ZIMBABWE is going through a difficult time. The country’s social fabric is tearing at its seams. Economically, the country is in doldrums and politically the democratic space is shrinking.
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However, there is a missing voice from the country’s intellectuals, they are shying away from leading discussions on what has to be done now.
This is a topic that has its pitfalls for a writer like me, but after carefully considering events in Zimbabwe compared to our neighbour South Africa, it has become an important subject to discuss.
The Collins Dictionary defines a public intellectual as “an intellectual, often a noted specialist in a particular field, who has become well-known to the general public for a willingness to comment on current affairs”.
Commenting on current affairs is not an easy thing especially in Zimbabwe where the democratic space is shrinking.
Many intellectuals have taken the easy route of keeping their opinions to themselves or only share with a limited number of friends. In many instances, some intellectuals only speak off the record — they do not want to be associated with their opinions publicly.
At a political level, Zimbabwe is sort of a pariah State — the black sheep in a community of nations for one reason or another. The government, over the last two years after coming into power via a coup, has been trying to re-engage the West.
However, discussions on the issue have been dominated by government officials and none of the intellectuals around has chosen to speak on the question.
The same has been happening in economics. Zimbabwe has been reeling from sanctions, corruption and bad management. Yet, our intellectuals have chosen the silence is golden route.
Could it be that they are worried about their safety in a politically polarised country or they are bidding their time to hobnob with politicians at an appropriate time?
Each year, our local universities have been churning out doctorate degrees and a great number of academics carry with pride the prefix doctor to their names.
Surprisingly, the quality and diversity of public discussion has not changed in the past decade. We have the same panels on public discussions, the same people quoted in our media and the same faces writing opinions and editorials for the mainstream media or on their blogs.
As a contrast, let me point to South Africa. The mainstream media like This Day, Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian and Daily Maverick have opinion and editorial pages filled with local public intellectuals. Some have even gone to the extent of commissioning some as columnists.
This has enriched discussions and debates in South Africa. Yes, it has its problems like race relations, an economy for the few and not the many, corruption and abuse of cadre deployment by the ruling African National Congress, however their public intellectuals do not shy away from discussing these issues.
Alan Lightman of Michigan Institute of Technology in a paper titled The Role of the Public Intellectual said: “Such a person must be careful, he must be aware of the limitations of his knowledge, he must acknowledge his personal prejudices because he is being asked to speak for a whole realm of thought, he must be aware of the huge possible consequences of what he says and writes and does. He has become, in a sense, public property because he represents something large to the public. He has become an idea himself, a human striving. He has enormous power to influence and change, and he must wield that power with respect.”
I am drawn to this last part of the quotation — He has enormous power to influence and change, and he must wield that power with respect. The question then arises: if the public intellectual has not only power but enormous power to influence and change, why are they holding back? Is it that they are enjoying the situation as is? Or they have become embedded into political organisations and now cannot offer independent thought without upsetting their party supporters?
It is my guess that Zimbabwe has enough intellectuals to stimulate national debates on any issue — from agriculture to corruption, sanctions to mismanagement, universal health access to minimum wage, public transport to national housing, and public education to climate change. However, if the intellectuals are afraid to go public on their ideas, we will remain light years from solving our problems.
Being a public intellectual may be a lonely and thankless job, but it shapes a country. Our intellectuals should stand up and be counted. They should speak out and write tomes of opinions. They should enrich national discussions and help galvanise public opinions. For now, we continue searching for them, but it is time they present themselves to the nation.