Hi and Welcome to my blog again. Remember when Kenny Kunene and company burst onto the scene? When three-day wedding parties in Durban and nuptials in Mauritius somehow became acceptable? I have to confess, there was something uncomfortable about the whole thing to me but I struggled to put a finger on what was troubling me about it. Like it was with Zwelinzima Vavi,the General Secretary of COSATU, the whole consumerist setup didn’t go down well with me. Vavi tried then to say something and was labelled jealous, because he doesn’t have their kind of money he wasn’t supposed to say anything. And I guess that made a lot of people shut up, because they also don’t have the money to argue with such obvious displays of wealth.
This past week I had the pleasure of reading a piece on Achille Mbembe in the Mail and Guardian(June 14,2013). He is a research professor at the Wits Institute for Social and economic Research(Wiser), a thought leader to you and me. In this piece Mbembe says ” our lives have been colonized by the logic of entertainment…..we sing, we dance, but we don’t think critically. We build cities but they are not cities of the imagination, they are cities of hedonism and consumption …” I’m totally convinced he’s hit the nail on the head. One of the most precious things that was lost when we became free was the ability to question trends without the need to qualify ourselves. In the example above, Zwelinzima Vavi would have been totally free to criticize this consumerism that has arisen,giving rise to other social ills, without having to be called “jealous”. He would have been free to argue his point of view and share his thoughts on why it’s foreign to our discourse to spend as though money has no significance to us as a people. In other words, critical thinking led the way pre-94 and people’s views were respected not for what they arrived driving but for their ideas, not for where they lived, but for their role in the “production of ideas”.
Mbembe further argues that whilst the world has forged ahead in intellectual development and dissemination of ideas, South Africa has witnessed a surge of a different kind. He says post-94, we have have seen the government and other funding agencies focusing on problem-focused research, the so called “real world” challenges. Personally I think has extended into public life where corruption is now measured only in terms of “how many RDP houses” the stolen money could have built. What happened to us to become so one-dimensional? Does freedom for us only translate into what we can consume, hold, buy or sell? What about the freedom to pursue independent thought, the freedom to appreciate art, the freedom to develop our Cities into thought cities. Recently, when the State Security Bill was being debated in parliament there was such a deafening silence from most of us because for us freedom has turned into RDP houses, commodities, wages and money.
Before screaming that a starving people cannot produce ideas, let me remind you that intellectual development pre-freedom was led by people who had less than they have now. Back then we frowned on the lavish spending of American Rap and Movie stars not based on whether we had a house or not but because intellectual development and the exchange of ideas was not based on how much money one had or not. We knew that we had the moral high-ground compared to those that had so much money and wealth but were morally challenged. Mbembe says we “need to rediscover something in social life that cannot be privatized; that is immeasurable, that is priceless and cannot, and as a consequence, be bought or sold”.
That kind of thinking will ensure that political principles like equality, the rule of law, civil liberty and individual autonomy are not eroded in the pursuit of profit or power, Mbembe’s words. I miss those days when ideas and the logic of one’s words were what mattered. Where if one asked why a University still hasn’t been built in Mpumalanga you wouldn’t be told of the housing backlog. There would be an appreciation that in building a university, a centre for new and original ideas would be built, and we would be developing a place where someday, the new ideas that emanate from those centres of learning would help in alleviating poverty and thus getting rid of the said housing backlog.
A society that is based on the production of new ideas would respect Kenny and his ilk not for how much money they have, but for their intellectual role in acquiring that wealth, obviously not through hand-outs and tenders. The way people respect Mark Shuttleworth for example, because his wealth comes from “original ideas”. I would love a society where kids aren’t screaming “I gotta get paid” but striving to enjoy the fruits of this freedom that so many fought for. Believe me, being a skhotane, kids who destroy expensive clothing and gadgets to prove how wealthy they are, in that society that would be so un-appealing to other kids they would not even wish to emulate them. The kind of consumerist democracy that we have has spawned a society in which people speak in hushed tones of those who have acquired their wealth through heists and bank robberies. Whilst it’s cute to hear a kid rapping “I gotta get paid”, it’s sickening to see so many people today respecting criminals “who got paid” through heists and the like.
Critical thinking should not be the preserve of University Professors and intellectuals, it should start with each one of us, appreciating that freedom is so much more than just consumption, parties and bling. It’s the ability to think of social issues in a way that promotes South Africa’s place in the global intellectual map.