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30 March 2011

Building the new cadre 50 years after Fanon’s death: the place of intelligentsia in recreating societies in Africa

Zukiswa Mqolomba is a Masters in Poverty and Development candidate at the University of Sussex, England.

The year 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Frantz Fanon, highlighted by various meetings in Africa, Caribbean, US, and Europe celebrating his work, years after his passing. The relevance of Fanon’s work is illustrative of the unique and important place of the thinking class in society. The celebration of Fanon’s legacy makes it imperative for us to ask about today’s thinking class in Africa- the intelligentsia. Indeed how do we build from the legacy of great thinkers of the continent? What is the place of intelligentsia in creating and recreating societies in Africa?

History attests that the thinking class of society has always been at the helm of evolution of whole societies. Not only has revolutionary thought been construed in centres of learning, but these centres have served as launch pads for revolutionary action. The advancement of whole societies has come about as a function of internalised struggles, opportunity and time as intellectuals have dedicated themselves to rigorous analysis in efforts to understand the way societies are organised, and most importantly how they could change these. Kwame Nkrumah, Cheikh Anta Diop, Joseph Ki Zerbo, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, and Eskia Mpahlele have been quoted amongst Africa’s greatest thinkers, having ascribed ideas that became the bedrock of Africa’s revolutionary road.

Even globally, throughout the waves of globalisation (late 19th century to early 21st century), the Ivy Leagues and the Bretton Woods Institutions (World Bank and International Monetary Fund) have remained the architects of societies, including our own, producing and reproducing a scholarship that reproduces after their own likeness. The construction and reconstruction of the institutional architecture of entire societies has been a theoretical and functional response of these ‘advanced’ elements.

These scholars understood the intersection between cultural power and ideological hegemony, and how these evolve societies towards ones interests. Now more than ever, there is a strong case for developing a new cadre in Africa for Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa remains behind in almost every human development indicator and economic development indicator. According to the forthcoming Human Development Report, Sub-Saharan Africa countries, even those classified as middle income countries, have disappointingly low HDIs. This is largely because states have not done sufficiently well in addressing the critical components of the HDI (Education, Health, and Employment). Similarly, with some exceptions, African states have not done well enough regarding institutional and cultural reforms; and ordinary Africans are paying the price.

There are other emerging challenges that require agile and capable scholarship. For instance, the 2nd scramble for Africa’s resources, the mineral-energy complex, estimated population growth, youth unemployment, rapid urbanization and urban poverty; all require a different approach to scholarship. Food security also remains a major threat to the continent and several African countries live on food aid, despite having arable land and human resources. Africa remains challenged on a number of fronts, including democratic governance, participatory democracy, and social inclusion. Bearing in mind the glaring complexities that face Africa’s, the reconstruction programme is, in essence, therefore a call to building the new cadre.

So what is the new cadre? Borrowing from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s (1993) concept of ‘moving the centre’, the new cadre should be engaged in protracted struggles to shift the centre and to usher in a world order wherein multiple paradigms are the new orthodox. Neo-liberal orthodoxy and market-fundamentalism, as espoused by the Washington consensus, have dominated our discourse for far too long and to our detriment. External forces have for too long shaped and reshaped the thinking paradigms of Africa’s development discourse. The structural adjustments instruments imposed on African states in the 1990’s, for instance, have been proven to be part of the problem, and not necessarily solutions to Africa’s labour challenges; having pursued an accumulation regime devoid of social justice. Multiple theoretical prisms that are context-specific are definitely needed to usher in a new development trajectory in Africa.

Borrowing from Evan’s (1995) concept of ‘embedded autonomy’ which is central to the effectiveness of the developmental state, the new cadre should also be autonomous in thinking (in so far as the terms of reference contribute to the identification and resolution of strategic developmental objectives), whilst embedded or grounded in analysis and in a manner that sustains working partnerships with social groups in society. Critical theory must be combined with practical and normative thinking in order to explain what is wrong with current social reality and to develop a clear action programme to change these. Since there is dialectical relationship between theory and concrete reality, embedded autonomy only enriches and affirms the basis of scientific knowledge.

The new cadre should move beyond knowledge regurgitation to knowledge production, evolving beyond the thinking paradigms of classical scholars to producing new paradigms of their own that reflect the times as they are, as they see them. For indeed: “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it, in relative opacity.” (Frantz Fanon; 1961). As this generation of African scholars, we too have an obligation to discover our mission, to fulfil it or betray it, in relative opacity. We too carry the burden of producing scholarly work that enhances the freedoms of others.

Undoubtedly, the decade ahead promises to be dominated as much by developmental questions as by anything else and regional economies are expected to play an important frontline role. As we commemorated the 50th anniversary of African independence in 2010, the most pertinent question of this epoch remains: Whither Africa?

For this reason, it seems appropriate for a stock-taking and reflexive intelligentsia to regain lost grounds; to move beyond deconstructive theories to constructive theories for Africa’s development. The dilemmas facing Africa call upon African scholars to make concerted efforts to realize new commitments towards alternative growth paths in Africa. And in this regards “the ink of a scholar is more precious than the blood of a martyr (and the neither-here-or-there ramblings of a populist on tick)” (Ahmed Baba).

