in historical context, reflecting the experiences, difficulties and shifting debates in societies over time. Understanding these historical foundations is essential for contextualising contemporary political issues. In South Africa, like elsewhere in the world, intellectual traditions have in the past contributed to the formulation of policies by offering frameworks and theories that address complex political, economic and social issues.  

The struggle against apartheid, as a defining feature of South African political history, for example, enabled black intellectuals such as Robert Sobukwe, Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko to theorise anti-colonial resistance, African nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and Black Consciousness. These ideas are intertwined with South Africa’s unique cultural and political identity.

While they continue to partially offer a sense of continuity by connecting contemporary political thought to insights of the past, they must be carefully excavated and further developed to respond to South Africa’s contemporary historical experiences and challenges. Intellectual rumination is key for developing the theoretical basis for ideas that interrogate the power structures that reproduce structural inequities and for further identifying how they may provide emancipatory alternatives for the present. 

“Ideas” are essential for fostering rich and nuanced debate and for developing a democratic discourse that confronts South Africa’s post-colonial realities. Intellectual traditions offer theoretical frameworks, historical context and guiding principles that can illuminate South Africa’s policy development and shape public opinion on a range of contemporary democratic and political struggles including decolonisation, land reform, economic empowerment and social redress.  

By addressing South Africa’s post-colonial realities through a range of theoretical lenses, South African politics can offer refreshing and effective approaches to the struggles of public governance, poverty, unemployment and inequality. 

Intellectual traditions may provide critical frameworks that can inform policy development and strategy. By drawing on economic theories that emphasise inclusive growth and sustainable development, for example, political policymakers may design targeted employment programmes or social safety nets to alleviate poverty and reduce inequality. Similarly, studying historical movements for workers’ rights can offer lessons on collective action and social mobilisation, informing strategies to mitigate against class inequalities.  

An engagement with democratic theory that privileges equality, inclusivity and access means political approaches to education and healthcare can be strengthened and enhanced. Alternatively, the framework of “intersectionality” of race, gender and class may offer ideas that address social injustice previously subject to a binary lens. 

By confronting South Africa’s post-colonial realities through a rigorous analysis of ideas, the country is likely to emerge from the “crisis of ideas” that plagues its democratic and political trajectory. Such a crisis is indicative of a context where there is often limited innovative, diverse and constructive thinking in the political realm. This manifests as a stagnation in the development of new ideas, a narrow range of perspectives dominating intellectual discourse or a disconnect between intellectual work and the pressing problems faced by the country.  

Confronting such a crisis involves revitalising intellectual engagement, promoting diversity of political thought and ensuring that intellectual contributions are relevant to the complex realities of South Africa. Thirty years since the inception of democracy and with South Africa at the cusp of a new political future, this project is now more important than ever. 

Dr Ayesha Omar is a senior lecturer in political studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and a British Academy International fellow at SOAS University of London working on a new book on black intellectual history in South Africa.