An Educated Guess


Author Profile

Jonathan Jansen


Jonathan Jansen is Vice Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Free State and President of the SA Institute of Race Relations. His column appears every Thursday in The Times. It raises tough questions on the state of education and society in South Africa and commentary on why change is so difficult.

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A life lesson from the school of hard knocks

Four white hobos make themselves comfortable every morning in a square cement dugout surrounding the traffic lights at a very busy city intersection.

Let's teach children the value of 'ree-zil-lee-yince'

'Open your legs," demanded the gang of four would-be rapists of the young woman student they had ambushed one night on a dark road as she made her way home from classes.

Panting with pants at my knees proves point

The school hall of Livingstone Kolobeng College was packed with high school learners on this cold Gaborone afternoon. The children looked tired and bored after a routine day of classes and exams.

Our school system is sitting on its backside

Imagine 26 teachers sitting on their backsides every period in the same school, day after day, because they are in excess. There are too few classrooms for them to teach in, and they cannot be moved. In well-functioning schools at most two or three teachers are "free" in a period. In our case this means 26 salaries are paid month after month, which they happily receive and spend, only to come back to school the next day to sit for months, even years, on end.

It's hard work to work

I have to confess that I am still bruised by the intensity of some of your responses to my first letter to Jobless Graduates, where I tried to explain the reasons why you are still unemployed. But I see too many human shipwrecks to remain silent on this topic.

Cattle in the streets, lions in the classroom

AS THE small plane dips into Gaborone for my first visit to Botswana, I could not have chosen better reading material to remind me of the historic significance of this country.

'I hold a degree' and you can do nothing about it

'I hold a bachelor's degree in arts." What a strange way to start your defence in court when your life literally hangs in the balance.

The Verwoerd who crossed the Rubicon

No two surnames in the history of South Africa place a greater burden on the children than Mandela and Verwoerd.

Teaching outside the box

"School sucks," I tell the bored- looking teenagers slumped into their chairs during these school holidays.

Embracing the enemy

Put yourself in the shoes of the man working to have Nelson Mandela killed.

Left by the wayside

Another June 16 has come and gone. We were again flooded with media messages about the need to remember the heroic marchers who took to the streets and the courageous pupils who died, faced prison and fled into exile in the Soweto-inspired uprising that flamed across the country in 1976.

Soiling our discourse

The recent wave of university "confessions pages" is a cause for concern. But it is not simply the illegal act of attaching a university's name to a student confessions page that concerns - that alone is sufficient reason for university authorities to shut down such sites as new legislation on the uses and abuses of social media begins to offer guidance.

Pride takes a mighty fall

The taxi carrying me to meetings at Howard University in Washington DC had clearly seen better days. As usual, taxi drivers are my barometer on domestic and foreign affairs and we struck up a lively conversation, this native of Ethiopia and "my brother from the south", as he called me.

I put a spell on you

Schools can do stupid things. One Johannesburg school punishes serial latecomers by removing one shoe so the pupil spends the day walking on a sock, no doubt to humiliate the young person.

Master one language before tackling another

I applaud the University of KwaZulu-Natal for introducing isiZulu as a course for first-year students. But I wonder why this otherwise progressive move was made compulsory.

Are you schooled or are you educated?

I have bad news for you. While most of you have been schooled, few of you have been educated. There is a difference.

Teachers must be tested

If you went to school at all, solving this math problem will be a stroll in the park: 10 x 2 + (6 - 4) ÷ 2 = ? Yet almost half of South African teachers in a recent study got this wrong and, unsurprisingly, only 22% of learners got the problem right.

Education deadlock

It is a picture that will be hard to erase from memory. On the second page of a Cape Town newspaper there is a photograph of the provincial head of education sitting atop a school gate trying to lift his substantial body mass from the street into the school grounds.

Great trek to varsity's graduation ceremony

First the graduate started crying, then the rest of the family. They had made the long trek the day before from rural Limpopo and slept overnight in Pretoria.

Where there is tough love, there is discipline

In the voluminous published literature in educational research journals, the word "love" hardly appears.

Our 'fatal' attraction

Twisting an already troublesome story, the online version of a major black newspaper carried the screaming headline: "Controversial UCT survey says black people are unattractive."

