Jonathan Jansen is Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State and President of the South African Institute of Race Relations.
Amandla!: How did you become involved in education?
Jansen: First of all, I wasn’t very good at education. I had most of my schooling on the Cape Flats. Secondly, I had no intention to pursue a career in education. Nor did I ever think of a career at all because the horizons that were set for me were very modest ones. I thought I’d finish school and probably sell fish in Cape Town. I didn’t have any great dreams of doing anything wonderful with my life until two things happened.
One was having a Latin teacher at high school who took notice of me and told me that I was very smart, which I didn’t think I was, but suddenly I started to perform according to the expectations of the teacher. And then I had a good friend who was the first in our community to go to university, so I thought that maybe I should go too. I found out that there weren’t bursaries at that time for black kids to do anything other than teaching or library science or police work. And so I decided, well, let’s do teaching with a BSc degree because I could get a bursary for it. But in choosing to do teaching for a few years, purely to pay off the bursary, I discovered that I absolutely loved the job.
A!: What would you say about the state of race and education in South Africa in 2013?
JJ: We have two education systems in this country. One is for the privileged, the elite. That is a deracialised system; for probably 10–15% of our children race is not a big issue. Plus there’s the fact that they all share access to the best teachers and the best resources. In those middle-class, upper middle-class, public and private schools you find friendships that develop because of a common class interest rather than divisions because of racial interests. And then you have public, racially exclusive schools which are largely black; the majority of our schools are in fact black and poor and dysfunctional. And then somewhere in the middle you have schools that are integrated not because of any great democratic ideals but because of geography and opportunity, and those schools often struggle. You don’t see the harsh experiences of race, racism, that you saw in the 1990s, even in the early 2000s. But there are tensions from time to time, especially in that middle group of working-class integrated schools, where students struggle with memories and histories given to them second-hand. They didn’t live through apartheid, but as I wrote in my book Knowledge in the Blood, they live as if that experience were theirs.
A!: And what about the crisis in the quality of education?
JJ: I think you find that crisis is particularly acute in the largely black segment and to some extent in the middle group of schools that I spoke about. And that’s really very bad because it contrasts quite spectacularly with the middle-class schools of black and white students who are integrated. These are the students who get the high passes in mathematics and the physical sciences. I’ve always been astounded that we allow such inequality to persist by pretending there’s not a problem. So if you listen to the annual speech of the Minister of basic education on the release of the grade 12 results, you could swear everything is going spectacularly well, when the truth is that less than a quarter of all students pass subjects like life sciences, physical sciences, mathematics, at the 50% level. And so that crisis is a crisis that starts in primary schools and carries through to the high schools, and if the universities did nothing—as some do— it would simply perpetuate this crisis into higher education. And that to me is probably the most serious indictment of South Africa’s leadership. Because this is a crisis that is multigenerational—it’s not a crisis of one year or for one group of students, and the longer it carries on the more it affects our future in a very bad way.