Creating a strong, equitable and internationalized post-secondary school system in South Africa is not only a goal for Jonathan Jansen, vice-chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State in South Africa, it’s something that consumes his heart and mind.
Jansen visited UCLA this week to meet with university leaders and students, and explore opportunities for research collaboration and student and faculty exchanges. He said that it’s important for Americans to think of Africa and South Africa not simply as places where you to go to give, but also as places to learn and grow.
“Send young people, whether high school or university students, to broaden their minds, develop a sense of compassion, build cross-cultural understanding and create lasting friendships.”
Jansen also used his time in Westwood to deliver two formal public talks that addressed some of the pressing issues facing South African youth as they strive for excellence in the classroom.
In a talk held Monday as part of the Global Health Lecture Series, an initiative of UCLA's Program in Global Health, Jansen, who also serves as president of the South African Institute of Race Relations and chairperson of the Toyota Foundation in South Africa, spoke of the high rate of HIV/AIDS among university students in his country.
In South Africa, it is estimated that 19 percent of post-secondary school students are infected with the virus. Depending on the socioeconomic composition of the student body, the rate may be as low as 2 to 3 percent or as high as 25 to 30 percent, he said.
In a nation with a strong patriarchal and misogynistic culture, and one where many believe that AIDS is a colonial conspiracy invented to benefit pharmaceutical companies and depict Africans as barbaric, out-of-control and promiscuous, it is a difficult issue to address, he said.
Adding an extra dimension of difficulty is the attitude of national leaders who don’t acknowledge that HIV is directly linked to AIDS and who display personal behavior that doesn’t encourage safe and responsible sexual practices.
“In a country like ours, it matters that our leadership is a walking example.”
What is needed, he argues, is a single consistent public health message, a shift in the personal behavior and political will of South African leaders to encourage change, and willingness for people to challenge cultural prejudices. In addition, the nation’s youth must feel hopeful about their abilities and their futures. Education is a critical part of this, he said.
“You can’t simply focus on academic attainment,” said Jansen, speaking of his nation’s educators. “You must also make sure that students don’t drop dead on their way to getting a degree.”
The following day, Jansen spoke about reconciliation in a post-apartheid South Africa. Sponsored by the UCLA African Studies Center, his talk outlined the ways in which young South Africans identify with class and race, and some of the challenges, opportunities and strategies used to bring people together through sports, environmental design, and anti-racism and anti-sexism programming.
He shared the story of the “Reitz Four,” an infamous incident that occurred at the University of the Free State prior to his appointment as vice-chancellor in 2009. In this case, four male white students were criminally charged after filming and distributing a video that depicted five black residence workers eating and drinking a mixture that allegedly contained urine.
Created in protest against proposed racial integration in campus residences, the video created severe unrest, both on campus and off. “The country shook at its foundation,” he said.
It led to an opportunity to address some of the racial division that existed on that campus and an interest in seeking solutions to bring students together.
When Jansen started his new role at the University of the Free State, he insisted on integrating residences, telling students: “You cannot come into the new South Africa….if you don’t want to learn to live with your brother and sister. This is a public university, not your parents’ home. You must learn to live with other people or get out of here.”
Strong leadership in this arena led to an acceptance of the changes that were happening at the University of the Free State. Today, a culture of unity can be witnessed.
Although these two talks raised a couple of key issues facing the state of education in South Africa, there are countless others, says Jansen, who writes about such topics in his weekly newspaper column, An Educated Guess. The overall state of the quality of education, education funding, high failure and drop-out rates, and campus violence are also of grave concern.
“In any given year, there are two or three universities where buildings are burned down and where campuses are forced to close. Students have not learned to protest in a way that is dignified and that leads to constructive outcomes. There’s a lot of anger in the system.”
Despite this, there is also a lot of hope and potential in the system, says Jansen, who served as an advisor and teacher at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls.
“What Oprah did with her typical generosity was to establish a school for girls from the worst schools in the country, from the most abusive communities and homes in the country. She made them, through this school, the smartest and ambitious young women I’ve seen in the world.” The first girls graduated last year and are now in university. Some are attending schools in the United States, he said. “I only have respect for her foresight to see that in this rather mediocre school system you can have an oasis in which excellent and decency are important values.”
In this overarching quest for excellence and decency, he said that love and discipline are the two most important things that a student can receive from their teachers and their schools, no matter how well or poorly funded and no matter where they’re located. It’s important that students have a safe place to learn and that they’re taught by good teachers who care about them and can inspire them to meet their potential, said Jansen.