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The Value of Rational-Critical Thinking A Few Lessons from Habermas for the New South Africa by Clive Kronenberg
Some of the underlying lessons arising from the Aldama-inspired debate on Castro, starkly correlate to issues imbedded in contemporary democratic South Africa . In this instance I employ Habermas's historic volume, The Structure of the Public Sphere towards highlighting some of the risks that have found their way into modern South African society. Though Habermas does not take the Marxian method per se, as his predetermined point of orientation, still he does represent a significant voice in human conduct and dissecting capitalism's modes of transmission of ideas. Thus the report takes this stand, as such it does not propose the proletarian class should disregard Marx or Socialism towards understanding capitalist expropriation and gaining full emancipation.
When we look back to review South Africa's ten years of democratic rule we should be as candid as possible in calculating not only the country's accomplishments, but more essentially its failures. It is vital for the nation to reflect critically and rationally on some of the crucial concerns imbedded in the new democracy. It is equally significant to oppose in the strongest possible terms those instances where rational-critical judgements seem to have met with acts of censure and retribution.
The South African nation is called upon to celebrate ten years of democracy. Now, for the sake of reconciliation, friendship, national accord, and a long lasting jolly spirit, should conscious intellectuals, and particularly those of a leftist persuasion, assume an uncritical stance despite the fact that after ten years of autonomous rule the country is for the most part as divided as it was prior to 1994?
Themes that incontestably demand critical, honest and scholarly examination, are among other, 1. The overall national question, and 2. Continuing systematic racial categorisation and racism in the new "non-racial" South Africa . Today of course, South Africans are characterised as a "rainbow nation", the product of the negotiated settlement and humankind's political "miracle". However, it is a simple historical reality that after ten long years, the South African citizenry could hitherto not remotely discover a fresh expression, the voice that signifies a unified and new nation. As substitutes, the ideas of "unity in diversity", "cultural diversity" and "rainbowism", are imposed upon the people. This theory of multiplicity is being proliferated at all costs by the ruling class and their surrogate partners who stand to benefit from it - the 21st century's new guise of the system based on "divide and rule". It may come as a revelation, but this form chillingly resembles the Apartheid model based on "separateness". Except now of course, all disjointed sectors of the population receive (equal?) governmental recognition and aid - but not towards eradicating divisions from the past, but precisely to strengthen Apartheid-inspired cultural, racial, and ethnic identities. Some very basic demands of the broad South African liberatory movement directly contradict the model systematically fashioned by the architects of the previous regime. Fortunately there remain rational, honest, critical scholars who identify and expose that which continues to remain lacking after ten years of post-Apartheid rule, namely the building of one, single and non-racial South African nation.
Coupled to entrenched national division, the communal and economic conditions of the working and destitute masses have remained deplorable, in many cases circumstances have become increasingly worse since the dawn of the new democracy.
Noam Chomsky counts among the few universally recognised intellectuals to boldly state his concerns about the new country (see Mail and Guardian): "the South African government has taken over the post-apartheid compromise. Getting rid of apartheid [sic] was a major human achievement . . . on the other hand, it left the society about the same. Now you have black faces riding in limousines along with white faces. But, the social and economic system has not changed, maybe even gotten worse . . . . Take a walk two blocks outside the walls around the cities and there's massive, horrendous slums. There are people living in misery, without hope, under violent gang rule and so on. That's gotten worse since Apartheid . . . . [T]he population of South Africa is going to have to struggle just as hard against these shocking conditions as it did to overcome the crime of apartheid".
Can anyone blame the poor and exploited masses for posing then the perfectly justifiable question: "what exactly should we celebrate if we do not have food, a decent home, a secure job, (or, simply a job), or protection from violent criminals"? In Apartheid South Africa those classified "white" enjoyed enormous privileges, and today this is pretty much the same, except for of course as Chomsky puts it, "now you have black faces riding in limousines". But these faces merely constitute a fraction of the deprived quarters of the population. I redirect my question especially to the class of neo-liberal intellectuals who proliferate the ruling class ideas: is it expected from political analysts to remain uncritical, not to raise serious misgivings, especially when severe misfortune and profound division constitute the workings of ten years of democratic rule in South Africa ?
In South Africa the last few years or so have witnessed rational, critical and relevant lines of reasoning being traded for submissive debate. There exist many gifted and highly conscious intellectuals who wish to contribute towards a free and enlightened society - one that fosters awareness and thus competence to engage in judicious and critical reflection on issues that involve the nation wholeheartedly. Regrettably, it has become customary for the intelligentsia to lurk in the shadows or naively and mostly opportunistically, board what has become known as the "gravy express". The latter is the bandwagon of the new stratum of opulent and uncritical neo-liberals that constitute the new South African petty-bourgeois class. They represent the new buffer-zone, the aspiring new black middle-class and the uncritical spokespersons of the new and democratic nation. Some of this particular brand of theorists find it increasingly difficult to adorn the nation with any bright opinions of their own, boasting instead a 'loyalty' while closing their minds to destitution and deception and simultaneously, the brilliant views of rivals. Those who remained steadfast in their principles forged over many years of intense political experience are mostly ignored and thus silenced. Others, who have the means to relentlessly seek and expose the truth, often open themselves to systematic castigation.
Some decades ago already Habermas among others, became astutely aware of the deteriorating effects capitalism exerts on the rational-critical public sphere. In this regard he was quite prophetic and it is now quite perceptible that academics generally, have adopted more and more a guarded stance when debating vital national issues. Extraneous and insipid deliberation now either projects an uncritical or conformist stance on issues that demand analytical and critical testimony or, plainly downplays issues of national concern. The media in general have played a scandalous role in this regard. Similar to Habermas's observations then, today nationally mandated coverage is systematically being replaced by immediate reward reports. Sensational matters such as scandals, outrage, disgrace, personal disasters, sporting matters, social events and the like, now grace the country's headlines. The location of political or politically pertinent reports has been distorted and topics on social ills, racism, oppression, exploitation, war, homelessness, unemployment, poverty, education, health, are increasingly pushed into the background. Habermas remains entirely correct in his assessment on how ruling class ideas enter into and eventually obliterate critical-rational debate.
Pertinent issues in South Africa, which by their very nature demand critical and professional exposure, include such topics as public officials' alleged and convicted transgressions and the systematic probing thereof, abortive or lack of transformation processes, continuing unadulterated racism and the new nation's lack of empowerment in decisively dealing with this evil, deepening cultural divisions, mounting indigence and redundancy, turmoil in the educational sphere, deficiency in governmental recognition of and assistance for victims of HIV Aids, etc. These, among other matters entitle the critical reading community to full methodical exposure.
Habermas argues that one of the vital roles academics should perform in the course towards a free and open democracy is to contribute towards a society that reflects critically on what it had read, heard and seen and thereby add to the process of enlightenment and empowerment of the nation. Analytical political deliberation becomes mendacious when it takes up merely subjective, uncritical and naive perspectives. Such a model can effortlessly transform into the norm, one that sustains the pillars of an enchained and unconscious society.
PhD Candidate at the Centre for Rhetoric Studies at the University of Cape Town
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