CityPress - - Voices & Careers -

Ade­feated, bruised man. This is how Pro­fes­sor Jonathan Jansen, for­mer vice-chan­cel­lor of the Uni­ver­sity of Free State (UFS), comes across in his book, As by Fire: The End of the South African Uni­ver­sity.

Although he of­fers a glimpse of hope in the last pages, Jansen has clearly given up on gov­ern­ment and for him, civil so­ci­ety in­volve­ment is the only an­swer to re­turn san­ity to uni­ver­si­ties. From page 14, where he ex­plains his rea­sons for re­sign­ing from his post, he paints a pic­ture of a sec­tor in per­pet­ual cri­sis.

“Yes, it was time of a cri­sis as in­creas­ingly in­tense and then vi­o­lent protests spread across the cam­puses of South Africa’s 26 pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, in­clud­ing UFS. But this was not go­ing to stop any time soon, and so, whether I left in 2016 or in 2019, there would still be crises to man­age.” The book was pub­lished this year – maybe he is still to be proven right. Jansen is ad­mired by many, in­clud­ing my­self, for his in­sight­ful ex­per­tise in the ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor.

But in this book, he be­trays that, so to speak, by en­ter­ing into the po­lit­i­cal realm.

This ex­poses and con­firms what his crit­ics have been say­ing about him – that he is ob­sessed with the tra­di­tional Euro­cen­tric-style uni­ver­sity estab­lish­ment, he doesn’t even al­low room for an un­con­ven­tional chal­lenge to the sta­tus quo.

For him, any re­bel­lious or dis­rup­tive en­gage­ment is chaotic and un­rea­son­able, the rule of en­gage­ment is sim­ple: con­form. Put bluntly, beg and you shall re­ceive. Be­fore com­ing across as a Fal­list apol­o­gist, his ra­tio­nale is fur­ther ex­posed in a shock­ing state­ment on page 126 where he talks about how re­spect for teach­ers was lost in 1976.

This was a his­tor­i­cal event mostly cel­e­brated by black young peo­ple, which did not only change the tra­jec­tory of ed­u­ca­tion, but chal­lenged the white su­prem­a­cist ide­ol­ogy.

He writes that those protests “…left in their wake a com­plete dis­re­gard for ed­u­ca­tion au­thor­ity that was never re­ally re­gained, ei­ther in schools or uni­ver­si­ties”.

His views on calls for de­coloni­sa­tion of the cur­ricu­lum frankly make a mock­ery of ini­tia­tives made by his col­leagues at uni­ver­si­ties such as the Uni­ver­sity of Johannesburg (UJ), which re­cently held a con­fer­ence look­ing at Pan-African­ism and ways to de­colonise the cur­ricu­lum, not only at UJ, but at other uni­ver­si­ties as well.

On page 165, he writes: “It is as if noth­ing has ever changed, as if ev­ery fac­ulty, school, de­part­ment, and cen­tre on a uni­ver­sity cam­pus is caught in the grip of a colo­nial past and tied to the apron strings of a colo­nial present. This is, of course, the non­sense un­der­pin­ning calls for the de­coloni­sa­tion of the cur­ricu­lum. The very fact that de­coloni­sa­tion’s most ar­tic­u­late ad­vo­cates work on South African cam­puses makes the point.”

Com­ing back to rea­sons I think Jansen should stay out of pol­i­tics, he al­ludes – to­gether with his col­leagues from his­tor­i­cally white uni­ver­si­ties, whose ac­counts are fea­tured ex­ten­sively in the book – to how stu­dents were copy­ing dis­rup­tive be­hav­iour of the Eco­nomic Free­dom Fight­ers in Par­lia­ment.

Then he talks about fac­tions within the ANC that could have had an im­pact on how the SA Stu­dents’ Congress par­tic­i­pated in protests.

He sets out how a once-dig­ni­fied Par­lia­ment con­ducted its busi­ness and has since de­gen­er­ated into chaos.

The na­tional pol­i­tics and es­pe­cially fac­tions within the ANC were also im­pact­ing on the psy­che of the na­tion, es­pe­cially stu­dents, this was the aca­demics’ view. It is too sim­plis­tic.

Dis­rup­tions have been the modus operandi of stu­dent protests at his­tor­i­cally black uni­ver­si­ties such as Wal­ter Sisulu Uni­ver­sity and the Uni­ver­sity of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape for years, and the spillover was likely to hap­pen; rather, they fo­cused on el­e­vat­ing their chal­lenges to na­tional pol­i­tics.

In a nut­shell, Jansen and other vice-chan­cel­lors come across as vic­tims of a sys­tem­atic fail­ure of gov­ern­ment.

Un­der­stand­ably so, they were at the coal­face of protests, their lives were threat­ened and au­thor­ity un­der­mined – that be­hav­iour by stu­dents should be con­demned in the harsh­est way pos­si­ble.

De­spite its short­com­ings, it is a good book. It of­fers in­sight into how the vice-chan­cel­lors dealt with protests and gets the reader into their minds and lives. De­spite that, Jansen made a mis­take by delv­ing into pol­i­tics and, as an aca­demic, I think should have in­stead tried to find out from vice-chan­cel­lors at black var­si­ties how they dealt with protests.

It is a good read for stu­dents to un­der­stand the im­pact of their ac­tions and think hard be­fore en­gag­ing in vi­o­lent protests.

Pro­fes­sor Jansen is the for­mer vice-chan­cel­lor of which uni­ver­sity?

SMS your an­swer to 34217 with your name and con­tact de­tails to win one of three copies of Jonathan Jansen’s new book AS BY FIRE: The End of the South African Uni­ver­sity. SMSes are charged at R1.50 each. T’s and C’s ap­ply.

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