Ruda Landman: Prof Jonathan Jansen talks about SA education, unruly students, love and race

Jonathan JansenProfessor Jonathan Jansen doesn’t avoid controversial issues. When Pallo Jordan was publicly embarrassed for pretending for many years that he had a PhD, Jansen stepped to his defence and said he should have been awarded an honorary doctorate years ago. Earlier this year Jansen criticised quality control within the school system, urging that the pass mark be raised to 50%. In this interview with respected broadcast journalist Ruda Landman, Jansen reflects on change in his life and change he would like to see in society. He discusses all the tough issues –  race, religion, politics and more – and reveals his soft side. – JC

By Change Exchange*

Jonathan Jansen

Professor Jonathan Jansen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, says that when he first started teaching it felt like he had arrived in paradise. Teaching became an addiction, he says.

But it’s not just being in the classroom that makes him tick. He loves ‘uncomfortable’ environments that are hungry for change. Ruda Landman sat down with this legendary change agent and academic to talk about the changes in his life, and how he has managed to bring about positive change in the lives of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands!) of young South Africans.
Video link:

Here’s the full transcript

R: And our guest today on the Change Exchange, Professor Jonathan Jansen. We’re so happy to have you.

J: Thank you ma’am.

R: Thank you for coming from Bloemfontein – almost getting stranded there [laughs]

J: Right. It’s not unusual [laughs]… Small airport, lots of people.

R: Why did you go into teaching? Why teaching?

J: Two reasons. The first was the unbelievable influence of a teacher, a… I supposed today they call it grade 10. A standard 8 teacher who taught me Latin, who was a dramatic performer and connected with the lives of kids. And even though he was teaching Latin, he was actually teaching life. And I was so impressed, you know, by the connections he made between the subject matter and everyday life. I said to myself ‘I’d like to be like him one day’, which meant, of course, I want to teach. And then I forgot about it, then I wanted to become a chemist and so and so, and those days, there were very few bursaries available for anything and… Except if you wanted to become a teacher or a policeman, nurse or a librarian – I remember the options. I took the bursary, or else I wouldn’t have been able to study and then went into teaching. Partly inspired, partly out of necessity.

R: And how did you experience that?

J: It was like somebody had put me in paradise. I couldn’t believe that I could have five classes of about 35 kids every single day, and make science, and particularly biology which was my main subject come alive to children in the West Coast in a place called Vredenburg, because I wanted to be – I was very idealistic, still am – wanted to be out of Cape Town where I grew up and be in the platteland and make a difference. And all of that. And it… I used to ask kids to come in on a Saturday, just so that I could teach them… I used to beg them to come in on holidays for extra classes – not that they needed it – just so that I could teach. And yes, so it was like – I mean to this day, I teach 1st year students, and if you take that away from me, I don’t want to run a university, it’s not worth it.

R: So what is it? Is it making the subject – as you say – come alive for them? Some of them may not be interested in – if I think of High School and biology and I think ‘ooooooh’.

J: I think it’s something in you that’s got to click. The Afrikaans-speaking people have a beautiful word: Roeping. There must be something that calls you into it. So I’m very much aware of it that somewhere deep inside of me, give me a class, and I’ll perform. Teaching is performance. And there’s first of all that. Then there’s secondly awareness that – particularly when you’re dealing with kids who are poor or rural or disadvantaged and so on – you know the only way that they get out of that trouble is through education. That’s so clear in my head because it worked for me. And so there’s partly this passion to teach and partly the understanding of the consequences of teaching, that if you do it well, you change domestic economies, you change a country – always aware of the bigger picture.

R: It’s not just a job. You are really making a difference. Why the shift to tertiary?

J: Partly because of the way my studies unfolded. I hadn’t thought I would leave school teaching, and then I had an opportunity to do a masters’ degree overseas, and they said to me I wasn’t too bad a student, do a PhD. I said ‘Oh my word – PhD!’. What the heck, I did it.

