Jansen is building reconciliation on sand

OUT OF ORDER: The move to forgive students by Free State University vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen has been criticised. PIC. Jeremy Glyn. 15/04/2005. © Sunday Times.
OUT OF ORDER: The move to forgive students by Free State University vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen has been criticised. PIC. Jeremy Glyn. 15/04/2005. © Sunday Times.

One of LP Hartley's novels begins with the evocative phrase: yesterday is another country. He meant to imply a dramatic change or shift from one world to another.

For us, yesterday was indeed another country - of political violence meted out against the majority, of racism entrenched in their constitution and enmeshed in scores of laws regulating the lives of blacks from the cradle to the grave, of deprivation and despair for many and a supposed "decent" world and life in the sunshine for some.

Yesterday's world was the one I encountered when I returned from exile in 1990 and spent the whole of December of that year talking to young black students, many of whose lives had been deeply scarred by the states of emergency of the 1980s. It struck me then that black students faced problems that other students did not.

They ought to have been alienated from the whole process of learning because apartheid racism had left them behind.

One of them had been detained for more than nine months. When he was arrested, the young white conscripts pissed on him. When I asked him if he hated those who had treated him as an object, his reply was startling: "They did not know what they were doing."

These thoughts came to mind over the public hullabaloo associated with the inauguration of the first black vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State Professor Jonathan Jansen.

There are two facts to face. First, the vice-chancellor holds very strong views on a number of matters which he is not shy to write about in his weekly newspaper column.

In particular he has a penchant for trying to reach out towards Afrikaners, especially as he feels that young Afrikaners have been tainted by their parents and their society with racism, so it is in their blood, as it were, and stays there through no fault of their own.

The second is a personal one. Exclusion by race is palpable in the Free State. I am not sure that yesterday is another country there.

When I was the minister of education, I told the then vice-chancellor that the residences had to be integrated as they had been in the English-speaking universities.

The Reitz residence continued as if 1994 had never happened. And farm evictions often take place in humiliating circumstances. It is difficult to find attorneys to act against farmers.

So the inauguration ceremonies, which were unusually highly organised, would have been the appropriate backdrop for Jansen to reach out to the students, especially the black students, to counteract a culture which represented the values of those who were victorious in the culture wars, and to lead the way towards integration.

Instead, the vice-chancellor dropped a bombshell, rather arrogantly, I thought. He chose the occasion of his inauguration speech to forgive students who had been expelled for committing what the majority considered a heinous offence of humiliating elderly workers, workers who had treated these racists as their children.

He then proceeded to give a lesson to all of us on reconciliation. He implied that there was no future for this country without such reconciliation.

Long before Jansen's advent to the political field it had been a given that the official policy of the state was to ensure that friendly relations, as the dictionary tells us, should be restored between people.

Our new government set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so that all South Africans would learn something about the appalling nature of apartheid, which was based on hatred of the majority.

One of the reasons we gave, expounded very clearly by Nelson Mandela, was that the overthrow of apartheid would free the whites from the shackles they have tied around themselves.

The extraordinary feature of our liberation was that we did not ascribe collective guilt to the whites in general, or Afrikaners in particular.

But this was not a general absolution. True reconciliation also requires the acceptance of individual responsibility.

I have, on more than one occasion, bemoaned the fact that there has not been a reciprocal response from whites to the enormous generosity of blacks in the settlement of 1994.

There continues to be sniping at corrective action being taken to undo the legacy of apartheid - which does not mean that we should not review its implementation. However, the circumstances of our lives require all of us to reach out so that we can overcome the terrible burden of our past.

I regret to have to say that Jansen's lack of sensitivity and one-sided approach have put back the struggle for reconciliation.

It is unethical to treat the wronged and the wrongdoer as if they were both equal victims of circumstances. Reconciliation is built on sand if individual responsibility is not given priority. Jansen would do well to acknowledge he made a mistake and then rebuild his university on firmer grounds.

l Kader Asmal is a former minister and past member of the national executive committee of the ANC. He is now honorary professor of law at University of Western Cape and University of Cape Town