Stop paying attention to Jonathan Jansen

The South African professor is under fire for suggesting life under apartheid was better than life under democracy. Stop giving him so much airtime.

A beach for Whites only near the integrated fishing village of Kalk Bay, not far from Capetown. January 1, 1970. Image credit UN Photo.

On February 1, Jonathan Jansen, a professor of education at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, wrote a column questioning whether or not South Africans are better off now than under apartheid. He concluded they were only really “better off” in terms of political rights. When asked to justify his controversial statements, Jansen, in a radio interview, responded: “I have never before seen so many poor and desperate people putting up tents, literally along the road. Tell me they are better off than in 1994.”

I have decided to not engage with Jansen’s insensitive sentiments or give credence to any discussion about the positive sides of a crime against humanity. So, this is not a response to the apartheid nostalgia he wrote about. Instead, here are my five reasons why we should stop paying attention to Jansen’s views on race.

First, why on earth would you take any race views seriously from a man who, in October 2009 said that young white people shouldn’t be held responsible for the racist system they were born into? Jansen was vice rector of the University of Free State at the time. One year earlier, in February 2008, four white male students, known as the Reitz Four, forced black workers at their residence hall to drink urine. The students were opposed to integration of university housing. At the time black students at the university objected to Jansen’s decision to unilaterally absolve the Reitz Four without asking the victims what they wanted. Two years later, in March 2011, Jansen, reflecting on the Reitz Four incident and its fallout, Jansen said that the biggest race issue now at the University of Free State was white Afrikaans girls being too scared to tell their fathers they are in an interracial relationship.

Yes, I am certain there is a lot more nuance to this, but those are his words not mine. Does this seem like a person who is serious about discussing systemic racism in higher education?

Second, Jansen persists in spreading negative and classist stereotypes about Coloured people. Now before you say “but Amanda, he is a Coloured person himself,” it is important to note that Jansen does not identify as Coloured. He refers to himself as Black or committed to the Human Race. Which is fine, you enjoy your decontextualized Hertzoggies, we don’t need you in the troupe. (For outsiders, a Hertzoggie is a popular dessert invented by the Cape-Malay, a part of the Coloured community in the 1920s as a response to political happenings at the time.)

To quote Jansen, Coloured is a “fictitious identity created by apartheid.” That may be a view that many hold, but it discounts the more than 100-year history and cultural practices of Coloured people. We cannot be surprised that he would give undue credit for an entire identity to the National Party regime [which governed apartheid South Africa-Ed.] , after all, if we follow Jansen’s logic of post-apartheid conditions, there were no tents along the road. Yes Professor, because Black people were not allowed in the cities, and you know this! Despite claiming that race and culture are fictitious, Jansen loves disparaging a people that he claims doesn’t exist. In one instance, Jansen made a joke on Facebook about how going to a funeral of your dad on the Cape Flats, where most Coloureds live, you’ll might be surprised by meeting a new sibling.

Third, Fees Must Fall. There are many, many terrible things Jansen said about Fees Must Fall, the protests by university students between 2015 and 2017. How could we forget the weekly condemnations of the students on his Facebook page, a stark contrast for the forgiveness he earlier begged we extend to the Reitz Four.

One of Fees Must Fall’s demands was to facilitate entry to higher education for students from working class households, mostly Black and Coloured. At the time, Jansen jokingly tweeted: “To all my friends in higher education. No, ‘the missing middle’ does not refer to Coloured people and their dental adventures.”

The joke was on Coloureds. The remark about “dental adventures” is a disparaging reference to the phenomenon of removing your two front teeth, often done by some Coloured people. Ah, Professor Jansen, always making fun of that fictitious race. Why don’t you fight some real issues, like the apparent shortage of men’s toilets at Stellenbosch University.

Fourth are Jansen’s views on the material advantages of apartheid. These are at odds with what he has said or written about the impacts of apartheid’s brutality on his own family.  Born in 1956, eight years after apartheid became government policy, Jansen has often shared his own experiences of growing up under the brutal regime; how his parents were materially dispossessed, and that growing up as a black boy in the Cape Flats that there was a greater chance of him going to prison than going to university. At one stage he hated white people, for his grandfather becoming blind and losing their property in Montagu (a part of the rural Western Cape ideal for farming). Jansen has also written extensively about racism and colorism:  how his wife had to leave her family home the moment they began to date, that his father-in-law did not show up to his wedding, and how his wife had to visit some family members on her own.

Jansen also recalls that under apartheid, when he looked outside (he grew up in Retreat an Steenberg, working class townships in Cape Town) that “I could see people killing each other, I witnessed the rape of women, I saw horrible things happening around me.” While today crime and gender based violence are unconscionably and immorally out of control, it is no justification for apartheid apologist views, and I fear Jansen may have forgotten how very personal and brutal apartheid was for him.

Finally, Jansen, is inconsistent about how he himself views race. Basically, he dabbles in Coloured culture for the retweets, claiming to be color-blind, while at the same time identifying as “a proud Black man” when it suits him. As Jansen has stated: “Fairly early on, I thought of skin as the epidermis. I never thought of it in terms of the social gradation of human beings between better and worse.” Literally, how is this possible? How is this a sincerely held belief by someone who grew up under apartheid and on the Cape Flats?

Jansen reducing apartheid to lack of civil rights – “but at least we had electricity” – also demonstrates the ways in which we have bastardized what Steve Biko said about being Black (a call for solidarity). Happy to have the label when we are lauded as the first of something, less happy with the label when there is a need for solidarity on issues affecting Black people, trivializing apartheid, and conflating bad governance with evil. Like many of us guilty of doing this, Jansen just refuses to get it and until he does, I am not going to be paying attention to anything he says.

None of these above mentioned reasons address, however, the substance of Jansen’s recent column: that Jansen is an educator: An educator at a fast changing university, Stellenbosch, changes about which the gatekeepers of apartheid nationalism are not very happy about. Jansen himself has gotten into trouble for the piece he wrote on the urination incidents at Stellenbosch University, where at least three white students have been disciplined for urinating on black students’ personal belongings; at least one has since been expelled.

The one thing Jansen respects more than anything else is education and his position of advancing education in South Africa. This is reason enough for him to ensure that he creates a safe environment for young people entering higher education and who are likely to experience integration, institutional racism, and classism in ways that high school could not have prepared them for.

Apartheid apologism can never create such a space.

Further Reading

Apartheid nostalgia

South Africans agree that redistribution and economic security are urgent. But will they arrive via a deepening of democracy and public accountability, or a return to authoritarianism?