R: That was in education?

J: That was in education. Broadly, yes. So when I came back, I said to myself, a lot of people said to me you know you can influence schools by working at a university in schools of education where they prepare teachers for their own country and other countries. And that sort of made sense to me.

R: So once again it’s about the influence that you can exert.

J: Absolutely, and so I was a dean of education and I had 2000 – 3000 students at a time who were going to schools across the country, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia and so on. So I became very aware of the fact that there’s a multiplier effect to what I used to do. But you put me in a school on any given day, and I tell my university I went to market to recruit for students and trust me – I walked into the biology class, they now call it ‘life sciences’, and said to the teacher just give me 10 minutes.

R: [laughs]

J: And an hour later she fetches me.

R: You lived and studied, as you say, in the US. Were you tempted to stay? That was the 80s, it was bad times.

J: No, I was never tempted. I felt quite guilty leaving. At that point I was teaching in District 6 High School and I had this heavy burden, ‘geez, can you now really leave at this time?’ I remember the week I left, the Langa and Uitenhage shootings had just happened and I was so distraught. It was difficult to leave, and my friends said to me – who were activists – they said ‘no, you go, this country will always be, and come back and make an even bigger difference’. So I went and was very active in politics in the United States and – on South African politics – and when I came back I knew I had to do that and as my parents used to say plough back into your community, which I’ve done.

R: Why take a job at Tuks? I mean, it must have been, you were such an outsider to everything the university… stood for, represented, whatever. Why?

J: I have never worked in a situation in which I felt comfortable. Culturally or socially or linguistically. Never. So you look… my first job I deliberately took in Durban because I couldn’t speak isiZulu. I knew nothing or very little about the cultures of what was at that point a South African university for Indian South Africans. I always liked being in places where I was out of place.

R: That’s almost a contradiction? I like being in a place where I’m uncomfortable. Why?

J: Absolutely. Well first I get bored quickly. So if I went back to Cape Town and lived amongst people I knew their politics and culture, ways of seeing and believing and so on and so forth. I would have died a slow death, you know. So I have… I didn’t want to do my PhD field work in California, even though it would have been easy, so I came to Zimbabwe and spent months there in the rural areas, you know. Et cetera et cetera. So I thrive in places that are difficult, that are strange, that are foreign, that present to me an intellectual challenge, but also a political challenge. And it was, you know, probably the best decision I ever made, going to Tuks because it was there, as you probably know, from the book I wrote, that I had to confront my own racism through the eye of white, Afrikaans-speaking youth. Now, most people say to me ‘are you nuts’, you know, how is that possible. But just imagine living and leading and praying with, crying with and teaching young people who I always regarded as part of the enemy, you know? And then coming to see that we actually are quite the same, you know, we just happened through an accident of history to be born on the wrong side of the fence. And through their honesty with me, their openness for me, their love for me, I have to say, I came to encounter and deal with my own demons, and I tell you it was a wonderful, wonderful experience.

R: I remember being a young journalist with Die Burger, a 100 years ago, and I come from a small Afrikaans town, I had very much grown up in my protected box with people who were like myself, spoke my language and then I had to go and do an interview with a black woman in a squatter camp in part of what is now Khayelitsha, and I remember sitting with her and thinking that you are just like mom, except that you are black. And it was such a thing, as you are saying, about the white kids, we are actually alike?

J: And that’s the beauty of proximity and that’s why our past was so damaging. Because it kept people apart, but actually if you just allow people to be together, in the course of time, they are more likely to find commonality rather than difference. Because remember, the whole raise on debt of the past, was to tell us how different we are. Nobody had a conversation with us about sameness. And so you experienced exactly what I did. Whatever you thought about the other person, you see your father, you see your brother, sister, you see yourself. When that happens, I’ve got a beautiful word for that. It’s called transformation. That’s transformation.

R: And then why move to the Free State?

