Former President Thabo Mbeki created the first memorable phrase in our political discourse for the year when he warned against the propagation of “false knowledge” by powerful forces, forces that largely control knowledge production in a world dominated by Western interests.
In a speech, delivered earlier this week at the Stellenbosch Business School, Mbeki seems to argue from a philosophical position that tries to marry very valid post-colonial concerns about the dominance of the world by Western-generated ideas promoted by a Western-centric media and Western military and political power, with insights from post-modern philosophy (in a decidedly Foucauldian turn) about the way in which our thoughts and actions are constrained by what we know and have the intellectual tools to think.
Mbeki quotes Donald Rumsfeld, who famously said:
Reports that say something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me because as we know, there are known knows: there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns: that is to say there are some things [we know] we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult one.
Of course, it is difficult not to read the speech as an intellectual justification for some of Mbeki’s more disastrous interventions during his time as President of South Africa, most notably his dabbling in Aids dissidence, which we all know did not turn out too well for the former President or for all those who subsequently died of Aids related illnesses after choosing not to take live-prolonging anti-retroviral drugs (or did not have money to obtain such drugs in the private health care sector).
Mbeki seems to believe that one can distinguish between three types of knowledge. First, he seems to believe in something he calls “objective reality” or “objective truths” – that which “can logically and independently be established as ‘the truth’”. This kind of knowledge, he argues, “might very well be at variance with what we as Africans know to be the ‘knowledge’ at our disposal”. In other words, what is generally accepted as “true” (HIV causes Aids; Gadaffi was a tyrant; South Africa has a high crime rate), might differ from what Africans experience to be true.
Second, the knowledge we think are at our disposal may very well constitute “false knowledge” which may not be in accordance with the “objective truth” – independently established as the truth. We nevertheless may think it is true because we are told that it is true by those who control the discourse through control of the media, the culture and the political landscape. Thus we may believe that Gaddafi was on the brink of slaughtering many civilians because he was reported to have warned those who resisted his rule that patriotic Libyans would “cleanse” Libya “house by house” from the rats and cockroaches supporting the uprising against him, but this is a “false knowledge” as he would not have followed through on his threats.
As I understand Mbeki’s speech, he believes that there is also a third kind of knowledge. This is knowledge that ordinary people have about their lives or that is being explored by “outside-the-box” thinkers (like Mbeki!), but which have neither been accepted as “objective truths” nor exposed as “false knowledge” yet. (I imagine for Mbeki this would include the idea that many young people die in South Africa in part because they are poor and malnourished, not necessarily because they have the HI virus – which, after all, cannot cause a syndrome.)
Regardless of whether one agrees with this taxonomy of truth and falsehood, it is difficult to find fault with Mbeki’s contention that knowledge is contested and that the terrain is intensely political – especially for us Africans who live in a world profoundly affected by the consequences of colonialism and the traces of colonialist thinking. It is also difficult to disagree with his plea for more openness and a more critical approach to knowledge production. Only a fool will form firm opinions about world affairs by only watching CNN or Sky News.
Mbeki argues that the “false knowledge”, the kind of knowledge that we just know we know but has not been independently established as true, is produced by those who control the media and the means of knowledge production. That is why “it matters who has the capacity and ability to persuade the public about which ‘knowledge’ is ‘true’, and which ‘false’!” It is only when we democratise knowledge and let a thousand ideas bloom that false knowledge will be exposed and other kinds of knowledge will become accepted and, who knows, even accepted as “objective truth”.
This dialogue, says Mbeki, is important as it may also affect our understanding of what is “objectively truth”. Such truths can be overturned. This is because discovery of “the truth”, and therefore the accumulation of “knowledge”, constitutes an unending journey of discovery and what we consider to be truths today may well turn out to be false tomorrow as our understanding of the world around us change and hopefully deepens.
