Intellectualism and governance
By fstimes On 18 Oct, 2013 At 02:37 PM | Categorized As Comment | With 0 Comments

Munene Mwaniki

IN what seems like a lifetime gone by, this column ran an article entitled “A facade of intellectualism”.

In that instalment I strongly defended South Africa’s academy from what I perceived then – and still do – as unwarranted attacks by a clique of pseudo-intellectuals whose calculus in the dog-game of private and public sector consulting is to besmirch the reputation and credentials of intellectuals domiciled in South African public universities and research institutes.

Among the many pointed observations I made in that instalment – and believe you me they were many – I categorically stated that “what seems lost to many is that governance is an intellectual pursuit”.

“Fundamentally, the form of government that any polity adopts and implements is often based on an enduring set of philosophical and theoretical principles,” I wrote.

And I wasn’t done.

I went on to profer that “no one can contest that our governance architecture – a quasi-federal constitutional democracy – is based on a set of enduring philosophical and theoretical principles.

“Further, it is also incontestable that the mechanics of governance require a lot of intellectual investment.”

Aware of the intellectual paucity that we have to contend with in politics and government in our circumstances, I offered a simple example by stating that “the economic model that a government so chooses to implement is often based on enduring economic models, and if not, it is often a blend of enduring economic models.

“In the latter case, the blend of economic models is often tinkered to suit local circumstances.”

I then posed the question “from where do the models that inform the architecture and mechanics of governance come from?” before taking a rhetorical turn and asking “would anyone hold it against me if I dared declare that these models derive in a large part from the work of intellectuals – many of whom at one point or another have been intimately associated with one institution of higher learning or another?”

I am still awaiting responses to these questions.

While I do – and I guess I am joined in the waiting game by my readers – it came as more of a relief when I read comments attributed to Richard Calland,  an associate professor of public law at the University of Cape Town, which were reported widely in the mainstream media that our current president “doesn’t read”.

The merit of Calland’s opinions and observations about the current president aside, the issue at hand remains the inextricable relationship between intellectualism and governance.

For various reasons – some of which are obviously apparent and some which we may never come round to figuring out in our lifetimes – the current ruling coalition that includes the ANC, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions has been at pains trying to delegitimise the place of intellect in politics and governance.

The net effect of this crusade has been what I have variously referred to as “the de-intellectualisation of the governing coalition in recent times”.

I must admit that this kind of discourse may all too often sound and come across as being lofty if not pretentious and as some kind of pontificating on the part of an arm-chair intellectual, but it’s when its implications to real-life and bread and butter issues are considered that the linkages between intellect and governance begin to become apparent.

Let us consider a few examples.

Increasingly, the Zuma administration is earning itself singular accolades of being an expert team at facilitating a “policy drift” in almost all sectors of public endeavour.

Ranging from the management of key state agencies such as the National Prosecution Authority and the Independent Electoral Commission as well as in the management of various national departments, there is a subtle sense of chaos or impending chaos that often accompanies public policy formulation and implementation failure.

Apart from these, there is also an increasing perception of state departments and agencies – at all spheres of government – being beholden to special interests.

On occasion, I have referred to these special interests as “an avaricious cabal deeply embedded in the state, effectively creating a ‘state within the state’”.

Talking about policy drift, it is baffling that since the unionasable labour strike season set in, no one in cabinet has found the oomph to offer policy certainty on South Africa’s industry-labour relations going forward.

And this lacklustre approach to policy and governance replicates itself almost in all aspects of public endeavour.

For example, on several occasions, the Reserve Bank governor has pointed out that monetary policy especially one that is geared towards inflation targeting cannot replace long-term macroeconomic planning especially with regard to the creation of durable employment and the growing of the gross domestic product.

While we ponder this, what are we supposed to make of the National Development 2030 which has become political football within the governing coalition – like it wasn’t developed at the behest of the governing coalition in the first instance?

The answers to all the preceding musings could be many and varied – and legitimately so – but I am convinced that at the heart of all the fine mess that we are making of governance at this point in our democratic trajectory is a singular and tragic failure to appreciate the genius of intellectualism in governance.

Talk about being “clever”.


  • Dr Munene Mwaniki is a senior lecturer/researcher at the University of the Free State. You can follow him on Twitter @munenemwaniki.

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