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Gumede & Dikeni’s The Poverty of Ideas Launched in Cape Town

The Poverty of IdeasWilliam GumedeLeslie DikeniThe launch of The Poverty of Ideas by William Gumede and Leslie Dikeni brought the crowds to The Book Lounge in Cape Town last night. With folk sitting on the stairs and the floor to hear a panel that included Helga Jansen Daugbjerg and James Matthews, it would seem that there is no dearth of people wanting meaningful debate on the topic of “the public intellectual”.

Gumede started by reflecting on the genesis of the book. “This project has been eight years in the making, and in that time, things haven’t changed. We haven’t moved on. That is the scary part.” He said they started by examining the role that former activists had to play. “I wonder if the challenge this presented isn’t far more relevant now. In my chapter I argue that we have the best constitution in the world – but only on paper. We don’t have the living values it represents. Unless we move to turn this institution into a democratic culture where we live, it will remain merely rhetoric.”

Gumede’s central criticism of contemporary engagement is that it is no longer civil. “We scream and shout. The debate about our values and priorities requires an opportunity for discussion; it needs space. It’s disappointing that this has been reduced at a time when we face serious issues like Eskom and Godsell. There’s a trivialising of the critique when we need honest, civil discussions.”

Gumede warned that the cost of disallowing debate was seen in the hundreds of thousands of lives that were lost to HIV/AIDS because we were unable to talk about the issue when a “one view” mindset was in place under Thabo Mbeki. Equally, the GEAR policiies were compromised because of a lack of discussion. “Leaders are culled, or given blank cheques and everyone must follow. This costs lives and we pay for poor but expensive policies.

James Matthews expressed astonishment at his inclusion in the book and asked what he was doing in a room full of intellectuals. “As a dissident poet with disruptive words here I’m questioning those who intellectualise ‘the Struggle’.” He said, “Further to my amazement, I wonder how many people here have actually read my poetry. You won’t find my books on the shelves of the intellectuals…” He said a robust intellectualism was needed when one considers the statements of Julius Malema. “What goes for ‘thinking’ in the echelons of the ANC?”

Leslie Dikeni asked what and who are the intellectuals of the day? “I identify various different forms of intellectualism: pseudo-intellectuals, commercial intellectuals, project intellectuals and gender intellectuals that don’t resemble the great activists of the 60s.” He said he saw it as dangerous for society – the mentality that wants to write projects for commercial gain and refuses to think beyond this. “We must seek to gain face, not lose it,” he said. “Everyday on TV there’s an expert who pronounces on theology, then on medical research, biopolitics, homosexuality and then on economics. Of course there are inter-relations, but the greatest challenge facing South Africa and the continent at large is that there are very few intellectuals who are able to construct conceptual work that can intervene in social crises.”

He was critical of the tendency to borrow concpets. “Affirmative Action comes from North America. Why not create our own concept? Our book seeks to expose this vacuum in thinking. Those who’ve tried within the intellectual spaces have been crushed. The book seeks to question this and tries to close the gap, fill the vacuum.”

Helga Jansen Daugbjerg expressed her great concern at the shrinking space for writers. “My inclusion in this book, with luminaries like James Matthews – who used to come and visit my parents when I was a child – is a highlight of being able to write freely. The space this book creates is for writers, who have an artistic responsibility to record the truth despite the rampant conservatism,” she said.

Jansen Daugbjerg, who is due to give birth shortly, said, “We have nothing to reflect on if we don’t have that permission and possibility; what will I have to teach my daughter?” She shared her deep concern, fear and anger when she learned recently that she was carrying a girl. “What is the world that she will inherit in this hyper-masculinity of the Zuma cult?” She expressed her gratitude to Gumede and Dikeni, who had substantially edited her contribution to the collection. “It is better to speak about these things, to generate discussion and to claim the space for debate. We all have a responsibility to do this.”

A series of fascinating questions were taken from the floor from visiting academics and students and concerned members of the public. Long after the session ended, vibrant discussions continued over glasses of Leopard’s Leap wine, sponsors of countless literary events in the city.


William Gumede & Njabulo Ndebele Suren Pillay & Helga Jansen Daugbjerg David Pickup & Randall van VooreJames Matthews, Michelle Pressend & Leslie Dikeni Randall van Voore & Marcus Solomon Lithako Modisane, Victoria Collis-Buthelezi & Mbongiseni Buthelezi James Patrick & Russell Martin Nathalie Jara, Nathalie Duveau & Thulani Nxumalo Full house A capacity audience Helga Jansen-Djaugberg, James Matthews, Leslie Dikeni & William Gumede Allan Singh & Devand Rajkumar Sean Mullan & Peter Lampe Liezl Jansen & Donald Jansen Leon Roelofse, Jaco Schreuder & Pete Van der Woude John Tosh & Elizabeth Franklin Asta Magnusdottir, Simon Taylor & Kristin Palitza Leslie Dikeni, Maren Drewes & Giulia Ferrato Leslie Dikeni & Don Spinell Roger Hayes & Sibongile Mbiko Reza Daniels & Vimal Ranchhod Elizabeth Martella & Thabisa Vili Anna Richerby & Radesh Moodley Christopher Beer, Lorna Levy, Norman Levy & Leon Levy William Gumede, Simon Rumel, Dermot Grazebrook & Sebastian Bodenstein Vinayak Bhardwaj, Sean Mullan & Joy-Mari Cloete James Matthews, Laura Gamse, Patrick Mohundro, Chase Nye, Chris Inskip & Jacques de Villiers Simon Rumel & Dermot Grazebrook Nathalie Jara & Chris Schmitt Helga Jansen-Daugbjerg, Inge Jansen & Leslie FredericksJames MatthewsNjabulo Ndebele

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Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    November 17th, 2009 @17:03 #

    So sorry I missed this. I had a pressing deadline, and it looks like it was scrumming room only! Looking forward to reading this book.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Liesl</a>
    November 19th, 2009 @05:27 #

    It was a great event, Helen, and the book is bound to annoy a number of people who're sure to get defensive. Here's an article by Sipho Seepe that doesn't mention this book, particularly, but raises similar issues:


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