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 , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. This is a great piece. Its extremely frustrating trying to pin down problems with this kind of conciliatory discourse, especially when deliberate silences that affect those who have less knowledge and power are involved.

  2. a very articulate piece that really captures what I’ve been trying to argue over many a heated meal! well done Pumla

  3. It is noteworthy that this was perpetrated against women. What would the response have been If it had been black men? Black men like Jansen? Where is the sense of restitutive justice? Should the perpetrators of the crime not be expelled as a strong message to other students? Sometimes I think that we as South Africans buy so much into being the … Read moremiracle rainbow nation that we forget that wrongdoing must be punished accordingly. Forget all the white noise (no pun intended) of trying to make amends to reconcile a post-apartheid nation. Enough is enough!!! Basta basta!!!

  4. The TRC burden…”Forgive so that we do not have a repeat of past atrocities” right? u r right on point about the different classes of black people in this country. Of course Jansen does not belong to the same BLACKHOOD as those cleaners. It is a question of power and class right there. Well said Pumla. And on another matter some blogger has listed… Read more u among other academics as pulling back this country concerning that Canada/refugee issue!!! ahahahahaha!!! If i was an academic and didnt appear in that list of shame (read: FAME) i would be worried!!! U make me proud woman

  5. Oh, dear! here we go again. This is beginning to feel like the US when there has been another mass shooting incident ‘why us, why is it happening again’. We seem to have mastered the skill of shocking ourselves. Pumla, I don’t understand why you can’t understand Tutu, MDP and Jansen. If they had said something different I would have been shocked… Read more. These three men have been consistent. They may have different versions of their ‘truth’ but what they are trying to force down our throats is that whoever cries racism must apologise for derailing a country well on its way to reconciliation. Tutu has been the chief salesperson of this TRC trick and THE purveyor of rainbow miracles. Sometimes, it seems as if when Mugabe called him the evil little Bishop he was miraculously transformed into that role. Someone needs to thank MDP for the vrye Weekblad and then tell him nicely that he has really really become a nuisance of late – it’s really rough being an investigative journalist with nothing much to investigate! But Pumla, you forget to mention your glorious days at UVS:-)

  6. His new book is pretty good, though…

  7. Thanks for this, Pumla. I’ve been following the whole saga with great interest. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read that he never even consulted with the cleaners before coming up with his solution for ‘reconciliation’. I was also frustrated by the almost complete absence of any reference to gender (not to mention sexuality) in his inaugural … Read morelecture — I guess this means he’ll fit right in with the ‘manne’ at UFS. And then there’s business with Malema siding with Jansen?!? My jaw met the floor a few times in the past little while…

  8. Besides his professional arrogance and severe narcissism Jansen is a sad case that reminds me of Dr Frances Cress Welsing’s 1979 paper on Black Fear and the Failure of Black Analytical (Ideological) Commitment. In the main, Jansen seems to be displaying “ideological vacuum and disorientation” where racism, gender, and class is concerned. I have … Read morelost respect in the man. When I saw those mothers I saw my own, and a man like Jansen to decide to punctuate his inauguration (which is about him) by undermining and trivialising the lived experiences of humiliation of not only the 4 black women but also all other black people who have been victims of racism in the Free State University. Why the rush, why not get there and LISTEN to the people who have a LIVED experience of racism there? Actually, Jansen is an embarrasment to academics and so called intellectuals. In fact, he has even confirmed the negative stereotypes about coloured people and men in general…

  9. There u have it from Sibongile: “whoever cries racism must apologise for derailing a country well on its way to reconciliation”. What Jansen et al are telling us is that SA is a ‘young democracy’ thus reconciliation must be the number one priority lest we fall into past evils but what they are not telling us is that the same reconciliation has become the new ‘white’. And about that Tutu man, let me not comment now lest God sends wild beasts to moer me!!! ahahaha

  10. You hit it on the nail. In many ways your thoughts disrupt the act of jansen’s missionary impulse. In this way, you dismantle histories of dromedaries that the likes of jansen yearn for. What is it that must hapen before blakness realises that it cannot play second fiddle? How many more blak sacrifices must be offered? Of course one is not … Read moredismissing that those kids acted within an institution that celebrated such mentalities, this acknowledgement does not however, seek to pardon their ways. For them this was a norm, and jansen had the oportunitiy to reclaim the pride of blakness instead he chose to recuperate that of whiteness. How tragic…

  11. Beautifully articulated, Pumla! Write on! Jansen has only revealed himself as the stereotypical damaged Coloured who has to say “ja baas” in order to get an extra glass in his “dop system” of Free State academia

  12. Well written Pumla. I have been trying to figure out for the life of me just what it is Jansen had been smoking when he made his pronnouncement. What is weird is that I actually read his book and his actions go against the grain of the lesson he claims to have learnt while at University of Pretoria. Perhaps UFS was a case of him being tres excited to be the First Black at a Dinner Table?

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