You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Healer

Can Jonathan Jansen succeed where Mandela failed?

BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA—It was as clear as the film’s most famous scene: The work of reconciliation in South Africa is not done yet. In February 2008, a video appeared online showing four white students from South Africa’s University of the Free State (UFS) hazing their black janitors as if they were new freshmen. There’s a beer-drinking contest, a footrace to “Chariots of Fire.” Near the end, the boys appear to pee into bowls of stew and urge the janitors to eat up. It was supposed to be an in-house joke, a protest against a plan to integrate their dorm, a student residence called Reitz. But one of the Reitz boys gave it to his girlfriend, then dumped her--that classic error of the Internet age--and she vengefully posted it on YouTube, where it drew one million viewers. For months, South Africa couldn’t look away. It was the same urge we have to touch a bruise even though it hurts. The video seemed like a flare-up indicating a deeper national disease.

It may be hard to hear over the World Cup plastic trumpets, but there are whispers here that the aftermath of apartheid isn’t working out as planned. Clint Eastwood’s recent movie Invictusreintroduced Americans to the South Africa that was supposed to be: Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, walks onto the field in front of a virtually all-white crowd at the 1995 Rugby World Cup in Johannesburg--a year after South Africa’s first democratic election--wearing the green-and-gold jersey of the team that had long symbolized Afrikaner aggression and power, figuratively embracing his former jailers and establishing the template for national unity. But the reality looks a little different. The weekend Invictus opened on some 2,000 screens, the 29-year-old heir apparent to Mandela’s African National Congress, Julius Malema, sent a text message to the country’s foremost liberal white politician that read, “Wait until you see what is coming your direction.”

It’s strange, since they grew up without apartheid, but young South Africans seem to be growing more conscious of race as time goes on, not less. White kids are reclaiming “kaffir,” a derogatory term for black people, and circulating the theory that, on the day Mandela dies, blacks will rise up and kill the whites in an auto-da-fé already named the “Night of the Long Knives.” Meanwhile, Malema’s taste for Moët-drenched parties and cryptic sayings--“Don’t come here with that white tendency,” “This is not America, it’s Africa,” “Go out, you bloody agent”-call to mind less Mandela and more Robert Mugabe.

Like the rest of the country, UFS was, for a few golden years after the fall of apartheid, an outward success story. The Free State, a province of huge Montana skies and dust and cattle, got its name from early Afrikaner settlers who left Cape Town to set up their independent nation, and the university, located in the regional capital of Bloemfontein, didn’t enroll its first black undergraduate until 1988. But, by 1992, the number of black students had begun to double every year, and, soon, the school was winning a reputation for successfully navigating the post-apartheid world. “Everybody else was talking about us, that we were dealing with race so well,” says Billyboy Ramahlele, a black liberation activist who joined the senior staff in 1994 and is now UFS’s diversity director. Blacks began to move into the white dorms en masse, and Ramahlele designed a student parliament to give the students a chance to practice the techniques of multiracial cooperative self-governance. Mandela came to campus to declare UFS the very model of post-racial transformation.

But, behind the scenes, the students were finding it harder and harder to live together. In one dorm, residents hammered up plywood between black and white corridors and labeled it “emergency exit.” By the turn of the millennium, the dorms had become completely segregated. Sometimes, administrators called them “cultural houses,” but even they knew they were kidding themselves. The emergence of the Reitz video seemed to represent the culmination of a slow backward slide.

To reboot, the UFS council hired the first black person to lead the campus, a Cape Town-born academic named Jonathan Jansen. On a sunny Friday afternoon last October, Jansen was inaugurated in a ceremony full of cathartic symbolism. A dignitary swaddled him in the traditional cone-shaped hat and colorful woolen blanket of the local black Sotho tribe, and the university’s black and white choirs were combined to perform a medley of Western and African songs. In his speech, Jansen vowed that every white student would learn to speak Sesotho, the Sotho language, and every black student would learn Afrikaans. The campus’s incoming freshmen would be integrated 50-50. As for the four white boys who had filmed the video--they would be invited back to campus to finish their studies.

