Identity of the Intellectual: Part I

August 3, 2018


This feature is the first in an installment of three highlighting Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa fellows dedicated to removing an artificial divide that exists between academia and activism, or professional practice, as traditionally understood.

Identity of the Intellectual: Part I | Identity of the Intellectual: Part II | Identity of the Intellectual: Part III


Leigh-Ann Naidoo is in the business of breaking boundaries. She is the first openly gay Olympian from South Africa, joining the country’s beach volleyball team in Athens in 2004. She claims that aging anti-apartheid revolutionaries are “afraid of the future. And in an upending of traditional norms of “objectivity” in academia, she both studies and actively participates in South African student movements to lower fees and decolonize the university system.

Her research focuses primarily on the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements, the former of which began at the University of Cape Town in 2015 and called for the removal of a statue commemorating Cecil J. Rhodes. The campaigns have since evolved into a student movement across South Africa calling for the transformation of a university system that still harbors many lingering practices and prejudices of apartheid.

“Student resistance has been around for decades, but post-apartheid, this was probably the most significant large protest—in terms of numbers but also in terms of national connection. This was a moment where people across geographic space and across different university institutions united around something. And I think that caught the eye of everyone in South Africa,” she said.

A 2017-2018 Dissertation Completion fellow of the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa program, Naidoo is unique not in her fascination with the student protests—they have gripped both academics and the public alike—but in her active participation in them.

“The label or category ‘activist’ has become a derogatory term in academia. If you are an activist, you therefore are not able to do academic work, or somehow your academic work is tainted because you’re so deeply invested in it. Those are some of the arguments I’ve heard and read,” she noted.

But Naidoo isn’t sold.

“For me,” Naidoo explained, “intellectual work is being honest about the fact that it isn’t objective in the way we originally thought that it was. I don’t think that being passionate about changing injustice necessarily equates to a lowering of academic standards or the possibility of theorizing.”

More interesting than the division between academic and activist work in the academy is what Naidoo sees as its socio-political roots. “I think part of it comes from the fact that activism is associated with action, and there has been this division of labor historically in the capitalist system that says: those who think are superior, get paid more, are valued more. Those who do—especially if you do menial work—are devalued, are less able to think and so on. So that is a long and old story.”

But Naidoo strives to make clear that “thinking” and “doing,” as understood through this lens of early capitalism, are not mutually exclusive. “No one is doing without thinking,” she said, “and no one is thinking without their thinking having political and practical implication in the world.”

Both “doing” and “thinking” are vital to Naidoo’s identity as an intellectual. Not only is she revolutionizing the commodification of university outputs—through projects such as PUBLICA[C]TION—she is also “challenging what the university is and also thinking about questions of racism and anti-racist work, questions around gender and sexuality, [and] questions around access to higher education. All of these things are specific to a university context,” Naidoo says, “but can be expanded into broader society.”

For, as Naidoo states in PUBLICA[C]TION, "It isn’t what is said but what is done that reveals the world. Action is what matters."