J: Well, I had spent seven active years, plus two, at Tukkies and I did what I could do at the time. The minister then asked me – minister Pandor – to help out two universities that had fallen on rough times…. and then about that time, the Reitz story broke at Free State – you know the terrible abuse by white students of black workers. And I just finished writing Knowledge in the Blood and I thought, ‘you know what, this is going to be a very, very interesting challenge to take the Tukkies experience so-to-speak and apply it at a very similar kind of university’, although also very different because of geography and history, and so when a senior person there called and said ‘will you please apply” I said ‘yeah, let’s give it a go’. And wow, what a fantastic experience.

R: Can you remember the first day when you arrived?

J: Oh absolutely. I first came undercover, so I first came without nobody in the student body knowing who I was and I remember going to sit deliberately between two huge white Afrikaans boys, undergraduates, who looked miserable. And I went to push myself in between them and asked them to share their lunch. And I could see the aggravation building up! The one guy got quite red, and I realised ‘hier kom moeilikheid’ so I said ‘don’t worry’, in Afrikaans, of course, ‘I’m your new rector and so on and so forth’. And I…

R: But how did they respond?

J: Oh man, they turned into… they hugged me… they said ‘please, share our toebroodjie’. It was just fantastic. And so we talked, and so I said to them I will never forget what you want me to do. Because I’m here to serve you, I’m not here to waste your time…

R: For my own agenda.

J: No, I don’t… I told the kids I couldn’t care less whether they pay me or not, all I’m here to do is serve you. What can I do for you? And then, you know what was amazing, they spoke at the same time. It wasn’t choreographed, they spoke at the same time and they said in Afrikaans “moet ons net nie forseer om te integreer nie”. Just don’t force us to integrate. I had such a shock, you know. Because this was so many years after apartheid, this was…

R: Ja, this was what, 2009? 7? 9?

J: Ja, so a number of years have elapsed already and here the mortal fear of these two really well-meaning kids… I mean… there was no aggression in it, there was no, they just had this mortal fear of living in a Res with black people [laughing] And I remember telling myself to calm down. I didn’t want them to feel I was reacting to what they were saying, because they didn’t mean it in a bad… they just didn’t want black people around them. And this just persurates (?), of course, which was a protest against integration. And I just shook my head and thanked them very warmly for the conversation and went on. That was Day 1. Undercover. That scared the hell out of me, because then I realised ‘you have a huge amount of work to do just to make them feel…’ and this is where I think we are often wrong in the way we judge students. We expect them to come at the age of 18… these kids have lived on a farm in Herzogville, all their lives, they only know black people as subservient beings, they only speak one language and suddenly they’ve got to be in a Res on equal footing with black people. I came to be less judgemental about that these days, and more (inaudable), what is the role of the university? To help bridge these differences. There are parallels to these (inaudible) for black kids who come with a very strong political background, you also have to do, where every white is evil [laughs]… there’s also a lot of work to do there. So that, and I’m very grateful to my colleagues, I had an amazing team of leaders in the student body, who as I was saying the other day, we had our SRC election. The president of the SRC is a black woman, the, one of the new members of the SRC is a blind student, Louzanne van der Merwe (sic. – Correction: Coetzee). And the deputy to the president Mousa Letiane, the deputy is Waldo Staude. A white guy who is a representative to Sasco and I was saying if this is not transformation, I don’t know what. But compare that to the two young men in 2009, I’m really delighted. I have so much faith in young people. Not so much faith in politicians, but so much faith in our young people that they can help this country turn around.

R: How do you handle aggression and situations where you had moments – especially in the men’s residences – where they really squared up against each other? What does one do with that?

J: You know, the first thing that I learned – even at Tukkies – is that when you see aggressive behaviour, in particular on the part of men, you should not confuse that with the real behaviour behind it. Normally when people behave very aggressively when they’re scared of something. So I’ve learnt that. Now I have to say that growing up on the streets of the Cape Flats (laughs) I’ve also learnt that…

R: Punch first!