And so, Jansen began with a sweeping, Invictus-like gesture of forgiveness calculated to send a message not just to UFS but to the entire nation. The Cape Town papers covered his inauguration as if he’d been elected president, because he nearly had, in terms of his perceived importance to South Africa’s future. The country was hungry for another Mandela, but who would it be? Malema is no candidate, and neither is President Jacob Zuma, who frittered away his first year in office doing damage control on the news that he fathered a secret baby with a buddy’s daughter. Now, out of the dust of the Free State rose an ambitious figure preaching in the cadences of Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Could he make his university a model for what post-apartheid South Africa might still become? I left Cape Town and moved to Bloemfontein to watch.

God rarely spared the Cape Flats, the dismal plain behind Cape Town’s Table Mountain where Jansen was born in 1956, from its daily scouring by the sea wind just because it was a Sunday. So, on many Sunday mornings, all seven Jansens--four sons, a daughter, the mother, and the poor but proud patriarch--walked the whole three miles to church holding their hats onto their heads. You couldn’t walk that part of the Flats on a Sunday without a hat, not then. The Jansens lived in a “colored” neighborhood, and the coloreds--a peculiarly South African term for a subset of black people with mixed ancestry--liked their religion formal. On that three-mile walk, the Jansens would pass countless other families dressed to the nines, wending their way to some outpost of the Methodists, the Anglicans, even the Dutch Reformed, the Afrikaners’ strict Calvinist sect.

But the Steenberg Assembly, the church at which the Jansens’ particular Sunday walk ended, was even more rigid than most. Old Mr. Henry would greet you at the door and hand you your hymnbook. Inside, benches would be set up in a circle according to the protocol of the Plymouth Brethren, the small Irish evangelical sect with which the Steenberg Assembly had its roots. Any Brethren member could sit in the circle and partake in communion. Anybody else had to sit at the back. The Brethren were serious about this insularity. If you were traveling and stopped in some Sunday to an unfamiliar Brethren church, you had to deliver a note from your pastor attesting that you were worthy to sit in the circle.

The sect insulated itself from politics, too. It is God’s job, not man’s, to fix bad laws, the Brethren would say. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. That didn’t mean there was nothing a person could do. The core of the Brethren experience was “leading somebody to the Lord,” in which a troubled person realizes his brokenness, is touched by the Holy Spirit, and undergoes an inner transformation. The Brethren would sometimes bring food along on the weekend evangelizing trips they took into South African wine country, but the black grape-pickers’ material poverty wasn’t their chief concern. “Our focus was souls,” explains Peter Volmink, a childhood friend of Jansen.

Young Jonathan was devoted to the Brethren. He evangelized on trains and blanketed whole neighborhoods with tracts. He became a wildly popular youth preacher, renowned for trying to lead a particularly wide range of Flats characters to the Lord. Returning to evening Bible study from Lavender Hill, where gangsters puffed on dope and played dice on the sidewalks, he’d sometimes bring potential converts back with him. He befriended a taxi driver and a muscle-builder who performed handstands on Coke cans. When Jonathan brought his followers to church, says his sister, Naomi, you were basically “hoping that no one’s going to pull out a knife and stab you during the service.”

Eventually, though, politics started getting so hot that even a Brethren boy could ignore them no longer. Thousands of kids in black Soweto marched out of class in 1976; and, in 1977, two weeks before Jansen’s twenty-first birthday, white policemen killed the black activist Steve Biko in custody. The Afrikaners had long endeavored to pacify the coloreds by stressing their mixed-race identity, but, by the time Jansen enrolled at the colored-only University of the Western Cape, “people would come into the library and say, ‘You’re black! We’re black!’” remembers his best friend, Archie Dick. At a multiracial retreat, the peaceable Brethren inadvertently revealed to Jansen the heartbreakingly petty cruelties to which white people would stoop. During a break, the colored people were instructed to go drink tea in their cars. When Jansen peeked through a crack in a door, he saw the whites gorging off a table piled with cold cuts and frosted cakes.

