William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Pollyanna throws in the towel against the university Taliban

Let’s chant a dirge for the chief executives of one of South Africa’s most besieged economic sectors. Just consider the challenges they face daily.

They head financially precarious entities in a field where both the raw-material inputs and the finished goods are of declining quality. A number of them preside over plants that once produced world-class products but as factory floor strife flourishes, will increasingly be churning out factory rejects.

They are beset from without by interfering, unsympathetic government regulators. They are beset from within by declining performance from staff who are demoralised, overworked and underappreciated.

Occasionally the clients burn down the factory. Or hold the CEO hostage in a trashed office and browbeat them until they concede swingeing price cuts on services that they, the clients, won’t in any case pay for.

Yes, we’re talking about that unhappy bunch, the men and women who preside over SA’s floundering universities.

And what brought it to mind was the recent announcement that Professor Jonathan Jansen, vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, is about to abandon ship and head for terra firma, taking a position as a fellow at Stanford University in the United States.

Being as I am a product of SA’s complex processes of miscegenation – African and European, white and black, Afrikaans and English, Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk and Anglican, Zambian and South African – I have always had a deep admiration for Jansen. Here is what the old regime would have tagged a “bruin” Afrikaner – as if there ever were any other kind, except in the now discredited mythology of apartheid – who ferociously championed black political rights, yet retained his ability to be a bridge between our racial islands.

Jansen is an internationally respected scholar in the humanities. However, like all university executives his job has been less about academic matters than surfing the wild waters of higher education transformation and increasingly violent eruptions of student anger.

(@RhodesMustFall, Twitter)

(@RhodesMustFall, Twitter)

His philosophy, not unlike that of Nelson Mandela, is one of reconciliation above retribution. Also as with Mandela, it is an ethos that is rejected and reviled by the small bands of wannabe revolutionaries, many in red berets, swarming our campuses and apparently eager to foment a racial conflagration.

Jansen is by no means the first vice-chancellor who has left SA for calmer shores overseas and will certainly not be the last. Although he had from outset stated that he would lead UFS for only seven years, Jansen also concedes in a University World News report that the ongoing campus turmoil has exacted “incredible human costs”, especially on university leaders.

He describes himself as something of a Pollyanna, who always looks on the bright side, and is positive about the future of SA. But the actual picture he sketches is unremittingly gloomy.

“I’m not sure I want to be in higher education leadership anymore … the future looks very bleak. Our top universities will become like the bottom half of our universities and I don’t see anything that changes that scenario going into the future.”

Jansen says that the current campus chaos, exacerbated by government underfunding, is destroying universities. “We are in a period of chronic instability that’s going to drive away top professors and middle-class students. That I can promise you.”

Jansen’s counterpart at the University of the Witwatersrand, Professor Adam Habib, identifies a society-wide lack of accountability as the problem. Speaking at a book fair in Johannesburg last week, he reportedly said that violence had become more prevalent because there weren’t enough consequences.

“When violence erupts at Wits, it takes me four to five hours to get the police active. When they arrive, they look at me and say they are not sure what to do.”

He added that Wits has handed over to the police the names of students who have been identified as being involved in the destruction of property. Nothing has been done.

Habib describes the upheavals in a recent Sunday Times article as “a culture of rage” sweeping the country. He warns that however understandable the causes of it might be, political excess doesn’t only flourish on the right of the political spectrum.

“The excesses of the extreme and unaccountable left can be as devastating for society… Stalin, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot and even Idi Amin all started on the pretext of advancing the interests of the poor.”

Jansen, in similar vein, describes the students destroying statues and art works as our very own Taliban.

Pol Pot. The Taliban. Who would want to be a VC in SA today?

Farewell, Pollyanna, we are poorer for your departure.

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    • Richard

      In my experience, the Left generally jump ship when their society has moved in the direction they have always advocated. The Left can only exist as opposition, it cannot actually take responsibility for anything it unleashes, or actually build anything that lasts. There are too many internal contradictions.

    • Manu

      Another week and another WSM article.

      These articles for me represent what is quintessentially wrong with the psyche of whiteness in South Africa. The narrative of every article is reducible to a battle between GOOD and EVIL. The author manufactures this binary world and places himself firmly in the camp of the GOOD.
      Only in fairy tales does the world function in this way.
      In the real world no one is absolutely GOOD or absolutely EVIL.

      To create this image of Jansen as some kind of abused angel is ridiculous. He has also made mistakes. He is human after all. And I think that as a matter of principle because he held a position of leadership he too should be held to account for his leadership (this includes the leader of every institution). To absolve him of accountability on the basis that others didn’t allow him to lead is such a cop out.

      On the other hand to Talibanise protesters is also ridiculous. It relies on the silly idea that protesters are protesting for the sake of protesting, which also makes angles out of those who are being protested against. Even the Taliban, as deranged as they are, have ideals and not all their ideals are bad. Moreover the people they are fighting against are equally corrupt.

      See the world for what it is. Not as a battle between Heaven and Hell or Angels and Demons. But rather as struggles for the distribution of resources and opportunities, and the consequences of these struggles.

    • Richard

      Whiteness = bad, Blackness = good, presumably. You display this by your idea of the quintessentially “wrong” psyche of “whiteness” which is presumably bad, therefore…

    • maria

      Manu you are blinded by racist prejudice to simple, incredibly simple facts. The protests at universities have been spurious, exaggerated and highly destructive. The protesters have not engaged in debate or made their point with discipline, but have run amok and vandalized. This brute behavior is the opposite of the intellectual refinement that one expects from a university education, where things can be discussed and examined holistically. The behavior is political grandstanding and intended to be ultra provocative. It is going to have very very bad consequences.. and in time the myths will grow about the “reason” for the decline. It will be hard to trace this all back to simple things : illegal and corrupt behavior – a) a government that did not care, b) students who could not control their emotions.

    • CityMouse

      Let me start with the first of several generalisations. Many of our leaders are fair weather captains, including those who steer our academic ships. They are quite capable of ensuring that all passengers enjoy the voyage. Useful to have around while the sun is shining. It’s when the storm clouds gather that we see their shortcomings.

      What do you do when faced with such a situation? Do you risk your reputation, income and comfort to attempt to solve a complex and difficult problem – with a high probability of failure? Years of chardonnay sailing create a fondness for soft furnishings and gentle landings. A rational human being will choose a safer option, e.g. a comfortable fellowship overseas with funding guaranteed and publication assured.

      Some of our fair weather captains have seen the storm approaching. South Africa has a youth problem: there are just too many young people. Most of them will not find a place or earn a comfortable wage in this country unless the economy grows like never it never has.

      This is especially true for the majority of young people, who although aided by BBBEE, will find that seats at the table are strictly limited, and in some cases reserved. We are finally seeing the stirrings of a generational conflict. This is a problem Academia cannot solve. Time to jump ship.