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Biznews | 3 March 2023

The opinion piece below discusses the role of intellectuals in society and the potential consequences of their ideas and actions. Author Sibusiso Ngwena argues that intellectuals have the responsibility of being purveyors of ideas in an open and free society, but they must also be willing to question prevailing assumptions and follow facts. However, Ngwena suggests that the standards for judging intellectuals are often different from those in other professions, leading to a culture of overreach and catastrophic consequences. Further, examples are provided for the intellectuals who have overreached their expertise in South Africa, from a math professor advocating for economic policy to a health ombudsman endorsing national health insurance.

Intellectual overreach can harm

If mere mortals are to navigate the ebbs and flows of the world, intellectuals, especially public intellectuals, can play an indispensable role. In an open and free society, their chief role is to be the purveyors of ideas. This skill widens the knowledge pool, enabling individuals and collectives to make cost and benefit analyses. Conversely, intellectuals are also tasked with questioning prevailing assumptions, withstanding coercive pressures from the ruling elite, and following the facts to wherever they might lead.

Double standards

Our world is partially open and, to a large extent, not free. Different or even double standards are often based on proximity to the ruling class, and/or how loud your megaphone is.

If a master builder built a house which collapsed under its own weight, it wouldn’t matter if it was the most beautiful house ever built, that master builder’s reputation would be ruined.

This standard is not applicable to intellectuals.

This class is mainly judged by what sounds good in theory, and whether other intellectuals agree with them. Ideas with catastrophic consequences are even likely to be rewarded with a promotion and a hagiography after death. Some of them tend to “fail up”, as it were.

Human Design

F.A. Hayek once said, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design”. But unsurprisingly, history is littered with examples of intellectuals who believed they were omniscient, or that they could engineer the “perfect” society, with predictable devastating consequences.

The disaster that was the French Revolution was initiated and led by intellectuals. The Russian revolution was spearheaded by Lenin and his intellectual ilk. Some officers in the Nazi war machine held PhDs. The “mother” of modern-day environmentalism, Rachel Carson campaigned against the use of pesticides (DDT) and left a trail of death in poor countries across Africa. Neil Ferguson’s Covid-19 modelling petrified politicians, who adopted reckless policies with cataclysmic consequences which will be felt for a long time to come.

South Africa is no exception.

The fingerprints of intellectuals are all over the failed and incapable state that South Africa has become. The impressive list of calamities that the country suffers through today is the intellectual’s or expert class’s creation and/or endorsement. The adoption of policies such as BEE, localisation, the Employment Equity Act, and priority public procurement, just to name a few, has enabled the conditions in which rampant pillaging of the public purse, high unemployment rates, high crime rates, and corruption found room to fester.

This brings us to current and previous proposals from some prominent South African intellectuals.


In his widely received book, Intellectuals and Society, Thomas Sowell outlines the conceit that bedevils intellectuals, which is that superior ability in a specific field implies superior ability in general. This conceit leads them to pontificate about subjects or areas they know little or nothing about.

This overreach is demonstrated by comments made by the following intellectuals:

1. UCT vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng called for a wealth tax to ‘catch well-heeled citizens who are operating under the radar’. Also: ‘The gap between the rich and the poor keeps widening’. Does a PhD in mathematics education give one a licence to publicly pontificate about economic policy? This overreach is akin to asking the government to rob other people on your behalf. Her “Rome” is burning while she fiddles.

2. Health ombudsman, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba strongly endorsed National Health Insurance when he said that ‘the NHI is a necessary evil we must swallow,’ and continued to say that ‘I strongly support it – it will bring health equity’. Why is a medical doctor-turned-bureaucrat publicly advocating for this boondoggle? A single-payer healthcare system managed by the ANC government will only bring equal health misery. He must remember the oath he took. This scheme will harm especially the people (poor) he claims to care about. Clearly, the mess that is the NHS in the UK didn’t teach him anything about socialised medicine.

3. Professor Salim Abdool Karim became the face of Covid-19, with almost daily updates about the virus. His expertise lay in epidemiology and virology, but he saw fit to preach on subjects beyond his proficiency. This he did when he strongly advocated for perpetual lockdowns, banning alcohol sales and other drastic measures in the name of fighting a novel airborne disease. The lives ruined due to his overreach are unknown at this stage.

4. Professor Mark Swilling of the University of Stellenbosch whose PhD is in Sociology calls for a move away from fossil fuels to his preferred ‘clean’ energy sources such as solar, to ensure environmental sustainability and reduce carbon intensity. He veered too far from his area of expertise. I am quite certain that he doesn’t even fathom the costs involved as he has no “skin in the game” as it were. I would challenge him to use his own money and install his preferred energy sources instead of trying to use the government to achieve his desired ends.

5. Other intellectuals who over–stepped include Glen Retief whose PhD is in English Philosophy. The recent Durban floods were enough for him to make an alarming prediction about the future, essentially saying that the country is facing grim future climate conditions unless it invests in ‘infrastructure’.

6.The University of Johannesburg Council which includes Vice-Chancellor Prof. Tshilidzi Marwala was hiding behind ivory tower language such as ‘international and national best practices’ and ‘peer-reviewed literature’ in an effort to steamroll the Covid-19 vaccine mandate in a public institution. The predictable outcome was a protest. For academics to cherry-pick literature so that they can implement their preferences, especially in a partly taxpayer-funded institution, is unequivocally sinister. This overreach might have negative consequences in the long run.

Concluding thoughts

H.L Mencken once said, ‘For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong’. South Africans should guard against simple “solutions” for complex problems proposed and/or endorsed by people who, as Thomas Sowell would say, pay no price for being wrong. Especially people who veer way outside their knowledge areas into areas they know little and/or nothing about.

Leaders seldom apologise for embracing disastrous schemes with deadly consequences and, with intellectuals on hand, even failed schemes can elicit self-flattery.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR.

‘Disclaimer - The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the BEE CHAMBER’.


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