South Africa’s Very Own David Brooks

Jonathan Jansen channels the worst versions of average center right American ideas in debates about transforming South African universities.

Jonathan Jansen. Image by Penn State University, via

Jonathan Jansen’s celebrity has always struck me as a bit of a throwback in contemporary South Africa, a final remnant of the preemptive post-racialism of the 1990s. To be fair, it was no mean feat for a black man to waltz into the University of the Free State, one of the country’s most notorious bastions of troglodyte racism and set about wanting to transform it into a symbol of reconciliation, let alone a majority black university. The previous vice chancellor (the equivalent of a university president in an American context)  resigned after four white students filmed themselves forcing five black workers to eat food upon which the boys had just pissed, and Jansen took over. As the story goes, he forgave the students (without, I should add, getting the workers’ consent to do so) and invited them to return after they’d apologized. They didn’t, and they never returned. Jansen then used the incident to launch a program of reconciliation on campus.

Yet what’s so odd about Jansen’s brand of post-racialism isn’t his emphasis on reconciliation. Save for actual racists, no one’s against reconciliation where such a thing is possible. But that’s the key phrase: where such a thing is possible. I’m not in the business of kicking dead horses, but it would be bizarre to read Jansen’s transformation of one university as an indication that South Africa’s higher education system has been substantially integrated, decolonized, or whatever other concept we might apply. But in a talk in Cape Town on Wednesday night, July 12, this is precisely what he did. An employee at the Book Lounge in Cape Town’s city center told the audience that he couldn’t recall a bigger turnout for a big launch in the entire time he’d worked there. It was hard not to notice that the crowd was predominantly over fifty and white. This isn’t to say that it was entirely white — of course it wasn’t — and there were plenty of younger people there. But it’s worth noting that a talk on race in higher education by a black man — though he’d of course disagree that the talk was about race at all — was attended largely by older middle-class whites who seemed to hang on his every word.

Jansen recently released a book on the ongoing student struggles across South Africa, but from the perspective of the administration. For As by Fire: The End of the South African University (watch for University of Cape Town academic, Herman Wasserman’s review of the book here, next week–Ed.), he interviewed eleven vice chancellors  across South Africa. As he opened his talk on Wednesday, he told the crowd that the South African political scientist Susan Booysen’s edited volume Fees Must Fall (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2017) conveys the student perspective — and even includes a couple of actual student contributions, as if it were shocking that people in their early twenties could pick up a pen — and that he was trying to bring the administration’s perspective. We also need workers to write a volume, he added, pushing the pluralism of “rainbow nation” post-racialism. If only the various perspectives could hash it out, everything would be fine.

He then took a step back: actually, Booysen’s volume doesn’t speak on behalf of all students — just protesters. And it leaves out a second major constituency: these students’ parents and alumni, who have a stake in the image of the university. This was huge for Jansen, who repeatedly returned to his alma mater — Stanford University — as a point of comparison. (Jansen, who grew up in Cape Town, did his undergraduate degree at the University of the Western Cape; he subsequently obtained a Ph.D. in Education from Stanford). He told us that other than Harvard, no school in the U.S. has as much money as this private university, and that it was constantly constructing new buildings, not to mention investing in Silicon Valley. Of all the signs of academic success, he picked a construction boom and investment in the private sector? And of course all of this was beside the point. Why was he comparing one of the richest schools in a country with some of the top universities in the world to a place in which all major universities are public?

Jansen during the book launch at the Book Lounge. Image by the author.

But Jansen was obsessed with the American comparison. He complained that South African newspapers are kak, but in the US, they have The New York Times. He asked if anyone had read David Brooks’ column yesterday. It was, he insisted, better than anything ever published in a South African paper. I snorted a little, assuming he was joking, but then I realized: Jonathan Jansen is totally the South African David Brooks. The column he was citing was about how what appear to be class divisions in education aren’t really about structural barriers at all, but about culture. (Brooks went on about how his friend with a high school education couldn’t recognize certain kinds of ham.) And the persistent segregation of South Africa’s public education system isn’t about racism, racialism, or racial capitalism, Jansen would echo; it’s about a failure to truly speak to one another!

I couldn’t help but wonder why Jansen was focused so intently on signs of elite status in a country attempting to remedy the effects of decades of apartheid schooling — but he answered my question before I could finish asking it. We don’t want to quash individualism and turn our higher education system into a factory. Universities should be for cultivating leadership skills among the best and the brightest, and other such snooty platitudes. In other words, South Africa’s last surviving champion of post-racialist reconciliation didn’t seem so intent upon transformation after all.

And race? It didn’t even come up until the Q&A period. Not once. As a proxy though, Jansen did rail against the concept of “decolonization” that characterized South African student struggles in what we might call their third phase. To project my own periodization upon his telling, it all began with #RhodesMustFall. A coherently organized student movement at the University of Cape Town worked not only to topple the Cecil Rhodes statue, but they did so in a way that was immediately intelligible to the (white) middle class public. This was good.

Phase 2 was also good. Until 2015, he explained, the movement was nonviolent, and even better, non-racialist. For this, he insisted, student activists should be applauded. This of course maps onto #FeesMustFall, a student-worker alliance against fee hikes and outsourcing on campuses across the country. Or in other words, this was the moment of united struggle in the name of class.

But then #FMF gave way to a third period — decolonization struggles — in which students turned violent, racist, and misogynistic — all words he specifically attached to this movement. It was obvious that his emphasis was on his perception of these student mobs as racist, by which he seemed to mean that they articulated their demands in terms of race at all. “We’re all subjects of a great colonial plot,” he joked, before launching into a pedantic lecture about the concept of “decolonization.” It comes from three authors, he insisted: Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and Albert Memmi, and they were all writing in and about the 1960s and 1970s. Context is essential. We’re no longer colonized, nor is South Africa recovering from the immediate aftermath of colonization, and besides, even if it were, all three of those authors wrote in response to French colonial atrocities.

“Let’s not overstate the problem,” Jansen continued. “Let’s not name it wrongly because that is disingenuous.” Given how frequently he was reminding the audience of his academic training as a social scientist, I couldn’t help but wonder why he would reveal that he hadn’t read any postcolonial theory written in the past forty years, or why he would feign ignorance, as if he couldn’t actually understand the meaning of the concept in its current context.

When it came to the Q&A, only one person challenged anything Jansen said — a young black man who implied that he’s a student at the University of Cape Town. He asked a pointed question about post-racialism, asking how we can talk about reconciliation and such when segregation persists and has even been augmented in many cases. He asked why we’re trying to discuss strategies for “fixing” public education in a room full of old white people. Why aren’t our parents here? he asked, gesturing to his group of friends. Look out the window! See all of the black parents walking to and from work down Buitenkant Street on the side of the Book Lounge? That’s why they’re not here. How can we discuss this problem as if it’s simply a question of reason, he was suggesting, when material conditions prevent the majority party from even being at the table?

I could see audience members rolling their eyes. It was the most substantive question of the evening, and easily the most thoughtful, yet Jansen gave it short shrift. He insisted that we can’t keep emphasizing race in every conversation, as if excising the concept from our repertoire would correspond to an eradication of racism (let alone racialism) in everyday life. But this corresponds precisely to the ideology of post-racialism in contemporary South Africa: it’s less about a verifiable observation than a strategy for shutting down any discussion of race whatsoever. No one could argue with a straight face that South Africa’s higher education system is anything approximating integrated, or that the geography of apartheid schooling doesn’t persist in a novel public v. private guise. But here was Jansen advocating an elitist schooling model in a post-apartheid context, all without so much as mentioning race, save for selectively denigrating the very concept.

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