Are we becoming a nation of researchers, analysts and commentators?

Given the current economic and political climate that has engulfed the country, Vanessa Burger argues that South Africa is increasingly becoming a nation of researchers, analysts and commentators and this tendency is as destructive and parasitic as the politicians doing the damage.

Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa


As South Africa melts down politically and economically, with its attendant social implosion, a new species of parasite has entered the fray to suck from our suffering. This species is not as overtly predatory as the politicians, currently obsessed with ripping the heart out of what remains of our ‘constitutional democracy,’ but it can be no less ruthless or dangerous, particularly for poor communities.

We are increasingly becoming a nation of researchers, analysts and political commentators, many of whom share the same ethical deficiency as state representatives and monopoly capital of all shades.

This is not to say that positive, goal-based research, undertaken with sensitivity and integrity with the purpose of improving life, is not of critical importance to the development of a more just, enlightened, caring society and a more environmentally sustainable way of life.

I am referring to research for research’s sake; undertaken for zero, obscure, or often intangible purposes, that appears of little benefit to anyone but the individual academic, institution or organization directly involved.

Ordinary South Africans are increasingly becoming silent bystanders as our car-crash trajectory unfolds in the stratified atmosphere of those with position and power.

Yet the man in the street – who bears the physical impact of the political fallout – is increasingly disempowered as the fight for democracy, self-determination, independence and equality is removed from the streets and into our courts, lecture halls and think tanks’ plush ‘engagement’ venues.

We have researchers colonizing impoverished, besieged and often traumatised communities, to perform ‘evidence-based research’ and gather ‘empirical data’ to prove truths we already know, while in the process furthering their own academic careers, earning and funding potential.

Few of this breed of researchers have any real understanding or empathy for communities’ actual ‘lived experience’ as they like to call it, or the issues they set out to study. Their involvement at grassroots level, or interpretation further along academia’s feeding chain, can be very damaging, intrusive, traumatising and divisive for the communities concerned, while the ‘conclusions’ of their studies are often superficial.

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Sometimes, politicians or corporations exploit – or pay for – ‘independent’ research to justify the roll-out of unsustainable projects or environmentally destructive development for their own or their party’s benefit.

Community members are often heard saying: “We are sick and tired of these researchers coming into our communities and causing trouble just so they can get their degrees. We are not museums.”

Despite a certain large, well-funded international NGO’s stated human rights mandate, it will not however intervene or even officially condemn well-publicized, longstanding human rights abuses until its own researchers are deemed to have adequately and independently assessed the situation.

Its own members – who may be fully aware of these abuses – are compelled to distance themselves from their own organization before referring to the abuses in the public domain. Research may take years to complete, during which time, the suffering – even deaths – may continue, but they cannot be quantified or even recognized until an official entity tells us what we are seeing with our own eyes is in fact happening.

For what purpose then does the research and indeed, the organization, serve? If only to document the abuses without moving to end them, the NGO serves no purpose other than to replicate the work of investigative journalists.

We do not always need to examine the evidence to know a truth exists; nor can research ever be truly ‘independent’, especially if institutional funding is at stake. Organizations such as this therefore exist purely as an empty – or worse, destructive – brand, a tax write-off for wealthy international donors.

Research outcomes are rarely freely or affordably available to the public or accessible in terms that can be easily understood by those who may stand to gain knowledge or understanding from the subject matter researched. It therefore often exists in a vacuum, information solely for academics to pick over, analyze and reference in their own material – a self-perpetuating brain chain of supply and demand – an industry solely reliant on the suffering of others.

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And once research is completed it is then interpreted and explained to us by so-called ‘independent’ analysts and political commentators. We are told why, for example, certain human rights abuses are taking place and who may be perpetrating them.

The impact is neatly packaged in sanitized statistics so we don’t have to deal with messy human emotions. But no individual exists without their own agenda, be it political affiliation, historical experience, or individual opinion, so an ‘independent’ analyst is no more impartial than an ‘objective’ researcher. Gone are the days it seems of real witness testimonies. Grassroots voices and concerns are all too often stifled, misinterpreted or irrelevant issues amplified to serve a particular agenda or fit important funders’ requirements.

There is big money to be made from assessing South Africa’s collective trauma and current transition from a repressive authoritarian state to a democratic wannabee and onwards to kleptocracy.

Development agencies, investors and foreign governments pay a premium to be told what the populace are thinking and feeling.

Large, sometimes pro-government or state-funded NGOs or think tanks regularly platform these opinion-makers to “help us make sense of what is going on around us” or “broaden our understanding” of particular issues with a view to perhaps “deepening democracy” – as if we aren’t aware of the impact junk status, entrenched corruption, endemic unemployment, grinding poverty and an increasingly indifferent government is having on our daily lives. And democracy has to exist before it can be deepened; for millions of us, it still doesn’t.

And so we have this increasingly strange phenomenon where, apart from parachuting a few sought after commentators to fame and fortune, these ‘discourses’ and the research from which they are so often drawn serve little purpose but to widen the gulf in our social understanding, undermine real solidarity and weaken support for any effective, practical, community-driven action that is so urgently needed to pull our nation back from the abyss.


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