…An exemplary public intellectual
GOOD writers do not exist. There has never been a good writer anywhere, anytime.
What has always existed are good readers that, on their breaks from good reading, write. And so do they write well because in the first place they are good readers.
Such a good reader was Alex Tawanda Magaisa. His bewitching prose that he accompanied with penetrating analysis of political phenomenona, and vehement argumentation were fruits of good reading.
Magaisa did not only read between the covers of ancient classics of politics, literature, and philosophy. Or did he only devour latest academic journals and book volumes. He also read the ways and means of men and women of flesh and blood.
He observed vices and virtues of people high up on the thrones of political power and down low in the pathways of the village. Many years of university education and intellectual elevation did nothing to kill the villager in Magaisa. Education took Magaisa out of the village, but not the village – the people – out of him. It is in that way that Magaisa became a true Machiavellian. As a true Machiavellian he understood the ways of rulers, especially the misrulers, because he was one with the common people.
He clearly understood the ways of the common people because he was a trained mind, a well-read thinker, who was one amongst the princes. As a true Machiavellian, the epigrammatic force of his writing commanded the admiration of his many followers and even that of political adversaries, and even enemies who for very long wished him dead.
Magaisa’s wide and deep reading that made him excellent at thinking and writing was not based on love of knowledge as most of us seem to believe. No. The love for knowledge is a specific luxury that is enjoyed by privileged and comfortable thinkers that at leisure can read and carry out thought experiments to flaunt around.
Magaisa was too troubled and troubling a thinker that read and wrote from a socially and politically purposed locus of enunciation. His political philosophy was not the easy love of wisdom but the demanding wisdom of love in a country where political love and tolerance were long abolished.
As such, Magaisa did not love knowledge, but he feared ignorance and sought to escape it by all means necessary. Means that included voracious reading, attentive viewing of movies and documentaries, listening to professors and peasants in equal measure and respect.
Yes, before being a prolific writer with lucid prose, Magaisa was a committed reader, attentive listener and industrious observer with aggressive attention to details, big and small.
Good readers can also be very dangerous personages who can use their cerebral capacity to make big ideas small and small ideas big because in their writing they do not merely describe the existing world, but can also build some worlds that did not exist and make them real, and then expertly traffic the unsuspecting into the citizenship of false worlds.
Fortunately, Magaisa was no such builder of false worlds. He was a real reader and observer of the real world, its heroes and villains, and used empirical evidence to fortify his observations and opinions. He was notorious at evidentiation.
Again, it was his fear of falsehoods and other fragile ideas that made him respect facts and other empirical detail.
Just not enough, but a lot has been published on Magaisa, his work and life, since his untimely passing.
My part is not to repeat details about Magaisa’s birth in Chikomba and education at various institutions because those details are in the public domain, as the man himself was a fellow about town and village. I resist the powerful temptation to recite the story of a village boy from Chikomba who, through hard work, ended up a formidable professor of law at Kent University in the United Kingdom.
I insist on interpreting Magaisa’s vocation as an exemplary public intellectual and one whose work will live long after him. The thinking world is the poorer without Magaisa as it remains rich with the wealth of thoughts, insights and ideas he leaves behind.
His life and works will remain a script that, like actors, the young and the old will remain behind rehearsing in pursuit of a new and free Zimbabwe. A Zimbabwe that will one day be liberated from the native colonialism of a corrupt and genocidal political establishment.
In reading on and pondering the political condition of Zimbabwe, and writing of the same, Magaisa became an intellectual that was “thinking in dark times” – in the apt words of another public intellectual, Hannah Arendt.
Thinking in dark times, by reflecting on the decline of Zimbabwe, exposing corruption and calling tyranny to account is dangerous intellectual business and that is why Magaisa died as an exile who could not visit home in fear for his life in a country where political opponents are abducted, disappeared, poisoned and assassinated in all manner of genocidal ways.
