UNIVERSITY of Free State vice-chancellor and principal Jonathan Jansen has blamed the ANC government for the withdrawal of university-based intellectuals from national dialogue.

UNIVERSITY of Free State vice-chancellor and principal Jonathan Jansen has blamed the ANC government for the withdrawal of university-based intellectuals from national dialogue.

Writing in the book Poverty of Ideas by William Gumede and Leslie Dikeni, Jansen says though the new rulers encourage debate, there have been notable incidents in which they have intimidated intellectuals who opposed their views.

The timely book comes in the era of public ridicule of intellectuals who are seen to be opposed to ill-informed decisions by the state.

An era in which public dialogue is dominated by the diatribe of the ANC Youth League and its president Julius Malema who is not ashamed to wag a finger at those who disagree with the ruling clique.

In recent times, accomplished campaigners for civil liberties and respected critics such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu have suffered the wrath of the ANC and various youth groups aligned to it.

The rot set in when Congress of South African Students demanded that Tutu provide his sexual history before speaking as an expert on Jacob Zuma's sexual behaviour. This was in defence of Zuma' s weak moment of having sex with an HIV-positive woman without a condom.

Its leader, Kenny Motshegoa, called Tutu an "empty populist who just utters statements to score minor political points, not caring whether they are disgraceful to his offices. We are now not sure of his mental status as it leaves much to taste".

"Does Tutu think he is higher than the court that cleared Zuma, or does he think he has a better moral base than others?" Motshegoa asked.

Or consider that, for more than five years now, Unisa vice-chancellor Barney Pityana has endured political abuse from Luthuli House for questioning some of Zuma's decisions. Last April,former ANCYL president Fikile Mbalula said Pityana was making a "clown of himself by his overzealous confusion and comical postulations about the ANC president and its leadership".

Pityana had said: "To many of us, Jacob Zuma, popularly elected ... remains a flawed character in his moral conduct; he has been indicted for serious crimes that involve corruption and dishonesty."

ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe was also quoted as describing Pityana's statements as "spurious" and a reflection of his "intellectual bankruptcy".

Since then the SACP's youth wing, the Young Communist League, has campaigned for his removal as Unisa vice-chancellor.

In his think-piece, Jansen says the subtlety of government's attempt to whip intellectuals into line was only evident when government blocks funding to research projects run by intellectuals who refuse to toe the line. He suggests the censure of such intellectuals is "often much more subtle and in many ways much more effective than the direct and oppressive silencing of the intellectuals".

"Firstly, university-based intellectuals find that their access to certain kinds of research resources quickly dries up if they are seen working outside the political will of the powerful in government. Much of the large research funding flowing into South Africa requires government approval, such as the very lucrative funding for health research in general and HIV-Aids research in particular.

"It is the approval process that work to fund cooperative institutions and marginalise the critics."

Jansen says that in its quest to send the message to dissenters, government was even prepared to contract foreign brains to do work that could be done by local experts .

"Secondly, university-based intellectuals will also find that their expertise is ignored in government commissions and expert panels. This is an effective way of sending a message of disapproval, and it not only robs the country of high-level local expertise, but also means that large numbers of external consultants, often from rich countries, are brought in to do what could have been done locally. Because our young democracy still finds it difficult to reconcile criticality from loyalty, South Africa pays a heavy price for such small-mindedness when it could otherwise be enriched by the multiplicity of voices on any subject," he says.

Jansen fingers government sensitivity as the main reason for credible, respected academics not to avail themselves for leadership positions in universities resulting in party loyalists with struggle credentials being appointed as vice-chancellors.

"Thirdly, university-based intellectuals will also find themselves disqualified from seeking senior positions within the academy, not because of their managerial or leadership capacities or because of their academic credibility, but because their public profile is interpreted as negative, as something that runs counter to the managerialist ethos and political sensitivities of the post-apartheid university. It is for this reason that university vice-chancellors are increasingly non-academics and more likely to be senior civil servants, heads of statutory bodies or low-profile, unremarkable academics who are unlikely to ask tough questions about the relationship between the state and institutions.

"They are unlikely to lead the academic and research community with any credibility, but at least their political credentials are intact. No more than a dozen intellectuals are prepared to challenge the view of the government or the ANC today; even they are labeled as "irritants, as unreasonable, as having one or other personal or political agenda.

"And so public intellectuals within or outside universities in South Africa are forced to make a cost-benefit analysis: do they speak truth to power and thereby run the risk not only of the ridicule of the powerful, but also of the marginalisation of their expertise within a developing context."

The country needs the input of intellectuals on the role and mandate of the Reserve Bank, the value of the local currency, the policy of inflation targeting, the National Planning Commission, the call for the nationalisation of mines and the depleting energy resources and the R385billion expansion programme at Eskom.

So far, the real brains of the land are watching from a distance and not adding value to these and more debates in our country.

lThe Poverty of Ideas - South African Democracy and the retreat of intellectuals. Publishers - Jacana Media