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  • Oppositional intellectualism as reflection, not rejection, of power:Wits Sociology, 1975-1989
  • Shireen Ally (bio)

Intellectuals and power: explaining South African sociologists' critique of apartheid

The history of sociology in South Africa and its relationship to apartheid is turbulent and complex. At first, intellectuals were intimately related to power, as sociologists were in direct conversation with the administrative and political interests of the recurring racially repressive regimes. Sociologists assisted in segregationism's 'native administration' and 'social planning', and then became key apartheid ideologues (Jubber 1983, Groenewald 1991). Hendrik F Verwoerd, South African prime minister and the widely-recognised architect of apartheid, was South Africa's first Professor of Sociology, concerned with proactively planning and organising social relations. Geoffrey Cronjé, the 'mind of apartheid' (Coetzee 1991) was also a prominent Professor of Sociology, who effectively provided 'the first comprehensive fundamental exposition of the apartheid idea' (Rhoodie and Venter 1960:174). Sociologists were key members of the Suid-Afrikaanse Bond vir RasseStudies, and the Afrikaner Broederbond, which were some of the pivotal institutions in which the apartheid concept was developed, refined, and popularised (Ally, Mooney, and Stewart 2003). Sociologists were therefore at the centre of attempts to theorise and activate the racial, cultural, and economic ideas that birthed the project of apartheid.

By the 1970s, however, sociologists' relationship to the political and social order changed dramatically. Ideological intellectualism was overtaken and replaced by a dramatically different, oppositional Marxist sociology. Harold Wolpe (1972), Martin Legassick (1974), and other historians launched a revolutionary critique of apartheid through a thorough revisionist [End Page 66] history of South Africa (see also Johnstone 1976; Trapido 1971). They theorised and demonstrated racial discrimination in South Africa to be rooted in the structural requirements of its capitalist economy. An entire generation of South African scholars in history, political studies, anthropology, and sociology, embraced the Marxism introduced to them by these revisionist scholars, and began systematic critiques of apartheid, showing its genesis to be located in the class interests of Afrikaner and English capitalists, and consequently advocating a class revolution to restore justice to South African society.

This radical Marxist social science overtook the existing sociologies at English-medium universities, reconstructing the relationship between sociologists and the apartheid state. Forging direct and revolutionary links with the emerging social movements, sociologists became agents of revolutionary change. The vibrant and engaged 'public sociology' that resulted has garnered much valorising attention lately, inspiring Burawoy to a reflexive re-engagement with mainstream sociological practice in the United States (Burawoy 2004).

While Burawoy documents and celebrates this 'public sociology' of the 1980s, the genesis of the 'critical sociology' of the 1970s that laid the basis for it, is not analysed.1 How did this oppositional intellectualism emerge out of a discipline whose historical role was to service the interests of the apartheid state; and what explains its content and spread? This paper argues that the general theoretical literature on intellectuals and power, and the specific literature that explores that relationship in South Africa both assume that oppositional intellectualism is the rejection of power, made possible by freedom from its constraints. By reconceptualising power, and re-examining the case of the shift to a Marxist oppositional sociology in the 1970s in South Africa, through an analysis of the Sociology Department at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), this paper argues that the radical intellectualism of the 1970s was a reflection of power, not the rejection of it.

Explaining oppositional intellectualism

In the long tradition of scholarship exploring the relationship between intellectuals and power, intellectuals are argued to either exist in a relationship of 'ideological subservience' or 'moralistic resistance' to state authority.

Some scholars have understood oppositional intellectualism as the natural role, function, and tendency of intellectuals. Intellectuals have been theorised [End Page 67] as engaged in a 'disinterested love and search for truth and justice' (Benda 1969:19), to be 'disturbers of the peace' (Havel 1985), those who 'speak truth to power' (Said 1994), those in the 'humble and courageous service of truth' (Silone 1960:261), etc. 'Much of the analytic literature dealing with intellectuals', conclude Lipset and Basu, has emphasised the 'inherent antipathy between intellectuals and the powers throughout modern history' (1976:112). This tradition...


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