Jonathan Jansen is one of our most outspoken and influential academic leaders. From time to time he has taken sensible and courageous decisions in navigating the minefield of transformational politics at his own university, the University of the Free State.
Accordingly, we cannot fail to react when he ascribes the recent untimely death of Prof Russel Botman, the late Vice-Chancellor of the University of Stellenbosch, to "merciless vilification" by "right-wing alumni, aided and abetted by the Afrikaans press, in blogger postings, in alumni associations, and in formal gatherings of the institution."
According to Jansen, the "gossip, rumour, insult, intimidation, side-lining and sheer slander" that these "right-wing" elements directed at Botman during the past few years were responsible for the death of "this gentle theologian".
Jansen writes that Botman incurred the wrath of the right-wingers by "pushing for more black students to enter the university"; by "introducing a more flexible language policy so black Africans can enrol in greater numbers"; "by asking that building names honouring white supremacists, like the first apartheid prime minister DF Malan, be changed to reflect the new country and the transformation vision that appears largely on paper"; by "desiring a Centre for Inclusiveness that could challenge the deeply racist, sexist and homophobic foundations on which this institution, and others, was built".
At the heart of Jansen’s charges lie fundamentally differing views of the role of universities in multicultural societies and the nature of the transformation that is required by our non-racial constitutional democracy.
Jansen equates transformation with the implementation of demographic representivity in terms of which universities should ensure that their faculties and student bodies broadly reflect the racial demographics of South Africa. He is particularly critical of some former Afrikaans universities "which use Afrikaans as a perfect alibi for not transforming."
For Jansen academic excellence and the constitutional right to education in the language of one’s choice are evidently of secondary importance. He warns recalcitrant campus leaders "that in the wake of our horrific racist past, white-dominant campuses in this country are morally unacceptable, demographically unjust and educationally dangerous." So what he is saying is that all our universities - regardless of their histories or geographic location - must be dominated by the black majority.
He castigates "intransigent white institutions" - such as the University of Cape Town - that fail to meet demographic targets because they define excellence outside of "basic decency" (which he interprets as the need to appoint staff and to recruit students on the basis of race). He points out that there is "not a single black African female who is a full professor" at UCT - while he knows full well that the problem is the lack of suitable candidates - not an absence of will. After all, UCT has twice as many black professors as UFS.
He expresses his views with a vehemence that leaves very little room for debate. However, there are other perfectly defensible views on how our universities should transform to play their proper roles in our multicultural society.
For some, the key value should be non-racialism. Transformation should mean that academic merit - and not racial discrimination in any form - should be the main criterion for the appointment and promotion of academic staff and the recruitment of students. While implementing special programmes to attract and advance as many excellent black academics and students as possible - the approach should be colour-blind.
Still another view is that in multicultural societies there is nothing wrong if universities choose to offer tuition in one or other of the national languages provided that they do so on a non-racial and non-exclusive basis. Indeed, it is difficult to see how we can promote the constitutional vision of cultural and linguistic diversity if there are no universities that champion our various languages - as was recommended by the late Prof Jakes Gerwel.
In a country established on the premise that all our languages should enjoy parity of esteem why should one language, English, be imposed on everybody else? Why should there not be universities where Zulu, Tswana or Pedi are the predominant languages? Why shouldn’t one of the three universities in the Western Cape - an Afrikaans majority province - use Afrikaans as its principal language of tuition?
There are multicultural countries throughout the world where minorities have universities where they can develop their own cultures and languages on a non-exclusive basis within the framework of the broader nation. Why should minorities in multicultural states be subject to domination of the majority, particularly in educational institutions that are so essential for the preservation of their traditions, cultures and languages?
The 'right-wingers' that Prof Jansen accuses of causing Prof Botman’s death do not have a racial or retrogressive agenda. They simply want to ensure the preservation and development of Afrikaans, on a non-racial and non-exclusive basis, as the principal language of tuition at the country’s oldest Afrikaans-medium university. They fear, with good reason, that Afrikaans as an academic language is under dire threat - and know that if it disappears it will have far-reaching implications for their language - whose preservation Jansen also professes to support.
Although supporters of Afrikaans often differed with Prof Botman’s approach, they generally respected him as a man and as an academic - and were shocked and saddened by his untimely death. To blame them for his death is unworthy of Jansen - as is his charge that they were responsible for "the dark clouds of evil" that "were gathering around Prof Botman’s head before his death." It is, indeed, a sad day when leading academics characterise those who disagree with them as evil - rather than engaging them in rational debate.
Neither does Jansen disguise his aversion for everything that he imagines that Stellenbosch - with its "deeply racist, sexist and homophobic foundations" - represented in the past. He dismisses the many worthy aspects of the university, its cultural traditions, its academic excellence and the enormous contribution that its alumni have made to the development of South Africa. Not the least of these was the role that Stellenbosch played in changing Afrikaner attitudes that ultimately facilitated the transformation of our society.
Sadly, Jansen’s views reveal the depth of the antipathies that continue to bedevil our national discourse and that make it so difficult for us to hold a rational discussion on the future of our universities; on the need for transformation; and on the rightful place of minorities within our multicultural society.
By Dave Steward, Executive Director of the FW de Klerk Foundation