We really do need public intellectuals

We really do need public intellectuals by Abraham Seda

It goes without saying that there is need of public intellectuals in Zimbabwe, and historians have a critical role to play in filling that void. Part of playing that role includes taking responsibility for allowing pseudo-analysts to hijack important conversations about politics and the economy. Of course, I am not suggesting that important political conversations should only be the preserve of academics, but we have certainly abdicated our role in having and informing national conversations. Historians have a unique role to play here because not only do we have the benefit of hindsight, but we have a special relationship with the past and how it is remembered. We do have a very unique platform which I strongly believe is underutilized.

            Apart from Alex Magaisa, I really cannot think of any academic, let alone historian who is publicly engaged. The downside to this apathy is that we have outsourced discussions which we should be informing at the very least if not influencing. In recent months, a lot has happened politically in Zimbabwe, and we have shied from commenting on the political situation [save for our chatrooms], and I don’t think not being interested in politics is a good enough excuse. As it stands, the current administration seems to have successfully dissociated the current president from the many “crimes” he is complicit of. He has managed to run away with the narrative of a supposed “new dispensation”, but how can that be, he stands equally culpable of all the crimes that Mugabe stands accused of. How is it even possible that this man can run on a platform of change and renewal when he spent the better part of his political life propping the very man he would have us believe is the sole author of our troubles.

            Although I would never advocate challenging politicians on every inaccurate position they take, we’re certainly not holding their feet to the fire in any way. I am unsure why there seems to be satisfaction with only publishing for “our” audiences. On a personal level, this kind of scholarship does not excite me at all. Being politically engaged is not a radical position, the founding generation of Africanists were primarily involved with nationalist movements across the continent. Of late it’s has been frustrating see Zanu PF define patriotism, and doing so unchallenged, in a very parochial way. It is frankly not enough to speak in these ivory towers, while not engaging publicly on matters which affect us all. I would be remiss not to acknowledge some academics who have taken time to engage on pressing social, political and economic issues such as our very own Dr T Nyamunda, but the list is not very long. I can literally count such academics on one hand. Part of doing this work will require engaging students about more critical issues which speak to our current moment as a country. I also think ZHA can champion a seminar series which allows historians and other interested academics a public platform where they can share their opinions and contribute to important national conversations. Although there is nothing on the ground which suggests this path will be taken soon, I remain optimistic that the academy, particularly historians will become more engaged in national conversations, and speak to wider audiences beyond lecture rooms and conferences.

            David Scott argued that, “we live in tragic times”, and queried if, “our current questions are still worth having answers to”?[1] In this current political moment and the impending election, I really do believe that we are in tragic times, but I am not sure if the questions we bring to our work are still worth having answers to. There are pressing issues of political violence, abuses of power, economic meltdown and growing poverty in the country, there is no way we can continue skirting around these issues and still add value to our work.

SedaA. Seda is a Doctoral Candidate at University of Minnesota

Research Interests include: Migration, Belonging, Labour, Recreation and Ethnicity

[1] David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004.


  1. On point! Blog raises pertinent issues indeed. However, maybe people are afraid of – or perhaps shun – the possible dirty habits that come with engagement in our contemporary politics (even as a critic/public intellectual). Having said that, there are many topics of public interest that historians can contribute to.

    Liked by 1 person

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