Jansen an inspiration to all, including Oprah

Professor Jonathan Jansen, the University of the Free State’s vice-chancellor and rector, said this to 150 of his charges some weeks ago: “Do not come back alone. Do not come back the same.”

The group—all first-year students—represent the university’s Leadership for Change programme, a response to unhappy happenings at the Reitz residence two years ago. One of the programme’s goals was to send diverse teams of half a dozen or more students overseas to campuses as far as Japan to extend personal perspectives and foster transformation.

While the Free State kindles champions, and fosters close communities, its traditional mindset and isolated spaces can also have the opposite effect. Before the first planeload of young leaders was due to leave, Jansen added, “Come back with friends, bring students back here. We would have wasted a whole lot of money if you leave with prejudice and come back with prejudice. Come back as a different set of people.”

In 2012 phase two of the programme kicks in, when the 2011 crop will begin to mentor the next group of first-year students, and will run volunteer programmes on the Bloemfontein campus. The articulate Professor Jansen, who has appeared on television on several occasions, is a regular newsmaker.

Jansen does not mince words, and when it comes to transformation and reconciliation, he leads by example. “I teach my own children and my students to think of themselves as human beings occupying a common planet. Their pain must be borderless— values should be universal.”

Earlier this year Jansen attended a literary festival in Franschhoek, where he, true to form, raised eyebrows and stimulated consciences. “Because,” Jansen subsequently wrote in May ahead of the elections, “most of us still vote our skins and many of us still vote our memories. We are still resolutely tribal in our affiliations.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Jansen asked his peers not to vote, because, he said, “we are in danger of making a serious mistake when we reduce democracy to the act of voting. I will be fighting for democracy, for sure, every time the powerful try to muzzle the media. I will be out there,” he declared, “encouraging democratic behaviour daily in the schools and universities of our country. But until my vote can reasonably stand a chance of replacing the arrogant ruler with the genuine public servant, I will stay indoors and keep myself warm on this frosty Free State morning.”

Just a few frosty mornings later Oprah Winfrey, the most influential woman in the world, chose to visit the University of the Free State. In mid-June, Oprah addressed a packed Callie Human Centre on the university campus, with these words: “I came 8 000 miles to say, ‘Thank you, Vrystaat!’”

Oprah, first inspired by a meeting with Nelson Mandela in 2000 to build a school for girls (the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls opened 7 years later) had also travelled to receive an award from the university, an honorary doctorate in Education. On stage Jansen quipped, “You are now a Kovsie.”

The 57 year old American cheered as she received her award, and thanked the crowd with outstretched arms before returning to her seat, clearly a proud moment for her. The doctorate was awarded in recognition of her unparalleled dedication to improving the lives of millions.

This was achieved chiefly through her Oprah Show, a program that reached a worldwide audience over 25 years, and made Oprah Winfrey the first (and until recently, only) black billionaire in world history. “It is a great privilege for the UFS to be the first South African university to honour Ms Winfrey in this way and,” Professor Jansen added, “to be able to recognise a global icon of her stature.”

Dr Oprah Winfrey, who also holds honorary doctorates from Princeton University and Duke University in the United States, explained to a breathless audience of 4500 that her interest in the university began after reading an article by Jansen, emphasising the need for South Africans to stop accepting mediocrity so that the country could develop to its full potential.

Recapping the incident, Oprah explained how she had asked a former executive of her academy to contact Jansen. “Please tell Professor Jansen that I read this article, and I love him and I love this article.” He (John Samuel) replied, “No, you can tell him yourself.”

Hence Oprah apparating in Bloemfontein last June. Jansen, meanwhile has been vocal on a number of issues where he feels the country needs to pull up its socks, from potholes in Kroonstad, to poor principals (“Nobody has the balls to fire a pathetic principal”) to slack government officials and officiousness.

During her 3 hours in the Callie Human centre, Oprah offered these words of advice: “Focus on what you can give, how you can serve, then you will be the best that you can be. And you will live the glory of the dream that that-which-I-know-to-be-God holds for all of us.” Oprah ended her address with the words, “God bless South Africa.”

This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian newspaper as an advertorial supplement

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