Book Review: Jansen’s mind is made up

As by Fire: The End of the South African University by Jonathan Jansen

Published by Tafelberg


A defeated, bruised man. This is how Professor Jonathan Jansen, former vice-chancellor of the University of Free State (UFS), comes across in his book, As by Fire: The End of the South African University.

Although he offers a glimpse of hope in the last pages, Jansen has clearly given up on government and for him, civil society involvement is the only answer to return sanity to universities.

From page 14, where he explains his reasons for resigning from his post, he paints a picture of a sector in perpetual crisis.

“Yes, it was time of a crisis as increasingly intense and then violent protests spread across the campuses of South Africa’s 26 public universities, including UFS. But this was not going to stop any time soon, and so, whether I left in 2016 or in 2019, there would still be crises to manage.”

The book was published this year – maybe he is still to be proven right.

Jansen is admired by many, including myself, for his insightful expertise in the education sector.

But in this book, he betrays that, so to speak, by entering into the political realm.

This exposes and confirms what his critics have been saying about him – that he is obsessed with the traditional Eurocentric-style university establishment, he doesn’t even allow room for an unconventional challenge to the status quo.

For him, any rebellious or disruptive engagement is chaotic and unreasonable, the rule of engagement is simple: conform.

Put bluntly, beg and you shall receive.

Before coming across as a Fallist apologist, his rationale is further exposed in a shocking statement on page 126 where he talks about how respect for teachers was lost in 1976.

This was a historical event mostly celebrated by black young people, which did not only change the trajectory of education, but challenged the white supremacist ideology.

He writes that those protests “…left in their wake a complete disregard for education authority that was never really regained, either in schools or universities”.

A systematic failure of government

His views on calls for decolonisation of the curriculum frankly make a mockery of initiatives made by his colleagues at universities such as the University of Johannesburg (UJ), which recently held a conference looking at Pan-Africanism and ways to decolonise the curriculum, not only at UJ, but at other universities as well.

On page 165, he writes: “It is as if nothing has ever changed, as if every faculty, school, department, and centre on a university campus is caught in the grip of a colonial past and tied to the apron strings of a colonial present. This is, of course, the nonsense underpinning calls for the decolonisation of the curriculum. The very fact that decolonisation’s most articulate advocates work on South African campuses makes the point.”

Coming back to reasons I think Jansen should stay out of politics, he alludes – together with his colleagues from historically white universities, whose accounts are featured extensively in the book – to how students were copying disruptive behaviour of the Economic Freedom Fighters in Parliament.

Then he talks about factions within the ANC that could have had an impact on how the SA Students’ Congress participated in protests.

He sets out how a once-dignified Parliament conducted its business and has since degenerated into chaos.

The national politics and especially factions within the ANC were also impacting on the psyche of the nation, especially students, this was the academics’ view. It is too simplistic.

Disruptions have been the modus operandi of student protests at historically black universities such as Walter Sisulu University and the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape for years, and the spillover was likely to happen; rather, they focused on elevating their challenges to national politics.

In a nutshell, Jansen and other vice-chancellors come across as victims of a systematic failure of government.

Understandably so, they were at the coalface of protests, their lives were threatened and authority undermined – that behaviour by students should be condemned in the harshest way possible.

Despite its shortcomings, it is a good book. It offers insight into how the vice-chancellors dealt with protests and gets the reader into their minds and lives. Despite that, Jansen made a mistake by delving into politics and, as an academic, I think should have instead tried to find out from vice-chancellors at black varsities how they dealt with protests.

It is a good read for students to understand the impact of their actions and think hard before engaging in violent protests.


Professor Jansen is the former vice-chancellor of which university?

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