Madiba is alive in us

Happy Sindane is dead. Stoned to death, the papers say. Somebody should have seen that this young man was a threat to himself, emerging as a teenager out of an alleged kidnapping as a baby, claiming white and black parentage, and embarking on all kinds of destructive behaviour in the north-east of the country.

Our deafening silence

It struck close to home. The colleague on the other side of the telephone was inconsolable. Innocent was one of the many family members struck by grief at the passing of a loved one who died in a faraway country defending our country.

Best-kept success story

Ngcobo is the kind of place Malcolm Gladwell might write about. The bestselling author of The Tipping Point, Outliers and Blink has the knack of weaving big stories from the observation of small trends in a local community.

Don't abort schoolgirls

Let me get straight to the point. Pregnant schoolgirls should be allowed to continue their education, in school. It is time South Africa emerged from being stuck in a medieval past where the mere sight of a pregnant body, including that of a teacher, was enough to banish the afflicted person from the classroom.

Valley of true visionary

If you feel despair about the state of education in South Africa, take the scenic drive north from Durban's spanking new airport to an old township called Ntuzuma. After a few tricky turns up and down these characteristically hilly areas you come to the gates of Bonisanani Primary. The high school in the valley below looks like it was burnt out; Bonisanani, by contrast, is surrounded on one side by beautiful patchworks of vegetable gardens grown by the community.

Perils of macho culture

Since the age of about 11, I noticed something very strange. It was common then for groups of men working for the Cape Town City Council to be found on street corners digging, or at the back of those large city council lorries with their spades. When a woman passed, I noticed from a distance, they would say something in her direction. Her body would tremble slightly in shock, and the men would laugh.

Stop empty promises

Nqobile Mdaka did something very risky for an 18-year-old girl who had never left home.

The enemy of great

Welcome to the opening of the 2013 academic year. Our theme this morning is The Enemy of Great.

Strike a careful balance

Teachers should retain the right to strike. The reported efforts by the ruling party to push for education as "an essential service" might seem, on the face of it, to be a good idea but, if implemented, could further erode the democratic rights available to working citizens.

Pupils aren't the problem

I was expecting a riot. The 75 Grade 12 students found themselves, by cruel circumstances, inside one of the worst schools in the Free State. The government had withdrawn the subsidy of this quasi-private school because of the terrible examination results. The building was a shambles. Teachers came and left on a regular basis, some not receiving pay for months.

Sinoxolo's story of hope

It is, by broad agreement, South Africa's most dangerous school. More than a few pupils at Oscar Mpetha High School in Nyanga, Cape Town, have been wounded or even killed as a result of gang violence in and around the school.

Past makes painful return

The invitation to watch the New Zealand versus South Africa Test from the members' pavilion at the Newlands Cricket Ground brought up mixed feelings. It was not only my genetic discomfort with special treatment, a hangover from my working-class roots on the Cape Flats. It was Newlands.

Where is our dignity?

I am sure she must regret saying it, but it was a disturbing revelation. In an interview with a Sunday paper, our Minister of Basic Education let slip on the real reason government persists with the passing standard of 30% for subjects in the National Senior Certificate. It stays at 30%, she said, to allow "slow learners" to exit the system with dignity.

Small man made big difference in SA

He was an unlikely hero. Small in stature, reticent in public, and very soft-spoken, Gert Johannes Gerwel could easily be missed in a crowd. Nothing in his early life destined him for greatness; he grew up on a sheep farm in the rural Eastern Cape in a district of Somerset East.

'Clever' slur lives on

The year is 2012, the accuser a black president. Our leader says some blacks "become too clever" and "become the most eloquent in criticising themselves about their own traditions and everything". Further, if this continues, "whose traditions will [their children] practise"?

Real food for thought

If you did not know you were in trouble, the name of the organisation delivering food to my primary school would have cleared any lingering doubts. It was the Cape Flats Distress Association, known by the locals, to this day, as Cafda.

We can do the maths

If you still believe mathematical literacy should remain in the school curriculum, consider the following question from the Grade 12 Paper 1 examination written last week: "State whether the following event is CERTAIN, MOST LIKELY or IMPOSSIBLE: Christmas Day is on December 25 in South Africa."