People began to experience Jansen as angry. Naomi was afraid of him. But he never quite abandoned the wish to lead people toward the Lord. Only it had become white people now, and he didn’t want to do it nicely. He wanted to rattle and torment them. A white church invited him to give a get-to-know-you talk at the end of one of its services, and Jansen preached a Jehovistic stem-winder on the Good Samaritan and “the sin of racism.” The worshipers were horrified.

The Flats anger drove some of its sons into heavy protesting, even violence. But Jansen just took his anger along with him as he pursued a career in education. While South Africa burned in the 1980s, he took the anger to the countryside to teach high school, then to Stanford on scholarship. As Mandela brokered reconciliation in the ’90s, Jansen took it to a university in black Zululand, where he rose up the management ranks. Finally, he took it to the white University of Pretoria, where he was appointed Dean of Education in 2000.

Pretoria was an Afrikaner stronghold. Jansen was in the belly of the beast now. He upended the curricula and instituted four hours a day of intellectual and moral boot camp for the mostly white, middle-aged Afrikaner ladies on staff, which he led himself, recounting awkward stories of his own persecution in barbershops for having kinky hair and mocking their old-fashioned churches and heteronormative marriages. He relished addressing a local Afrikaner boy scouts’ meeting--an Out of Africa-meets-The Skulls affair in which white youngsters marched with torches and colonial flags--and informing university alumni that their old home was Jonathan Jansen’s campus now.

But he was also noticing that these Pretoria Afrikaners were affecting him. He couldn’t get over how sad and fearful and emasculated they seemed, underneath that typical white cockiness and aggression. It was weirdly touching. They had been defeated, broken, paraded before the world as evildoers, and who would comfort them? He was starting to feel troubled. He wandered through Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum trying to look at the exhibits through white eyes and stumbled out shaken, because everything they did made sense to him.

During this tumultuous time in Pretoria, Jansen accepted an invitation to speak at a summer camp for white girls outside the city. He had given up disseminating tracts long before, but he decided he would speak on the Good Samaritan, like he’d done in the white church years ago. In the middle of the talk, one of the girls put up her hand. Intellectually, she said, she understood why racism was bad, but how could she trust black people when some had tried to kill her in a carjacking?

Something in Jansen crested, then broke. He told the girls a story he’d never told anyone, of a violent encounter with a white policeman as a boy, and how he’d come to hate and fear white people. “All my life I have been struggling to cross this bridge toward people who look like you,” he confessed. “All I can ask of you is that you too try to cross the same bridge, from the other side, and maybe, just maybe, we will meet each other somewhere in the middle.” He wept. The girls, too. He’d never felt more relieved in his life. These white people had led him to grace, and they were his children, he decided. He would not only meet them in the middle, he would go further. He would, he later wrote in a memoir of his time in Pretoria, “spend all my energy to help them make the transition across this difficult bridge.”

I met Jansen late one afternoon in his UFS office to talk about his transformation. The publicity photos I’d seen of him often seemed to have been taken slightly from below, giving him a bit of the look of a Disney Hercules, all thighs and hips and folded arms astride the battlements, but, in person, he looks smaller, with wire glasses that make him appear almost shy. He led me to a couch by a window and settled in to relive the experience of putting it all to paper. He was back at Stanford on a Fulbright, living alone in a bare apartment with nothing but his laptop and the tormenting visions of all the chances he’d lost to love whites thanks to his pointless bitterness. “So many nights, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I was such a terrible person,’” he said.

Soon after he got back from Palo Alto, the Reitz video hit the Internet, revealing a campus that seemed to be hurting in some of the ways Jansen had hurt until his epiphany. After he was appointed UFS’s rector, he began to sound a little religious about the deliverance that could happen there. “You will see a process that I think will transform this country enormously,” he told journalists. For his student dean, he hired an Afrikaner former preacher who says he perceives aversugting for healing on campus, an Afrikaans word that translates somewhere between “longing” and “prayer.” In his inaugural speech, Jansen quoted from the Book of Esther: “Is it possible you have come into the kingdom for a time such as this?”

