The gloss of Professor Jonathan Jansen’s inauguration as vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State has been taken off by the resounding criticism of his decision to drop charges against the “Reitz Residence” students.
Four students were suspended when a 2007 video came to light where they were humiliating five staff at their residence. They claimed that they were making a statement against integration at the university and the residences.
Professor Jonathan Jansen is well-known as someone with strong views and the determination to express them stridently. This served him well during his time as dean of education at the University of Pretoria.
His desire to draw a line under the incident and move on to substantive transformation at the university is understandable, but has not been widely supported.
There were initial concerns expressed about the decision but the furore has not died down. Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande called for the decision to be suspended — a call which has now been supported by all his Cabinet colleagues.
Unions have been more vocal in their attacks. Nursing union Denosa has questioned Jansen’s ability to run the university, and Cosatu in the Free State have called for his removal from the position.
Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu is the only notable figure to come out in support of Jansen’s call for reconciliation rather than continuing with the charges.
Professor Jansen seems to have taken all the major roleplayers off guard when he made the announcement. He said at the time that he had consulted with all the stakeholders, but that has been denied by the unions and workers involved.
It seems a very basic mistake to have mad by Jansen. It looks like he felt the decision was his alone to make. He spoke to relevant roleplayers and gauged their opinions but made the decision himself. With such a sensitive matter it would probably have been better to tell the interested parties personally before he made the public announcement.
The absence of an apology from the four young men who humiliated the cleaners at the residence is a clear omission. How do we expect the victims to behave if they meet the students on campus?
However the criminal case and Equality Court hearings against the four students will continue. Maybe the case is better served in a court of law rather than a university hearing.
Professor Jansen has also not expressed clearly enough that the young men have already been punished to some degree. All had to interrupt their studies and the residence has been closed. So they aren’t going away without any consequences for their action, even though many would argue that the consequences were not severe enough.
Jansen was correct when he said the decision would split opinions in two. Knowing in advance that it would be so controversial it would have been better for the respected academic to handle the announcement in a more polished way. Having the cleaning staff now claim that they were lied to is not a good start for Jansen.