Confused Rhetoric of Soured Romantic

Cape Times (South Africa), January 25, 2012 | Go to article overview

Confused Rhetoric of Soured Romantic


Former president Thabo Mbeki's essay ("Free knowledge for the public good", Cape Times, January 19) exhibits in miniature many of the flaws of Mbeki's presidency. In the language of Occupy Wall Street, Mbeki is the 1 percent pretending to be the 99 percent.

Whether in self-imposed exile, contemplating a political comeback or attempting to rehabilitate his image and defend his record, Mbeki remains one of South Africa's most enigmatic and inscrutable personalities. His essay (a longer version of which was delivered at Stellenbosch University Business School's Knowledge Management Conference) is valuable, though not in the way Mbeki intended.

Mbeki's rhetoric remains a strange combination of pragmatism and soured romanticism, authoritarianism and anxiety, affirmation and resignation, pedantry and bluster, earnest (even infectious) enthusiasm and imperious reserve.

His prose is more difficult to unravel than the inner workings of the arms deal. His ideology is a mixture of John Stuart Mill and Frantz Fanon.

Too often, he comes across as a frustrated professor of post-structuralism or identity politics. His speeches have never had much structural savvy - one feels that if one took them apart and put them together in a different order, they would read better for it.

In short, his is a canny rhetoric that shuts out the general reader (or listener) and allows in those predisposed to agree with the author's argument. It is odd then that Mbeki uses this exclusionary rhetoric to speak about inclusivity and democracy.

Mbeki argues that there exists no singular, overarching, monolithic form of "knowledge" with which people of all nations and races can conceptualise their identity and configure their environment.

There is, instead, an infinite assortment of contesting kinds of "knowledge", each one as valid as the next. Mbeki prefers the lofty but lazy phrase "the democratisation of knowledge", though he never defines exactly what it means or how it could it be implemented. (In his talk at Stellenbosch, he attempts to differentiate various types of "knowledge" - "objective truth", "false knowledge", etc - but in a scattershot, philosophically clumsy manner that confuses rather than clarifies.)

There is much that is commendable about Mbeki's assertions (contesting opinions are often - though not always - of equal value: individual experience is filtered through the lens of linguistic, geographic and cultural consciousness; propaganda is bad; freedom of speech is good). But there is also much that is troubling.

Accepting the theory that one kind of "knowledge" is as credible as another can eliminate the need to contend with "knowledge" one deems undesirable - that HIV causes Aids, for example.

To say that there is no truth, or that there are endless truths, is a convenient way of closing down a discussion. When introduced into arguments, relativism too often has another agenda - it conceals or conspires or excuses or exempts. If one person says the world is round, while another argues it is flat, they are not both right.

There can be no more current example of the debate around contested "knowledge" than the French Senate's approval this week of a bill that will criminalise the denial of the 1915 Armenian genocide.

The French government is essentially saying: "There exists only this 'knowledge' and anyone who refutes it will be penalised."

It is not too far-fetched to imagine our Members of Parliament arguing the merits of criminalising any citizen denying a link between HIV and Aids. Would such a bill infringe upon freedom of speech and threaten our constitution? Yes. Would it reduce the rate of Aids transmission? Probably not, but the issue of contested knowledge is more complex than Mbeki makes it out to be. Mbeki argues that the "frightening reality contemporary society faces is the capacity of a small but powerful minority of humanity to determine what society should 'know', and which passes as 'knowledge'".

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