Girl's journey from horror to triumph

'My father murdered my mother in front of us, my little brother and I; he beat her to death with everything he could find."

Here's the blunt truth

One of the most serious errors committed by over-zealous politicians in South Africa is to use education policy as a blunt instrument to solve complex problems that require fine-tuned strategies for change.

Let's make jobs work

Unless it is part of a mandatory anger management course, do not drive along the N12 on the road between Kimberley and Beaufort West; it will drive you nuts. What seems like every 15 minutes, you are forced to stop and wait forever so cars can travel from the other side on the narrow strip of tar road while your side of the national road awaits fixing.

The one thing I dread

We will be burying students this week. In almost every vacation period, and at every university, students die in car accidents going home to distant towns and cities, or returning to campus for studies.

Imam who shook SA

Two events of seismic proportions shook the Western Cape in the closing days of September 1969. The first was the Ceres-Tulbagh earthquake of September 29 which registered 6.3 on the Richter scale. The aftershocks continued until April 14 1970, and the effects of the quake were felt more than 1000km away in Durban.

Follow this, then lead

What leadership qualities do you, as students, need to be credible and effective in a country like yours and on a campus like ours?

Ten tips for matrics

Dear Grade 12 Student - In a few weeks' time 527335 full-time candidates are expected to sit for the National Senior Certificate examination.

Parents selling out children

The man on the other side of the telephone is adamant: "Even if this lasts to 2020, the schools will remain closed unless the mayor resigns."

How to heal the nation in seven simple steps

I wish to speak to you this morning about the seven human qualities required for transformation of the helping professions. By the helping professions I mean those occupations which have as their primary orientation the duty to serve others. I am thinking of social work, teaching, doctoring and, in your case, nursing.

Bona fide progressive leaves a lasting legacy

I knew only one genuine revolutionary in my life, and he died this week. The news floored me, and for an hour I roamed around the office in a daze.

2030 vision is blind

I felt for Trevor Manuel last Thursday. In the same week that he handed over the revised National Development Plan 2030 to the president in Cape Town, at the other end of the country a bloody massacre left bodies sprawled across a dusty stretch of veld in the North West mining settlement of Marikana.

Reaching new horizons

When is it appropriate to close a school? Forget for a moment the childish, opportunistic politics of rival parties in the Western Cape.

Fiddling the books

'There are 26000 shebeens in South Africa," mused a friend the other day, "and every week a major breweries company successfully delivers crates of liquor to every one of them."

Another day of pain

"Two to three dead bodies a day," says my friend as we talk about the ongoing gang warfare he bears witness to in a part of the Cape Flats.

Greatest lesson of all: schools can triumph

Friday the 13th will remain one of the most unforgettable days of my life. In a large auditorium we had drawn together schools from each of the nine provinces that shared two characteristics: they were disadvantaged, but they produced the best academic results of all the under-resourced schools.

Politicians must stay out of it

On any given school holiday, in the middle of Masiphumelele, you are likely to find a group of older white youth helping talented black pupils to prepare them for matric examinations and the beginning of university.

This is service overkill

Scissors Ngidi is in the final year of his BA degree. It has cost the family dearly to keep this first-generation university student in higher education.

Wrong set of values

EVEN as a fresh-faced BSc graduate, I needed three textbooks to prepare my biology lessons. One was given to me by the school, one was borrowed, and another I bought with the meagre salary of an unqualified (no teacher's certificate at the time) teacher.

THE BIG READ: Dear Jobless Graduate

Jobless Graduate writes to me often, posing a question filled with emotion and frustration. "I have a degree, but I cannot find a job. How do you explain that, professor?"

An ugly side to Ugie

DEAR Jacky, I cannot think of a worse way in which to start a Monday morning. Your Facebook posting saddened me more than anything I have ever experienced. I am so very sorry.

THE BIG READ: When doubt is good

Demonstrating uncertainty and encouraging students to draw their own conclusions is necessary for a youth that has been socialised into dogmas

Future lies in young hands

You could see it on their faces. These senior high school students in this poor school had already survived some tough lessons in life. Many were fleeing from the completely dysfunctional schools of the Eastern Cape, believing they would access a relatively better quality of education in Imizamo Yethu, this basic but functional school on the outskirts of George in the southern Cape.