J: No, no. I’ve learned that the guy that comes and takes of his shirt and says that… he’s actually so damned scared! So he has to do all those things to give yourself a ‘koes’. So the first thing I never do is react in the same way. Never. So I would normally stand back and let the aggression play itself out and then I will address it in a fairly systematic way. But you never, ever, ever – especially as a leader – respond in that kind of way. So I let it play out and I ask one question – what lies behind this, what are they scared of, and then try and deal with the scared part. And so often those people – especially students, students are much more likely to say sorry than adults. So often students would come to me afterwards and say ‘I’m sorry for my behaviour and can we start again’. It works.

R: What advice have you got for young people – people in general – people in South Africa at the moment because of our history and where we are now… often you have to, there’s a new black employee in an overwhelmingly white environment, there’s an older white person maybe who is now surrounded by new, young uppity blacks. What is your advice… how does one deal with that kind of uncomfortable situations?

J: You know… it’s a reality. A country, unlike… I always mention Germany after the war, whether they killed the Jews or moved them out of Germany – we didn’t have that. We had live, to ‘skuur’ against each other every single day. And that carries enormous danger. It carries opportunity, but it also carries danger. Especially when people have strong views about each other. And my argument with leadership is create spaces aside of the immediate workplace in which people can encounter each other as human beings. So if you’re going to have a National Braai Day at your home, invite a cross section of people and make sure your kids get together. Because very often the kids have less hang-ups than the parents, but create other opportunities in which people… So for example, I was… I am a fairly self-confident black man, but I remember going into Tukkies and saying ‘whoa, I’ve never been at a place like this before’. And I remember two of my colleagues saying to me ‘go with us to Loftus’ and at that point I can assure you there weren’t many black…

R: Piet Retief! [laughs]

J: Oh my god! I mean, it was horrible. And from that day onwards I became a very loyal Blue Bulls fan, but I also started to see my colleagues with a rugby shirt on over the boep-pens and the screaming and the letting down of your hair and all of that and sort of saying these guys, they are normal, like me. They’re just like me, they’re enthusiastic about their teams, they often cry, I saw people cry, I saw people pray, we ate together and in no time, simply because we were out of the workplace –  people are comfortable with you and you are comfortable with them. So I think my advice is create other spaces in which we count each other as human, not as a skin or a religion or a language, but as human beings.

R: And if you say you get bored easily? What’s beyond the Free State?

J: You know I… as my colleagues would tell you I’m always doing too much. I’m like this person who is aware of the fact that God gave you one life, you’ve got to squeeze the juice out of it while you’re at it. So I do too much, I know that. And one of the things that I’ve been doing is I’ve put out a new book with a film maker on how to fix South Africa’s schools with 18, 19, videos of schools that do very well with physics and maths in very poor circumstances. And we believe that that work we do as contributed to the Free State, as you know we are the number 1 province in the NSC the national senior certificate results last year – and working with a fantastic MEC for Education with the university, I wish I could do that full time… So I think what I want to do – once you’ve run the university there’s no point running another university, it’s the same job. So I would like to go in full-time with a powerful team of people and do what we’ve done in the Free State in all the 9 provinces where schools don’t work. I have no interest in the schools that do well anyway, but the schools that don’t work. Because I’m not sure government has a plan for how to fix those schools and we can’t let another generation of kids miss out on an opportunity to improve their lives. So I think that’s what I’m going to so after Kovsies.

R: I can only say please do, please start tomorrow! [laughs] On a more personal note, how did you meet your wife?

J: In church. So even though we were supposed to keep our eyes on Jesus we [laughs] we did that, you know, but we were in different branches of the same church community and got to know each other through youth activities, and all of that. And then eventually, you know, decided to go out together, and that caused huge difficulties in our families, because even though we are both black, she has a very light-skin and her parents were not amused that their grandchildren might look like me. So they put her out of the house on the spot with me when we went to ask for permission to date. Those days you asked permission or your blessing. My horror! [laughs]

R: They said no?