 The first version of this article was published in The Thinker volume 23/2010


Siphokazi said...

Thanks for this piece Zuki. It continues nicely the debate Thembani, Gcobani and Bose have opened about the place/value of knowledge production in the continent. It does seem that during Fanon’s time, Nkruma, Sobukwe , Mafeje and the many great African thinkers the struggle was much easier to define that is the colonial resource and intellectual projects. What you all show is Mbembe’s dilemma of the postcolony under resourced and needing to define purpose and audience. I need you to tell me the ways in which we can begin to “discover our mission, to fulfil it or betray it.” If I am a young graduate today at some university who wants to be part of “moving the centre” where do I start? What should be my next move after reading your article? Now that I know what other thinkers in the continent have done and what intellectuals elsewhere have also contributed to the condition of the continent, where do I begin my journey?

Nadia Ahmadou said...

Thank you for this, we too often get lost in external viewpoints and approaches to the issues of our beloved continent. Like Siphokazi, I would like to hear more about concrete ideas around today's intelligensia structuring itself towards knowledge production geared at African development. In addition, I would like to suggest that as part of this new vision, a platform/forum for today's thinkers to share ideas and contributions would go a long way towards achieving this goal.

Gcobani Qambela said...

This is a really great and timely article Zukiswa. Very well written and key at the moment in painting both the historical account and contemporary projections as to where African intellectuals should be engaged the most - and I agree with it entirely for the most part. But I also think most importantly we also really need to start questioning whether Africa’s intellectuals are really ready for the task ahead of them, indeed in the last 10 years it has been inspiring to see the new ‘cadre’ of scholar activists emerge with novel intellectual orgasms as to where we should be going – as interpreted by our own generation/eye. But knowledge production by African scholars on Africa is still very polarised at the moment and the reason why African scholars have not been able to penetrate to mainstream scholarly policy decisions to effect proper social change has been largely because of the collaborative failure of our intellectuals.

While indeed there have been young thinkers emerging, but I think we should start critically looking at the value of creating ‘world class’ intellectuals without any grounds on which to make a positive contribution in society, and the only way I foresee it happening is through (interdisciplinary) collaboration between intellectuals which gaining momentum at the moment in academe but has NOT taken off.

I think at the moment climate change is probably the area where African intellectuals are failing to actually interpret reality as lived and experienced by Africans at the moment, again falling into the same trap and relying on knowledge produced overseas for what is a completely different climate, therefore resulting in ineffective results (am working on a paper on this and it still forms a large part of my theses which I will share with the Bokamoso people in time), but the point is that as alluded to in Thembani’s paper there is this pre-occupation with ‘status’ amongst African intellectuals, I.e. it’s no longer about now making and serving people through knowledge production for policy makers, but the discourse has shifted to which prestigious (often foreign) journal an intellectual will be published in etc.

Will make you and example, am following on Twitter two prominent intellectuals in Africa on Twitter at the moment: one (1) Achille Mbembe who feeds us food for thought EVERYDAY on Fanon and SA’s contemporary position and where the youth can play a role etc, and the other (2) another well known academic in Jo’burg who updates 80% of the time about the next conference they are attending, which fellowship they have been awarded etc. now these are important signifiers that although we are already building the new cadre, no doubt about that, but most of them are also falling into the same trap which have for the most part rendered intellectuals completely useless in Africa, with two distinct prototypes of intellectus emerging: those who want all the glory for themselves (who care about prestigious journals, fellowships etc), and those like Mbembe who make time to Tweet everyday engaging and responding to African youth they have never met, only to teach them Fanon and his importance to us.

So in moving forward: how do you propose we move beyond this ‘status anxiety’ that Thembani talked about to a more critical engagement with each other’s work’s as intellectuals (in a supportive, but still engaged way), when the system is favourable to individual achievement? How do we in Africa merge polarised views on hot and contested African issues and still make a difference? (e.g. in context of climate change – some academics saying it’s an issue of importance to Africa and others saying it is not) How do we take these discussions beyond the 10% that has access to the internet in Africa to the 90% who have never touched a computer screen? …

Thembani Mbadlanyana said...

I concur with what colleagues have alluded to above.It is a fact that African policy makers and decision makers need expert knowledge to bear on their legislative and policy decisions.This expert knowledge should by no means imported and extroverted- it should be informed, first and foremost by our ontological african experiences.This expert knowledge should come from one of our own, it should come from our African intellectuals and from our epistemic communities like CODESRIA.

With regard to redifining our purpose and striving towards achieving it, I should think there have been many initiatives to that direction- APRM and NEPAD being examples. Our intellectuals have also contributed a lot in these initiatives. But for me the problem lies at African Institutions of governance,continental geo-politics and lack of visionary and decisive leadership. New Visions, new visions are developed and elaborated on but the problem is lack of coordination, competing interests of African countries, lack of urgency of some states and continued external intervention on African Affairs.

