South Africa

From a tent meeting in Emalahleni (Witbank) to a school hall in eThekwini (Durban); from a synagogue in Parktown to a church funeral in Port Elizabeth, I find a strain of concern, an urgency that was not there before.

South Africa
Prof Jansen: “We are not victims. We make the future…”

Our people are worried. They are black and white, middle class and struggling. It is a depth of despair I have not seen before in doing the rounds of town hall meetings with parents, teachers, religious leaders, young people and the aged.

They know something is wrong, desperately wrong.

Prof. Jonathan Jansen South Africa
Prof. Jonathan Jansen, author of this article

It is not the clownish performances of our politicians that disturb them or even the open-faced lies trying to justify where their tax money goes. Nor is it the unpredictable load-shedding schedules with their devastating impact on small businesses.


It is not even the “race to the bottom” in school quality as once again South Africa appears second from bottom in the annual science and mathematics rankings of an international agency.

No, they have seen these disasters before. What worries people is that they cannot see forward any more.

Any traveller on a long-haul flight knows there will be moments of turbulence at various points along the route; now imagine you are stuck in severe turbulence and you have no idea when it is going to end. That is scary.

Even in the darkest days of apartheid we knew that Nelson Mandela would be freed one day. But this time the future is no longer what it seemed to be, as the saying goes.

[quote_center]”We are not victims. We make the future…”[/quote_center]

The questions are getting more anxious. “Do we have the leadership, professor, to solve these problems?” Or, in the words of a gentle old lady: “How long do we still have to wait? Do you really think there is hope, or should we leave?”

Then the most disturbing of all, from a parent on the verge of deciding on home schooling: “Should I still keep my child in a government school?”

You see, when Eskom dims the lights, hardworking people ask questions about state capacity, not about generators. When small bands of black youth at some of our elite universities suddenly discover anger, denounce whites and hail Hitler, ordinary people ask: “Who is the next scapegoat?” — even as we try to keep the lid on the latest round of xenophobic attacks.

[quote_center]”Do not vote in the same people over and over again then complain when the job does not get done.”[/quote_center]

When normal citizens find that five million out of 51 million people pay personal income tax and 16.5 million are grant recipients, they can do the political maths.

My first popular book was titled We Need to Talk followed by We Need to Act; I was tempted to name the third in the trilogy We Need to Run. By which I mean “run towards” these problems and do something before it is too late.

This is what we can do:

[dropcap type=1]1[/dropcap]Change the narrative.

We can talk ourselves into depression or talk up the things that work, such as the hundreds of non-governmental organisations leading change in every part of the country, or the unwavering corruption-busting stance of the public protector.

[dropcap type=1]2[/dropcap]Do something.

Whatever your skill and interest — in housing or health or education. Join a development group and solve a problem whether it be giving part of your salary to bursaries for poor students or to volunteer services in a township clinic.

[dropcap type=1]3[/dropcap]Challenge your government.

Support an activist organisation, such as Equal Education, and demand the delivery of quality services or better schooling or basic provisioning.

[dropcap type=1]4[/dropcap]Use your vote.

Do not vote in the same people over and over again then complain when the job does not get done. Your vote is a powerful weapon against impunity.

[dropcap type=1]5[/dropcap]Broaden your thinking.

If your concern is only for yourself and your children, then of course the choice is easy — run away or hide. But this is not an option when you realise that there are thousands who depend on those who have skills and resources to offer light and hope in an increasingly hopeless situation.

We are not victims. We make the future through action and activism. And don‘t be cynical about pressure; if Sepp could go …

This article was first published in The Times and is republished here with kind permission of Prof Jonathan Jansen.


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PROF JONATHAN JANSEN was Vice Chancellor and Rector of the University of the Free State and President of the South African Institute of Race Relations. He holds a PhD from Stanford University, the MS degree from Cornell University, and honorary doctorates of education from the University of Edinburgh (Scotland), Cleveland State University (USA), and the University of Vermont (USA, 2014). He is a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association and a Fellow of the Academy of Science of the Developing World. His book Knowledge in the Blood: Confronting Race and the Apartheid Past (Stanford 2009) was listed as one of the best books of that year by the American Libraries Association. His new book, Schools that Work, uses video-documentaries to capture what happens inside disadvantaged schools which nevertheless produce the best results in physical science and mathematics in South Africa. He also writes popular books like Great South African Teachers (with two students), We need to talk, and We need to act (2013); and is a columnist for The Times and Die Burger. In 2013 he was awarded the Education Africa Lifetime Achiever Award in New York and the Spendlove Award from the University of California for his contributions to tolerance, democracy and human rights. In May 2014 he received an honorary doctor of letters degree at the University of Vermont and recently Knowledge in the Blood also won the Nayef Al Rodhan Prize, the largest award from the British Academy for the Social Science and Humanities, for its contribution to scholarly excellence and transcultural understanding.