A gathering of black intellectuals going by the name of the Native Club has stirred rigorous debate in South Africa. Some have likened the Native Club to the Broederbond; however, the Club defines its objectives as being to work towards contributing to the on-going process of decolonisation and eradicating apartheid and colonial mindsets. Suren Pillay reflects on the furore around the Native Club debate, reminding us of Wole Soyinka’s criticism of the Negritude Movement, that a tiger never pr...read more
A gathering of black intellectuals going by the name of the Native Club has stirred rigorous debate in South Africa. Some have likened the Native Club to the Broederbond; however, the Club defines its objectives as being to work towards contributing to the on-going process of decolonisation and eradicating apartheid and colonial mindsets. Suren Pillay reflects on the furore around the Native Club debate, reminding us of Wole Soyinka’s criticism of the Negritude Movement, that a tiger never proclaims its tigritude!
For a while now I have tried to put my finger on my precise unease with the Native Club. Of course the name of the club is bait enough, but I am prepared to grant the organisers a level of irony, and not get too riled about who is a native. I will also avoid the temptation to point out how being a native can conflict with the aspirations of scholarly life to a universal sensibility. And I have to assume that my invitation to join was lost in the post. The main source of my worry with the Native Club however, is this: as intellectuals they don’t seek to speak truth to power, as much as seek to be power itself.
Defenders of the Native Club all raise the very crucial point that there is a startling and severe lack of black intellectuals in academia.. True, and as the driving concern for those who have formed the Native Club, they must be lauded for making this issue more of a public scandal. However, most universities, if not all institutions in South Africa, will at least publicly agree with you. It is about representation, and of course it is something that correctly challenges post apartheid South African life as we try to correct the historical injustices of apartheid. We must however ask ourselves the more demanding question of whether the wrong of apartheid is simply reducible to a right of representation?
The motivation for the Native Club is in my view correct, but insufficient. We have to move the debate beyond representation - it is not an end in itself - and confront the existential question of what it means to be an intellectual in post-apartheid South Africa. Defenders of the Native Club tend to emphasise white control, white institutions, white viewpoints, and ‘white prevailing discourses’, which recalls in my memory the debates we had in the1980’s about Bantu education during the school boycotts. We shouted Phantsi Bantu education, but we did not mean by this that we wanted the education that white South Africans were getting. We would not be defined by whiteness, both as a problem and as a solution. Yes, we may have envied the physical infrastructure of those well-resourced schools, but we realized that white South Africans were getting an equally defective education, and that we would have the opportunity to create something radically improved in a post-apartheid South Africa.
For many, that new education would entail thinking critically, and independence of action and thought based on the best values of the humanities. Our colleagues in the Native Club seem so agitated by the problem of white control that they have fixated on a change of demographics, but have not gone further to unpack what exactly is problematic with the ‘white viewpoint’, and consequently feel no need to make a case for what would be better about a ‘black viewpoint’, if either actually are possible. Is this, one wonders, because the views of the leading black intellectuals in the Native Club, so precariously close to those of the ruling party, may not be that different in substance to the white viewpoint they seek to dislodge? After all, we have quickly learnt that a black capitalist is no less immune to the imperatives of profit than her white counterpart. And so too for the black university administrator.
I hesitate to resurrect Frantz Fanon because he really has been abused of late. However, many seem to have not read Fanon too finely when it comes to Blackness and Whiteness. Recall that for Fanon neither black nor white was a ‘fact’; both were dependent on each other for their existence. It is therefore possible to see both identities implode so as to no longer make them socially, politically and economically discernable.
Imagining a South Africa without apartheid was a big, bold question mark that stood glistening on the other side of the bleakness and bloodshed that was the struggle against apartheid. Being beyond apartheid would mean being able to find alternatives to the ways things were, and if one wants to get completely nostalgic about it, forge a better kind of society. That’s what made it compelling, and makes it so disheartening sometimes these days. The question marks are quickly being replaced with the exclamations mark of power, and those that come bearing the exclamation marks like a cross are often familiar faces. However, the vocation of the intellectual is to consistently keep the question marks of human life open, never accepting the easy answers and always vigilant to the status quo. That said, being critical doesn’t mean you only say bad things, because criticism can be about positive appraisal too, but to be critical does mean never tempering disagreement for the cosiness of solidarity, lest we become ideologues - just witness Ronald Suresh Roberts’ latest turn.
If we accept what Cornel West preaches, that being an intellectual is about speaking truth to power, then surely it would mean having a permanently sceptical relationship to the powerful regardless of colour, and not simply being critical because you actually aspire to be the powerful. This, unfortunately, seems to be what the Native Club is about. To have a wider purchase on other intellectuals, the Native Club will have to do more than articulate concerns about representation. It will have to pose thought provoking intellectual questions, do some solidly rigorous scholarly work, and fire the imaginations of a new generation of young minds. Remember the venerable Wole Soyinka’s critique of Negritude: a tiger never proclaims its tigritude!
• Suren Pillay is a senior lecturer in the Dept. of Political Studies at the University of the Western Cape.
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