He announced a raft of rejuvenation plans--new lecturers from all over Africa, a laptop for every freshman--but the essence was to foster black-white empathy by refashioning the university’s culture into a bridge: the one on which whites and blacks meet perfectly in the middle. As a black man, he’d set the example of outreach from the top. Many had written off the boys who made the video as hopeless racists, he told the audience at his inauguration, but he couldn’t “deny” them any more than he could deny “my own children.” It was radical to forgive, but it was also crafty. Jansen believed he was socking away goodwill for later. “I cannot tell you what an incredibly powerful message it sends to all South Africans,” he told the South African magazine Leadership, “but especially white South Africans.”

Six months later, Jansen says he sees the evidence of reconciliation on campus nearly every day. The morning I met him, he’d been up at 5 a.m. writing a recommendation letter for a boy active in the Freedom Front Plus, South Africa’s right-wing Afrikaner political party. “We have an emotional bond I’m really proud of,” he told me. Recently, an Afrikaner girl hugged him on the quad and said it was a message of love from her sick grandmother. “Can you believe this is the campus on which Reitz happened?” he marvels. “Me as the black guy, and she starts to tear up.”

But how deep are the feelings that give rise to tears? And how long do they last? In April, a week after I spoke with Jansen--and three months after he declared in a speech that UFS’s main campus was now the most integrated in South Africa--I sat in on the student parliament that Billyboy Ramahlele set up in the 1990s to give black and white students a chance to engage. It looked like the perfect tableau of the community Jansen wants to build. Young black and white student leaders marched in together, projecting a fastidious aura of professionalism and mutual respect. It was flip-flop weather, but the representatives were in fine business dress, the boys in vests, the girls in heels and elegant drop earrings underneath their sprayed coiffures. In honor of a black student leader who had recently died, the white kids wore black, and, in honor of the white kids’ desire to speak Afrikaans like in the old days--even though their English is passable--high-tech translation headsets were laid out on the desks.

But soon the tableau dissolved. Once inside, the students sat apart, the blacks on the right and the whites on the left. The meeting commenced with the singing of three “black” songs, and the white students sat in stony silence, chewing gum. A white boy began to speak in Afrikaans, and the leader of the black bloc interrupted, saying he shouldn’t speak Afrikaans if the blacks couldn’t speak Sesotho. The leader of the white bloc declared this a trick to get the whites’ goat by invoking some tendentious principle of equity when everybody knew Sesotho translators were not available. “Bloody agent,” snickered a black boy, and titters rippled through the room.

The arguments grew more and more outrageous. The blacks suggested the whites had stolen communal money. The whites suggested the blacks had snuck in more than their allotted number of bodies, thereby stacking the votes. Both suggested the other race violated rules of order. “Let’s go to the Bible,” quipped the black chair, thumbing through the student parliament’s constitution. A white boy leapt to his feet. “You offended my religion, and I would like you to apologize,” he said.

The titters became shouts. The beleaguered chair doled out reprimands--to a white boy named Abrie Marais for talking, to a black boy named Thabiso Letsoara for “howling” at Marais--but no matter. People were jumping from their seats. Marais leaned over a chair and conducted Letsoara feverishly with his pointer fingers: Sing, parrot! Letsoara exaggeratedly bowed back at Marais: Yes, master! White students steadily streamed from the room. A fight erupted over the word “we”: Is Moses Masitha, UFS’s black student body president, justified in using that word, when he also talks about the “masses,” which obviously means the blacks? Has there ever been any “we” in this country, anyway? “I would please ask the honorable member to apologize,” pleaded a white student. But Masitha was gone.

A slender, reflective philosophy major who is, like Jansen, the first black person to occupy his post, Masitha is as natural an ally for Jansen as anybody in UFS’s black community. He told me over coffee he’d been excited for Jansen’s arrival--although before he met him, and after reading a few of his columns in the newspaper, he assumed he would be white.

