A bridge too far

It is easy to feel sympathy for Jonathan Jansen, not least because there is so much that is right about what he is trying to achieve.

A brave and resolute man, Jansen chose the moment of his inauguration as vice-chancellor at the University of the Free State to set out a far-reaching programme of transformation for an institution still shackled to a shameful legacy. He also tried to reach out to a very nervous Afrikaans community—his appointment had on its own generated fear and uncertainty, especially after he announced his plans to get rid of the violent initiation rites that had been an integral part of the university culture.

But he went too far.

In what has been called his Madiba moment Jansen sought to take responsibility for the university’s history and acknowledge that the white students accused of assaulting black workers were a product of the university’s institutional culture. He was no doubt right about that.

He was wrong, however, to think that he was in a position to deliver ­institutional absolution from on high without a thorough-going process involving both the perpetrators and the victims.

The grace that Jansen alluded to in his speech can only intervene to bring redemption when the guilty have made confession and, even outside this explicitly religious context, forgiveness is fundamentally a face-to-face transaction between individuals.

So far there has been no indication that the accused feel any remorse for their behaviour or that they have attempted either to take responsibility for their actions or to apologise to the workers whom they so cruelly abused.

Certainly the women themselves take Jansen’s gesture as a fresh assault by the university.
“This proves we are nothing,” one of them told the M&G this week.

Those who back Jansen say the students will still be punished through the criminal case against them and that they would have nowhere to go outside of the University of the Free State. These are all valid concerns, but why should everyone bend over backwards for these young men when they do not display an iota of regret and refuse to repent?

That is accommodation, not reconciliation.

The tragedy, of course, is that the scale of Jansen’s ambition, his desire to wrap up the trauma of these events in one powerful move, now puts at risk the truly valuable and appropriate institutional transformation he wants to effect.

Compelling the integration of hostels, requiring that white students learn SeSotho while preserving Afrikaans medium instruction, insisting on the primacy of high academic standards and openness to the global scholarly community, and putting the study of race and reconciliation at the heart of the university’s identity are all powerful moves in the right direction.

As brave as he is, Jansen should now admit that he erred and convene a discussion within the university, one that includes both victims and perpetrators, about how the disciplinary process can best be pursued in a way consonant with his larger goals.

It will be difficult thing for him to do, but we think he is up to it.

Where rubber meets road
It is fast becoming Jacob Zuma’s hallmark, this tendency to leave all his options open, to set opposing forces at play and watch with a beneficent grin as they struggle for precedence.

We have reported at length in recent weeks on the revival of the battle between the ANC’s nationalists and communists as the president’s Polokwane coalition fractures and its warriors regroup behind their old standards.

That dynamic is increasingly playing out in Zuma’s Cabinet, with the pragmatic technocrats—most prominently Pravin Gordhan and Trevor Manuel—ranged against what we too conveniently call “the leftists” in the form of Blade Nzimande and Ebrahim Patel.

While Gordhan beavers away on what will be the most closely watched medium-term budget policy statement in years, Patel has seized on the confusion surrounding this week’s reshuffle of Cabinet clusters to assert the primacy of his fledgling economic development department over areas of policy traditionally administered by the national treasury and department of trade and industry.

He hasn’t managed to produce a Green Paper setting out his remit, but he was quick with a press statement welcoming Zuma’s assertion that he was in charge of macro- and microeconomic “development policy”, omitting to mention that that is exactly what was said at the time of his appointment, and that macroeconomic development policy isn’t quite the same thing as actual macroeconomic management—inflation targets, spending levels, tax, borrowing—in other words, the stuff that matters.

Gordhan and Manuel are privately fuming, but keeping their heads down. So we are just as confused as we were a month ago and Joel Netshitenzhe, the one bureaucrat who could probably have sorted through the chaos, has just quit.

That Zuma should be content to let this situation persist in the middle of the worst recession in decades, not to mention a deepening delivery crisis and mounting worry over infrastructure indicates real weakness in his leadership. Fortunately we can expect Gordhan to cut through the muddle next week. The budget, in the end, is where the rubber meets the road. Expect it to be stark, austere and very, very clear about who controls the purse strings. Zuma had best back it up, because if he doesn’t, muddle will turn to gridlock.

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