What is at stake in demanding formal educational qualifications in democratic politics?

3rd December 2018 By: Raymond Suttner

What is at stake in demanding formal educational qualifications in democratic politics?

Raymond Suttner
Photo by: Chris Snelling

Factional battles as well as tensions over white control in the DA appear to have led to a focus on the DA Chief Whip in the National Assembly, John Steenhuisen having no post-matric qualifications.  It is interesting that battles to try to secure more positions for black members, if that is the motivation, use the same meritocratic idiom of the DA as a whole, assigning virtues to someone by virtue of formal qualifications. 

For many people the issue is not, however, whether Steenhuisen has these qualifications or not, but the way the DA tends to fetishise formal education and their general disdain for people without such formal qualifications.  DA leaders often mock black people who they say vote for the ANC because of ignorance and illiteracy. At the time of the first democratic elections, some DA members and scholars referred to the election result representing a “racial census”, in other words, devaluing the place of logic in political choices made by the black majority.

Supporters of Steenhuisen have missed the point raised by many people, that for white people, it is easier to ascend to high office with or without academic qualifications, because they are not subjected to the same level of scrutiny that black people experience.

The reasons why this question was raised within the DA is not my primary concern. I take up this issue because it raises wider questions of how and why we value people, their qualities as human beings in parliament and in a range of other spheres of life. It also raises questions about what we see as “education” or “being educated” and also what it means to be an “intellectual”.  It also raises questions about how these qualities are acquired.  (This is a broader subject, which I have examined in more detail in Raymond Suttner, “The formation and functioning of intellectuals within the ANC –led liberation movement”, in Thandika Mkandawire (ed) African Intellectuals.  CODESRIA/Zed Books.   Dakar. London.  2005, 117-154).

Formal education is not the same as education

It is fairly common to refer to someone without formal education as not being educated, as if the only way one can acquire education is through formal schooling at various levels, resulting in acquiring certificates of one or other type. Not only some of the DA, but also the EFF and a range of media appear to adopt this approach. Thus, the EFF taunted Steenhuisen, shouting “go to school!”

The equation of formal education with the word education, excludes from consideration a range of less formal ways of acquiring the capacity to reason logically and provide explanations for problems in a range of spheres of life.  It also neglects some formal ways that are not organised as schools or universities through which people acquire knowledge and understanding of a variety of subjects, relevant to a range of aspects of human existence or jobs, or activities in political or cultural organisations or religious institutions.

All political parties perform an educational role, in varying degrees, for its members. That is why Antonio Gramsci referred to a party as playing an intellectual role and others referred to the Communist Party of Italy as a “collective intellectual”.  (See Gramsci, Selection from the Prison Notebooks, Lawrence and Wishart, 1971, chapter 1). But all parties have processes through which people learn about the party and grow intellectually in various ways.  But a great deal is learnt through experience that would not be acquired in any formal educational process but is vital for the role that some have to play in politics and in other spheres of life.

Literacy and education

Some commentators see the problems caused by the presidency of Jacob Zuma being primarily related to his lack of formal education or that he was for some time unable to read and write.  But many preachers-on this and other continents- are illiterate. Yet they acquired knowledge of religious texts and learnt how to interpret these in a range of ways.  Being capable of interpretation and reasoning is not the prerogative of the literate.

In relation to precolonial societies, it is well known that in every society, strata existed who performed an intellectual role.  Certain individuals were charged with various spiritual and ritual duties and other cultural functions that explained the meaning of life, gave explanations for disasters or prognosticated for the future. The accuracy or otherwise of what they did, measured by contemporary western science is unimportant.  What is significant here is that this constituted an intellectual role, a way of making sense of the world for others, that there were people that performed such a role in all societies.  

What is conventionally termed “praise poetry” may also be classified in this way. Archie Mafeje showed over 50 years ago that the role of bards in African rural communities is not simply to “praise” but to provide explanations, including criticism and satire. More recently, the South African independent trade union movement, which emerged from the 1970s, revived this genre, to convey an anti-capitalist message.

