Jansen legitimises trivialisation of poor Black people
This is the longer version of my column in this past weekend (01 November 2009) in the City Press:
I have been as intrigued by Jonathan Jansen’s inaugural lecture as the thirteenth Vice Chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS) as I have been by some of the responses. Time may have shifted somewhat, but the Jansen saga is a reminder of various things we would do well to reflect on. Jansen lyrical references to the conflicted pasts of both the Free State province and the University itself did little to mask the real meat at the heart of Jansen’s talk: his decision on “the Reitz matter”. Although he claimed his interest in “closing the book on Reitz” and “reconciliation, forgiveness and social justice”, the University of the Free State’s first black rector legitimated the ongoing trivialization of working class black people’s lives. The ANCYL is wrong to expect us to claim him just because he is black and pretend no insult has been uttered. The workers who were victimized by the students the new UFS rector wishes to protect are also black. Who claims them?
Unlike Jansen, I am not surprised that the Reitz “atrocity could have been committed on the grounds of an institution of higher learning”. This is the easiest part of the entire Reitz video saga, unless we deliberately choose to ignore both history and the ongoing state of South African academia. It is the academy that first popularised notions of racial and other supremacy through scientific racism. Higher education continues to be shaped by this legacy in ways too numerous to list here, but on which much academic literature exists. Jansen knows this well. His claimed ignorance is a mere rhetorical strategy and not a very convincing one at that.
Having recognised that the racist performance captured on tape was enabled by institutional power, rather than individual deviant peculiarities, Jansen proceeds to re-enact it. First he treats the entire matter as though it is about sets of two arbitrary individuals set up against each other: errant young white men versus violated black workers who can be quickly compensated so that they may forgive. It is noteworthy that Jansen spends barely any ink on these workers. The bulk of his narrative is dedicated to those who matter: the young men whose futures are at risk, who need to be re-intergrated into the university community in order to acquire further institutional power. In order to mask this evaluation, Jansen is silent on the place of justice, responsibility and recognition. Not for these young UFS hooligans, the expulsion metted out to many other students who act in ways universities do not like, even if the latter’s transgressions are victimless. In Jansen’s book, the futures of the expelled UFS students are much more important than the lives of the students financially excluded from his and many other institutions of higher learning.
Jansen evokes that terrible convenient Christian narrative we had to all deal with during the fraught TRC to invite us to share his complicity. But Jansen takes it a step further, and unlike the TRC the violated are not even required to forgive, or speak at all. The workers who were publicly humiliated will be compensated in unnamed ways; they are not even important enough to consult. Legality stands between Jansen and the acknowledgement of their humanity. The workers are simply required to forgive these young men for their behaviour, and stop being difficult, like the rest of us. They need to just pretend that their humiliation is over and stop being a nuisance. This is one of the inheritances of the TRC: this terrible obligation of black forgiveness. Along with it, we are invited to turn a blind eye to the very many ways in which violence against poor black people is endemic at UFS and the country. Like many others with institutional power, the new UFS rector has chosen the side of power.
Jansen has felt himself pressed to frequent Reitz, but there is no mention of how hard he tried to connect to the man and women who suffered such indignities. After all, along with the burden of obligatory forgiveness, black people are ever-ready to take the money and run. Biko was wrong when he said that all black people’s feelings matter. According to Jansen, white supremacists need not take responsibility for their action, no matter how obviously rightwing. In Jansen they have a brilliant ally.
As for the proposed “Reitz Institute for Studies in Race, Reconcilliation and Social Justice”, I think it calls for a rare moment of action by South African academia: its complete boycott. I know that you could not pay this particular Black woman academic enough money to go anywhere near it.
Posted on 4 November 2009, in SA universities and transformation, South African universities, Southern African politics, things that suck and tagged African Women, Black Consciousness, Black people, Black women, Black women's activism, Blogroll, Higher Education transformation, Jonathan Jansen, language, South Africa, South African politics, University of the Free State, writing back. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.