But Jansen’s inaugural speech forgiving the Reitz boys--the one he said sent “an incredibly powerful message ... to all South Africans”--came as a shock to Masitha. (He wasn’t the only one. After the speech, black students marched on the new rector’s office.) The janitors had never said they wanted to forgive. Who was Jansen to do it for them? And it was bitter to think that this is what reconciliation would mean, at the end of the day: turning the other cheek to even the most unrepentant whites. “The picture being painted is whites are the victim,” Masitha says. In reality, “the blacks are still treated as guests at this university. Not even guests. Immigrants.”

All semester, the white students had been lodging complaints about the student parliament, alleging it was a circus that pointlessly inflamed tempers and made campus unity impossible. Not long after I attended the April meeting, Jansen suspended it. Thabiso Letsoara, the representative reprimanded for “howling” at a white boy, was furious. He acknowledged some “funny actions,” but said that, if Jansen couldn’t see how important it was for black students to call attention to the power imbalance between Afrikaans and Sesotho on campus, he was hardly black at all. Letsoara charged Jansen with preferring the Freedom Front Plus. While he couldn’t support what had become of his student parliament, Billyboy Ramahlele did muse that these are strange days indeed. UFS finally has a black rector, yet it can feel as though “the black voice” on campus is “silent.”

In our interview, Jansen dismissed these criticisms. Some people say he’s too white, he said, but others say he’s too black, and this probably means he’s doing something right. It seemed pretty brazen to me that whites would complain about Jansen, after the bone he threw them with his inaugural speech, but they do. The Afrikaans newspapers are filled with letters to the editor demanding that Jansen apologize for some perceived insult--to the farmers of the Free State, to the historically white university in nearby Potchefstroom. “It’s just not possible,” one white journalist concluded, that Jansen can be on both sides at once.

Jan van Niekerk, the Freedom Front Plus’s Free State youth leader, boasted to me that he saw through Jansen “from the very beginning.” What about the goodwill Jansen built with his inaugural speech? Oh yes, that sounded nice, but look at his actions. Jansen revealed himself, said van Niekerk, with his obviously preferential treatment of a group of black students who oversaw a rowdy freshman initiation. Van Niekerk claimed Jansen expelled some whites guilty of the same sin. “If he says this white student is wrong, he also needs to say this black student is wrong,” he said. “So, thank you for what? Thank you for nothing.”

A few weeks after I got to Bloemfontein, South Africa celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from jail. But it hardly felt like a party. Winnie MadikizelaMandela, Mandela’s ex-wife, channeled the mood when she told a reporter for a British paper--V.S. Naipaul’s wife, as it happened--that South African blacks were starting to feel like they should not be celebrating Mandela at all. “He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks,” she said. “Economically, we are still on the outside.” She excoriated him for trooping onto the Nobel podium with his “jailer,” F.W. de Klerk, and called the Mandela name “an albatross around the necks of my family.”

Madikizela-Mandela ultimately denied having given the interview at all, but it was too late. “There are countless lips in Soweto and around the world who have breathed a sigh of relief that, at long last, someone had the courage to utter the words that have always been in some hearts,” Sandile Memela, a black commentator, wrote on his blog.

If Mandela had worked a miracle, the feeling goes, then where is the evidence of that miracle now in people’s lives? Sixteen years after apartheid ended, South Africa is still characterized by unbelievable inequality. Comfort and poverty still wear their familiar old colors. The average black South African earns one-eighth of what his white counterpart does. In the city, whites with similar training are more likely to become managers than blacks, according to a recent government study. In the country, whites own more than 85 percent of commercial farmland. Mandela had stressed emotional reconciliation--think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission--over structural transformation, and this was the result.

