The seven year itch, but Jansen will return to SA
WHEN Professor Jonathan Jansen announced he was stepping down as vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS) less than halfway into his second five-year term, it caught many by surprise. He is leaving next month, after taking office fewer than seven years ago.
But Jansen insisted in an interview this week his senior colleagues and the university’s council were not surprised because they knew from the beginning he was only there for seven years.
“I believe that you have seven years in which to impact on the organisation and if you have not made a major impact by that time, you never will. For me it is a wonderful time to make some major changes, consolidate a new team, do some succession planning, and then to move on.
“The seven years have been wonderful, I really enjoyed it, but it is enough,” Jansen said.
Jansen will be undertaking a year-long sabbatical as a research fellow at the Centre for Advanced Studies at Stanford University in California. He said it would provide him with an opportunity to reflect on the best way he could contribute to South Africa.
“I will never be able to turn my back on South Africa. There is too much happening here and there are too many people who I support. It would be the wrong message to leave the country permanently when I have always been optimistic, even in our dark hours, that we can still change this country.”
Jansen said one of the highlights of his stint at the UFS was to “witness qualitative change in the relationships between students in general but black and white students in particular”.
“I came here immediately after the horrible Reitz incident (where a group of white students degraded and humiliated workers) and I have been astounded. I always knew
that young people have the capacity for love and for reaching out, but to be able to see that one a daily basis, has been an absolute pleasure. I am so optimistic about this country’s future because of young people.
“The other highlight for me has been to see the academic standing of the university improving. A few years ago our pass rate was 62 percent, this year it was 82 percent. This happened because of a concerted effort by my colleagues. There is still a lot of work to do, but for the first time we have A-rated professors, our research income has gone upwards and we have more donors, international and local, than we have had in our history.”
Jansen said there had been some lowlights, notably the recent Shimla Park rugby incident when black and white students clashed after a protest.
“The lowlights are few but when they happen, they are souldestroying. You say to yourself, we have worked so hard and ask yourself what else you still need to do.”
“Even with the Shimla Park incident, once the legal things have run their course, we will also start looking for a restorative justice process that will bring people together. There is a limit to what the law can do in terms of penalising people and then our humanity kicks in.
“By the way, this is not the University of the Free State. This is what Madiba preached. It is the story of South Africa. It is not unique that in the face of great pain, we still find it possible to forgive.”
Jansen is worried about the state of education in South Africa, saying “we are in serious trouble”.
“Let’s talk about schools first: the fact is that our schools do not work for 80 percent of the kids and until government realises this, we are going to continue to have a twotiered system. On the road from Cape Town to Muizenberg, I can show you some of the best schools in the world. Within 10 minutes I can take you to some of the worst schools on the continent of Africa and they are in the majority, in Khayelitsha, Manenberg and Nyanga.
“How did we allow this to happen? The reason we are comfortable is because our children, middle-class children, are in the schools that work.
“Nobody is paying attention to the fact with every cycle of the school year, you are dumping thousands and thousands more poor black youth into joblessness, into desperation, into frustration and then we are surprised when they revolt. It will not take a lot of money to make schools work again. It will just take a focused determination and an honesty that says that we are in trouble.
“The primary problem is not money, the primary problem is leadership at a government level. You can’t plug the leak every time there is a protest. You have to fix the origins of this problem.
“The reason I work in African and South African universities is because I believe that Africa must have leading universities, just like anywhere else in the world but, boy, are we messing it up big time.”
While being critical of government, Jansen said he would never consider a career in politics.
“Some of us are not cut out to be politicians.In my DNA, as a university person, is a very strong sense of independence. I’d like to think for myself. If I get things wrong, that’s also what I enjoy. I often make breakthroughs in my work because I get things wrong all the time.”
Jansen believes that “postMadiba, people started to realise that the political system was rigged in favour of the elite”.
“Can you imagine, more than 21 years into our democracy and you are still sitting without a house and clean running water, and your kid is still in a miserable school? So when people burn tyres it is about the frustration that the hope we had has turned out to be a pipe dream.
“The reason we got there is purely leadership. There is not a day that goes by in this country where there is not another politician in the headlines for corruption and tenders that are rigged for corruption.
“Our first set of problems is that our political leadership works for themselves and the elites in our country. The second thing, that really got us into trouble, is that we deface our own institutions.
“When the president refuses to pay back the money that is not the major flaw. The major flaw is impunity in the face of a major institution called the public protector. “If one looks at the SABC right now, there is impunity. He (Hlaudi Motsoeneng) is basically showing his long finger to the public and to the courts.
“The third is greed. Do you remember who the last president was who gave part of his salary back? It was Madiba. Ever since we are in it for ourselves.
‘For me it is a
“At the end of the day, we have lost a value system that puts people at the centre of politics. We lost it when it became about us rather than about the people.”
Jansen said while Madiba was no longer around, the current political leadership could sort out the problems in South Africa.
“First of all, they need to realise that it goes beyond Parliament. I would like to see all these political leaders get together and say, ‘Can we start again? Our country is in serious trouble.’ You can’t do this on a party political basis.
“Let’s ask ourselves, ‘What is the legacy of Madiba? What did we learn from him?’ He is not here anymore but he left us an enormous legacy, a value system, a perspective on politics and economics. If we do not, we are going to continue to blame each other, to continue to position ourselves for advantage in the political system, we are going to continue to make raids on the Treasury, and then we suffer.
“Here’s the good news. Every problem that we have can be solved but you have to do it with leadership. Not only governmental leadership: religious, educational, corporate, domestic leadership, in your home.”
“If the current leadership can’t do it, we have to produce better leaders for tomorrow and that is part of the role of universities.”
Fisher, a former editor of the Cape Times, is on the council of the UFS but conducted this interview as an independent journalist.
Professor Jonathan Jansen believes his tenure at Free State was productive.