/ 1 June 2009

Mending broken lines

“The recognition of ‘likeness’ in the face of different and dissonant knowledge paralyses rather than liberates imagination.” — Inga Clendinnen, Reading the Holocaust (Cambridge ­University Press, 1999)

She must have been sitting on the couch outside my office for some time. By her nervous manner so early in the morning, about 07h15, I could sense this was not likely to be an ordinary meeting between the dean and an undergraduate student.

She held her bag and a book tightly to her chest, and when I appeared out of the elevator across from my office door she leapt to her feet in attention. “Goeie more,” I ventured, guessing that like most of the undergraduates she was probably Afrikaans-speaking but, if she was not, she would greet in English to softly correct me and of course the conversation would proceed in her language.

This simple gesture, a greeting, could be such a sensitive matter at the University of Pretoria. With white residents in the city itself, depending on the language of ­initiation, I was constantly aware of this potential dilemma. When I was not sure, I would greet in both ­languages in rapid succession, “Goeie more/Good morning”, and leave it to the student to lead the language of conversation.

And with African students, I might even add Dumelang or Thobela or Sawu’bona — not that I could go much beyond those opening lines, but at least it made a difference to students to be recognised in what they regarded as their “own” language.

The language of greeting, the initiation of conversation, still carries enormous emotional and political meaning for white and black alike in this language­sensitive environment.

Goeie more, Dekaan, [Good morning, Dean],” says the student, and asks if she can see me. “Well it depends,” I reminded her of the rule, “if you are a first-year student.”

I only allowed first-year students to see me without an appointment, a practice that was to draw instant applause from the parents and that would communicate early on to the students that they were highly regarded in this new place. It always provoked some degree of humorous appreciation when they were told at the annual welcoming ceremony that the university vice-chancellor, on the other hand, needed an appointment in advance.

My visitor made it clear that she was a first-year student and I kept the promise, inviting her in. She again sat on the edge of the seat opposite me and it was clear that small talk was not working and so, after making her coffee, I asked what the problem was.

The young woman became very earnest and said the following: “Dean, I noticed all the things that you and your leadership team do for students, especially us first years, and last night I was thinking and thought I should come and say thank you, and ask you whether I could pray for you.”

I remember catching my breath and being completely silenced by this rare and dramatic request to pray for someone she hardly knew.

I must have been in this state of shock for a moment too long for she interrupted: “May I?” I responded quickly: “But of course my child, you can pray for me; in fact, I would really appreciate it; thank you so much.”

She bowed her head, took my hand, and prayed that God might protect me, give me wisdom and bless me for my leadership of the faculty and the students. The knob in my throat was unbearable, and I burst into tears.

“How on earth is this possible?” I asked myself for weeks and months and even years afterwards. Why would a first-year white girl come all that way to pray for a black dean with such genuine concern and compassion? How is it possible that in those early years after apartheid (this was in 2003) a young white woman could rise above the racial devastation that plagued the land and do something so profoundly humane?

To understand why such an event was so unlikely requires understanding of the closed circuits of ideological transmission that shaped white Afrikaner children in South Africa. For that young woman to travel the short physical distance from the women’s “res” (residence) where she stayed to my campus office she had, in fact, to travel a much greater emotional, cultural and political distance.

In the first place, she had to cover the racial distance that separated a white student from a black dean. Race had separated us for centuries, and race still defined in the university and the broader society predictable patterns of association between white and black citizens.

In the second place, she had to cover the gendered distance that separated men from women in this highly patriarchal institution. A woman asking to pray for a man overturns the tables of the patriarchal order in both our Christian traditions (evangelical and Dutch Reformed), where men lead as priests and women sit in silence and support. This action of the young woman called for a lot of ground to be covered.

And in the third place, she had to cover the authority distance that socially set the dean’s office at some elevation from that of staff and students.

A lowly first-year student in institutional estimation, she had to travel a long way to the office of the dean.

Race, patriarchy and authority combined to make this an unusual journey for this young, white ­Afrikaner girl, and it marked the first of many events in which my white students started to chip away at the suspicion, the reticence and the moral certainties that I carried as a black South African in relation to my white compatriots*.

*In the burgeoning ­literature on white-black relations in schools and universities, I have yet to find sustained research on the relationship between white students and black faculty, surely a necessary inquiry in post­apartheid society.

This is an edited extract from Jonathan Jansen’s Knowledge in the Blood: Confronting Race and the Apartheid Past (Stanford University Press). At the time of the encounter recalled here, Jansen was dean of education at the University of Pretoria. He is
now vice-chancellor-elect of the University of the Free State.