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Love them or vilify them?

Recently, public opinion polls and surveys came under critical scrutiny and focus especially for their accuracy and predictions of the 2016 local government elections, writes Political analyst Kealeboga Maphunye.

Yet, another issue that is now a characteristic feature of South Africa’s 2016 local government elections is the role of public intellectuals in the country, especially their commentaries, views and election forecasts.

Commonly called political analysts or commentators, these are essentially scholars, researchers and intellectuals are regularly engaged and interviewed by different media personnel countrywide and occasionally internationally. Their perspectives are often sought after particularly when some “hot potatoes” or controversies arise in public spaces but they are also interviewed whenever government officials, public representatives or policy-makers resort to the “no-comment” line.

A defining feature of South Africa’s new democracy is the prominent role such intellectuals play through public commentaries in local and national print and electronic media including social media for some. Undoubtedly, many South Africans, specifically voters in this year’s elections, would most likely be eager to know much more about such commentators. Who are they? Where do they come from? What qualifications, expertise and knowledge or skills do they possess? Why do they agree to publicly share their views as they habitually do? Most of these questions were discussed at Unisa’s 2015 Africa Day conference. Such intellectuals are now regularly featured in some media platforms and therefore actively contribute to South Africa’s private and public media.

They habitually tackle anything ranging from political and socio-economic to other issues of national and public interest. But this is where it normally becomes tricky for such intellectuals because the complex range of topics and subjects compared to the limited number of experts and specialists sometimes means that they become thinly spread among the different platforms. Actually, are they “experts”, “specialists” or mere generalists? Sometimes this is unclear.

Admittedly, some public intellectuals are highly experienced and trained in their respective subject matters. Many have reputable qualifications ranging from Bachelor’s degrees, Honours, Master’s and doctoral qualifications. Still, others have significant experiential training and knowledge in numerous fields.

Furthermore, some public intellectuals have graduated from “the University of Life” and possess immense community interactional and indigenous knowledge skills; some are “self-taught” analysts. For those with formal academic credentials, their relevant educational institutions such as universities would usually have empowered them or given them relevant skills to comment or engage in the public space. This also includes institutions such as banks, research and policy think-tanks and numerous civil society organisations.

Obviously, some public intellectuals tend to comment on issues that are beyond their areas of expertise and knowledge. But there is no police force to “arrest” such intellectuals whenever they “stray off” their supposed areas of knowledge and expertise. Yet, ethical checks and balances and regulatory mechanisms exist to regulate the conduct of such public intellectuals, especially those who are based in universities. Among these is the requirement that whatever ideas they put out there in the public space should at least be tested first among peers and based on some research or other findings, reports or publications. Moreover, public intellectuals are usually guided by the editorial and ICASA broadcasting regulations or provisions that among others prohibit or regulate such practices as hate speech, racism and other forms of intolerance or bias in the media.

Yet, public intellectuals and commentators are often subjected to scathing criticisms. First, some public officials or representatives can be enraged by what they view as “wrong predictions”, “unacceptable” views or positions espoused by public intellectuals on topical issues. Even opposition political parties, donor agencies and some ordinary people have previously expressed overt or veiled concerns and disagreements with some public intellectuals on some issues.

Second, public intellectuals are frequently accused of adopting prejudiced or “unpatriotic” positions or perspectives. The Dalai Lama’s visit to South Africa a few years ago, which eventually never materialised, is a pertinent example. Another is the President Al Bashir saga and visit to South Africa, when the International Criminal Court (ICC) had indicted him for gross human rights abuses in his native Sudan. Accordingly, any state that was signatory to the ICC Treaty had to arrest anyone indicted of charges that violated the treaty. Yet, South Africa refused to do so despite some public commentators’ contention that it was violating the ICC treaty by so doing.

The speculation that is sometimes adopted by some public intellectuals, leading to accusations of subjectivity or bias is also worrisome. But this sometimes happens whenever no information exists, is not divulged publicly or where wholesale silence or “no-comment” on a matter that is deemed by the media as being of public or national interest.

Arguably, the role or contribution of public intellectuals to public debates and national issues might therefore be taken for granted or even overlooked but this role is of national and possibly international significance. To start with, public intellectuals, among whom we can count the so-called “political analysts”, make significant contribution in the public discourse as they regularly give a wide variety of perspectives that sometimes challenge conventional thinking. In elections, this could influence local and national thinking patterns and electoral democracy practices though it might be difficult to determine the extent to which they may “sway” public opinion, if at all.

Constitutionally, such intellectuals clearly seek to exercise and thus promote the freedom of expression principle in South Africa’s Bill of Rights. Thus, within the Southern African Development Community region and possibly throughout Africa, the role and contribution of public intellectuals to public debates and discourse is therefore invaluable and sometimes rightly envied. Article 6 of the Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility (1990) also recognises every intellectual’s right to pursue intellectual activity which could contribute to the national discourse. Such contribution could be through teaching in educational institutions, undertaking research, and disseminating research results based on universally recognised principles of scientific enquiry and ethical and professional standards.

Finally, love them or denigrate them, public intellectuals arguably contribute to the local and national discourse including elections, democracy and governance; risking their integrity, image and peace of mind in some cases simply by airing their views publicly. Thus, the biggest dilemma arguably remains whether they must be expected to accurately predict the outcome of elections like seers or sangomas.

Kealeboga Maphunye is the inaugural WIPHOLDBrigalia Bam Research Professor and Chair in Electoral Democracy in Africa, Department of Political Sciences, UNISA, maphukj@unisa.ac.za

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