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    Conference Papers

    Theorising the South African Renaissance Ideal

    Joel Netshitenzhe
    04 March 2015

    Without entering the debate about definitions of intellectual work, and what Professor Thandika Mkandawire refers to as “quintessentially the labour of the mind and soul”1, I wish to posit an extension of the historical context, by arguing that intellectual work preceded colonial conquest.
    Needless to say, pre-colonial society in its various strands had an intellectual organising framework that defined sets of beliefs, artistic expressions, rationalisation of systems of social organisation and abstract intellectual pursuits. It can be argued that, from the artisans, traders, poets, generals, spirit mediums and administrators of Mapungubwe to Autshumao, Makhanda, Moshoeshoe’s counsellors and Ntshingwayo (one of Cetshwayo’s commanders), these intellectuals were critical in preserving, sustaining and advancing culture in the broad sense.
    This issue is canvassed not for purposes of glorifying the past, but to acknowledge it; and primarily in order to draw attention to the transition that African societies endured as a consequence of colonial subjugation. Along with this was the imposition of Western education and a form of ‘modernity’ – in the less pejorative sense, pertaining to the introduction of advanced productive forces and the emergence of a modern, albeit, colonial state. This is important because, in theorising the South African renaissance ideal, we cannot ignore the persistence of some form of indigenous knowledge and, critically, the break that was imposed on the evolution of African societies.
    However, such breaks are not unique to colonial experiences. The Meiji restoration2 of 19th century Japan was a self-imposed economic, social and political transformation of Japanese society. The same can be said about the emergence of the State of Chin3 some 2 500 years ago and later the ‘four modernisations’ of Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping4; and the European Renaissance which started about 700 hundred years ago. The East Asian transformations in particular reflected, among others, a profound and brutal self-critical paradigm, based on an appreciation of the deficits (or what some of them called ‘backwardness’) in national development, and a determination to rise from the pain and shame of national humiliations. This paradigm is largely absent in South African (and to a significant extent, African) intellectual and socio-political discourse.

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