Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Zimbabwe’s Politicized Public Intellectualism.

By Takura Zhangazha*

There is a silent but evident battle that is being waged in-between the political statements over and about the political state of affairs in Zimbabwe. It is an intellectual one. It is however not organic. Its primary characteristics are defined either by party politics or outright mimicry of intellectualism from elsewhere (or fashionable internationalism). Its most recent port of entry has been legalistic in tone after the controversial Constitutional Court ruling that our general election must be held by July 31 2013.  

The flurry of legal and paralegal arguments have not only been interesting but also thought provoking in relation to the democratic principle of separation of powers and academic or interventionist suppositions of international relations. The latter point more within the context of the recent SADC Maputo Extraordinary Summit’s recommendation that government leaders’ return to our Constitutional Court to seek an extension to the deadline for elections. 

The debate has been as vigorous as it has been accusatory. The accusations have been largely viewed through the prisms of political polarization, celebrating or denigrating political party principals and or judges of the Constitutional Court both intellectually or in social commentary.  What these conversations via the media or in court related documents have demonstrated is that indeed our contemporary ‘public intellectualism’ has not escaped the political culture in which it operates. 

It is however not a new development since our national independence. Various academic studies on intellectualism in Zimbabwe have been undertaken with the most recent (to my knowledge) being one by United Kingdom based Zimbabwean academic Blessing-Miles Tendi which uniquely links intellectualism and the media.

What is however peculiar to recent political developments over and around the new constitution, the recent Maputo SADC  extraordinary summit and the positioning of political parties is that the intellectual crescendo appears to have reached unprecedented fever pitch from all sides of the political divide.  Almost everybody who matters or mattered in one party or the other has played out an opinion on the matter, be they lawyers, social scientists or civil society activists.

Add to this the dimension of the social/new media and its commentary, however lay it may seem, and we have a conundrum of what renowned American public intellectual Noam Chomsky has referred to as manufactured consent. Except in our case we may be facing an era of manufactured dissent and on a multi-polar basis. This perhaps all depending on which political party one has sympathies with or in terms of particular differences with the general political establishment.

Were all of this occurring within a much more objective and democratic framework it would all be laudable. After all, we are all entitled to our opinions, intellectual or otherwise.  What has however become problematic is the straitjacketed nature of the public intellectualism and its presentation of patent political bias as objective fact, whichever way one looks at it. In choosing one side over the other, those that claim intellectual public space have been both selective in their understanding of the issues of the day or have played direct ‘rationalizing gatekeepers’. 

To the extent that this intellectualism has sought to support one political objective or the other, its primary fault has increasingly resided in its departure from organic intellectualism. And this perhaps is the most important of considerations given the fact that there are so many political nuances to the construction of knowledge in contemporary Zimbabwe. Be it in relation to the land question, the new constitution, our country’s international relations and our integration into the global economy via Bretton Woods neo-liberal economic frameworks. We are failing to view the whole and chose instead bits and pieces either in mimicry or without adequate contextual understanding of the hegemonic challenges of the day.

The definitive framework of organic intellectualism has been lost in the multi-layered framework that is the epistemological entity of assumed universalism and universal knowledge. All of this much to the detriment of knowledge production within national context and in the best possible public interest. Hence for example our very much borrowed (in relation to clauses and structure) new constitution which very few Zimbabweans have actively read or had sight of.

It is important therefore, in concluding, that I return once again to the issue I initially raised in this article. This being the challenge of ‘inorganic’ or overtly partisan intellectualism that the country is now faced with and its politics characterized by. 

Had this partisan intellectualism been within a context of a free media and academically uninhibited environment either via our media, universities and think tanks, it might be easier to argue to defend this state of affairs on the basis of everyone’s right to be a public intellectual or to at least intellectualize on behalf of political parties or positions taken. 

Unfortunately our polarized environment has led to suppression of divergent views and substituted the objective truths for partisan ones.  While we can’t all claim intellectualism let alone public versions of it, there is a huge responsibility on those that do to be much more honest in doing so. Even if they are in the throes of trying to establish a counter hegemonic presence, they must do so with the evident intention of ensuring that whatever they write, say or lecture on is based on fact and above all is not said at the altar of expediency or false intellectual urgency. 

*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)