In 2016, one of Zimbabwe’s leading intellectuals and researchers, Professor Blessing-Miles Tendi, captured the voice of “a senior figure in the security establishment” who said in Zimbabwe “military intelligence made technical changes. They imported special poisons from Kazakhstan, which work on you over two or three years so that it looks like some other disease. Military Intelligence imported state-of-the-art digital equipment to monitor phones. Magaisa was only too aware of the evils of the political establishment that poisoned opponents and enemies, in the political opposition and the ruling regime itself.
Many Zimbabweans are not aware that the many political figures, in the opposition and the ruling party, who died of cancers, diabetes, multiple organ collapse and other seemingly natural causes died of engineered diseases. A slow but sure decimation of political enemies proceeds in the country that Magaisa loved, thought about, and wrote of.
The Public Intellectual and the Fox
Magaisa belonged to that tribe of thinkers, a minority, called public intellectuals. The “public” part of their title refers to active interest in public affairs, politics and social justice.
On the global stage one can count the obvious intellectual giants like Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and the feminist philosopher, Linda Martin Alcoff, among many others.
There are many intellectuals out there, but not so many public intellectuals. Magaisa belonged to that distinct tribe of committee thinkers and activists that want to change the world for the better and deployed their intellect towards that political vocation.
Of the intellectuals there are not so many types in actuality. What are many are everyday academics, the creatures of routine and university workers who read, write and teach to tick the professional boxes and earn promotions and that is it. Some of them can even achieve some fame for it.
There are also scholars (who might double up as academics), they use their scientific training to carry out research and publish novel research observations, discoveries and interpretations of phenomenona and society itself.
There are also journalists, not simple reporters, but analysts that collect, process and interpret information, they journalise.
All these can be what they are, academics, scholars and journalists, but still not intellectuals.
In one person, Magaisa collapsed together the work of a scholar, academic, journalist and the intellectual, a public intellectual, and a compelling political philosopher. In that way Magaisa was a political institution.
The public intellectuals have not only pondered public affairs and deployed social and political activism, but they have also named and described themselves and their work.
For the work that they do beyond reading, thinking, teaching and writing they have asked for their share of legitimacy and integrity in the world academy and media.
Public intellectuals, in the categorisation of Alcoff, are often the figures from “embattled” backgrounds for whom matters of “community responsibility and accountability loom large”.
The public intellectuals, in the observation of Alcoff, carry themselves as “permanent critics” of status quo, “popularisers of political causes” and “public theorists” who interpret politics and law for populations in their “embattled” countries.
Magaisa discharged all these exalted duties of the public intellectual like missionary duty. He distilled complex legal and political concepts and served them to the populace in clear and simple prose.
In writing, Magaisa was simple without being simplistic. The simplicity of his language was an art that did not conceal, but revealed the sophistication, depth and his political thought.
In argument, he could be a one-man majority that Professor Jonathan Moyo has described as a “fierce interlocutor” and an “indefatigable contributor” to public discourse and affairs.
Writing of himself and other public intellectuals, Edward Said, who concerned himself amongst other causes with the question of Palestine, described the public intellectuals as those who take the responsibility to “speak truth to power”.
Through his writings Magaisa spoke legal and political truths to the native colonialist and genocidal regime in Harare, and he did so with aphoristic prose that was iconoclastic in the way he exposed the moral poverty of powerful men and women, the evil and native colonialism of those whose claim to political fame and power is having participated in the liberation of Zimbabwe, only to capture the state and loot it into an empty shell; a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been as Frantz Fanon would say.
Magaisa haunted “the regime and its enablers” with stubborn legal and political truths as much as he alerted the Zimbabwean populace to crimes and irregularities of those that have remained in power through a combination of force, fraud and pure evil.
He doggedly unmasked, lampooned and satirised the regime in Harare, including the political opposition and civil society, using language that was as artful as it was candid and earnest. He was prophetic, not in the cheap sense of predicting events and calamities, but in the deep sense of interpreting political realities and rendering them transparent to the hoi polloi.
