'The gown must go to town'

President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s recent appointment of three well-respected professors from the University of Botswana’s Faculty of Social Sciences, had me in deep thought about the state of our universities and their role in leading the way in politics, governance and the policy space.

For a number of years, our academics and intellectuals have been retreating from the public space back to the confines of university classrooms and offices, away from public platforms and media commentary, and to a certain degree, even from the political space. Is the country experiencing a near lapse into some sort of ‘Orwellian groupthink’ as a result? It is time they returned.

In 1963, in his revered speech, “The African Genius”, Kwame Nkrumah famously argued that “the time has come for the gown to come to town.” As the country battles some of its most pressing challenges, indeed, the ‘gown must come to town’ and intellectual thinkers, professors, writers, artists and teachers must rise to the occasion and play their part in transformation and critical thinking. 

My thoughts on this matter are not immune or aloof to the critique levelled at university intellectuals and intellectuals in general, their ivory towers and sometimes their detachment from reality. I share in this critique. I understand it. But at the same time, I do not think intellectuals should relinquish their duty simply because they are ‘strictly’ researchers or ‘just’ academics.

As the ancient philosopher Socrates casually said, “Until philosophers rule as Kings in their cities, or those who are nowadays called kings and leading men become genuine and adequate philosophers ... cities will have no rest from evils.” It may rank as the most notorious single claim in the history of philosophy.

Socrates defined the philosopher as not just a lover of wisdom but as a special kind of seer, someone dedicated to knowledge of capital-T, truth. It follows that this exceptional philosopher King (or Queen) is the sole person fit to rule any city or nation, ‘an ideal city’ that is. The notion of a perfectly enlightened, well-educated leader is a spectre that haunts all politics. This doesn’t mean all intellectuals are great in politics. Many are weary of political power and we have tonnes of examples of intellectuals who went on to crash their countries into the deep ends of chaos.

Now, more than ever, Botswana needs its highly trained and highly skilled crop of professors, intellectuals and innovators to break the mould and start taking up space in the intricate mechanisms of government, policy, research and innovation that strives to make a difference.

But this shouldn’t be the end of it. It must translate into meaningful policy and implementation that invokes further intellectual engagement, critical enquiry and progressive ideas. The basic instinct of scholarship is to offer critique that digs deep down into issues, their causes, their impacts and suggests applicable solutions.

The important role of professorial and intellectual leadership goes way beyond speaking truth to power. Or rambling over theories at local watering holes and classrooms. In his proverbial Reith Lecture series on ‘Representations of the Intellectual’, the highly acclaimed scholar Edward Said shed light on the role of the public intellectual against what he termed “the insiders”. It is these insiders, he said, “who mould public opinion, make it conformist and encourage reliance on a superior little band of all-knowing men in power”.

The conscientious intellectual, by contrast, does not promote special interests, but is at the forefront of questioning, interrogating and following a curious path to uncover questions and answers to some of society’s toughest and sometimes polarising problems: nationalism, oligopolies, corruption, state capture, classism, economic inequality, race, gender parity etc. Public intellectuals must cut through the noise, especially in this era of social media commentary and ‘analysis’ masked under the clout-driven ‘rush to give an opinion’. We need intellectuals to provide political, economic and social analysis that challenges the status quo, interrogate the influence of vested interests in public life, and is concerned with the production and dissemination of knowledge that is interventionist by nature.

Appointing seasoned academics, professors and public intellectuals to key public offices, especially those who are committed to exercising independent judgement and scholarship will do a great deal of good for the Masisi administration, I believe. In fact, I have long argued that the President must appoint a Chief Economic Advisor separated from the entire governance and cabinet regalia. The concept of appointing ‘outsiders’ in a sense works well for the offices they will hold and in their engagements in leading seasoned bureaucrats to hopefully push for reforms in government domestic policy and foreign policy. As Edward Said put it, “an intellectual as an outsider, can never feel too much at home anywhere”.

As we navigate and manoeuvre through the country’s democratic journey, we must call on the role of universities and professors more. Holders of Professorial tenures in our public and private university spaces must commit to exercising their roles not just as producers and facilitators of knowledge, but as custodians and embodiments of academic freedom; as critics and advocates but more importantly, as mentors, guardians and enablers of critical thinking. Bruce Macfarlane aptly posits that intellectual leadership can be better understood as a transformational activity.

Botswana desperately needs leaders at the level of both theory and praxis working tirelessly to correct the policy incoherences and to hopefully initiate a culture of inculcating Green and White Paper processes into policy making, research, innovation, and evidence-based work in government.

It is time for more of the ‘mandarins’, the ‘wonks’, the ‘Profs’ to rise to the occasion because, truly, no true progress can be achieved without the enlightened contribution of an engaged intelligentsia.

*Bakang Ntshingane is a political analyst with interests in politics, foreign and trade policy.

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