Jansen “ashamed of South Africa”. Or not.

jansen_40379bSo here’s a neat example of how bad South African media can be, or perhaps the negative consequences of treating it as a reliable source. The problem is in large measure due to a reliance on the South African Press Association (Sapa) for copy. And yes, Sapa is a real and quasi-respectable thing, unlike the National Press Club. The NPC is only real, and not at all respectable, following their award of “Newsmaker of the year” to “the rhino”. And that’s without even mentioning Yu(suf Abramjee) know who, chairperson of the NPC.

Sapa copy accounts for the vast majority of what people in South Africa read in their newspapers. So, when Beeld reports that Jonathan Jansen, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, said he was ashamed of South Africa (that link takes you to an Afrikaans page), it is unsurprising that the copy in question comes from Sapa. But what the copy coming from Sapa also means is that you’re likely to find the same copy in a bunch of other newspapers.

Jansen said that the Beeld report was inaccurate, and is quoted in the Times as saying:

This is not what I said in my opening remarks to first year students. I did not say I am ashamed of South Africa; that is impossible. I did not say I would expel students for being angry. No, this is an irresponsible recollection of what I said by people who were not there i.e. the Beeld. The Volksblad is more accurate.

Alright, then – let’s look at what the Volksblad’s report said. Jansen is quoted as saying “Ek skaam my vel van my gesig af vir Suid-Afrika. Dit is ’n algehele skande dat jy matriek met ’n punt van 30% kan slaag” – the exact words he’s quoted as using in the “irresponsible” report from the Beeld, and words which mean … yes, that he’s ashamed of South Africa. Even if you don’t understand Afrikaans, you can verify for yourself that those words look the same, and in the same order, as these from the Beeld: “Ek skaam my vel van my gesig af vir Suid-Afrika. Dis ’n absolute skande dat jy matriek kan slaag met ’n punt van 30%”.

Of course this might still be a misquote. But you’d expect that Jansen would look at a source that he’s claiming is “more accurate” before doing so – especially when it’s effectively the same source, namely Sapa (Here’s an English version). And it’s annoying that he has to climb down from such a statement in any case – our basic education system is something that merits shame, and a university Vice-Chancellor is well placed to comment on the scandalous failure on the part of government to give kids a fighting chance at university success (or, to give universities a fighting chance at maintaining standards while also avoiding huge class rifts).

It’s annoying that he had to climb down from that statement because he really did say something offensive (assuming the report is true) during this welcoming address to first-year students. He said (in both Afrikaans versions quoted above, and in the English):

“I always make time for students, but before you make an appointment, my secretary looks at your academic record. If you’ve failed a subject, I’m not going to waste my time with you,” he told 4 000 first-year students.

However, he invited students to contact him on Facebook and Twitter if they have problems.

So long as you’re on Facebook or Twitter, Prof. Jansen would be happy to hear about the difficult circumstances you might be encountering, and that you fear might lead to you failing a course. Good news for those with smartphones, airtime, computers and the like. But don’t bother, say, waiting outside his office on crutches or something, to explain how (e.g.) a car accident caused you to miss an exam and fail a course.]

Talking to you would be a waste of time, you see.

I’m not known as a very friendly person with students. In fact, I know I’m perceived as fairly unwelcoming. And it’s true that there are students with whom it is a waste of time to speak. I can understand Jansen’s “tough love” rhetoric. But if you’re – as a Vice-Chancellor – going to speak off the cuff, you shouldn’t be surprised if you put your foot in it every now and then.

But being apologetic for the one remark, about being ashamed of South Africa, seems to be an attempt to recover some lost ground with patriotic minded (of a sensitive sort) South Africans, with the Department of Basic Education, and with Government more generally. From my vantage point, as a teacher of roughly 1400 first-year students of the sort Jansen was addressing, it’s the students that deserve the apology.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.