Prof. Jonathan Jansen – On advising young South Africans; Elon Musk’s Twitter; the 2024 Election, and more

Globally respected academic Prof. Jonathan Jansen addresses some key questions – should young people leave the country; will the 2024 Election usher in a new dawn; are our politicians learning from the Metro coalitions; is Elon Musk a suitable custodian for Twitter – in this interview with Alec Hogg of BizNews. In conclusion, despite its well-documented challenges, Jansen still regards SA as a half-full glass. Its people and resilience are not to be underestimated. They have enabled the country to beat the odds in the past, and the Stanford PhD and Stellenbosch University professor maintains they will do so again.

Timestamps below

  • Prof. Jonathan Jansen on his love for writing – 01:30
  • On the purpose of writing – 02:09
  • On the enormous inertia built into curriculum practice – 03:32
  • Why he wrote his latest book – 04:32
  • The issues of universities – 07:28
  • Whether something has shifted in our society regarding academia – 10:25
  • On Elon Musks Twitter takeover – 12:09
  • Using Twitter as a stress test – 13:46
  • Why we should still be hopeful in South Africa – 15:27
  • Looking ahead to 2024 – 19:22
  • On the future being coalitions – 21:32

Extracts from the interview

Prof. Jonathan Jansen on why he wrote his latest book

I have learned from senior people in different fields, like my late friend Bongani Mayosi, who tragically died at UCT. He once told me, “I spent three years trying to come up with one question, which I’m going to organise through future research.” And I saw this thing coming two or three years ago; our universities were going to implode because they were simply another kind of public institution. And since many of them are two or three billion rand enterprises, you know, of course, they’re going to become the focus of theft and greed and all that. So I anticipated that this would happen. But fortunately, after being a schoolteacher, I lived most of my life in universities at different levels of authority. So I saw things and said to myself, “You know what? Let’s take a deep dive not just into not dysfunction – dysfunction itself is uninteresting – but why it persists has not been explained in the literature anywhere else in the world.” And that’s what I wanted to answer. Why, if a university gets an administrator and they put a light on the mess, and the minister says, “Ok, let’s do one, two, three,” why does it not yield durable results? And that’s in the book.  

Whether something has shifted regarding the world of academia in South Africa

I like to be optimistic about this in the sense that right now, on the campuses where I’m sitting at Stellenbosch University, there are literally thousands of students in and around the building that I’m in, desperate for high-quality education. Their parents make huge sacrifices for them to live in residence and attend classes. So, I think, for the general public, there is still a sense – because, as you know – in South Africa, both the public and private rates of return to education are among the highest in the world. So, there’s something here that people see as a payoff to education. Unfortunately, in that same society, there are political operators, there are taxi operators – as you’ve seen in my book, there are all kinds of scoundrels who have another view of the university, and that is a place through which I can enrich myself by hook or by crook. And one of the reasons I wrote the book is to push back against those who, and I like to believe they are a minority, see the university simply the way they see Eskom, which is a place to loot.  

Whether Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter is a good or bad thing

Well, I tell you, my son went to the same school as he did, Pretoria Boys. And I often say to my son, “Mikhail, where did we go wrong?” But on a more serious note, this is the reason I don’t get along well with wealthy people. You know, they tend to think that because they have wealth, they know everything, become arrogant, and become bloated in more ways than one. And that is extremely disappointing. You know, during the Tesla days, I was a student and visiting as a fellow at my old university in Silicon Valley, Stanford University. And I should be very proud to be able to say, “This Tesla car that’s standing here in the Stanford shopping centre was, you know, produced by one of my countrymen.” I was very proud of that. Now, I’m embarrassed because of how this guy’s behaving, supporting lunatics like Ron De Santis from Florida and these kinds of people. So, it’s disappointing for me. I thought he could have put his money and his mouth to much better use. 

Prof. Jonathan Jansen on why we should still be hopeful in South Africa

My generation, Alec, you’ll remember this; we didn’t think that the apartheid government was going to give over power, let alone negotiate away power. And at all of those points, people predicted calamity and collapse. And we survived. When that horrible, horrible [conflagration] took place in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng around Jacob Zuma… I mean, that was scary stuff. And the next day, which is also scary for other reasons, the streets were clean, and people were back at work, which also worries me. But we have an enormous capacity as South Africans to bounce back. And so I still believe, because I regularly travel in the nine provinces, work with farmers and farm labourers, everybody; there are many more good people in this country, I guarantee you that there are crooks and thugs and all of these people. So I believe we still have history on our side, but we also have demographics on our side—decent people who want to make this country work. And then there’s this other thing. In recent years, I had the opportunity and was invited to work at universities in other parts of the world. Do you know why I don’t take up those efforts? Because in South Africa, when you wake up in the morning, you know exactly what you need to do. You know exactly where the need is. You are motivated to make a difference. And I love students, whatever their social class and stuff, but I don’t want to wake up every morning and teach a bunch of rich kids in Silicon Valley, etc. So yeah, I think we’re going to win. I think we’re going to get over this. 

Read Also: