Much has been said about South Africa’s economic situation in recent months. Even more has been written about the underlying ills that explain everything from protests at universities to the persistent poverty in the former homelands. This piece by Raymond Suttner, a principled intellectual who paid a heavy price – seven years in jail – for his political activities during apartheid, perhaps best exemplifies the tomes of op-ed pieces trying to make sense of the situation.

And then Dan de Kadt*, an MIT student in Political Science, wrote the following on Facebook in response to the Suttner piece:

In my opinion this is the type of article we need fewer of in South Africa. Not because Raymond Suttner is fundamentally “wrong”, but because this article is a platitudinous summary of what we already know. And somehow it even gets the summary wrong, by being deeply non-empirical.

1) Pretty much everyone who is not a racist bigot (e.g. all those white folks posting on “White Genocide” groups or commenting on News24) knows that South Africa is still living through the legacies of Apartheid – political, sociological, economic, geographic, etc. The structural challenges facing people in South Africa clearly cut along race lines, and the consequences of that are deeply troubling. Egregious inequality, limited inter-generational mobility, social violence, state violence, etc, all following racial lines. It is anecdotally obvious, and empirically obvious too, if you bother to look at actual data.

But understand that the racist bigots aren’t going to change their opinions because of the nth article stating these facts, no matter how well written or persuasive it is. Trying to convince Apartheid dinosaurs is a fruitless (and actually unnecessary) enterprise.

2) While the above claims are undeniable, they are also stylized – they are generalizations and simplifications. As Suttner points out, a lot of progress has been made since 1994. But then he turns around and says things like “Black people’s life opportunities are little different from that of their parents.” On average, that’s simply false for any reasonable definition of “little different”. And it’s obviously false if you just look at the (slow, but real) emergence of the black middle class, a group that tends to be young and upwardly mobile. There’s ample census and labour force data that backs this up – for black South Africans there is better inter-generational mobility now than before, and income and wealth are slowly (far too slowly) being redistributed to the emerging urban black middle class.

The same is true of many many things in post-1994 South Africa. Electricity, water, sewerage, refuse collection access? Virtually non-existent for black South Africans in 1994, much more existent now. If you actually bother to look for it, we have the data needed to examine where the country is failing and where it is not, where Apartheid persists, and where it does not. That is what we need from our public intellectuals, rather than endless repetitive platitudes about how “things are essentially the same”.

3) The failure to recognize this subtler empirical reality means that Suttner fails to capture emergent intra-race class cleavages. There are indeed many young black South Africans whose opportunities/lives are as limited/horrifying as their parents’ were. But these are, for the most part, not students at universities (certainly not UCT). They are, for the most part, not the people participating in RMF or FMF. They are the children of some 17 million exclusively black (read almost half) South Africans who are still forced to live in, essentially, Apartheid-era Bantustans, the only parts of the country where service provision is systematically worse now than it was in 1996. They are the children who eagerly went to school in grade 1 only to find their teacher absent 3/5 days a week. They are that young man on the trash heap while Gareth and Dali walk by laughing. An entirely contrary reading of the RMF/FMF movement is that it is an expression of the emergent black middle class, and its ignoring of (not to say dislike of, or indifference to) the plight of those who remain “below” them. Free university? For whom, the 5%?

4) What this country needs is intellectuals who write articles that explain how to FIX the legacies we’ve inherited. Suttner gives us a brief paragraph about how “we could have done better” on NSFAS because “other places have”. Like where!? Tell us!? That’s valuable f*cking information! Problems in the education system limit black South Africans prospects? No sh*t! Now, please tell us how you think we should fix it, or at least start a debate about how to fix it, preferably one based on actual evidence.
There are so many brilliant minds in this country, and so many brilliant ideas worldwide about how to address the kinds of problems we face. Our problems are not unique. But all we deserve, it seems, is yet another article from a celebrated public intellectual telling us what’s wrong (and with little empirical evidence to back it up, to boot).

Diagnosing the ills of South Africa in broad strokes is, to be honest, extremely straightforward. Apartheid makes it so. What we need are bright minds and public intellectuals leading empirically grounded debates about policy and about how to fix the problems we (smart/not-bigoted people) know exist.

Yes, yes, and yes! First, this is why South Africa’s best and brightest students should study fields (and equip themselves with tools) that will allow them to address these serious questions. Second, we need to expect more of our public intellectuals. A research paper or policy document or even an op-ed cannot simply be a few bundled ideas and theories without empirical proof. Third, there is way too much emphasis in South Africa on who says something, rather than what is being said. Science should be anonymous. Regardless of the nationality, gender or religion of the scientists, if results are falsifiable and repeatable, then they are all that matters. This is not entirely the case in the social sciences, because the real world is not a laboratory. But empirically-grounded research where social scientists analyse large data sets of household earnings, voter behaviour or race relations, for example, depend less on who is doing the research and more on what is being done. To use one example: we don’t care about the nationality, gender or religious orientation of the researcher who showed that less than 9% of South Africans use state-sponsored public transport (trains and buses) to get to work. Instead, we care about what this finding tells us about the inefficient transport system in South Africa, and the policies that could best fix it. I accept that not all research is quantitative, and that not everything can be reflected in numbers. (I’m an economic historian; sometimes numbers just don’t exist.) But what we should be cautious of is opinion (i.e. arguments not grounded in empirics). The ease of publication these days means that opinion often gets more attention than it deserves.

Dan’s last sentence is therefore indeed very important, so let me repeat it: What we need are bright minds and public intellectuals leading empirically grounded debates about policy and about how to fix the problems we know exist.

Can South Africa’s empirically-minded public intellectuals please stand up?

*I asked Dan’s permission to quote him. I tried to cut, but it was all just very good, and very valid. Thanks Dan.