But how do we distinguish between (tentatively established) “objective truths” and “false knowledge”? And how do we distinguish between valuable truth and quackery? If all “objective truths” may well one day be falsified, why are they true now while “false knowledge” is not? Is it just true or false because powerful people said so? It seems that it is at this point that Mbeki’s valid argument about the intensely ideological nature about the production of knowledge deteriorates into mild paranoia and incoherence. Thus Mbeki warns against the destructive potential of the abuse of “knowledge” by those who exercise power, but does so in rather stark terms:
I say this because of the frightening reality contemporary society faces, of the capacity of a small but powerful minority of humanity, to determine what society should ‘know’, which passes as ‘knowledge’.
Is there really a grand conspiracy to fabricate some kinds of knowledge and suppress other kinds of knowledge to further the interests of those who dominate the world? I am not saying this never happens. After all, facts were twisted and intelligence reports manipulated to try and convince the world that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and had to be stopped. But surely, more often than not people are the prisoners of their own world views and actually believe the things that they say and do (just like Mbeki is the prisoner of his own world view and believes the things he says and does.) This might produce tainted knowledge, but seldom because of some grand conspiracy.
Of course, the national and international media selectively report on news events and ignore some events and highlight others. That is why my Cape Times yesterday reported in a screaming front page headline that Baboons have invaded the houses of upper middle class residents, but said nothing about similar trials and tribulations experienced by inhabitants of poor areas of Cape Town. And scientists selectively investigate those problems that they find interesting or that that they think would bring them fame and money. Hence, lots of money is poured into medical research about heart disease and Alzheimer’s and very little on curing malaria. But it is not clear how this is part of a deliberate conspiracy to keep the rest of us ignorant and to push a nefarious agenda.
A second problem is that Mbeki does not consider the possibility that he may be part of the very system that produces “false knowledge” and that he might be producing such knowledge himself to further his own interests. After all, he is a powerful person (and used to be President of the most powerful country on the continent and what he said and did had enormous consequences – sometimes good and sometimes bad) for millions of people inside and outside South Africa. Mbeki somehow seems to exempt himself from the rules of the game that he is critiquing. Only other people fall into the trap of embracing “false knowledge” and only other people deploy such “knowledge” to advance their own interests.
While the rest of us are engaged in a never ending struggle to determine what the “objective truth” might be and while we are continuously duped by powerful dark forces into believing things that are just plain wrong, Mbeki alone (in his own mind) is far too clever to do so and therefore has the ability to identify “false knowledge” and “objective truths” properly. And when he does so, his own self-interests never come into play.
Has Mbeki not, in the past, perpetuated “false knowledge” to advance what he believed to be his own interests and the interests of the government which he led? Thus, a few years ago Mbeki said in a TV interview that it was just a perception that crime was out of control in South Africa: “It’s not as if someone will walk here to the TV studio in Auckland Park and get shot. That doesn’t happen and it won’t happen.” Within days a CNN journalist and his pregnant wife were held up at gunpoint and robbed outside the very same building. He was defending his government and was trying to persuade us of something that was clearly not true.
And when he started questioning the link between HIV and Aids (“a virus cannot cause a syndrome”) and made statements warning against the toxicity of anti-retroviral drugs, he was using his power as President of the country to create a kind of knowledge (sadly accepted as “true” by many South Africans) that turned out to be very false and very deadly. Just ask Parks Mankahlana who reportedly died of an Aids related illness because he had stopped taking the live-prolonging anti-retroviral drugs that his boss had warned against.
The big problem is that Mbeki does not seem to heed the warning of Albert Einstein which he quotes in his speech. Einstein reportedly said: “Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.” He correctly identifies a problem – namely that the construction of knowledge is not free of ideology and the influences of powerful interests. But he then seems to exempt himself from the rules of the game and sets himself up as the final judge of what is “true” and “false” knowledge, something that is impossible to do in terms of Mbeki’s own previous argument about the construction of knowledge.
When Mbeki pontificates about “objective truths” and “false knowledge” he is not free from ideology and self-interest and in this case the self-interest that runs like a golden thread through this speech is his need to justify his deadly dabbling in Aids dissidence and medical quackery. His tragedy is that – brilliant as he might be – he cannot see the contradiction in his own position.