President Jacob Zuma initiating a national dialogue on morals is like the AWB calling for a country-wide debate on racism, said Professor Jonathan Jansen, vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS).
He was speaking at a breakfast briefing for the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) on Thursday morning. Jansen’s public address, titled The Politics of Forgiveness: How I See South Africa’s Future, was his first as president of the SAIRR, to which he was elected last year.
Answering a question from the Friedrich Neumann Foundation after his talk, Jansen said of Zuma’s call for a moral dialogue, “It’s just ridiculous. A call for a national discussion on morals should not come from the presidency, it should come from elsewhere. For Zuma to do it just sends the wrong message.”
In his talk, Jansen described the country as being in “a very dangerous state” concerning racial issues. “What we must ask ourselves is, ‘How did Mandela’s country end up on this precipice? How did we get here?'”
He listed seven key areas of crisis — moral leadership, public schools, human and race relations, academic freedom, public confidence, public behaviour and university education.
On moral leadership — “the single most important threat to the country” — he said: “Young people make choices based on what they perceive to appropriate behaviour by adults, what they see as normative behaviour in the country in which they live.”
It’s not the kids’ problem; it’s the adults’
“This has an inter-generational impact, and the result is a culture that’s increasingly parasitic — people who grab, steal, and are corrupt,” he explained.
Jansen highlighted the moral leadership of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, saying that it is very hard to find leaders one can look up to in today’s society.
The crisis in our public school system is another factor. “But it’s not the kids’ problem; it’s the adults’. If they [the teachers] are not there, not teaching well-prepared, provoking, engaging lessons, can you blame the learners?” he said.
“You cannot build a strong country on the basis of a weak school system.”
Jansen suggested the entire country is still extremely divided on human and race relations. The attitudes of white South Africans, particularly conservatives, to the state of the country are problematic. There is an increasing sense of alienation among the white population, resulting from its sense of crisis in education and the policy of affirmative action.
“Unless we have an honest, open debate about employment equity and affirmative action, we are going to lose the attention of these people. The recognition of the past is important, but not when it is done to the detriment of other people.”
He referred also to the “growing masses of black people who pull the race card when the chips are down”. He warned of a “great anger, simmering just below the surface … The slightest statement brings back the pain of the past.”
On academic freedom Jansen said, “We don’t see the important cases all at once, but when they do come out, they are a sign of something that has gone seriously wrong … there is a steady demise of academic freedom in this country.”
The loss of “public confidence”, he said, is expressed in the feeling that “‘I no longer believe that government will provide for me fairly’. The result is Orange Farm. The result is Sharpeville.
“Government is unable to respond to the needs of its citizens, and nowhere is this more palpably felt than in the area of crime.”
“Public behaviour” is deplorable, he said.
“Mozambique is a hundred times poorer than we are, but you will never find the disgusting public behaviour on the part of officials and citizens that we have here. And it’s become normative: to be decent is to stand out.”
Crisis in education
In conclusion Jansen turned to the crisis in university education. “At least 75% of university education is fraudulent. It’s simply bad.” He cited incidents of lecturers using the same exam papers three years in a row, students graduating with law degrees who are unable to read or write, and female students exchanging sex for pass marks.
To resolve all these crises is not possible now nor indeed for a long time yet, believes Jansen. “We are increasingly dependent on independent groups and agencies to constantly stand up and raise these troubling questions, irrespective of the consequences. We require fearless insistence by non-politicians on the issues of decency, democracy, and freedom.”
But there is hope, said Jansen. “The students at UFS are coming together to stand against the dangerous culture of separation — it is now the most integrated campus in South Africa. It is important in a country so deeply divided that young people learn to live together, as they learn to learn together.”