Visionary and courageous

2009-10-31 14:24

REAL leaders with vision, energy and commitment are extremely rare in all societies. When they do appear, they should be treasured.

Jonathan Jansen is such a leader. The Free State University vice-chancellor is a brave, imaginative and dedicated leader in the field where we need leaders most; education. And how do we treasure him? We call him a racist, an Uncle Tom and a traitor and we demand that he be shot and killed. That is how far we have sunk in this society.

But what did we expect? During the past year or so the most senior leaders of the ruling party launched unprecedented attacks on the judiciary and indeed the judges of the highest court in the land. The leader of the ANC Youth League publicly threatened to kill those who opposed the leader of his faction of the ANC. The same man later called the leader of the official opposition, someone 30 years his senior with a strong anti-apartheid reputation, an “ugly, racist little girl” and endorsed his colleagues’ statement that she was having sex with all her cabinet ministers. Umkhonto weSizwe veterans threatened to make the Western Cape ungovernable through the use of force because they didn’t like the new provincial government; they recently told a struggle veteran and former cabinet minister to “find a grave and die”.

Judges and sports administrators made racist utterances with impunity. In the rare case where these aberrations were publicly condemned by the ANC leadership the ­condemnations were so faint they sounded more like camouflaged praise.

Add to this weekly reports of the theft of tens of millions of rands by top officials and ruling party functionaries; a circus of a court case where the close friendship between a former commissioner of police and a top gangster plays itself out like a cheap soapie; cabinet ministers spending millions on super-luxury cars and hotel accommodation while townships and squatter camps burn; and the tragic truth becomes crystal clear – morally speaking, South Africa has become a failed state.

The public lynching of Professor Jansen this past week was a sickening sight. In a devastating indictment of his political opportunism and utter lack of leadership, the crisis was not defused by the man in charge of higher education, Blade Nzimande, but by a rabble-rouser and cheap populist with a strong anti-intellectual bent – ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema.

That is the state of our nation: the one to give leadership and bring sanity when madness reigns is not the president or the cabinet or the leaders in the education department, but Malema. The man who threatens political killings, makes jokes about rape victims and says stupid things like “hermaphroditism cannot exist because there is no word for it in Pedi”, suddenly stands out as the paragon of virtue and vision.

Jansen is not a political Johnny-come-lately. He must have known that his proposal to rehabilitate the four racist students who made the horrible video humiliating five black workers would be a controversial one. He must have known that the easiest way out would have been to do nothing; to just let the criminal case against the students continue and their expulsion from the university remain. He has been dealing with racism in education for years now; he knows how raw and emotional an issue it is. But that’s what makes him a leader: he really wanted to change the racial impasse on the campus and had the courage to risk a new initiative. He is right when he says the criminal case against the Reitz Four won’t do anything to resolve the problem, and he is right when he says it is more an institutional problem than a private pathology. I am a Free Stater and know the politics of the campus fairly well. The racial groups are light years away from each other and the relationship is dominated by fear, suspicion and loathing. I have no doubt that Jansen is the best, if not the only, hope to bring harmony and proper transformation to the university. Criminal prosecutions or forced integration alone won’t do the job.

The newspapers did not help with their skewed and emotive reporting that left the impression among black students at the campus that the Reitz Four would just be forgiven and welcomed back with no consequences. The trade union Nehawu didn’t help either by playing politics in the name of protecting the victims – they prevented the four from offering a proper apology in person and even prevented Jansen from properly consulting the victims.

Malema is not my favourite politician, but he was the only ANC politician who acted responsibly this week. His and Jansen’s idea that all groups and races on campus should come forward in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission-type exercise and talk about their experiences, fears and ­resentments is a good one.

Maybe they will teach the rest of us how to make peace, communicate and live together. But then all of us need to support and trust Jansen and others like him.

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