Public Intellectuals for Hire

By John Reynolds · 21 Apr 2009

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments

It would be amusing if it were not so tragic to watch some of our self-styled 'public intellectuals' outdo each other in their efforts to find a place for themselves in 'Zuma’s Brave New World'. Integrity is readily exchanged for expediency and principle easily substituted by opportunism.

Public intellectuals, especially of the craven type, live for recognition and adoration. Like the court jesters of lore, they cannot conceive of an existence independent of a benefactor. What is the point of being clever, witty and accomplished if it is not in the service of a master? Where is the fulfilment in the pursuit of knowledge if it does not add gloss to an ego that constantly needs propping up?

Witness Xolele Mangcu’s columns these days. It is embarrassing to see how he squirms to prove his new credentials.  Zuma was not his President of choice, he self-righteously proclaims. But as Zuma is now the 'chosen one', we had all better get into line. Seepo Seepe certainly wants to get at the head of this line. A respected lawyer makes the case as to why the dropping of charges against Zuma was legally flawed and rather than engage with the merits of the argument, our esteemed sage denounces the motive as 'financial'. Guess everyone must be motivated by filthy lucre. And let’s not of course forget Ms. Karima Brown. If she had her way, all political commentary would be replaced by sycophantic ranting. Poor Zapiro. In so much trouble for a shower-head. You’d think he was the one who acted with bad judgement.

Remember when many of these self-styled public intellectuals were the praise singers of the 'Philosopher President'? Unfortunately for them, however, because he thought of himself as such a formidable intellectual in his own right, their usefulness had a limited shelf-life. And even the most abject praise singers need to keep some dignity intact if they are going to stand any chance of peddling their wares to another benefactor.

Who better then to offer one's services to than to the new 'People’s President-In-Waiting'. After all, he has no pretensions of being a 'Philosopher President'. If anything, he is going to be in desperate need of a cloak of intellectual respectability. And here we are, ready and able to provide just such a veil. After years of being out in the cold, discarded, humiliated and ignored we once again get an opportunity to shine in the public limelight. And so what if this means ingratiating ourselves to a new elite? What's a little grovelling when the universe of public adulation once again beckons?

The true measure of the worth of an intellectual is their pursuit of knowledge (wherever this may lead), their unflinching love of ideas and their jealous defence of the independence of thought. Not for them the comfort of the dominant dogma or the lure of popular acknowledgment.

When those who are entrusted with setting the highest standards in holding to account those elected to lead trade this role for fame and fortune, then society is really in deep trouble. You know that you are in the 'Wild, Wild West' when the public intellectuals are the guns for hire.

What we need are intellectuals who will be standard bearers. Role models, if you like. What we now have are public intellectuals who seem all too ready simply to just roll over.

Should you wish to republish this SACSIS article, please attribute the author and cite The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.

All of SACSIS' originally produced articles, videos, podcasts and transcripts are licensed under a Creative Commons license. For more information about our Copyright Policy, please click here.

To receive an email notification when a new SACSIS article is published, please click here.

For regular and timely updates of new SACSIS articles, you can also follow us on Twitter @SACSIS_News and/or become a SACSIS fan on Facebook.

You can find this page online at

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments

Leave A Comment

Posts by unregistered readers are moderated. Posts by registered readers are published immediately. Why wait? Register now or log in!


Rory Short
24 Apr

Paid Pipers

What John says is tragically true. We need real intelectual leaders who are not afraid to go out on a limb in support of an idea, not sycophantic praise singers.

Respond to this comment

Thomas Blaser
25 Apr

A Bit Harsh

John, I share much of what you say but your anger renders your words unnecessary harsh. That public intellectuals seek the limelight seems necessary - after all, they have to be heard and read. Otherwise, they would not be public. Do they all want to ingratiate themselves with the new big man? I am not entirely sure about this. It seems rather a sort of benefit of the doubt and waiting to see what is coming. Perhaps also a bit of trying to establish good channels of communications to flow which is not necessarily equal to roll over and play dead. Where I however entirely agree is the acrimonious critique of Zapiro. It must be envy - what he does with his brush, they can never match with their rather banal commentaries. His satire stings, and that is what a commentator ought to do. The only commentator with an equal sting that comes to my mind is the late Robert Kirby.

Respond to this comment

26 Apr

Public Intellectuals for Hire

John, I share your thoughts and your words - well done -couldn't have said it better meself. Sadly, this will become even more sicknening over the next five years - just like no-one supported apartheid, now it will be "I always knew he was innocent, he's my man".... Even media bull-dogs like Debra Patta, seem to be sucking-up "I don't believe they will change the Constitution with a 2/3 rd majority, they didn't before why should they now"... stated during e-TV election coverage.

Respond to this comment