Academia and teaching Politics

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.

Culture External World Politics

COSAS is hamster number one

cosaslogoThere is never any reason to expect a new year to be any different from the previous one. The arbitrary shift from December to January is good for a few days off, and for many of us, too much indulgence – but changing minds and attitudes takes longer than that, and isn’t responsive to fireworks and Auld Lang Syne in any case.

So, it’s no surprise to find that – after a mere 5 days of 2013 – we already have (at least) 2 depressing examples of the hamster wheel that is discourse around race in South Africa. Much effort is put into keeping it spinning, but to little effect. And if one hamster dies, another – often indistinguishable from the last – takes its place.

COSAS is hamster number 1. This Black Consciousness movement was formed in the late 70’s to represent black pupils, following the Soweto uprisings. They have many proud moments in their history, regardless of whether you agree with their politics or not. You can read about their history here if you care to. The salient detail for my purposes is that the “organization’s principle aims were the conscientising of students and the wider community to the repressive nature of education in South Africa” (sic).

If you think the construction of that sentence poor, consider this, the first sentence of the recent COSAS statement on the 2012 Matric (Grade 12, the final year of secondary school) results:

The congress of South African students would like to unreservedly welcome the metric result of the class of 2012, this class is the class that reactionary forces anticipated negative outcomes from, as a way to put substance onto their argument which suggest that there is a severe collapse of order in the government that is lead by the ANC, the 2012 result beyond any other thing they are specially recognized by COSAS because they Are a reflection of a narrowing gap in terms of the quality of education between the model c schools and the township and the rural school, and such was made more than visible by the performance of a number of students who scored outstanding result from the lowest quintiles of our schools.

As a friend pointed out, this is a telling example, and “a massive indictment, of what mass education has done for born-free South Africans”. Not to mention proof-positive that COSAS’s work (as quoted above) is not yet done, in that the organisation’s Secretary General is still a clear victim of that repressive education himself.

The statement carries on in that vein (here’s the pdf), and in some respects gets worse when Tshiamo Tsotetsi (the Secretary General) expresses concern that publishing student names and results in newspapers is ill-advised because pupils are then targets for witchcraft: “All of these bad things can come to an end only if these results are no longer published. We would no longer loose our young people through depression or witchcraft.”

One of the leaders of an organisation devoted to improving school education, in other words, believes that children are being lost through witchcraft (and therefore, that witchcraft even exists). And of course, he’s right to some extent, seeing as pupils no doubt believe this too and are therefore victims of something people call “witchcraft”, despite their being nothing supernatural about it at all. But the tragedy is that 12 years of school isn’t sufficient to dispel these superstitions. Or, that nothing in the curriculum teaches skills and principles of reasoning that would help to do so. Worst of all, it’s probable that many teachers believe in witchcraft themselves.

The education system, the Matric results, and the gloating of the Ministry of Basic Education – even in the face of a reality where less than 1 in 3 pupils complete high school – could be the subject of an extended rant. As could hamster number 2, Gillian Schutte, with her recent prescriptive self-flagellation entitled  “Dear White People“. I’ll get to that in a separate post, and for now simply reiterate what I said on first reading her column (with apologies for misspelling Schutte’s last name):