During a ceremony Monday at UC Merced, professor Jonathan D. Jansen, vice chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State and South Africa’s first black dean, discussed the legacy of apartheid, the slow journey toward racial equality, the power of higher education and leadership.
Jansen was in Merced on Monday to receive the university’s Alice and Clifford Spendlove Prize in Social Justice, Diplomacy and Tolerance.
Sherri Spendlove’s family established the prize honoring individuals who exemplify “the delivery of social justice, diplomacy and tolerance in his or her work.”
“Professor Jonathan Jansen, one of South Africa’s leading academics and intellectuals, stresses the transformative power of education both as a way out of poverty and as a means to mutual understanding and empathy,” Spendlove said in a prepared statement. She added that he leads his university “with the peacemaking methods of forgiveness and reintegration into the community.”
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Since his appointment in 2009 to the university’s vice chancellor’s office, Jansen has become widely known for implementing a policy of “reconciliation over revenge” and worked to create a campus culture of racial equality. It is a philosophy derived in part from friends and heroes such as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.
“Now the next step is to take my model at the university to the rest of the country, to embed that model in the education system and in the country,” Jansen said. “It brings people together instead of separating them. You can have both justice and reconciliation at the same time.”
It is a philosophy that can be difficult to instill in a country that spent nearly half a century under the rule of systematic racial segregation and the violence of apartheid.
Jansen on Monday recalled the “nightmare” of history he lived through. “It was not knowing when that nightmare would end and, even in the late 1980s, not really believing the white government would go down without a fight,” he said. “Wondering when is the bloodshed, the torture, the separation of schools and people, when is it going to end?”
“We had many in my family – my brother and others in my extended family – systematically arrested, tortured,” he said. “I saw many students shot and killed. The pain was very real, very immediate,” Jansen said.
Progress toward racial equality in the time since the last apartheid laws were repealed in the 1990s and Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa in 1994 has been “very disappointing,” Jansen said.
“In that sense, I’m very scared for the county. We don’t have plans for the long view, and the majority is still poor and disadvantaged,” he said. “Unless we have those opportunities, the country will burn.”
Jansen believes only the path to equality is through quality education, saying “the way to build economic success is through schools. ... We need systematic changes to help all of our children.”