As an observer and thinker on public affairs Magaisa was foxy. Foxy in the sense in which Isaiah Berlin described how “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing”.
Magaisa understood and knew many things. He thought of and understood issues freely, but also openly, open for counterarguments and to be convinced otherwise, which is a quality of most good readers that end up as good thinkers and excellent writers.
The polymathic thinker that he was did not privilege Magaisa with the arrogance of pretending to provide answers for every question. On some contentious public issues WaMagaisa would bring himself forward to pose questions on issues and ask to be informed.
That was the humility of a public intellectual, not a vanguard intellectual, but a rearguard one who was prepared to think with and learn from the populace if he could not supply elevated wisdom. He was a foxy Machiavellian student that so feared ignorance to the extent that he would not lose an opportunity to be educated. That is exactly the reason why Magaisa took reading, listening and observing seriously.
For foxy Machiavellians, reading and studying are religious matters. In a letter of 10 December 1513, addressed to his friend Ambassador Francesco Vettori, exiled Niccolo Machiavelli described the relish of his reading habit: “when evening comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions and they, out of their human kindness, answer me.”
I have no doubt that Magaisa washed himself and dressed up for reading sessions that, like a foxy public intellectual and political philosopher, he handled like religious rituals.
I also have no doubt that Magaisa did not only read ancient and modern philosophers, but conversed and debated with them. The acquisition of knowledge as a necessity only comparable to eating food is a habit of foxy Machiavellians.
Over and above, Magaisa had the intellectual attribute of a storyteller, a griot that boasted what can only be called narrative prowess. An argumentative warrior that never turned his back on intellectual combat which he carried with a permanent smile that only WaMagaisa could wear.
Magaisa: The Thing Itself, No Hero
Figures like Magaisa, because of the width and depth of their work and its impacts, tend to become living institutions and systems. To locate the Magaisa of actuality and essence, what Plato called “the thing itself” that is different from its imitations can be a task.
In public discourse, especially that which concerned Zimbabwe, Magaisa became a phenomenon and a larger-than-life figure, a political and intellectual quantity. At the University of Kent where he taught, he was called “incredibly gifted” and a “kind” scholar who was a “formidable academic writer”.
In the social media he was a cultic object and subject that commanded a telling following of multitudes. Yet, an observer like myself and one who knew Magaisa and frequently conversed with him cannot call Magaisa a hero without feeling that I am subtracting something from his integrity.
In Zimbabwean affairs, especially, the word hero has become a political dirty word that all manner of villains have been given as a name and buried with it. Because murderers and thieves have been called heroes in Zimbabwe heroism has been given a bad name and soiled.
For the love of his country and the political commitment to it, Magaisa would have easily answered to the name of patriot in a normal country. But in Zimbabwe patriot is a political label that has come to refer to regime partisans, fanatics and what Magaisa himself referred to as “regime enablers” that support the political status quo for personal reasons and easy benefits.
Regime enablers, in Zimbabwe, include regime scholars, journalists, businesspeople, enterprising flatterers and sycophants that sing for their breakfast, lunch and supper in one tragic song.
In Zimbabwe, patriotism has indeed become a refuge for scoundrels that have destroyed the country.
Magaisa was a tragic optimist who knew how bad things had gone in Zimbabwe, but still retained faith in that the country can, with some legal and political will, be recovered from native colonialism that has normalised leadership failure, corruption, incompetence and murder.
As Oscar Wilde would say, Magaisa perhaps always optimistically thought: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Well, you reached for the stars in your rather short, but amazing life Alex Tawanda Magaisa and left a legacy of active citizenry and compelling, as well as empowering public intellectual engagement with society, including elites and the ordinary folk out there alike.
Rest in Power, Musaigwa. Until we meet beyond the stars.
About the writer: Dr William Jethro Mpofu is a Zimbabwean-born researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in South Africa.