African ‘intellectuals’ letting Africa down

Lovemore Ranga Mataire Senior Writer
While social media in general has been able to communalise communication in a manner hitherto unknown, it has had the effect of distorting knowledge accumulation and disfigured the role of African intellectuals in interpreting reality and giving a scientific prognosis of situations including offering possible realities of existence.

The unregulated and communal nature of social media has had the effect of becoming the major source of news, general information and even “knowledge” for some, right on their fingertips, from their mobile phones. The first cut is always the deepest. Many actually use social media as the ultimate source of information for all local and world affairs.

Sadly, African intellectuals who are expected to lead the way in ensuring a sober understanding of issues and organising ideas that shape the continent’s trajectory, have also been “bastardised” by social media and have become not only irrelevant but mediocre as exemplified by their failure to produce any ideas that impact the social, political and economic realms of the continent.

Far from being contemporary prophets, intellectuals are those among us who are institutionally educated and have the mandate to contribute in different ways to the production and development of cultural goods, in the form of speech, books, music, paintings or sculptures. These intellectuals can be writers, musicians, artistes, philosophers, social scientists or even the clergy whose expert knowledge and exceptional capacity in critical reflection substantiate their minority status.

In short, intellectuals are expected to produce ideas of critical nature and contribute to the general being of nations or communities.

Unfortunately, the advent of social media has come with such havoc- wrecking speed that many have found themselves mere “technological ululators” without any critical reflection on its impact on African intellectual discourse.

The uncritical embrace of the social media in all its forms has given birth to a different class of pseudo-intellectuals who derive their legitimacy not from institutional training but from their followers or cheerleaders on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms. These pseudo-intellectuals have become so dominant in shaping the thinking of millions of impressionable minds who solely depend on the internet for their daily doses of “knowledge”.

Resultantly, African countries like Zimbabwe have since independence suffered the ignominy of the dearth of a vibrant intellectual output that could have shaped the country’s political, social and economic trajectory.

We are a nation that does not produce enduring ideas. We are a continent whose intellectuals pride themselves in referencing Hegel, Keynes, Newton, Galileo, Darwin, Gramsci, Chomsky, Socrates, Aristotle, Marx, and all other characters we cannot culturally relate to because in our training these have been imposed on us as the matador of original enduring                            thought.

But for how long should African intellectuals continue being caricatures of their true selves? For how long should we continue worshipping and referencing long departed alien souls whose fuzzy idea of Africa is couched in Conradian travelogues and monologues?

The late African intellectual and philosopher, Ali Mazrui, was less charitable in his description of the post-colonial African intellectuals’ failure to proffer thought leadership on various critical sustenance issues. Known globally as Africa’s leading thinker, Mazrui argues in one of his presentations that African intellectuals are mediocre and that this mediocrity informs their inability to appropriate pan-African ideals into Africa’s development process.

Mazrui’s contention is that African intellectuals have dismally failed to align their Western education with their African values in both their intellectual development and their continent’s development process.

Closer to home, those that the nation should look up to as the begetters of ideas or the modern-day griots have dismally failed to conceptualise ideas that are informed by Africa’s innate indigenous values but rather are much more obsessed with Western ideas that they have crystallised at higher institutions of learning.

Just like their continental colleagues, Zimbabwean intellectuals have literately abandoned their coveted spaces for political expediency. That coveted space has now been occupied by all sorts of pseudo-thought leaders. You find these pseudo-thought leaders not just on social media but also in mainstream media.

There is an interesting example often given by Mazrui to illustrate the confusion and contradiction of African elites. It is that of Uganda’s founding president Apollo Milton Obote.

“Uganda had for a head of government a person who had his name because of his admiration of the author or the great English poem, ‘Paradise Lost’. Obote became Milton Obote out of admiration of John Milton. While in the spirit of universal intellectuality, Obote could admire Milton, his admiration of a non-African poet and the fact that he (was) the head of state, may have let Uganda and African youth to admire more non-African elites than indigenous Ugandans and African elites,” Mazrui said at the 30th anniversary the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA).

What could have motivated Obote to “worship” an English poet to the extent of changing his first name? This could not have been just a simple admiration.

Ghanaian journalist Kofi Akosa-Sarpong offered a plausible explanation for such a terrible malaise. In an article titled “The Role of the African Intellectual”, Sarpong says the central issue is about role model, values and inspirational references in development processes.”

In Sarpong’s view, Obote, like most African intellectuals, did not deeply appreciate the growth of African values and progress.

This prompted Mazrui to suggest that: “If Obote had done and greatly touted a non-African value, it is not because he was educated in Western paradigms but, like most African elites, he did not understand African values deeply enough or was mesmerised by Western values or did not respect African values or was confused about African values in relation to the continent’s progress.”

As further noted by Sarpong, the problem with African intellectuals is their inability to decipher new realities of existence and their failure to originate enduring ideas informed by their own innate intelligence and cultural milieu. The African intellectual has become a mere caricature of the dominant Western value system that forms his primary, secondary and university education.

The malaise starts at primary school level where the system is heavily Western structured, then flows and grows to high school level and later to the university, thus sowing a culture of mediocrity in terms of understanding and appreciating African values. At the end of graduation, one has a distorted worldview dictated by an alien Western worldview.

It comes as no surprise that Africa is arguably the only region in the world where foreign development paradigms are most dominant. Not only does this indicate that Africa’s development process is not culturally close to Africans but also that African elites are mediocre in both their intellectualising and in their efforts at directing the continent’s progress.

In illustrating Africa’s maladjusted development trajectory, Mazrui liberally used Japan as a good example of how African elites failed to align their Western education with their African values in both their intellectual development and the continent’s progress.

After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the emphasis in Japan was on the technical and technological techniques of the West rather than the literary and verbal culture. The Japanese’s slogan of Western technique, Japanese spirit at the time captured this ambition to borrow technology from the West while deliberately protecting a substantial part of Japanese culture.

In a sense, Japan’s technological Westernisation was designed to reduce the danger of other forms of cultural dependency. It cannot be overemphasised that the production of ideas needs to start at an early age with a curriculum that is skilfully cast in African values first and incorporates borrowed concepts to complement the existing ones.

Mazrui again informs us that: “The nature of Westernisation in Africa has been very different. Far from emphasising Western productive technology and reducing Western lifestyles and verbal culture, Africa has reversed the Japanese order of emphasis. Among the factors which have facilitated this reversal has been the role of the African university as a vehicle of Western influence on African culture.”

The challenge confronting African intellectuals today is overturning a granite mindset of always looking up to the West for exemplary scholarships, something that has had the effect of retarding African development.

African intellectuals need to first think from an African value system with the enabling aspects of their colonial legacies and the global values and then intellectually linking these to the wider world of scholarship and science.

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