Our untamed obsession with material wealth and negligence of duty by intellectuals

After enduring an uninterrupted 28 years in exile, former president of both the ANC (African National Congress) and the democratic Republic of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki says he was gutted when he returned home to find his compatriots loyally worshipping at the altar of materialism. Even the intellectually inebriated Prince Mashele bemoaned this culture of naked consumerism in a piece he wrote in 2013.

In his enlightening article, Mashele directed his frustration at the Department of Education, writing thus: ‘South Africa’s education system also teaches children to value material possessions more than mental qualities. A young man who drives a Golf GTI is admired more than a young woman who has a penetrative intellect.’ The former president was less specific and therefore more colourful in his thesis of modern-day South Africa. He said: ‘Individual acquisition of material wealth, produced through the oppression and exploitation of the black majority, became the defining social value in the organisation of white society. Because the white minority was the dominant social force in our country, it entrenched in our society as a whole, including among the oppressed, the deep-seated understanding that personal wealth constituted the only true measure of individual and social success.’

The writer and journalist, Sandile Memela, whose voice has always been consistent from his days as a contributor for Mail & Guardian’s Thought Leader, wrote an excellent article recently decrying our society’s untamed obsession with opulence and glamour. Like Mashele, Memela was also specific. He elected to direct his anger at South Africa’s lazy, if not lacklustre intelligentsia, which has also been infected by the same virus diagnosed by Mbeki during his historic Nelson Mandela lecture in 2006. In his piece, Memela accosts intellectuals who have allowed themselves to be distracted by all that glitters, along the way abandoning the society they had taken a personal pledge to unconditionally serve.

The purpose of any intellectual in any society is to conceive – if not critically question –ideas and concepts that propel the community of that society forward. Such a task demands that an individual should be disciplined, above political and economic agendas and of a moral character that is symmetrically erect. They cannot be seduced by materials and power, because weakness for earthly temptations leads to negligence of duty and intellectual dishonesty. Unfortunately the intellectuals that Memela writes about have allowed themselves to be tempted and seduced by earthly possessions, thus compromising themselves and their society. Having commodified their cerebral gifts, our intellectuals have outsourced their brains to the highest bidder. It is as if they took a glance at their fellow South Africans, and upon seeing them consume gluttonously at the temple of all that glitters, they asked themselves: why should we starve in the name of integrity and honesty when it is a free for all?

Observing this weakness in character in the part of South Africa’s fallen intellectuals, Sandile Memela took an exception. He says: ‘Since the money worshipping and status loving dynamics of South African society reduce everyone into a tool or consumer of the over-glorified capitalist products, the intellectuals have an incestuous relationship with power which makes them wary of fulfilling their historical mission which, presumably, is to be conscience of the nation. Instead of intellectuals – including the creatives such as musicians, writers, fashion designers and filmmakers, for instance – gravitating towards the poor and oppressed, they have succumbed to the lure of the moneyed class and what they have to offer.’

What Memela writes about is a great concern, for while Mbeki’s thesis might have observed the South African populace in general, Memela’s diagnosis is critical in that it looks at a special class of people whose vocation places upon their shoulders the responsibility and duty to guide society in critical thought and innovation. Any nation that has no disciplined and honest scholars and intellectuals is bound to remain static and stagnant, if not regress, while other nations pace ahead in one direction: forward. To echo my statement, note how the former president opened his lecture in 2006: ‘I believe I know this as a matter of fact, that the great masses of our country everyday pray that the new South Africa that is being born will be a good, a moral, a humane and a caring South Africa, which, as it matures, will progressively guarantee the happiness of all its citizens.’ A ‘good, a moral, a humane and a caring South Africa’ that Mbeki spoke of is the one which he believed would be propelled forward by critical ideas conceived by our leading intellectuals; instead ‘they have succumbed to the lure of the moneyed class and what they have to offer.’

A mere glance on social networks is testament that ours is a nation that has come to perceive material accumulation as the core of a just and good life. Facebook and Instagram are the public stages where pictures of untamed consumption are posted at dizzying speeds, creating a subliminal impression that if you never post anything of the sort, then you are not normal. Anyone who dares to comment about ideas that outlive us all and guarantee a sustainable future is frowned upon. Personal enrichment, by any means necessary, has come to define who we are as human beings. Our so-called plastic celebrities with their limited imagination have been roped in to help perpetuate the scam in exchange for a quick buck.

Mbeki was correct when he stated the following: ‘Thus, every day, and during every hour of our time beyond sleep, the demons embedded in our society, that stalk us at every minute, seem always to beckon each one of us towards a realisable dream and nightmare. With every passing second, they advise, with rhythmic and hypnotic regularity – get rich! get rich! get rich! And thus has it come about that many of us accept that our common natural instinct to escape from poverty is but the other side of the same coin on whose reverse side are written the words – at all costs, get rich!’

On how low our intellectuals have fallen from grace, Sandile had more to add: ‘Among the creative intellectuals who should articulate new thoughts and reflect the soul of the nation there is, instead, an intense competition for acknowledgement and recognition to join the ranks of the economic elite.’

While one could previously find comfort in knowing that even though most of us had become slaves of materialism, going as far as auctioning our souls for all that glitters because we had come to believe that personal wealth equals to respectability and status in society, we still had our intellectuals to guide the way. It has been a disappointing revelation over the years to learn that even our supposed ‘thinkers’ could not stand firm against the parasite of greed and nauseating worship of materials. Some of them, for they have long buried their conscience, have even re-branded themselves as ‘analysts’; and depending on the ideology of the pied piper, they are only happy to spew sophisticated nonsense dressed as ‘objective analysis’ in exchange for money to afford a Range Rover and a house in Kayalami. Our last line of defense – our intellectuals – has abandoned the barricades to chase after money and artificial status. What a shame! Kgotsong!


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