These attacks are not new and were recently echoed by a clever (fictional?) article by Field Ruwe. In 2008, Nkwanzi Mahongo made similar arguments where he argued that the failure of African leaders to write and engage in intelligent debate, even after they leave office is symptomatic of a wider problem facing Africa – a lack of ideas. The problem with the “intellectual bystander” argument as espoused by Chisanga and others is two-fold.
First, it presumes the existence of high quality intellectual debate among Zambians. Sceptics would say that the problem is not that intellectuals are not helping, but rather their existence is falsely presumed! A question here must surely be asked what we mean by intellectuals and how we go about verifying their existence. There’s a general presumption that intellectuals equals more degrees. But that is a poor metric. Surely the nature of the intellect is found in the tangible ideas it produces. In Zambia sadly, we have a deficit of ideas – potentially suggesting an equal deficit of intellectual capacity in many areas. Rather than assume that we have intellectuals, perhaps the question should turn to how we can produce such?
Secondly, the Chisanga critique is based on a political vacuum. The reality of life is that development and governance arrangements are an outworking of power relations in society. Those that hold power shape debate. In our country we have on one side the majority – helpless and poor. On the other side are the minority – rich and corrupt Zambians that hold the nation in the palm of their hand. Intellectual power alone will not shift the dynamics. Many nations have produced intellectuals and continued to wallow in poverty. Producing ideas is meaningless unless a policy space exists to debate them freely and incorporate them in national policy making. It follows that eliminating poverty will only come about once the majority secure sufficient power to shift the policy direction in their favour. It wont arrive with intellectual blows, or any shaking off of non-existent, but erroneously presumed intellectual laziness.
So once again we find that the question of development and the role of the intellectuals (if they exist) is a rather complex one, like many of he challenges we are facing.