J: They didn’t even say no, they just walked out and said ‘you must be out here by the time we get back from church’, which is of course a wonderful irony. And that was tough. I mean, she couldn’t sleep at our home because my parents were firm Christians and your girlfriend doesn’t sleep at your home, whether it is in another room or…

R: Nie onder my dak nie! [laughs]

J: Nie onder my dak nie, absolutely. They liked her, but there was just that line. So now we had to run around for a place for her to stay. The first time in my life I got sick, because it was new to me.

R: How old were you, Jonathan?

J: I was 23, 24, maybe around there. But what was difficult for me was I knew exactly how to deal, those days, with white racism. I couldn’t deal with black racism. I didn’t know what the codes were, so that put me in a spin. And thank God, over the course of time, they slowly, slowly…

R: Came around?

J: Ja, because we got married anyway.

R: How did it affect your relationship? The two of you?

J: She was very determined – if you know Grace – she is very determined if she knows something is right, she will do it anyway. So that was very… She managed it quite well, compared to me. I struggled with it a lot. And I dare say, sometimes it still reminds me, catches up with me. And I have to keep telling myself, you know.

R: It must have been completely unexpected.

J: Yes, because you don’t get invited to their family functions. It was easy to say just don’t go. But if you grew up with the cousins and family, and some of them didn’t know how to deal with us and others simply avoided us altogether. It’s largely changed now, but not completely, you know.

R: How did it affect your children? And what did you tell them about it?

J: They… we said nothing to them. They were still very small, growing, at the worst points they were still very small. By the time they got wind of it they were already teenagers, you know. And they sort of found it funny. Thank God for that, because at that time it was horrible. So they have now made very close friendships, forged friendships with their cousins on the other side. So for them obviously it’s never been an issue, just like race has never been an issue for them. We reared them in homes where there were always Jewish friends, Muslim friends, Afrikaans speaking friends and all the languages of South Africa, so they didn’t grow up with any sense of being a colour or an ethnicity or their parents making choices.

R: It’s a gift.

J: It’s a huge gift that, you know, we so grateful because even if I look at their relationships, they completely dated in all directions and they don’t have that burden that we carry. But we had to ‘shoo’ them from the worst of that. But as I said, by the time they grew up they thought it was nonsense, it was funny.

R: Our generation, when we were, it’s written in our bones, because that’s the way we were brought up. I still have to make a conscious effort not to see colour, not to respond to colour, to try and find the person.

J: It’s tough. Anybody that tells you it’s easy, is lying, you know. I have come a long way thanks to my students, as I told you. And I feel free, but every now and again when somebody says ‘do you remember the railway policemen and the way they used against you’, it comes up. And you don’t want it to come up, but it just comes up. So the memory bank that we all have of the past, you will probably never forget the Khayelitsha encounter. It’s there, and if it turns out positive, it’s wonderful, but not all of us have had that experience, as you know, so memory places tricks on you and doesn’t warn you when it resurfaces. And I think the best we can hope for, Ruda, is just to be honest about and not pretend we’re all over it. And just work very hard for the sake of our kids, of course, to make sure it doesn’t show up in the next generation.

R: Hmmm… Be conscious. Talking about children, your students are also in a sense your kids. Do you draw a line? I’m involved to this point because I’m their educator? Their teacher? But I don’t get too close personally?

