Insult to injury

2009-10-31 13:32

I HAVE been as intrigued by Jonathan Jansen’s inaugural ­lecture as the 13th vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS) as I have been by some of the responses to it.

The Jansen saga is a reminder of various things we would do well to reflect on. His lyrical references to the conflicted pasts of both the Free State province and the university itself did little to mask the real meat at the heart of his lecture: his decision on the Reitz matter.

Though he claimed his interest in “closing the book on Reitz” and “reconciliation, forgiveness and social justice”, the UFS’s first black rector legitimised the ongoing trivialisation of the lives of working-class black people.

The ANC Youth League is wrong to expect us to claim him as one of our own just because he is black. The workers who were victimised by the white UFS students that Jansen wishes to protect are also black.

Who claims them?

Unlike Jansen I am not surprised that the Reitz “atrocity could have been committed on the grounds of an institution of higher learning”. This is the easiest part of the entire Reitz video saga to understand unless we choose to ignore both history and the ongoing state of South African academia.

It is academia that first popularised notions of racial and other supremacy through scientific racism. Higher education continues to be shaped by this legacy in ways too numerous to list here but on which much academic literature exists. Jansen knows this well.

Having recognised that the racist performance captured on tape was enabled by institutional power rather than individual deviant peculiarities, Jansen re-enacts it.

First he treats the entire matter as though it is about sets of two arbitrary individuals set up against each other: errant young white men versus violated black workers who can be quickly compensated so that they may forgive.

It is noteworthy that Jansen spends barely any ink on these workers. The bulk of his narrative is dedicated to those who matter: the young men whose futures are at risk, who need to be reintegrated into the university community in order to acquire further institutional power.

To mask this evaluation Jansen is silent on the place of justice, responsibility and recognition in society. Not for these young UFS hooligans the expulsion meted out to many other students who act in ways universities do not like, even if their transgressions are victimless. In Jansen’s book, the futures of the white UFS students are much more important than the lives of the students ­financially excluded from his and many other universities.

Jansen evokes that convenient Christian narrative we all had to deal with during the fraught TRC to invite us to share his complicity. But he takes it a step further, and unlike the TRC, the violated are not even required to forgive or speak at all. The workers who were publicly humiliated will be compensated in unnamed ways; they are not even important enough to consult. They are simply required to forgive. This is one of the inheritances of the TRC: this terrible obligation of black forgiveness.

Along with black forgiveness, we are invited to turn a blind eye to the many ways in which violence against poor black people is endemic at UFS and the country. Like many others with institutional power, the new UFS rector has chosen the side of power.

Jansen has felt himself pressed to frequent Reitz but there is no mention of how hard he tried to connect to the men and women who suffered such indignities. Biko was wrong when he said all black people’s feelings matter

As for the proposed Reitz Institute for Studies in Race, Reconciliation and Social Justice, I think it calls for a rare moment of action by South African academia: its complete boycott. I know that you could not pay this particular black woman academic enough money to go ­anywhere near it.

) Dineo Gqola is a feminist writer and associate professor at the Wits School of Literature and Language Studies

- Pumla ­Dineo Gqola

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