Another significant feature of the period of colonial conquest, as a more or less universal phenomenon, was the periodic emergence of prophets in various societies on the continent, people offering an often millenarian vision as a way of adapting to or avoiding colonial conquest.  In the early 19th century Eastern Cape, for example, two prophets, influenced in varying degrees by Christianity, manifested this in a dramatic form with contrasting visions.  In the case of Ntsikana his vision was more accommodating of the colonial order, while Makhanda became a warrior-prophet and after leading an attack on the garrison in Grahamstown, was imprisoned on Robben Island.  (Cf A.C. Jordan, Towards an African Literature. The emergence of Literary Form in Xhosa, 1973, ch 5, University of California Press. Los Angeles)

Formal education and the ANC/SACP led liberation struggle

Many political leaders in fact some of the greatest liberation leaders in our country had very little formal education.  One thinks particularly of Moses Kotane and Walter Sisulu.  Moses Kotane was a leader of the Communist Party and the ANC. He was also a writer and a theoretician, in other words, he did not simply possess the knowledge that others may have acquired through tuition at one or other institution. He went beyond that and was an intellectual who made sense of political conditions at the time and advanced strategies and tactics aimed at creating a changed set of conditions.

Kotane, like many other Communists acquired much of his early education in Communist night schools, where in very sparse conditions, Communists acquired literacy as well as Marxist theory and its application to the conditions of the time.  Over time there were a range of processes within the ANC and Communist Party whereby the organisations built their own intellectuals through systems of internal education.  Some may criticise the partisan and sometimes dogmatic views that emerged, but the truth is that this was an educational process and many intellectuals emerged who made contributions to debates.  (Even if not called “political education”, as indicated, all political parties have some such processes).

When Walter Sisulu stood as an accused in the Rivonia trial, he had attained standard two in school.  (On Robben Island he completed his matriculation).   Anthony Sampson referring mainly to the 1950s, said the relationship between Nelson Mandela, the practising attorney and BA graduate and Sisulu was one where Mandela deferred to Sisulu intellectually.  Mandela understood, as did many others that no matter what formal level of education Sisulu had attained he was a key strategist and thinker from whom all could learn.

The lawyers in the Rivonia trial mention how no decision would be taken on how they would conduct their defence until Sisulu had spoken. They would all speak but wait to hear what Sisulu would say and defer to him.  The legal defence team also became habituated to this and they too waited to hear what he had to say, as the way of finalising an approach.

When the leaders were released from prison, some of us were sometimes called upon to write or assist with writing articles or speeches. I once wrote an article for Sisulu and read it to him as he lay on a bed.  I read a paragraph or two, then he said, “No!’ and then explained very carefully why my formulation was inappropriate.  Sisulu chose every word meticulouosly and was not prepared to risk any possibility of misinterpretation, especially in a time of negotiations when the choice of words was what held some people together and divided them from others.  To use a wrong word was the military equivalent, sometimes, of giving up ground in a battle. 

What then is meant by being educated and also by being an intellectual?

It is common for scholars to see themselves as representing what is covered by the notion of an intellectual and to restrict the scope of the word to those who hold recognised academic qualifications or write in accredited journals. Intellectual debate about various issues surround what are conventionally called “scholars” and the “scholarly community”.

These are very limited conceptions of what constitutes an intellectual. Instead, I follow Antonio Gramsci, and have in mind a category of individuals who should be defined by the role they play, by the relationship they have to others.  They are people who, in politics, broadly speaking, create for a class or people a coherent and reasoned account of the world, as it appears from the position they occupy. It is intellectuals who transform what may previously have been incoherent and fragmentary “feelings” for those who live as part of a particular class or nationally oppressed position, into a coherent account of the world. (Cf. Gramsci, Selection from Prison Notebooks, Page 418)

If we use such an approach and do not first set formal entry hurdles in the way of classifying people as “educated” or being intellectuals, we need to broaden our investigation and examine the many ways of intellectual functioning as well as processes of education and intellectual formation that may be found in this continent, now and in the past.

For South Africa today, it means we need to value people and their understandings, on the basis of what they offer, no matter what formal qualifications they may or may not hold.  That is part of respecting one another as human beings, one of the factors required to build a common society, shared by all.

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a visiting professor and strategic advisor to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg and emeritus professor at UNISA.  He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities.  His prison memoir  Inside Apartheid’s prison was reissued with a new introduction in 2017. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner