Interview with Professor Sipho Seepe, scientist and newspaper columnist

Just because the ANC fought for democracy does not mean it is immune from turning into an oppressor itself.

Where did you grow up?
I was born in Soweto in 1959 and grew up there, the eldest of three boys. My father was murdered when I was nine. I don't know the exact circumstances; it was too painful to inquire about. My mother supported us by working in a hospital - the Brenthurst Clinic in Park Lane. My grandfather died violently too - I remember accompanying my grandmother to the spot where he had been killed to clean his blood from the street. Then one of my brothers was stabbed to death in 1985 when I was in America.

Soweto has always been a violent place and the political turf battles in the seventies and eighties fed off that violence. Now criminals are running amok and I can see parallels between the two eras. Politicians with their bodyguards try to deny that crime is getting worse, but this is a subject everyone is talking about. Earlier this year my brother Jimmy, the political editor of City Press, was shot four times during a hijacking. Despite the fact that we have handed in information about the robbery and that his cell phone was used subsequently, the police have failed to apprehend the culprits.

Significantly, because of Jimmy's job, some neighbours immediately assumed that the hijacking was an assassination attempt. We know it was not, and that the police are just incompetent, but it scares me that it is easy to get rid of people you don't agree with in such an environment. The ANC has a history of violence against its rivals and in exile it developed a culture of intolerance. Reprisals were taken against people for speaking out; this has not been forgotten.

You have studied at three universities - Unibo, Wits and Harvard - so you did not miss out on education like many others of your generation.
I took part in many of the marches in the seventies protesting against Bantu education and other apartheid measures and I still have lead pellets in my body as a result. Yet, ironically, despite all the criticisms of Bantu education, I think the standard of education we received then was much higher than what I see today. The elementary errors that students make in grammar or arithmetic were addressed at primary level when I was at school. People's appreciation of the importance of education was also higher; excellence and achievement were the focus. Poverty or harsh conditions were never an excuse for not learning - people studied even if they were in prison.

I applied for bursaries and went to the University of Bophuthatswana, which had just opened, because it had the lowest fees. Lucas Mangope, with the help of apartheid government money, wanted to make the homeland a model. Unibo was full of idealism and enthusiasm - this was before the onset of the repressive atmosphere that was later to characterise Mangope's reign. I had high quality teachers who had studied abroad: my physics supervisor was a Harvard graduate, for example. Later I went to Wits, which was very difficult for me socially, being part of a minority, but the education was extremely rigorous. My teachers were totally committed to their subjects.


What were your major political influences?
Growing up in Soweto exposed one to all forms of repression and this made one politically aware. Black Consciousness (BC) as a philosophy resonated with my own daily experience. Steve Biko said we must be our own liberators. He pointed out how the majority colluded in their own oppression and how the state's reliance on force was a sign of weakness, not strength. In his analysis, black on black violence was the result of our displaced aggression and it needed to be channelled into positive action. It was an affirming philosophy that was not anti-white but anti the system. In fact apartheid was unfair on whites too, because it gave them a false sense of superiority. The level of debate within the black consciousness movement was very high - in schools, universities and many publications. The vibrancy of civil society then, with its emphasis on communities helping themselves, seems to have been lost.


What happened to that vibrancy?
Once the ANC and other parties were unbanned, people started to cast their eyes to their leaders, whether in prison or exile. Instead of relying on themselves they waited for the leaders to deliver. After 1994 people who attempted to sustain the former level of debate or challenge the thinking of the president or the ANC were labelled as being "anti-transformation". This silencing of criticism is not an African tradition - that idea is a distortion of our society's traditional respect for its elders. My own experience in the BC movement proves how critical discussion can thrive. To stave off criticism and silence its critics, the ANC has deliberately confused criticism with undermining "national interest". We need to strengthen democratic institutions, entrench democracy and a non-racial society. President Mandela himself was in favour of open debate and discussion and would have been the best person to take the tradition of debate forward, but he bowed to the party on this matter.


Your "No Blows Barred" columns in the Mail & Guardian are often very critical of President Thabo Mbeki. Why?
Mbeki's political authority has been confused with intellectual authority. This has led to a situation where Mbeki conflates and confuses his political authority with intellectual authority. He needs to be liberated from this misconception. Nelson Mandela was always going to be a hard act to follow, so it was necessary to package his successor by bringing some new qualities to the presidency. Mbeki certainly had not suffered more or contributed to the struggle more than other leaders, so the media packaged him as an intellectual, a diplomat and as someone who could talk to business. He has thus far failed to meet the challenge. He has displayed an intellectual dishonesty - misrepresenting the sources of his quotations and quoting out of context. He is superficial and contradictory. At times he displays the arrogance of not knowing that he does not know. An intellectual is someone who is persuaded by the evidence and who has the humility to know when he does not know something. Mbeki failed at the first test.

White academics such as Professor David Attwell of the University of Natal and Professor Patrick Bond of Wits were the first to question Mbeki's intellectual standing. Attwell wrote an article in the Sunday Independent showing how Mbeki had misrepresented Disraeli in his "two nations" speech. In his novel Sybil, Or the Two Nations, Disraeli addressed class division in the context of racial and cultural unity. Mbeki talks about race. Disraeli's thesis is an appeal for unity and a sense of common purpose, a point lost in Mbeki's version of race, which is not only politically divisive but has the effect of entrenching disunity.

In the Frantz Fanon Memorial lecture at the University of Durban-Westville, Patrick Bond exposed Mbeki's intellectual confusion. He pointed out that while Mbeki cites the likes of Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, Walter Rodney, and Malcom X, he failed to realise that, unlike himself, these intellectuals would have called for revolution against, not reform of, the Washington-centred world economy. Either he has misread them or he has misunderstood them. In the correspondence between himself and Mbeki on HIV/Aids, Tony Leon exposed a frightening intellectual dishonesty by a head of state. In it Mbeki quotes from some journal or body of research and then he cuts off the inconvenient parts of the quote that contradict his argument. These critics were questioning the central platform of the Mbeki package - his intellectual standing. I believe this is one of the reasons why the president has focused on the issue of racism: it is a way of silencing his critics.


Hasn't the president also criticised black intellectuals?
Yes. At the same time that white intellectuals were exposing Mbeki's methods, the president was attacking black intellectuals. In an interview with the Sunday Times Mbeki accused them of not reading books, which I see as a projection of his own inadequacies. If he really were an intellectual he would surround himself with the best educated and most intelligent people. Instead he has sidelined guys with brains like Pallo Jordan, Cyril Ramaphosa, and Matthews Phosa in favour of loyalists.


You have been scathing about the president's view that poverty rather than HIV is the cause of Aids.
No scientist has ever denied that conditions such as poverty, malnutrition, TB and infectious diseases may aggravate or contribute to the spread of HIV, but there is no evidence that these conditions singly or in combination lead to the progressive depletion of CD 4+ cells. HIV attacks these cells and that leads to immune deficiency. This is the best scientific explanation of Aids that we currently have.

I am a physicist not a medical scientist, and I listen to the experts in the field. Of course scientists can be wrong, but they are usually corrected by other scientists, not by a politician with no training in science. When someone is as stubborn as the president about a field he is not expert in, it makes one wonder how reliable his opinions are in the areas he is supposed to know about - such as economics. According to Mbeki's Millennium Africa Recovery Plan (MAP) the continent is supposed to be taking the lead in its own development. It does not inspire any confidence that the plan was launched in Davos in Switzerland. It is as if it had to be approved first by our colonial masters. This probably explains why Mbeki spends his time handing round the begging bowl in the West. This is the opposite of self-reliance.


What do you think about the situation in Zimbabwe?
You would have to be blind to say that there was no violence before last year's elections and that it was not used to intimidate the population. But for that intimidation it is quite clear the opposition would have won - though even if Mugabe were a great leader, I still think he should go now because I don't believe that leaders should outstay their welcome. Mbeki supports Mugabe because he regards him as a comrade-in-arms. It is an ominous indication of where South Africa is heading.


Where is South Africa heading?
We can already see the increasing centralisation of power, which is a threat to democracy and transparency. The Constitution demands that Parliament must have oversight of the executive. Only the ANC MP Andrew Feinstein seems to understand this and as a result his political career is threatened. The leadership can't trust the people to elect their own premiers or mayors. Trevor Ngwane of Pimville in Soweto, a former ANC councillor, was suspended for expressing his opposition to the iGoli 2002 plan.

It is obvious from the way appointments are made that it is not quality and qualifications but political expediency and how well you perform the toyi-toyi that count. The centre knows best and more and more power is accumulating around one person - the president. The late Mobutu Sesi Seko operated the same system in the Congo, which is scary. Just because the ANC fought for democracy and a democratic Constitution does not mean it is immune from turning into an oppressor itself. Africa is full of such examples.


