A DISCUSSION keeps recurring in these and other South African pages. Do we have any public intellectuals? Just last month, Gareth van Onselen argued that we have none, while Chris Thurman replied that we have too many to count.

So, do we? And, if so, how would we know when we see one?

To my mind, a South African public intellectual is a person who gives an accurate account of what has just happened, one we can all agree upon. It’s a hard ask. I’m not even sure that it’s possible. Here’s a well-known example.

In 2006, President Jacob Zuma delivered a famous piece of testimony at his rape trial. The whole country was listening. And yet, to this day, we cannot agree on what he said. He was speaking Zulu, of course, and so his words reached many of us in translation.

According to a battery of English-language newspapers around the world, from the Guardian to the New York Times, Zuma said: "In the Zulu culture, you cannot just leave a woman if she is ready. To deny her sex, that would have been tantamount to rape."

The furore in middle-class South Africa went on a long time. In an editorial, the Mail & Guardian called Zuma "a Neanderthal". Pundits claimed on radio and in newspaper columns that he was history, that he had committed political suicide.

And so, when his popularity soared in the wake of the trial and his insurgency against then president Thabo Mbeki only strengthened, there was a genuine sense that the barbarians were at the gates, that a depraved populace was about to elect its depraved leader to power.

What did Zuma actually say? In his forthcoming book, Learning Zulu, Mark Sanders quotes from the court transcript: "She then said you see you cannot just leave a woman if she is already at that stage … and I said to myself I know as we grew up and in Zulu culture you do not just leave a woman in that situation because if you do she may even have you arrested and say that you are a rapist."

What Zuma said, as Sanders points out in his book, is that, in the heat of this young woman’s arousal, he had a flashback, a memory of when he was learning to be a good amaZulu boy. A woman scorned may well accuse you of rape, he was instructed. Now, aged 67, he had remembered this teaching.

Middle-class South Africa pretty much invented what Zuma said, and what it invented was its deepest prejudice: a sex-crazed animal defending rape in the name of his culture.

What Zuma did in fact say is both funny and revealing.

One imagines the young Zuma scared out of his wits as his elders warn him that a vengeful woman, full of unrequited lust, might ruin his life.

To call this a "Zulu" lesson is hilarious. Among the very oldest exemplars of male paranoia, it is there in the Book of Genesis — poor Joseph thrown in jail by Potiphar’s wife because he refused to sleep with her. And it has been repeated through the ages, in pretty much all cultures, ever since.

Meanwhile, in Zuma’s heartland on South Africa’s eastern seaboard, people heard him say something else.

They listened to the old-fashioned Zulu he spoke and they felt nostalgic. When, for instance, he referred to a woman’s genitals as isibaya sikababa wakhe — "father’s cattle kraal" — they were reminded of a time when sex was tied to an orderly exchange between families. And so they imagined that when this son of the soil came to power, he would restore the dignity of ordinary people and bring their fading values back to life.

Might it have been possible, back in 2006, to show middle-class South Africa that it had invented a Neanderthal, while showing rural KwaZulu-Natal that it had conjured a saviour from a corrupt politician? Could somebody have shown everyone all of this at the same time — somebody able to unclothe everyone’s fantasies in front of everyone else?

I am not suggesting that a public intellectual looks down upon the world and announces the truth like a god. A public intellectual, I am saying, is a person who facilitates a single conversation among us all. It is a huge, never-ending task of translation. And not just a translation of words, but of fears and inventions, of dreams of apocalypse and renewal.

What would happen were we to hear one another clearly enough to converse? I doubt that heaven would arrive on earth. We would remain a country of fierce problems. Conceivably, listening to one another properly might make matters worse. But the value of the exercise would not reside in its consequences. There is intrinsic value in knowing one’s country.

I cannot think of a single person in our history who has staged one show, a performance about us, that we can all understand. I’m not sure, frankly, what such a show might look like.

Steinberg teaches African Studies at Oxford University.