Zimbabwe: Delusions of intellectualism

11Jul 2018
The Guardian
Zimbabwe: Delusions of intellectualism

JUST like the media, intellectualism is often overrated as both a source of truth and of accurate information -- more so in the field of socio-political commentary.

Blatantly partial academic political activists sometimes find themselves in the luxury of being showered with accolades and cheer-leading adulations for "impartiality and objectivity."

Ibbo Mandaza is one academic whose work at SAPES is often shrouded in political activism, but equally often are the hailed credentials associated with his perceived intellectualism. He periodically invites intellectuals so they can impose their opinion on all others.

The deodorising rhetoric behind the facade is often centred in the fabulous glory of intellectualism. We are told we must believe every manner of fallacy because it comes from intellectuals.

Grace Mugabe and Joice Mujuru knew well the power of intellectualism and their graduation with doctorate degrees in 2014 was largely seen as an effort to fit in with the elite club of intellectual politicians. We will leave the controversies around the degrees aside, but the message behind the keenness for the title Doctor was very clear on the part of the two competing ladies.

Former president Robert Mugabe was famed for his multiple degrees in various fields and Nelson Chamisa acquired five degrees between 2003 and 2015 -- all in emulation of his childhood idol. The ambitious politician is a renowned admirer of the former revolutionary leader.

Just like what evangelists and sect leaders are to religious fanatics, professors and holders of doctorates cannot err or lie before their own followers; especially those that use their academic qualifications to impress politically.

In Africa, the sense of entitlement that comes with intellectualism is astonishing. However, this is all, but a mirror image of the attainment of academic titles, as opposed to it being an appreciation of real achievement in academic work.

In fact, real academic work is frowned upon and shunned by many as the tiresome and thankless business of trying to attain high-ranking titles in academia. What is attractive to many of our people in academia is the idea of leading an intellectual life without necessarily engaging in real intellectual work.

For example Jonathan Moyo carries with him an intellectual life as opposed to intellectual work itself and that way he has created a constituency of fanatical cheerleaders whose appreciation of intellectualism is rigidly limited to the knowledge of academic titles and nothing more.

Prof! Prof! they yell and shout each time the man tweets and vents out of his bitterness.

In fact Jonathan immensely impresses his followers on social media without much effort and his tweets easily get picked up for news by lazy reporters with neither capacity nor literacy to engage intellectually. All they want is to be seen as capable of identifying an intellectual.

With such an intellectual life as Professor Moyo leads, one has a sense of entitlement to supremacy of opinion -- in reality a baseless entitlement awarded by bigots and charlatans in the exercise of fanatical activism.

On the other hand, intellectual work requires constant and concrete proof of one's ability to scientifically prove every assertion they make. Jonathan Moyo does not do that. He does not need to, given the intellectual illiteracy of his legion of followers.

So you have an intellectual traducing his political rivals through schoolyard type of scolding language and there is a ready and appreciative cheering audience driven by cretinism. To some, someone like Jonathan Moyo becomes a respected professor because of his passionate hate speech towards a perceived enemy like ED Mnangagwa and not necessarily because of any real intellectual work.

In reality, there is nothing particularly intellectual about being concerned with world affairs or the domestic politics of one's country. In fact, labour unions, peasants, the working class and student unions are usually concerned with these issues and they are not intellectuals.

A lot of people wrongly or rightly believe that being intellectual means one who works with their mind. Plenty of people in the crafts, trades, mechanics, and so on probably do more intellectual work than most of the people working in academia or in universities; that is if the idea of working with the mind is considered the right definition of intellectualism.

A lot of the so-called scholarly work in academia is just clerical work and there is no real logic in believing that clerical work is more challenging mentally than fixing an automobile engine.

This writer for example, can easily do any clerical work, but cannot figure out how to fix an automobile engine, or even a mobile phone.

So if by "intellectual" the essence is to talk about people who use their minds, then society is awash with intellectuals.

However, it would appear that most people, especially from a political perspective, do think that being intellectual means a special class of people, who in the name of academic titles are in the business of imposing thoughts and framing ideas for people in power, or for their political allies and telling everyone what they should believe.

Alex Magaisa's stay in Zimbabwe as an advisor to the late Morgan Tsvangirai resulted in frustration because Tsvangirai was not a big fan of idolising academics. He probably did not know how to do so.

These people like Magaisa and Moyo may be called intellectuals, but in reality they are just a kind of secular priesthood, whose task is to uphold doctrinal truths of political groupings they stand as allies to, if not as a central part.

This is why it is very healthy for the population to be anti-intellectual, or at the very least to be sceptical of intellectualism. There is one thing that this writer admires so much about the United States of America. There is very little respect for intellectuals by the mainstream American community and even by the media in general. They are quite farcical about the propaganda model, about Hollywood and so on, but their intellectual culture is far from being farcical.

During the Vietnam War, people like Noam Chomsky would co-sign protest letters with such intellectuals like the Frenchman Jean-Paul Sartre. In France the letters would hit headlines straight away and in the US there would not be even a word mentioned about them.

The French media even attacked the American media for this because they thought this was all scandalous. Anyone who has read Chomsky would probably think ignoring the academic is scandalous.

But the point is so many people were clearly opposed to the war, regardless of what Noam Chomsky and his respected French colleague were signing.