J: I get very personal with the kids, I get into their lives. Last night, for example, my wife and I and some friends took a bunch of young women, whom she is mentoring. And her friend – and I have to tell you – I never before seen young women from very poor backgrounds in the Free State, Northern Cape, around the country, black and white, go from being thin as a broomstick when they came here, and simply by being fed, cared for, loved, you know, turn into these beautiful self-confident women. Now there are certain things I can’t do. The students still joke of when I took them out one night and I said – we went to this beauty shop -and I said  I want you to take these boys and give them a manicure and these girls a pedicure. Because I didn’t know… I thought MANicure meant…

R: [laughs] 

J: So it’s a combination of being very, very firm with the students, and they know that, around their academic performance. So your entréé into the relationship is you’re serious about the academics. The quit pro quo is we do everything to help you get there, and from basic nutrition to text books to… and so when we bought our home in Bloemfontein, the reason we bought it was it was big enough so that on weekends students can play in the pool in the summer or volleyball in the back in the winter and come through the house. There are times, my daughter is also, or was until recently a student at Kovsies and I have to tell you, it’s a scary thing when you wake up in the morning. You see students in your fridge, that you didn’t see when you went to bed, and they offer you something to eat! Then you know everything might have gone too far [laughs].

R: What does a child need growing up? What is the one essential?

J: It sounds a bit ou-tyds, but it’s love.

R: What does love mean?

J: Love means conveying a sense – in this case to a young person – that they are very deeply respected, heard, cared for, despite what they might be. And once you get that message across, the rest is relatively easy. But you don’t start with discipline, you don’t start with instructions. You start giving a young person a sense that they are deeply, deeply cared for. And once that happens, I have discovered over and over again, wherever I have worked, including with my two biological children, that the rest is actually quite easy. So we spend a lot of time in the very architecture of the university to convey a sense of homeliness. Of, you know, of respect. A sense of here I can come and sit down, lie on the grass and be myself. And it’s been a fantastic opportunity for me over the past five and a half years to be able to do that with and for students. And then of course they reciprocate. This is the lovely thing about being a leader, within this context. Not a day goes by that a student, particularly Afrikaans-speaking students are more religious and come into my office and say ‘prof, ek was gou oppad klas toe, I was on my way to class, would you mind if I just prayed for you?’ You won’t believe how many times I close that door and say just give me two minutes so that I can just have a good tjank. It means so much to me in a busy day, where it’s not always easy, as you know, a university. An 18 year old comes and says ‘ek wil vir jou bid’. My God. I have no greater blessing.

R: But the basis of that is mutual respect. Because he or she in that moment is not a child to your adult, there’s also ‘you are another person and I can see that you also need support’. 

J: And they are aware of that. The students are…. I’m always amazed. There’s one student on Twitter, for example, the other day, her name is ‘Anneri Burger’. Now I don’t know much about ‘Anneri Burger’ except she might have seem me drive past, and she would Tweet ‘I see you’re not looking okay today, how are you today?’. And that’s all I needed. She’s right! She’s absolutely right. And then I’m fine for the next 24 hours. Now imagine you’ve got 30 000 students and so much of the blessing is that stuff. Then I can deal with the more difficult stuff around the university.

R: Tell me a little bit about your sense of home? You said that when you were, what you look for in a physical house, when you first arrived you wanted space because you wanted to have dozens of kids around. And beyond that?

J: You know, I’m very simple in my taste, I drive a very small car to work – a Chevy Spark – I get a lot of pressure from kids because they say it doesn’t fit my image and I’m not sure if they’re referring to weight or status. I don’t like being fancy, I like the simple things in life. So when I come home the most important thing for me – especially on a Saturday when the Bulls are playing – is to be able to have a couch with thick cushions into which I can fall with the remote and cut myself off from the world and go between a Pirates game and Blue Bulls game. That’s heaven for me. That’s it. I don’t need anything else.

R: So what makes a house a home is a sanctuary?

J: Sanctuary, a place of comfort, a place in which you cannot be aware of external demands and what you should look like and dress like and just be there. And then of course you won’t recognise me, because when I feel the ref – especially when we play the Stormers – has made a wrong decision, I describe him in all 11 official languages, which unfortunately I cannot do in my normal job!

R: [laughs] Then all your beautiful about not responding to aggression… out the window!

J: Oh, no, no, no. That’s a special place!

R: Good luck. Long may you be on our education scene and all the very, very best.

J: Thank you Ruda. Very much. Appreciate it.

* This piece first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes.