Media, Politics

The beautiful mind of Jonathan Jansen

The beautiful mind of Jonathan Jansen

When Jonathan Jansen arrived at the University of the Free State in 2008 it was an institution with deep divisions haunted by the spectre of the Reitz Four. With a transcendent recipe of listening, unwavering moral fortitude, servant leadership and love, Jansen and his team are well on their way to turning the university into a model of integration worth emulating. By MANDY DE WAAL.

It is surprising Jonathan Jansen says the remarkable and rapid change that has taken place at the University of the Free State is something he’s still trying to figure out. Although he denies being personally responsible for the change, hearing the heart of Jansen one intuitively knows he had a big part in its turnaround.

Jansen was appointed in May 2009 and took up his position in July of that year, inheriting a campus that had been humiliated by the “Reitz Four”. Named after the residence they lived in, four male students had filmed a globally infamous “initiation video” showing five workers being subjected to demeaning tasks. These included drinking beer and doing athletics, as well as being made to consume a concoction one student had appeared to urinate in and which made the middle-aged university staff vomit.

“I went in June one afternoon to try to figure out the place,” says Jansen explaining how he had been mentored to listen. “I was trained by someone who himself was trained by Milton Friedman and Theodore Schultz, Nobel Prize winners of economics.” As part of his instruction Jansen was advised to not speak when moving into a new organisation, but rather to just listen, taste, hear and feel for the first six months.

“I thought let me get down there first because the place was in pain. White and black students would walk past me and not greet. They would see you coming and they would look down. People were literally sitting with their fists clenched. I had never seen this before.”

On a wintery day in June 2008, he saw two huge guys sitting outside the chemistry building, eating sandwiches out of Tupperware lunchboxes. “Their body language said: ‘Don’t even think of disturbing us,’ which, if you know me, is an invitation to conversation. They clearly didn’t know who I was and were sitting on a concrete slab. So I went to sit down and forced myself between these two guys, like I did when I was a kid in the third class train to Mowbray. I remember one of them going really red in the face.”

Jansen sat without saying anything, and when it was clear that the one huge lug of a boy was getting antsy the new vice chancellor thought he’d better introduce himself. “Their response was: ‘Meneer, vat maar ’n toebroodjie’. (Sir, please have a sandwich). And there were these three huge guys eating sandwiches. I didn’t say anything for a while to see what was going to happen.”

Eventually Jansen, whose notion of leadership is servant leadership, asked them a question that he would continue asking students, staff, alumni and the community surrounding the university for six months. The question was: “What do you want me to do for you?”

“Even before I asked the question I ran through a list in my head of the possible things they might come up with. Things students all over the world tend to ask. More parking spaces, to fix up the science lab, that lecturer who can’t teach economics … the food, that’s always a big deal. I thought one of these things would come up. But I will never forget they spoke as if they had rehearsed their answer, which of course they couldn’t have done. With one voice they said: ‘Please don’t force us to racially integrate’.”

Now, these students weren’t a product of apartheid, they grew up in an era when Nelson Mandela was free and where they could witness the first democratic elections. “They didn’t even live through the crap, but they were behaving as if they were there.” Fortunately, Jansen’s experience at the University of Pretoria (known by its nickname, Tukkies) which is written into a seminal book on racism and integration called “Knowledge in the Blood” prepared him for these strange South African scenarios.

“Knowledge in the Blood” centres on Jansen’s experiences as the first black dean at Tukkies and how white South Africans have chosen to deal with post-apartheid by denying and avoiding history. Silence and the rejection of pre-1994 atrocities realise a “knowledge in the blood” where generations pass down prejudice and ignorance, instead of wisdom and healing. The result is the continual re-enactment of an apartheid past, which Jansen witnessed at Tukkies, and was again at UOFS.

Watch Jonathan Jansen speaking on transformation:

What’s remarkable about Jansen’s stories is that unlike a Trevor Manuel he doesn’t come from a moral high ground, but from a place of extreme humility with the acknowledgement that he too is wounded. “Like all of us I too am wounded, I too carry racial pride and I work daily to try to break it down. I am embarrassed, and I say this everywhere I go, at one stage I hated white people. I hated them for turning my grandfather blind. I hated them for taking our property in Montagu and giving it to white folk and then destroying the property. I hated white people for so long it is a deep, deep embarrassment to me that I could be so incredibly foolish.

“And yet this is a path of transformation, not the ANC’s view of transformation, but a deep human transformation through which all of us have to pass. The pretence that we are okay is the problem.” South Africa is caught in a trap of political correctness underpinned by racial quotas in an attempt to correct an apartheid past. Yet its peoples, says Jansen, are trapped in stereotypes of “perpetrator” or “victim”. This exists in a vacuum of dialogue that is burst open when a Manyi, Botes, Hofmeyr, Roberts or Malema happens. Then South Africa is all righteous rage and aggression and is further polarised instead of taking tentative steps towards healing.

But back to Jansen’s story where he was in his third month at the UOFS and students were choosing leaders for their 23 residences for the next year. “I went to this huge room where these students were choosing house committee members. And there were all these black kids and white kids looking at me strangely. The white kids were ‘die moer in’ (spitting mad) and I said to them: ‘Listen, I have been around the residences and I see you are completely segregated, at our university it is as if 1994 never happened, and I just want to tell you guys, irrespective of what you think, and I love you very much’ – my staff will tell you if I use the phrase ‘I love you very much’ there is bad news in the next sentence – ‘this is how it is going to be, we are going to integrate the residences.’

“Up jumped this beautiful student and said to me: “Wie de fok is jy?” (Who the fuck are you?) Let me tell you about Afrikaans-speaking kids, when an Afrikaans-speaking kid speaks to an adult, a rector of the place like that, then the stress is enormous. “Wie de fok is jy? My ouma was in Rosemaryn. My ma was in Rosemaryn. Jy is nee eers van hierdie provinsie nie. Wie de fok is jy om vir ons te sê hoe ons moet leef?” (Who the fuck are you? My grandmother was in this residence. My mother was in this residence. You are not even from this province. Who the fuck are you to say how we should live?)”  

This was a new and highly traumatic event for Jansen, but he held his composure saying because of his experience at Tukkies, he knew where the trauma was coming from, but he was also deeply conscious of everyone watching him. “And how I act is absolutely crucial to the resolution of this girl’s trauma. So my body language is completely neutral. I stood smiling there as if nothing was going on, but meanwhile she was ranting on and on.”

Three weeks later during an open-door session, Jansen would meet this young woman again. “We have open-door sessions where anyone can come and speak to me about what is going on and in walks this kid, and I think: ‘Here we go again.’ But she says to me: ‘Professor, do you remember me?’ I say: ‘Yes, my child, I remember you and I am scared. Please have a seat.’ She looks at me and this child begins to cry. She says: ‘I just want to ask your forgiveness for what I did and I am going back to that group of students and I am going to tell them what I am going to tell you. Then she says: ‘I made a terrible mistake. Please make me a part of the solution’.”

Jansen says since that day he has had encounters with students, white and black, in which they don’t display anger, or ask about the terrible happenings at Reitz. They don’t elicit memories of inclusion or exclusion. Instead the question they ask is how they can be part of the solution.

“What’s the secret? How did this happen? You don’t overturn 300 years of colonialism and apartheid in a weekend, so I am very aware of the fact that transformation is not an arrival, it is a journey. I understand that back-sliding will happen. I understand very clearly that things we see every day are not guaranteed to always be beautiful. That’s the nature of organisational change, and that’s the nature of social change in a country with our history.

“If you want to change an organisation, if you want to change young people, whether you are the parent or the director of a company, you just have to know two things. One, you have to be firm in making decisions about difficult things. Prevarication is the end of you. Clear moral choices are what Jim Collins called it in ‘Good to Great’. The second is that you have to love the people you lead unconditionally.”

Jansen goes silent for a while and then changes his mind. “Actually it is in the reverse, because the love comes first. When young people sense that you will walk through fire for them, when your employees have the sense that the job is not about you, it is about them, when they have a sense that this man or woman will do anything for you in a crisis, they will do anything for you.”

I looked around the large audience at an EE Publishers‘ event, as Jansen was speaking. There was hardly a dry eye in the room.

Fast-forward to 2011 and the university has a new problem now. The big problem Jansen says is interracial love affairs. “With young people, when you remove the barriers to human interaction they tend to fall in love.” Now Jansen has to counsel fearful sons and daughters who are scared of going home because their white fathers might kill them if they find out their children are in an inter-racial love affair.

So why did this miracle of integration happen at UOFS and not the more liberal campuses of Cape Town or Wits? “Universities like Cape Town and Wits cannot change fundamentally. When black people moved into the residences at Wits, the white kids fled to Parktown and Rosebank. When UCT started to integrate its residences, the white kids fled to Observatory, Mowbray and Rondebosh. I saw that with my own eyes. And these are the so called liberal universities, but don’t believe that crap. The assumption of innocence is what you still have to work through.”

In the historically Afrikaans universities like UOFS the students stay in the residences and they fight, and then they meet their fears head on and when they do, the miracle happens. That is where change happens and people can begin to reconcile the past and perhaps even fall in love. DM

Read more:

  • Breaking the blood knot in Mail & Guardian,
  • Why we’re withdrawing charges against Reitz Four by Jonathan Jansen on PoliticsWeb,
  • Reitz Four incident ‘forgiven and cleansed’ in City Press,
  • Manyi is not alone in his racism by Jonathan Jansen in Mail & Guardian,
  • Behind the Reitz apology by Jonathan Jansen on TimesLive.

Photo of Jonathan Jansen courtesy if UOFS.


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