Jansen blind to racial dynamics

2009-11-06 13:57

WHAT has been telling about Professor Jona­than Jansen’s “gesture of racial reconciliation” on assuming the vice-chancellorship of the University of the Free State (UFS) is his failure to confront the real problem of white racism.

Jansen is familiar with the insights offered by Steve Biko and writing in City Press some four years ago he declared: “What Black Consciousness did for thousands, if not millions, of my generation in the 1970s was to provide an emotional, spiritual and political ­anchor in the face of the debilitating power of whiteness in everyday aspects of South African life.”

So it seems ironic that what Jansen singularly failed to do is to openly confront the power and cost of white racism as it pertains to the case of the Reitz Four. But in this he is not alone because the most striking thing about the whole affair is the almost national reluctance of white South Africans to stand up and say justice must be done.

Confronting white racism cannot be achieved through the kind of symbolic gestures, tears and gentle words that Jansen has put forward. Moreover, it cannot be addressed through paternalistic ­attempts to work for people rather than with them.

Any serious attempt to face white racism requires that those guilty of racist attitudes and behaviour undertake critical self-reflection. They must come to see how their actions are morally reprehensible and undertake genuine acts of atonement.

Remarkably, Jansen has shown little solidarity and sensitivity towards the black cleaners whose humanity was abused. How can he disregard their experience and feelings? For, when all is said and done, who bears the full costs of racism? What weight do the white students represent in the black cleaners’ world compared to what the latter represent to the former?

Do the accused even begin to grasp what is at stake here? The point is: they should. The Reitz Four have to reflect on the racial construction of their own identities and ask how that construction has affected their actions – a process that requires that the cleaners no longer be framed as “victims” but as people fully deserving respect and dignity as their equals.

Jansen’s inaugural speech used the excuse of “institutional culture” to absolve the Reitz Four. But if this is part of the problem then one must also move to confront this broader context.

If institutional culture is to blame then far-reaching proactive engagement is required; a fact recognised in the ANC’s most recent call for a truth and reconciliation process at UFS.
Indeed, there is no doubt that many white people tied to UFS are, in the words of African-American writer James Baldwin, “trapped in a history they do not understand” and “until they understand it, they cannot be released from it”.

The real challenge that faces Jansen is to make all those complicit in white racism at UFS aware of how it is sociologically embedded in centuries of unjust white rule and accumulated privilege, and to help liberate them from notions of “white superiority” and “black inferiority”.

It is also Jansen’s task to reclaim solidarity with all those who have been on the raw end of white racism at UFS. Anything less is to pander to white racial interests and to support a status quo in which white society and its values escape being put into real question. Unless such moves are made, Jansen will end up transforming nothing.

Taylor is Associate Professor of Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

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