Arts and Culture

Breaking the blood knot

Mark Potterton

Jonathan Jansen's 'pardoning' of four University of the Free State students seems to run counter to some ideas in his groundbreaking book.

Knowledge in the Blood: Confronting Race and the Apartheid past (UCT Press)by Jonathan Jansen

Jonathan Jansen is a prominent personality in the South African education landscape. Challenging, controversial and sometimes cynical, he has not been afraid to engage with the issues of the day. Knowledge in the Blood reflects on his experience as the first black dean of education at the University of Pretoria and asks why it was that young Afrikaners, born at the time of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, held such rigid ideas about black people?

The book and its lines of inquiry become even more urgent in light of Jansen’s recent inaugural lecture as rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State and the institution’s intention to withdraw charges against four white Afrikaans students accused of demeaning black cleaning staff there.

Knowledge in the Blood is a reflection on the tremendous social change that was taking place after the demise of apartheid. Jansen originally set out to convey a story of how white students were changing, but he soon realised that these students changed him. Jansen was a witness both to the apartheid past and to the dramatic transition after apartheid and he provides an account of his appointment at the university in the first chapter. He tells of his interactions with colleagues, administration and students: “At UP I have had some of the most profound and life-changing experiences that any human being could expect to face in one career.”

The accounts of loss and change are documented in the second chapter: white people unprepared for the suddenness of transition as well as giving up privilege and power. Jansen writes of emotions of defeat and uncertainty and notes that there remains deep denial about a criminal apartheid past among white Afrikaner children and their living parents.

There is no sense of crimes committed, or of personal responsibility among the parents or the children. Probing the apartheid past therefore provokes irritability and sometimes a hostile response. Jansen also observes that there is widespread silence among Afrikaner youth about the apartheid past.

To understand the nature of knowledge of the past transmitted to the second generation, Jansen explores the knowledge received by the parents or first generation. These were Afrikaners who upheld white nationalist rule: family, Afrikaans cultural organisations, Christian National Education and other overlapping social institutions such as military service. The knowledge of black people that was transmitted was that they were communists and terrorists whereas whites were Christian and civilised. Blacks were seen as a threat to the very existence of whites. Jansen argues that these closed circles of interconnecting influences kept intact the transmission of knowledge from the first generation to the post-apartheid youth.

In the fourth chapter Jansen recounts the disruptive strategies that white Afrikaner students used to defend the privilege that “their” campus offered. According to Jansen, one reason that transformation strategies at the university failed was because they dealt with the consequences of the disruption of their secure knowledge rather than with the problem of received knowledge.

“Worse, some had come to the terrible realisation that the past was not as innocent as they believed.”

Knowledge in the Blood is an emotional account. Emotional moments are relived. His account of a chance meeting with a colleague in a shopping mall is memorable. He greets the colleague who pretends she doesn’t know him. His daughter says: “I don’t think she knows you.” This silent act was more devastating than a spoken rejection. Jansen could not understand how people who work so closely in one space could pretend nothing happened in another. His colleagues represented an important link in the transmission of knowledge—they had direct experience in both the new democratic order and the old order. These colleagues had to reconcile ways of thinking and doing under white rule with ways of thinking in a new, open society. These colleagues “stumbled into the new democratic order” without any reorientation—not that anyone in South African society had any reorientation. They had to adjust on emotional, psychological and social levels.

The knowledge in the blood is the knowledge embedded in the emotional, psychic, social lives of the community. It’s in the blood, so it certainly can’t be easily disputed. This knowledge, according to Jansen, is habitual, a knowledge that is “routinised”.

Jansen then describes how they set about changing the curriculum at the university and how colleagues grappled with new ideas while others rejected the new curriculum. Jansen explains how the symbols were changed in the faculty and how he appointed a white woman and a black man as deputy deans.

“Apartheid could not sustain itself without black collaboration and the same apartheid could not be overthrown without white solidarity.” This insight provides the basis for Jansen’s post-conflict pedagogy. Undoing oppression in divided communities requires that both the perpetrators and the victims are brought together in the same space, allowing for both clash and engagement between conflicting knowledge. Jansen argues that stereotypes and racism remain in the absence of prolonged engagement between black and white students.

In post-conflict pedagogy the teacher and the students become part of the classroom story. Teachers bring their own identities as well as their knowledge of the past. Teachers strive for collective understanding and create an atmosphere that reduces the risk of speaking openly about direct and indirect knowledge. These dialogues can take place only if trust is present and there is a possibility of conciliation both inside and outside the classroom.

Jansen’s account of change in an education faculty provides a unique insight into change processes in post-apartheid institutions. He has initiated a new conversation, articulating emotions seldom spoken about in public spaces, sharing how something had happened to him that he never thought possible: “This is that the more I taught, led and lived among my white students, the more I found myself loving them as my children and caring for them as my own.”

The book concludes with a graduation scene at the university—a description of two student testimonies and a hall filled with the sounds of a diverse choir singing an inclusive repertoire. Jansen feels a dream coming true, a new liberating knowledge displacing the stubbornness of indirect knowledge. He recalls a verse of a Paul Robeson song:
Our country’s strong, our country’s young/ And her greatest songs are still unsung.

Mark Potterton works at the Catholic Institute of Education

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