Jonathan Jansen’s Burden

A profile of Jansen, vice chancellor of Free State University, on a leading online media outlet in South Africa, says more about the problem with liberalism in South Africa.

At the same time as a senior South African government official channels the views of Apartheid ideologues about race (Jimmy Manyi, a top government spokesperson said there is an “over-supply of coloureds” in the Western Cape province), the South African online publication The Daily Maverick Online features a profile of Jonathan Jansen, the current vice chancellor of the University of the Free State.

Jansen is a prominent educator and public figure (and prolific writer) in South Africa, known for his reconciliatory approach to social divisions.

The profile by the site’s Mandy de Waal–titled “The Beautiful Mind of Jonathan Jansen“–is an interesting portrait of a man who seems to bridge the worlds of ‘white’, ‘black’ and ‘coloured,” still largely separate, 17 years after the end of Apartheid.

Jansen is credited with bringing about a transformation in race relationships at the University of the Free State. Shortly before his arrival as vice chancellor, the university made world headlines thanks to a video made by four white students, the “Reitz Four,” who filmed themselves humiliating black staff members.

In the article, Jansen narrates how he began addressing the tension and hostility on the campus after he arrived, and how, through a “recipe of listening, unwavering moral fortitude, servant leadership and love,” he has succeeded in turning things around; to the extent that the biggest problem now, we are told, is interracial love affairs. Not that the university minds, but students are apparently afraid of going home and dealing with their racist parents.

Jonathan Jansen is an interesting and even admirable figure, and the approach he describes is remarkable. If his account of the turn-around is to be believed, it is an approach that perhaps should be adopted more widely.

Yet de Waal’s article is worrying in some respects and may say less about Jansen and more about liberal politics in South Africa.

It presents Jansen as a hero, an almost larger than life, saintly figure –as if the aim is to create another Tutu or Mandela. And so, as happened with Madiba and the Arch, it begins to build a myth around Jansen. Here we are again, in the Rainbow Nation, or perhaps on the set of Invictus.

The article makes no mention of the fact that many South Africans find Jansen’s approach problematic. For example, he has been accused of going too far in his quest to reconcile, letting racist whites off too easily. For example, one of his first acts as vice chancellor was to drop charges against the Reitz Four, who now demand money to grant interviews about their dastardly act).

No matter how wonderful this man might be, and notwithstanding his apparent success in bringing about a degree of transformation, are we well served by myth building of this nature? Does painting over the blemishes in order to serve us up another hero, really do South Africa a favour?

The problem with such an approach is that when the cracks and faults do start to show, either there is pressure to distort and ignore reality and hide things, or else there’s a tendency to flip from idealism and euphoria to despair and cynicism. Can we not learn to walk the middle road and accept that our villains may have some redeeming qualities and our heroes may have a clay toe or two?

Jansen himself seems to have no problem calling a spade a spade. His comments about historically English-speaking universities are spot on. They have not had to grapple with real transformation, as white kids simply fled from the residences to their parents’ homes in the suburbs when the blacks moved in. “These are the so called liberal universities” he says, “but don’t believe that crap.”

Further Reading

A power crisis

Andre De Ruyter, the former CEO of Eskom, has presented himself as a simple hero trying to save South Africa’s struggling power utility against corrupt forces. But this racially charged narrative is ultimately self-serving.

Cinematic universality

Fatou Cissé’s directorial debut meditates on the uncertain fate and importance of Malian cinema amidst the growing dismissiveness towards the humanities across the world.

The meanings of Heath Streak

Zimbabwean cricketing legend Heath Streak’s career mirrors many of the unresolved tensions of race and class in Zimbabwe. Yet few white Zimbabwean sporting figures are able to stir interest and conversation across the nation’s many divides.


After winning Italy’s Serie A with Napoli, Victor Osimhen has cemented his claim to being Africa’s biggest footballing icon. But is the trend of individual stardom good for sports and politics?

The magic man

Chris Blackwell’s long-awaited autobiography shows him as a romantic rogue; a risk taker whose life compass has been an open mind and gift to hear and see slightly into the future.

How to think about colonialism

Contemporary approaches to the legacy of colonialism tend to narrowly emphasize political agency as the solution to Africa’s problems. But agency is configured through historically particular relations of which we are not sole authors.

More than just a flag

South Africa’s apartheid flag has been declared hate speech by a top court. But while courts are important and their judgments matter, racism is a long and internationally entrenched social phenomenon that cannot be undone via judicial processes.