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The deadly silence of Zambia’s intelligentsia on public discourseBy Sishuwa Sishuwa on 6 Jul 2017
What do Zambia’s intellectuals (those trained in a particular discipline and attached to a university faculty) think about the pitiful state of our existence today, including what is happening in North-Western Province, where we, as a country, have allowed the re-creation of spatial apartheid in the new mining areas? Much like during the colonial era, mining companies in Solwezi have replicated the notorious racial colour bar: white mineworkers are paid exceptionally high wages, live in segregated estates with lavish housing and social facilities, while their black counterparts who do much of the labour are paid significantly less, housed in distinctively less lavish settings, and effectively left to fend for themselves. Where is the Zambian intelligentsia in identifying what looks very much like a new wave of colonialism?
What do our intellectuals think about the plight of the rural residents who once called this place home, but have since been dispossessed of their land and are now living in soul-less shanty compounds – their land leased, complete with surface rights to multinational corporations and ex-Rhodesians? Kalumbila, for example, is padded with staff from Zimbabwe, many with kinship ties to the mine proprietors! The issue is that places for the settlement of many whites in southern Africa, in particular South Africa and Zimbabwe, are hostile, so there is a sense of looking somewhere new and away from the scrutiny of state regulatory authorities. It is now evident that in Zambia and North-western Province in particular, they have found that sanctuary.
Kalumbila is effectively a little apartheid outpost in independent Zambia!
What’s more, the dynamics in North-Western Province are not different from what is going on in Luapula, where land has been allocated for large-scale farming developments, but also for so-called energy projects, which in themselves are not a bad thing, but just that many of these projects get much more land than they need for their operations. It is clear that the interest of the new corporations is not just mining but also appropriating land for ranching, commercial farming and private wildlife reserves. Frighteningly, these plans encompass much of western Zambia (the Barotse floodplains of the Zambezi river and adjacent areas) and go all the way to Southern Province. This explains why there has been a concerted effort by multinational corporations to lobby to get this land under the so-called custodianship. i.e. preserving the place as nature reserves, masked under the rhetoric of ‘greening the environment’ or promoting ‘sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems’, whilst promoting the degazetting of protected forests and reserves in order for them to be privatised.
One cannot help but think that the West, and many white Africans, still have visions of Empire – I cannot underestimate the extent to which they will work to further these aims. Dispossession of land (much of which was already occupied by rural folk but treated as empty) and protection of these spoils via ‘private property’ is for them also seen as something quite noble, as it is rationalised as taming the landscape to facilitate ‘development’ and the ‘civilising’ of ‘natives’, whose desires to live a certain lifestyle and whose connection to the land are swept aside. Why can’t our intelligentsia speak out on these key matters of public concern to help our national leaders understand that we are in effect being recolonised by stealth? Are they ‘captured’?
What do Zambian scholars think about our ‘independence’, about who ‘we’ are, about the global debt mechanisms that restrict the possibility of economic independence? With the imminent return of the International Monetary Fund, for instance, what will we become? So many decades after independence, can we be wise and brave enough to advance a genuine independence? What is the public role of intellectuals in this country? Just who and where are Zambia’s public intellectuals? There are the academics at our universities and many more educated Zambians working abroad, but what is their role in relation to the government today?
Below, Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan academic and political commentator, issues a challenge to African academics to reflect carefully on their role and how it has changed in the years since political independence was achieved. The section I have deliberately quoted at great length was part of Mamdani’s address to the University of South Africa delivered on 26 May 2017 to commemorate the 8th annual Thabo Mbeki Africa Day. Mamdani, arguably Africa’s leading public intellectual, demonstrates the downward slide of the public intellectual in Africa from a political partisan to an apolitical expert and calls on African scholars to both lend their voices to important public concerns and to theorise their social realities.
“The public intellectual and the scholar are not two different persona, but two distinct perspectives, even preoccupations. One draws inspiration from the world of scholarship, the other from that of public debate. The distinction between them is not hard and fast, since the boundary shifts over time and is blurred at any one point in time. Tensions between the two perspectives were evident in the early post-independence period. If the public intellectual hoped to work with local communities, as close to the ground as possible, the scholar had ‘universalist’ aspirations based on the claim that a universal intellectual traded a global ware, theory. The split between the two was often pregnant with political significance. If the public intellectual took sides as a proud partisan, the scholar claimed objectivity as an observer, a Hegelian witness – “the owl of Minerwa” – whose wisdom came only in the wake of events to which the disinterested intellectual must relate as a witness rather than as a partisan.
“We need to acknowledge that the gulf between the public intellectual and the scholar is minimal in the West and maximal outside the West. This is for one reason: the theory that valorises the scholar is abstracted from the Western experience. Even though theorists claim universality, a theory has a history, and that is the history of the West. This means that in spite of pretensions to universality, the scholar in the modern (African) academy is basically a Western scholar. It should not be surprising that Western theories resonate more in the Western context than outside it.
“In the half century since independence in this part of the world (Africa), the dialect between the public intellectual and the scholar has gone through a number of significant shifts. The first big shift took place with independence. Few at the time realised how radically both the perspective and role of the public intellectual would change in a post-colonial setting. The role of the public intellectual in a colonial university was relatively unambiguous. The public intellectual found a secure home in the ranks of the nationalist movement. But nationalists in power had little patience with domestic critics especially if those crossed the language barrier between the gown and the town, the town and the countryside and tried to link up with the social movements. This introduced a tension among radical intellectuals still on campus and yesterday’s ‘comrades’ now in power. From allies in a broad camp, they turned into adversaries.
“The second big shift is taking place now, on the hills of the development of an expanded NGO movement. Most NGOs have been retooled to act as so many whistle-blowers who must ensure the ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’ of the government in power, but without combining it with the search for an alternative order. If NGOs act as so many sentries for the neoliberal order, the new public intellectuals are expected to shed the politically partisan character of the old public intellectual and function as so many in-house advisors to governments of the day. Though advising governments, they don the cloak of expertise and claim to be untainted by politics. Yet the consequence is to harness would-be ‘scholars’ to a political agenda that would quarantine the nationalist project. The underlying assumption is that politics inevitably introduces a bias, whether national or sectarian, and has thus a negative influence on the formulation and implementation of policy.
“The ground is shifting as international donors seek to reshape the African academy and its relationship to society and the state. In this new context, the public intellectual is being retooled as an advisor and a consultant. Not the university but the think tank is emerging as the new home for the refashioned public intellectual in the neo-liberal era. The effect is both to depoliticise the public intellectual and to hitch his and her labour to an official agenda.
“Unlike in the 1960s and 1970s, the public intellectual of the early 21st century cannot be presumed to be a progressive intellectual. In this era, the definition of the ‘public’ has changed. It is no longer just the ‘people’, the governed. It also includes the government, the donor and the financial institutions on which governments increasingly depend. The public intellectual based in a think tank is expected to serve the government above all as the guarantor of ‘evidence-based policies’. The new type of public intellectual is recruited and funded by development partners to monitor public institutions both from within and from without, as it were round the clock in the name of ‘accountability’. The combination of ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’ in turn ensures the monitoring of this new type of the public intellectual by development partners who fund the exercise.”
Mamdani is right. Intellectuals have an ethical obligation to the wider world around them within which they pursue their scholarly activities. In contexts of injustice, for instance, they should not stand aside but immerse themselves in the struggles of their communities including advancing freedom and knowledge to an audience larger than their professional colleagues and students. When performing this public role, the intellectual should rid themselves of the ‘objective’ workings of scholarly engagements and be unafraid to take an informed position on a range of public issues or subjects, however controversial or political, actively disturb the status quo, aim for openness, and advance the class considerations or interests of other groups other than their own: the exploited, the marginalised, the poor and the less powerful.
It is time we heard the voice of Zambian economists, historians, political scientists, development academics, etc., on the social, political and economic implications of a post-humanist Zambia, including the almost uncritical acceptance in public discourse of neoliberalism and its rationales that so hinders the ability to reformulate an alternative. Their silence on many important national discussions is deadly and disturbing. Our literati men and women have the responsibility to find common ground between private and public interests. What do they consider to have been the implications of the drastic restructuring of the Zambian state since 1991 on how the country sees itself and works? What, in the judgement of our intelligentsia, explains our continued sub-human existence and our refusal to rebel against this status?
There must be many and complex and interrelated social, economic, political, cultural, religious and spiritual forces combining
with our entire history as a people that have moulded and continue to shape the current psychology and character structure of the ‘typical Zambian’. Our intelligentsia, in their diversity, have a duty to unravel these forces, understand them, and reshape them to build a different and genuinely alive Zambian. We, as a people, must understand all this as it relates to our place in the wider world. In fact, our current deep-seated systemic and structural social, economic and cultural crises are a perfect foundation to begin to build a new national consciousness, to begin to resurrect the human being in the Zambian.
If Zambia’s intellectuals are to remain relevant to the country beyond their teaching and research roles, they should consider engaging with the changing issues of the world around them while at the same time remaining true to the principles of their scholarly trade. The veneer of ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’ can no longer be a hiding place.
About Sishuwa Sishuwa
Sishuwa Sishuwa is the last Zambian nationalist. He is obsessed with all things Zambian, particularly politics and history which he teaches when UNZA is not closed. Sishuwa is a cadre of Nkana Football Club and has a PhD in History from Oxford.
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