Watching, online, the moving memorial service at Wits in tribute to its late academic leader and latter-day parliamentarian, Belinda Bozzoli, induced an element of time travel.

Little wonder then that attending Bozzoli’s class was a form of intellectual shock therapy. Empathetic, witty and Kaftan-attired, she immersed us in “the development of underdevelopment” and other topics from the Marxist school of historiography — of which she was an expert proponent. Though her wide-eyed smile somewhat narrowed at the liberal nostrums I parroted, she did her class — left, liberal and right — the favour of never condescending in response to our undergraduate ramblings.

Bozzoli’s storied life was handsomely conveyed at the service and on the pages of this newspaper. It is also a reminder that one family — her father, vice-chancellor GR Bozzoli, husband historian Charles van Onselen, and of course her own decades of academic distinction — constituted about 50 years of intellectual leadership at Wits, and in profound ways shaped its character.

When Bozzoli arrived in the far less vigorous intellectual atmosphere of parliament in 2014, she could with her customary blend of wit and truth advise the DA, for which she was elected as an MP, that she was “the only Marxist in the caucus”. As with my early encounter with radicalism, this too was not an overcrowded space.

Yet there is a connection between her research and the texts she prescribed for our class in 1978 and her decision to enlist under the colours of the DA and not, for example, as a recruit for the ANC — theoretically at least a more congenial home for the Left.

The tribute offered by one of her colleagues, Prof Jonathan Hyslop, offers an insight. He noted that Bozzoli had little truck with “The SA Communist Party and large sections of the ANC”, who she considered “strongly influenced by Soviet doctrine with its mechanistic manner of thinking”. Her research was iron-cast, but her thinking was independent and evidence-led.

The impeccable Marxist economist Paul Baran was on our industrial sociology reading list. He wrote: “The desire to tell the truth is only one condition for being an intellectual. The other is courage, readiness to carry on rational inquiry wherever it may lead”, to avoid succumbing to “comfortable and lucrative conformity”. Perhaps that is why a freethinking and courageous “Marxist” such as Bozzoli felt more at home in the liberal DA than in the ostensibly socialist, but narrowly nationalistic, ANC.

Yet Bozzoli drew our attention to a key passage, still underlined in a fading red pencil in my notes: it serves as a bleak reminder of the past being very much alive in the party and parliament under the fist of the ANC: “The institutions of the state are progressively reduced to those of the president and his circle.”

Fanon noted how the leading posts in the bureaucracy are “entrusted to those from the leader’s tribe” (especially true under Jacob Zuma) and how “elections circulate the elite, contribute to the mystification of the voters, and thus help preserve the elite’s freedom to go on enriching itself without interference from below”.

Town club

And as for the governing party itself? Fanon acidly wrote, decades before decades of ANC rule settled here: “Nothing is left but the shell of a party, the name, the emblem and the motto.” Exactly true of Cyril Ramaphosa’s party, a mixture of internal factional intrigue and predatory interests.

Then there was Colin Leys’s contribution in his text, “Underdevelopment in Kenya”. He described “the real function” of that country’s 1970s parliament as “to serve as a town club for the politically active members of the petty-bourgeoisie”.

Bozzoli herself experienced precisely this aspect in 2019 SA, as she recorded in this newspaper on the workings of parliament’s committee system. Designed as the vaunted engine room of the legislature, she found something entirely different and utterly broken.

“The committee system has been effectively captured by the ruling party, the ANC, and there appears to be little chance that any ‘state capture’ commission will arise to expose and end the resulting travesty.’’

Bozzoli’s sharp-eyed analysis of the committee found something similar to Leys’s town-club definition of Kenya’s legislature 30 years ago: entrusted with overseeing a budget of R108bn and 110 entities, the committee blindly supported this budget “with little or no idea of what the situation is in many of its sub-budgets”. This, and a myriad other troubling issues were, she wrote, untroubling to ANC members of the committee.

“They fully support anything put in front of them … Items are rushed through simply to tick boxes. Any questioning of this is silenced or bulldozed through … nothing more than a merry-go-round, onto which ANC members hop to enjoy the ride for five years, while the government does as it wishes.”

In his heartfelt tribute to his mother, Bozzoli’s son, Gareth van Onselen, quoted the lament of philosopher AC Grayling: “A society which resents excellence is a society in trouble.”

Just how much trouble SA is in right now was demonstrated on the same day as the Bozzoli service, at a function presided over by chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. The head of our legal system was in full Trumpian mode, in a hysterical speech filled with anti-vaccination venom and intellectual gibberish. It is troubling, to put things politely, when any chief justice anywhere can say, as he did, “If there be any vaccine that is of the devil, meant to infuse triple-six in the lives of people, meant to corrupt their DNA, any such vaccine, Lord God Almighty, may it be destroyed by fire, in the name of Jesus.”

Also last week, in the Bundestag in Berlin, a far milder version of Mogoeng’s denialism was uttered by a member of its far-right movement, the AfD party. During Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech on the too-high number of Covid cases in Germany, he interjected: “This has not been scientifically proven.”

Merkel’s response: “I believe in the power of the Enlightenment … I decided to study physics in the GDR [Communist East Germany] because I was quite sure that one can doubt many things, but not gravity, not the speed of light, and other facts either. And that will continue to be true.”

Amen to that, cheers to Enlightenment thinkers everywhere, and happy holidays.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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