I was speaking to black students and staff at UFS while black writers were deconstructing Mandela in the papers, and they seemed to echo each other. The UFS black community was a little skeptical of Jansen’s interest in emotions. “The psyche is something, but it is not everything,” said Masitha. “I don’t think he’s gone to the root of the problem.” The root of the problem, as black students and staff described it, is infrastructure. When I paid visits to the three black boys’ dorms on campus, I perceived a versugting in those places--for better stuff. It was the state of their kitchens they complained about. Two-plate stoves that had not been upgraded to four-plate. The laptops for the freshmen, which had not yet appeared. “Jansen is like Obama to me,” one third-year said. Lots of talk, he meant, and not enough action.

Tswelopele, a dorm whose name is Sesotho for “progress,” is particularly plain. Practically its only adornment is the hand-painted coat of arms that hangs over a busted pink couch on the porch. At first I thought it showed a black hand and a white hand clasping, but then I realized each hand was half and half. The white hand turns black at the fingertips, and the black hand turns white. The ideal of racial union existed long before Jansen dreamed of the bridge at the girls’ summer camp. In fact, Tswelopele was once its prototype. Around the same time as the Reitz video came out, a group of about 20 white boys had voluntarily moved in, defying their community’s elders. But Tefo Mofokeng, Tswelopele’s student president, told me that all but four are gone now. He said there are actually fewer white people living in Tswelopele than before Jansen showed up.

Meanwhile, many of the white freshmen put in the historically black dorms in January have also left. Theories abound as to why they moved out, but a prevalent one is simple. The historically white dorms next door, I was told, have wealthier alumni and more cash for goodies like plasma televisions. The black students felt their dorms looked like crap.

It didn’t seem so promising to employ Mandela-ism on the UFS campus, at least not from the black perspective. There have always been two visions here of what post-apartheid South Africa should be. One calls for a society that bettered the living conditions of its formerly oppressed majority. The other calls for South Africans to become better on the inside, to focus on overcoming the ancient instinct for revenge and banishing race hate--like Jansen did--from their hearts. Jansen and Mandela had chosen to emphasize the latter. They had, in a way, approached their wounded institutions--the university after the Reitz video, South Africa after apartheid--like the Brethren had approached the poor grape-pickers in the wine country, worried more about the state of souls than about people’s external circumstances.

I have heard whites speak more often of the inner-transformation vision of post-apartheid justice, for an obvious reason: It’s the scenario that allows them to hold on to what they have. But, if Jansen subscribes to the vision favored by whites, then why doesn’t Jan van Niekerk trust him? If Mandela chose moral rebirth over structural transformation after 1994, why were white journalists this spring lashing into F.W. de Klerk for having negotiated them a bad deal? It’s because everybody knows structural transformation has to come, sooner or later. Whites may own more than 85 percent of commercial farmland now, but the government has vowed that at least 30 percent of it must be transferred to black people, someday. Jansen told me a great leader knows how to “communicate emotionally to people that it’s OK.” But, for those who are truly afraid, such reassurances must be as comfortless as the ministrations of the hospice nurse sent to midwife you into oblivion.

This month, while both whites and blacks in Bloemfontein groused--and the four Reitz boys, who didn’t get Jansen’s type of mercy from the state, prepared for their July trial on the uniquely South African charge of crimen injuria, or “impairing the dignity of another”--Jansen flew from Johannesburg to Cape Town to spread the good news of the miracle at UFS, and, finally, over the Atlantic to accept an honorary doctorate from Cleveland State. There, he told the graduates that bold leadership means “to do what is unexpected,” using Mandela’s forgiveness of his white jailers as his example. But perhaps a man’s own journey of transformation just cannot model a state’s, or a university’s--especially if he’s frequently away from campus. Did everything go the way Jesus wanted after he left to do his victory laps heaven-side?

That’s not to say that individual transformations won’t make a difference. This year--the same year he became disillusioned with Jansen’s notion of reconciliation--Moses Masitha fell in love with a white girl, the praise singer at his church. Twenty-five years ago, their relationship would have been against the law. He took me to church with him one Sunday evening. The pastor preached on Isaiah 66:8: Can a land be born in one day? Can a nation be brought forth in one moment? After the service, he and his girlfriend took each other’s hands and walked brashly out of church together

Eve Fairbanks is living in South Africa as a fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter