If there’s one thing that can be said of “political analyst” and “think tank wizard” Prince Mashele’s broadsides that regularly find favour on the opinion pages, it’s that they are wholly lacking in depth and originality.
Like many of the professional pessimists who have staked their careers on “speaking truth to power”, he displays a far greater interest in playing the role of town crier instead of offering solutions to the very real problems this country faces.
His latest article “Ramaphosa is blocking progress through his dour appointments” (Sowetan: July 29, 2019) continues in the vein of all his other portrayals of SA as being on the road to perdition.
In his latest missive it is interesting that Mashele, who has built up his academic stature by producing plodding and gloomy tomes like “The Death of our Society” (2011: still waiting) and “The Fall of the ANC” (2017: still waiting) chose an academic gathering as the context for his
latest attack on President Cyril Ramaphosa
The 25 Years of Democracy Conference, convened by the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection and the University of Johannesburg last week, attracted some of the country’s finest academic minds.
Nothing the president said is what the entire world doesn’t already know: that we need to prepare our workforces for the changes of the 4th Industrial Revolution.
His suggestion that the president’s remarks were a betrayal of an election promise are moronic, to use Mashele’s own favoured term in his 2011 book where he claimed the country is run by morons.
No doubt he was not in attendance at the conference, because he would have been able to contextualise the president’s words. Either that, or he deliberately lied to make a point, illustrating his own mendacity.
Then again, why would he have attended? It was Mashele after all who in typically vapid fashion dismissed “successful blacks” (like those who were probably at the conference) as being non-readers and disinclined to pursuits like thinking.
He wrote in 2015: “Successful black people don’t buy books. White people know this. When they plan shopping malls for black communities, they do not include book shops.”
He went further: “Libraries in black communities are generally unoccupied. Or in some cases they are simply burnt down.”
A man is known by the company he keeps, goes the old saying. And so it is no surprise that Mashele, who has in the past expressed his admiration for the fine liberal traditions of Tony Leon and the DA, and is prone to quoting the works of the reactionary xenophobe Samuel Huntington – received a glowing review for his “Blacks Don’t Read” article from no less than the Afrikaner separatist Dan Roodt.
So much so that Roodt posted it on his blog, adding his personal endorsement: “blacks simply don’t take much of an interest in books. They prefer flashy cars and clothes.”
The racists who give Mashele the thumbs-up would probably also have liked his 2016 attempt at satire where he declared that SA was “just another African country”; that our people should “come to terms with our real character” – namely a way of life “ruled by kings, chiefs and indunas”.
Furthermore, he wrote: “Constitutionalism is a concept far ahead of us as a people.”
But to call Mashele an Afro-pessimist would be reaching, and assuming that his critique is informed by historical context and sound analysis. To the contrary, he is often far from it.
Had Mashele offered up a well-argued case for exactly what kind of skills he envisions the country’s leaders should possess to lead key departments such as education – it would be worth reading. Instead, two cabinet ministers are simply dismissed for being too old: as though age were a determinant of aptitude or capability.
Mashele’s attack on the head of the Presidential Policy Unit, seasoned public servant and respected academic and author, Busani Ngcaweni, is typical of the cattiness upon which he has built his career.
Furthermore, his advice to the president to read certain books around statecraft is patronising and presumptuous.
Trafficking in stereotypes and sweeping generalisations is the stock in trade for the likes of Mashele, whose views are regularly sought out by those who want to make a case for their doomsday predictions. Sadly, when it comes to reasoned critique, they are found lacking.
Whereas there are those in our society who use their position of access to the airwaves and the opinion pages to sound their prophecies of doom – we are a government committed to restoring hope to our people, and to working to meet their expectations.
We are living in difficult times. All South Africans must put shoulder to the wheel to help end poverty, inequality and underdevelopment. Eternal pessimism does us no favours.
As Cornel West writes: “Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it.”
At a time when President Ramaphosa has emphasised the need to forge social compacts across society to carve a new path for this country’s future – the intellectual and academic community have a critical role to play.
As voices of critique, but also as voices of reason. Those in our society privileged by the benefits of higher education can and should be at the forefront of producing and disseminating knowledge that doesn’t only diagnose, but offer solutions.
This requires a particular brand of public intellectual who understands the importance of their role as an academic, as an African, and as a citizen. Sadly, Prince Mashele is not one of them.
Diko is spokesperson to the president.