With regard to 'shifting the centre', I dont think the centre will shift anytime soon.This is so because African scholarship, as Gcobani rightfully points out, its still fragmented.Our Intellectuals are working in silos, with little, if any collaboration.We are witnessing 'intellectaul survival of the fittest' where our intellectuals are competing for the West sponsored fellowships and study grants. Although CODESRIA and others are trying, there is little effort to build a strong thinking class and discusive communities in the continent. What compounds this problem is that, our social sciences is still not decolonized, its still extroverted. Our academia is still emblematic of mimetic isomorphism (achieving conformity through imitation)and our intellectual frames of reference are still grounded on western scholarly traditions. We as the emerging young African intelligentsia, we commit the same mistake of our forebeares. Our emergent scholarship is not framed in such a way that it will move the centre. As the new cohort/cadreship of African Intellectuals, we continue to idolize western scholarship and to be concerned with status anxiety. We are not moving beyond knowledge regurgitation and we are not transcending the abstract world.For me the centre will only move when we have reached a consensus on what are 'african studies', what is 'african social sciences' and what is the normative role of african schoalrship in shaping continental futures and in moving the centre.The centre will only shift when African scholarship has, as its raison d'etere , embedded autonomy. It will move when African intellectuals have managed to form a formidable thinking force that is centred on intellectual activism.

[continued below]

Thembani Mbadlanyana said...

What we should do as young emerging intellectuals? what should be the normative role of our emergent scholarship? How we part take in movement of the centre? For me, I should think, while we are learning and taking stock from the works of our intellectual heros like franz fanon and others, we should do so conscious of their shortcomings and mistakes and try to learn from these. We should not repeat the same mistakes they did. As young intellectuals, we should join the vanguard intellectaul movement that seeks to decolonize social sciences in Africa. How? by continuing to add critical balance to the policy debates in Africa and by mainstreaming African perspectives in the international discourse.Like Prussian who, after the death of George Hegel, formed a thinking club called Young Hegelians, we should also form like-minded youth thinking clubs and discursive communities. It is sadness today in South Africa that our brothers and sisters have turned to the 'twitterati' and 'blogerrati' for knowledge and critical analysis because our public intellectuals are not available to offer sound critical analysis on current affairs. We as young intellectuals we are not helping because most of the time we write in a language that is not understandable and we remain trapped in the abstract world. As young intellectuals, we should not be butterfly chasers nor should we be theory intoxicated intellectuals. We should assist in generating new African intellectual toolkits and in changing the West's gazing and writing about Africa.We should be able to balance the theoretical and real world. We should not be afraid to write, we should not be afraid to think and flush out of our continental discourse those who are hell bent in reinforcing the status quo and in advancing the interests of key actors in a globalizing world.

Zukiswa Mqolomba said...

I think you've hit it on the head dear friends. The biggest challenge to Africa's intellectual project is two fold:

Firstly, Africa's intelligenstia is, as observed, fragmented, scatterred, and still obliged to bow down before the institutionalised intellectual architecture of the Bretton Woods Institutions. As we know it: he who controls the purse strings, controls that that is produced. They set the agenda and ommit views deemed inconvenient to the popular project of accumulation. Spaces of intellectual rigour and freedom exist only in as far as they appease popular interests. We no longer pursue the mastery of imperfect knowledge for its own sake cause the budget agenda determines that that is pursued and no longer the love of knowledge for its own sake for popular change.

It is in this regards that I reckon that scholar activists should recapture the opportunity to mobilise and build networks of scholars ensued by the thrill of ideaological contestation and the thrill of contesting established truths. Alternative views have been in the margins for too long. However, increasingly, established orthodoxy will seize to be relevant if it is unable to capture the pulse and imagination of the day as lived vy ordinary people. It will have to evolve for relevance's sake. And here lies the opportunity for new networks to occupy spaces.

Secondly, there's a bigger challenge concerning the need to develop Africa's appetite for knowledge and to appreciate the role o its 'advanced elements' in the struggle for a just society. We remain one of the region's the record the lowest literacy rates, even when compared to other developing regions. The love for knowledge, books, ideas has been lost in the winds of institutional demacration (i.e. Timbuktu)and degeneration (Africa's institution's of higher learning have been reduced to undigniied monuments and at worst memorial gravesites o generations preceeding ancient ones). This needs to change. President TM speaks of the continental call to 'rebuild the city of Carthage'. However, Im no longer confident that Africa can boast of a cadreship committed to taking up this task for principles sake, as many have sold their souls to the highest political bidders, sacrificing principle for the sake of political expedience. This is a sad truth dear cdes. Mediocre has displaced the culture of excellence in service, where vulture contends with owl to occupy the highest seats of lands. The game of survival of the fittest is not for the meek nor cowardice.

Evil flourishes when good people sit done in indifference and do nothing. If we could start by rebuilding and creating synergies between existing organisations/networks/movements of scholar activists, as a start this could yield serious fruits in future....we should never despise the days of small beginnings, nope not at all!!

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