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Starting New Conversations at the Launch of Intellectual Traditions in South Africa at the University of Johannesburg

Prof. Steven Friedman and Prof. Peter Vale

Intellectual Traditions in South AfricaHosted by the University of Johannesburg Library and UKZN Press, the launch of Intellectual Traditions in South Africa: Ideas, Individuals and Institutions was quite a smart affair with white tablecloths, flowers and candles and delectable little bowls of delicacies handed around. Edited by Peter Vale, Lawrence Hamilton and Estelle H Prinsloo, this book’s many contributors have dealt with subjects ranging from South African Marxism, Pan Africanism, Feminism, Black Consciousness, and religious traditions from Ghandhism to Islamic intellectuals.

Vale facilitated the panel and introduced the four speakers, each of whom had written a chapter in the book. He told the audience that the idea for Intellectual Traditions in South Africa started with a personal frustration that conversations used to revolve around politics and apartheid but now always concern economics and the market. He wanted to start a new conversation. The contributors were selected to write about the various traditions embedded in our society with the essential aim of starting a different set of conversations. He added that he would like to see this kind of intellectual tradition introduced in university curricula.

The first speaker was Professor Raymond Suttner of Rhodes University. He spoke about the roots of African nationalism – “Let’s drive the white man back into the sea which vomited him up” – and inclusive nationalism which is the idea of South Africa belonging to all who live in it. He recalled how many black South Africans had the ambition to be treated like British people. The ANC was mocked for its “loyalism” in the early years, which was loyalty to the English King, not to the Union. When mass movements arose like the Workers’ Union, they did not rule out loyalism, but sang “God Save the King”, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” and “Rule Britannia”. For a long time black people thought that the Americans would come and save them. In the 1950s the ANC became a mass movement and forged alliances with other racial groups. The only time that the ANC was a hegemonic force was from 1952-1965. Suttner referred to petitioning politics and mass politics and the 1980s being the period of popular power. Suttner is of the view that politics should have a role in everyone’s daily life, not just every five years at election time.

Professor Anthony Egan of the Jesuit Institute of South Africa wrote his chapter on Christianity as an intellectual tradition in South Africa, with a focus on how religion speaks to society as a whole. He spoke about how theologian Beyers Naudé was expelled from the Dutch Reformed Church after the Sharpeville massacre when he refused to compromise and how he founded the Christian Institute of Reformed Theologians, which came to include those outside the church, a tradition that linked into liberalism. The 1930s saw the first signs of liberation theology and by the 1960s and 70s there was dialogue between the remnants of the ANC, the Black Consciousness movement and the student movement. Egan’s chapter shows the Christian religion as multifaceted and what it means to be a Christian in changing social circumstances. The present time is seeing signs of a withdrawal of the religious community from the public sphere. After a period of political criticism, it is now engaging in self-criticism and with a new beginning in a democratic South Africa is slowly starting to deal with some prickly issues such as gender.

Writer and political commentator and director of the Centre for Democracy Professor Steven Friedman needed no introduction. He spoke about his chapter on liberalism – a set of ideas that has been around since the time of the early missionaries, often presented as the alternative to African nationalism and Afrikaner nationalism. Liberalism can be controversial, with contrary definitions. It has been seen as both an ideology that was there to demonstrate the superiority of a particular group, and an ideology of freedom. The two types of liberalism in South Africa was shown in the 1950s and 60s by the South African Liberal Party. There were the conservative Cape liberals with their idea of a qualified franchise. They only wanted to engage with whites, while others favoured engagement in passive resistance, civil disobedience and reaching out to blacks. They fought forced removals in rural KwaZulu-Natal and acquired substantial black membership. South Africa is not unique, in that there are at least two brands of liberalism in the world at large. Academics have described possessive liberalism (like that of the old Cape Liberals) and developmental liberalism which embraces the elements of democracy. Our debate needs to go beyond the possessive and deal with issues like the wealthy who own land.

Professor Pieter Duvenage hails from the University of the Free State. His chapter deals with Afrikaner intellectual history. He made it clear that his is only one intellectual interpretation. He put forward the idea of communitarianism – the concept of the encumbered and unencumbered self, the theory that a human being is the product of a way of life and community tradition, which ties in with the German Romantics in the 18th Century and African Ubuntu. He asks whether apartheid was a kind of communitarianism gone wrong. Duvenage mentioned four periods which had distinctive historical and systematic lines of thinking.

1652 to 1795 was the Dutch period, with French and German influence from the Huguenots etc. 1795 to 1910 saw British imperialism and a troublesome relationship between the English and Afrikaners. An exclusionary state existed between 1910 and 1994, and post-1994 sees the Afrikaner in present-day South Africa where many of them feel tainted by apartheid, but does this bring an end to pluralist thinking in South Africa, Duvenage asks. He ends his chapter by mentioning some of the Afrikaner intellectuals who tried to bridge the gap between individual and common thinking; a minority of writers, artists, poets and journalist who had dissenting voices.

There were many interesting contributions from the floor that saw the event end fairly late. Vale welcomed critique, further debate and ideas. “May a thousand flowers bloom. These ideas have wormed their way into our lives. This is our heritage”, he said.

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