Will the ANC be able to maintain its huge majority?
Before the last election I wrote an article in the Sowetan arguing that the ANC deserved to get a two-thirds majority. I was wrong about that. Now I think the party will be lucky to get 55 per cent at the next election. The ANC has failed in every major respect. The tensions in the alliance mean it cannot unite its own people; its economic policy has not worked; job creation targets have not been achieved, and there is a consistent attack on the institutions of democracy and a disregarding of the electorate. I expect the Democratic Alliance vote to grow among the black population, especially the educated and employed strata and anyone who can see beyond race.


You have taught at the University of Venda and are now rector of Vista's Sebokeng campus. What can be done about the crisis in the historically black universities (HBUs)?
Almost every top leader in this country has a first degree from an HBU and they played an important role, even if it was unintended, in providing isolated rural communities with access to education. After 1994, what Njabulo Ndebele, the vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, has called "transformania" turned good intentions into a form of madness. We have allowed the political expediency of transformation to take precedence over the role of an academic institution. Because students and workers are stakeholders they can have a greater influence over the appointment of vice-chancellors than the academics in senate. This does not happen at Wits and other historically white universities.

The government is quite right to ask about the condition of HBUs - falling student numbers mean that many of them are not viable - but its policy of university mergers lacks clarity. Confining institutional collaboration to geographical proximity makes no sense in the context of today's technology. Computer technology facilitates collaboration and the sharing of intellectual and academic resources across vast geographical distances. Harvard or Cambridge scholars could provide and transmit lectures to Vista campuses, for instance. South Africa could have a national university broken up into different campuses but sharing resources.


Do you see a lot of student hardship at Vista?
Students have always battled with fees and exams. I tell them: "If you do well we can assist you, but poverty does not entitle you to anything." But they have been brought up with the promise that if they voted for the ANC "the doors of learning" would open for them. I have to remind them that it is not government policy to provide free higher education. I encourage the students to link their votes with the subsequent conduct and priorities of the parties they vote for. This forces them to analyse political decisions that are taken on their behalf critically. While the government argues that it does not have infinite resources, we have seen funds being wasted on jamborees hosted by premiers and mayors. The same could be said of the decision to purchase the weapons of destruction.

Of course I see very genuine cases of hardship -with the economy shedding jobs many of their parents are unemployed. I understand their problems, but I still tell them they must work hard and apply for bursaries. Many don't bother to apply. I think they look at the way political appointments are made and get the message that education is not important. Take Gauteng premier, Mbhazima Shilowa, who it appears has been rewarded more for his political loyalty than for his intellectual independence or educational achievement. When the Democratic Party in the Gauteng legislature asked Shilowa for his view on HIV/Aids he replied that whatever the president's view was, was his view too. I find it racist when white people try to justify these mediocre appointments in terms of the country's history of oppression. They are prepared to apply lower standards to such people than they would apply to themselves.

But isn't the history of oppression the justification for the equality legislation and affirmative action in appointments?
The political appointments referred to above have nothing to do with past injustices. They have more to do with ensuring that the leader is surrounded with mediocre and sycophantic individuals. In addressing the legacy of the past, and to respond to issues related to representivity, we need to put in place programmes aimed at equipping black people with requisite knowledge and skills. In appointments we should be seeking people who are suitably qualified and who have displayed great potential. Appointing persons who are mediocre will not advance the cause of black people. If anything it will undermine, frustrate and denigrate our commitment to black excellence.

Unlike the US, where the concept of affirmative action originates, we have many highly qualified black South Africans who were sidelined by the previous regime. Unfortunately these individuals continue to be marginalised and sacrificed on the altar of political expediency in the new dispensation. In cases where one is faced with equally competent and qualified candidates, one will show bias towards those from the historically disadvantaged groups.


Under your research interests you list exploring the cultural, social and political dimensions of mathematical and scientific knowledge and challenging the Eurocentrism that pervades research. Can you explain?
In teaching you proceed from the concrete to the abstract. The European textbooks I used as a child were often confusing. For example, I had to answer questions about snow, which I had never seen, and for years I thought the daffodils of Wordsworth's famous poem were birds. We need to make a decisive shift from our continued reliance on colonial educational tenets that often result in poor assimilation, and use of imported and culturally insensitive curricula. To teach science within a narrow context that excludes the learner's environment is to ignore what catalyses learning. This does not mean sacrificing intellectual and academic rigour. It involves unravelling the mathematical and scientific skills, knowledge and processes embedded in the indigenous technologies and cultural practices of the African majority. I believe that the key to unlocking the door that has prevented the masses from accessing mathematics, science and engineering lies in the exploitation of indigenous knowledge systems.

I do not however subscribe to the notion of African solutions for African problems. We should seek the best solutions, wherever they come from.