- Lived experience, active citizenry and South African intellectual history: reflections on a colloquium on ‘The intellectual heritage and inherited values of the Eastern Cape’
This colloquium, held from October 2–5, 2017, and a smaller preliminary planning conference in June, were attended by a rich mix of academics and public intellectuals and dealt with an old topic in need of rethinking. Sponsored by the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS), both events were hosted at a venue oozing historical significance–Hunterstoun, alongside the Tyhume River, which tumbles down the great Hogsback escarpment to a valley where frontier Wars of Dispossession once unfolded. The former home of anthropologists professors Monica and Godfrey Wilson, where ZK Matthews visited regularly and is reputed to have worked on the proposal for a Freedom Charter, it has now been converted into the Hunterstoun Centre as a place of reflection belonging to the University of Fort Hare.
The political and educational heritage and inherited values of the Eastern Cape have long been celebrated. The Eastern Cape after all is the region where the Hundred Years War was fought. ‘More blood was shed per square metre’ here, commented influential participant Pallo Jordan, ‘than anywhere else in South Africa’. It is also the region which until the 1940s produced more than 50 per cent of black African matriculants and the only black graduates in the country (Mager 1999:196). From this context and from the harsh experiences of incorporation into a colonial order there emerged generations of indigenous intellectuals, activists and organisations who first conceived of a democratic and inclusive South [End Page 83] Africa and were to lead the struggle for liberation for many decades (Odendaal 1983, 1984, 2003, 2012 and 2016).
Something unique, we all agree, happened in this region. But has the way the legacies of the Eastern Cape are engaged with not become stereotyped, static and increasingly remote from people, especially younger audiences? Is this not a history now largely reduced to formalised protocols at ceremonies for struggle (and government) royalty? Or a narrative reflected in sad, improperly functioning liberation heritage routes and sites that don’t live up to the promise of the shiny road signs pointing to their location? Like DDT Jabavu’s crumbling house at Middledrift, where this foremost intellectual of his day once put to paper visions of ‘common citizenship’, alive to the aching beauty of the Amathole Mountains visible through the big bay windows (See Higgs 1997). Those visitors who can get access today are challenged to reimagine how his study must have once looked like. There is also the monument in nearby Cradock that is supposed to attest to the profound narrative of the ‘Cradock Four’ whose funerals defined the changing balance of forces in the brutal 1980s. But it is, likewise, sadly derelict. ‘A broken gate greets you’. Weeds ‘sprout up through great gaps in the tar’. There are missing doors, smashed windows, pilfered light fittings, gaps in the roof. No-one welcomes you (Spies 2018). Only rarely now, it seems, does an event drawing inspiration from the Eastern Cape’s traditions galvanise national opinion and lead to energetic action, such as the 2016 funeral of the rev Makhenkhesi Stofile did.
Addressing a tradition in crisis
There are many reasons for this dip in the national influence and leadership role of the Eastern Cape in recent decades, and this was an underlying theme throughout the discussions. One is its precarious economy. As professor Francis Wilson explained with graphs and maps containing impressive economic data on the second evening of the colloquium, the province remains stuck in historical patterns of land dispossession, economic exclusion and social marginalisation stemming from its past role as a labour reservoir for the migrant labour system which underpinned the economies of colonial and apartheid South Africa.
Another is the weakening of Eastern Cape influence within the ANC since the Zuma ‘tsunami’ at Polokwane in 2007, as well as the systematic tarnishing of the brand of the liberation struggle and the ANC-in-government since then. [End Page 84]
The lead-in group discussions at the colloquium dealt with leadership and values, and the participants were in no...