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Thursday, July 18, 2024

Public Intellectualism By Prof Danwood M Chirwa


Onjezani Kenani has through his status, now deleted, alerted me to the fact that the piece I posted yesterday has generated much disquiet back home including insults. This is what all new administrations and their most enthusiastic supporters do. Ask Bingu (his ghost or spirit), Joyce or Peter and their cadets. The piece was precisely meant to be provocative to the new administration and supporters because I believe that the first moments of an administration set the tone for the rest.

I found the comments on Kenani’s now removed post most intriguing. They raise the question of the role of academics in everyday state business.There’s something in academic jargon called ‘public intellectualism’, not yet understood in Malawi but well known and practiced in all functional democracies.

This jargon stands for efforts that academics invest in to bridge the gap between theory and practice, so that what is thought and theorized in the literature has an impact in real life.Public intellectualism involves risk taking and speaking truth to power fearlessly. Professors of law are by definition public figures, duty bound to engage in matters of constitutionalism and democratic praxis, which means that when they delve into the realm of political-legal commentary, they lend themselves to criticism as much as politicians do.

Even in the traditional work of scholarship and professing, to be an academic is to be subjected to critical review. I remember one master’s of law student from Nigeria whom I supervised in 2009 who wrote a thesis criticizing an article I had published. The entire thesis was a different take on my article, I supervised the work and she passed (marked by an external examiner) with distinction. PhD students are worse at rebelling against their mentors! That’s what we promote.

I must be the first to admit that matters of state craft do not lend themselves to one point of view but there are some shared principles that cannot be breached. These are normally codified in the constitution. There must be enough intellectual discourse in order to advance the progress of democratization and constitutionalism. I’m afraid that due to the lack of a critical mass of the scholarly community in Malawi, the country doesn’t benefit much from informed opinion makers, which partly contributes to a sense of complacency and mediocrity that accounts for much of the pathetic state of political and socio-economic development.

As those that have followed my public intellectualism from the time of Bingu, Banda, Mutharika and now Chakwera will attest, I by choice use the provocative method and some degree of hyperbole.

This suits my upbringing from some lakeshore on that beautiful lake where every Jim and Jack thinks there are king in their own right.It doesn’t mean I’m always right, and I’ve got some things wrong, as some have rightly pointed out. But as a general rule it is better to be wrong when acting in good faith than to be right when acting in bad faith.

To the new administration and avid supporters let me tell you I afford to speak from the high horse and piss off those in power and their supporters because I’ve spent a long time nurturing that horse. I will do this until by some turn of bad luck I fall from that horse, at which point someone else has to get on it and carry on. The more people who can do this the better.And so I appreciate the likes of Kenani who are similarly fearless and can speak truth to power. Thank you.

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