What difference does it make if two guys who happen to have some name recognition got together and signed a statement? There is no compulsive logic why this should be of any particular interest to anybody, let alone why the media should scramble for this statement.

What happens in Africa is that if you hit the cord as an intellectual or as a political icon; then you find yourself in front of television cameras all the time, you are invited to talk shops and other such gatherings. Then you have got to keep doing something new so they will keep focussing on you, and not on the next fellow.

Well, these so-called intellectuals and political icons often do not have excellent ideas, so they have to come up with really crazy stuff, so that they maintain this sense of pomposity and self-importance -- the illusion that gives them so much attention.

This is precisely why Nelson Chamisa sometimes plays the clown. He has to come up with all this crazy stuff to maintain his self-importance. He has to please a constituency that needs his voice to authenticate what their own voices would be ridiculed for, if ever they did the proclamations themselves.

Tendai Biti does the same thing. He has to come up with cruciferous hoopla against Zanu-PF, if the donors out there are not going to look for the next fellow. So he becomes an "intellectual" for describing ED Mnangagwa as a "butcher" or "a thief" -- that without even bothering to elaborate or explain his point.

Any Zimbabwean who was brought up the traditional way knows that this kind of scolding is borrowed from the low level misfits at village beer-drinking gatherings -- a deplorable habit of wayward villagers; yet it passes for intellectualism when Biti has to keep up with the business of maintaining a pretentious intellectual life. That level of lazy thinking replaces real intellectual work required by conventional academic practices.

Some years ago, one John Sentamu had to cut off his dog collar before BBC television cameras because he needed to maintain his position above the rest in the Mugabe-demonisation campaign. You play the fool if you must, that is what it takes when you are trapped in the game of playing the authentic voice as a contrived authority.

This is the trap intellectuals often find themselves in. Intellectual work itself is a matter of privilege, not a reflection of intellectual supremacy. People work at universities and that way they are privileged. Much as they pretend to, they do not have to work that hard. Often they control their own work and they choose when to do certain things and so on.

They have resources, they know how to use the library, they have reading lists to guide them and they have all other sources of information availed for their benefit.

Arguably, some of this intellectual work may not be as mentally challenging as figuring out a problem with a car, something that clearly requires creativity.

But hey, why would an African intellectual involved with the politics of a party like the MDC Alliance worry about intellectual work in the first place?

Until the recent laughable efforts by Chamisa, the opposition party had never believed in the politics of public policy. Policy matters have always been either non-existent or extremely peripheral in MDC circles. This is why a scolding and frothing character like Tendai Biti is considered an icon.

The MDC leadership believes their constituency understands and prefers hate language more than they do policy.
The party was founded on the principle that Zanu-PF could be shouted and scolded out of power and this explains the hate language we read against ZANU-PF and its leader almost on a daily basis.

Now the ZEC chairperson has been at the receiving end of these infantile insults. There are people in the opposition who keep thinking they can push away the tide of defeat by discrediting the electoral process, despite the fact that this has never worked in the past.

NewsDay uses inciting language against President Mnangagwa and that is very deliberate. Like many in the opposition, the reporters at NewsDay believe they can wash away the political fortunes of Mnangagwa by simply discrediting him as an unlikeable character, or an "unelectable" politician, to quote the celebrated socialite masquerading as an intellectual, Jonathan Moyo.

In Europe and in Africa, this business of waving intellectual titles ahead of common sense is quite rife. The American public would largely not notice any such gimmicks. You got to act it at Hollywood and you will most likely fool them that way.

But the problem really is that all that is waved as intellectual prowess is often nothing more than an empty intellectual life -- a special craft that does not particularly require any thought.

In fact one is better off when they actually don't think too much. That is the facade we often see as a luminary image of intellectualism.

Society does not necessarily owe intellectuals the respect that most academics expect. Our Zimbabwean background is that of village life, with a lot of people who may not have too much formal education, but in our way of life they are very literate.

They have a traditional court system, they have wide knowledge about their surroundings, they argue about things around them, they find solutions; they discuss problems and fix them. This writer would even call them intellectuals in their own context.

They do not need "public awareness" or "outreach campaigns" to teach them how to make political choices. They know very well what is politically relevant to their way of life, and they do not need a bunch of excitable youngsters from Harare to tell them what is politically correct for them.

It is foolish to go to Bikita and have a rally at Nyika Growth Point; then leave the place in the misguided belief that one has enlightened the villagers on how they are going to vote. These people are way smarter than what most of these naïve intellectuals think.

They know exactly what and who to vote for on July 30 this year and theirs is a very informed choice.

We have seen these people trivialised and dismissed by some, in apparent preference for political loud mouths like Jonathan Moyo and others who do speak of democracy with a self-anointed sense of authority that would make one to be forgiven for thinking that opposition parties are the custodians of democratic practices.

This writer longs for a society where people treat intellectuals sceptically the way they should treat the media and any other characters who anoint themselves voices for the people, or sources of accurate information.

That way we avoid a situation where intellectuals become delusional with illusions of grandeur, getting so carried away that they begin to think they can impose their ideas on all others.

Zimbabwe we are one and together we will overcome. It is homeland or death!

Reason Wafawarova is a political writer based in SYDNEY, Australia.

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