The appalling scenes outside the court during Jacob Zuma’s rape trial in 2006, and the nature of his campaign for the presidency of the ANC the following year, marked a dramatic turn towards anti-intellectualism inside the party and in political life more broadly.
The sorry history of anti-intellectualism in degenerated national liberation movements was sketched out with brilliant analytical power and clarity by Frantz Fanon in 1961 in his last book, The Wretched of the Earth. Achille Mbembe explored this further in On the Postcolony in 2000, paying particular attention to the vulgarity of the neocolonial dictatorships that plagued Africa. Similar themes have been a powerful presence in much of the best African cinema and literature, with Wizard of the Crow (2006), the simultaneously comic and desperately sad novel by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, pushing hard against a fictionalised account of the Daniel arap Moi dictatorship in Kenya.
But the anti-intellectualism that surged into public life via the project that united around Zuma, and took on a kleptocratic and authoritarian form when he was in office, was not simply a contemporary avatar of this history. It followed the degeneration of public life in Italy during the successive periods of rule of Silvio Berlusconi and anticipated elements of the politics of the grotesque figures to come to power elsewhere – men like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Rodrigo Duterte.
Significant elements of the politics around Zuma were all too contemporary, a taste of a possible future as well as a rapidly degrading present. This included the way in which, much like figures such as Berlusconi and Trump, Zuma’s crassness was openly celebrated rather than masked. It also included, of course, the way in which much of the continuing attempt to compromise the integrity of the public sphere came to be primarily driven by well-organised and well-funded social media campaigns rather than the more obviously heavy hand of older forms of state propaganda.
After Zuma took office, the forces allied to him moved swiftly to capture and plunder public institutions and budgets, with families like the Guptas, Watsons and Mpisanes rapidly acquiring fabulous riches at the direct expense of the majority and the material infrastructure of collective life. But the drive to gain control of institutions in and outside the state was not solely a matter of rent-seeking and the outright theft of public wealth on a staggering scale.
In 2011, two appointments to senior positions in public life began what would become a sustained assault on the intellectual integrity of the public sphere. Dikgang Moseneke, a man of extraordinary intellect and principle, was passed over for the position of chief justice in favour of Mogoeng Mogoeng, a jurist of limited intellectual standing and no history of progressive principle. In the same year, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, a wholly inadequate and farcical candidate, was appointed to run the public broadcaster. It had predictably disastrous consequences for the quality of public disputation as well as for people of principle working at the SABC.
This was followed, in 2013, by Iqbal Survé’s purchase of a 55% stake in Independent News & Media SA through a loan from the Public Investment Corporation, the body tasked with the management of the Government Employees Pension Fund. The consequences of this have been every bit as deleterious as feared.
By 2016, Bell Pottinger, the notorious public relations firm that had previously worked for a host of horrifying clients, including the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and the Pentagon during the occupation of Iraq, was successfully intervening in the South African public sphere via a variety of avenues, including the tiny but loud pro-Zuma organisation Black First Land First. In a striking display of the contemporaneity of the ways in which the public sphere has been compromised, this group has promoted many of the outlandish conspiracy theories taken up by the international Right around 5G, Bill Gates, Covid-19 vaccines, the return of old antisemitic hallucinations and so on.
The deliberate cultivation of outright dishonesty often leaked into institutions that were not under the direct control of the form of kleptocratic and authoritarian nationalism organised around Zuma. The Sunday Times was rightly excoriated for the articles it published claiming, incorrectly, that the South African Revenue Service harboured a “rogue unit”, but many other newspapers have never been held accountable for publishing articles that were plainly untrue and plainly animated by malicious political agendas. There has also been very little accountability for the ways in which the academy was compromised, sometimes seriously.
There is huge popular support for opposition to corruption, and no demonstrable popular support for kleptocratic politics. In the 2019 national elections, Cyril Ramaphosa’s promise to oppose corruption with his “new dawn” was well received and renewed the legitimacy of the ANC among a significant number of voters.
The small number of people who turned out for the “National Welcome Prayer Day for Jacob Zuma” in Durban on 14 October is typical of the failure to mobilise popular support. We should not forget that prior to the Covid-19 restrictions, grassroots activists in that city could easily organise 5 000 people to march against corruption on a weekday despite being subject to severe and at times murderous repression.
Lest we forget
It goes without saying that any form of even minimally decent politics should oppose kleptocratic forms of politics – and more everyday forms of corruption – as strongly and effectively as is possible. Public sentiment makes this project eminently viable if its most prominent forms are not restricted, as is often the case, to elites.
But similar kinds of attention also need to be paid to the anti-intellectualism that has endured after Zuma’s removal from office. It continues to be aggressively pursued by the kleptocrats in the ANC who cynically term themselves the “radical economic transformation” faction, the EFF, prominent personalities like Dali Mpofu, private organisations like Independent Media and public institutions like the Judicial Service Commission.
The fact that there is a clear lack of intellectual seriousness in right-wing organisations, such as the Institute for Race Relations and Afriforum, in no way renders the active cultivation of anti-intellectualism in and around the ruling bloc acceptable. The white Right is hardly a credible yardstick for progressive aspirations.
There are many urgent critiques of the ANC’s past, but no one could argue that the party has not had a vigorous array of impressive intellectuals in its ranks. The same is true of the trade union movement and the United Democratic Front. Other political traditions at a remove from the ANC, such as Black Consciousness and pan-Africanism, also have a history of impressive intellectual seriousness.
The active attack on these traditions of intellectual depth, breadth and rigour is being undertaken with the deliberate intent of offering cover to an entirely rotten elite, just as has been the case under right-wing demagogues elsewhere in the world. In our case, the attack on intellectual seriousness is being advanced to offer cover to a predatory and kleptocratic elite who can only leave increasing impoverishment and social crisis in their wake, rather than the “patriotic bourgeoisie” that we were once offered as a substitute for popular democratic power.