Time to raise the bar

I am asking you to join me in a national campaign to raise the standard for passing in all school subjects to 50%.

The middle cannot hold

The hand of the director of education in the Western Cape was shaking noticeably as he stretched out his arm to greet me. This was a good man. I knew him from my teenage years as one of those upright young men who just had this way of restoring your faith in humanity. He had devoted his life to education.

Journey into SA's past

This must be the most scenic drive in South Africa, the well-marketed Route 62, running from Montagu in the Boland through to Oudtshoorn in southern Cape.

Where are all the natives?

We are running out of educated natives.

A woman's world beckons

We are running out of educated men. This is very serious because it impacts on the kind of futures we stand to inherit. And to be blunt, "the future is no longer what it used to be", as the saying goes.

Learning will continue

Congratulations. This, dear graduates, is the most important day in the university calendar. We are very proud of you having achieved your degree, at last. To the young women, you look absolutely beautiful; and to the young men, even for a straight guy, you look handsome, man.

Seven costly mistakes

MAMPHELA Ramphele has nothing to lose. As a semi-retired older woman with a more than sufficient pension fund, she is not dependent on anyone, let alone the ruling party, for a job.

No focus without food

This e-mail of March 6 had me choking on my breakfast toast: "You probably do not remember that last year you picked up a girl near Welwitschia [a women's residence on the Free State University campus] who was on her way to the shop; you asked her to come with you and told her to choose her own groceries in the mall.

Seftel science for all

When Harry Seftel talks about a bladder infection on television, you wish you had one.

The future looks bleak

It is the question I am asked most often across the length and breadth of the country: If you had a crystal ball, what does the future of education look like in South Africa?

Jeppe pride lives on

If you've lost all faith in good old-values public schooling, and were considering moving your children out of this country, do not make that decision until you have visited South Africa's most fabled high school on the appropriately named Good Hope Street in Johannesburg.

Brains must beat fists

It has to stop now. The deadly cycle of violence that maims, humiliates and kills students on university campuses in this country must come to an end.

A missed opportunity

WHEN Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Deputy Minister Pieter Mulder last week made the claim in parliament that blacks had no legitimate claim to large tracts of land in South Africa because whites got there ahead of them, he pressed all the right buttons of the black elite.

Funding is more vital

There are different ways of reading the recent State of the Nation address by President Jacob Zuma, one of which is to take word frequency as an imperfect test of official priorities.

Beacon for education

The bones of the teachers lie buried less than 100m from the school in a hot, dry corner of the northern Free State. But inside the half-renovated school there is an energy among the living nuns that belies their age and vocation.

Sin of consenting adults

How do you declare a "go-slow" among teachers in a province that has been on a perpetual "go-slow" for decades? Did they mean "go slower"?

Seven super numbers

95, 91, 86, 85, 84, 83, 78. These numbers cannot possibly belong to Valentino Thabang Ndaba, a poor, orphaned girl from Amaoti (10km inland from Umhlanga), "the most dangerous place in Durban", says her supportive mentor, a wonderful humanitarian called Tich Smith.

An old-school oasis

Leicester Road School in Kensington has a plaque on the wall honouring the queen and her territories. No, this is not a possession of the Crown in West London; it is a Johannesburg school that is one of the most impressive places of learning I have ever experienced.

Cultural shift needed for tertiary registration

All Gloria Sekwena wanted to do was to register her child for studies at a good university.

Gift of reconciliation

Imagine your memory of Christmas was defined by a bomb; actually, four bombs, of which two blew four people, including two children, into oblivion, wounded around 70, traumatised hundreds, further divided a little Boland town, and again left a newish country on a knife-edge.

Ruling courts disaster

You would be forgiven if you thought Boissie Mbha was a centre back for Pirates or the fifth member of the kwaito group Big Nuz.

Teaching academics the art

University professors cannot teach; in fact, most of them were never intended to teach.

Slow healing as we transform

The young man sitting at the lunch table with 15 fellow students had no arms. Next to him sat a woman student who had returned with the group from a short period of studying overseas.

Lessons from my father

FOR as long as I can remember, my father seemed to struggle. His love letters to my mother are filled with painful stories about how to raise the money to get from Lansdowne to Montagu to sustain their long-distance courtship.

Folly of lofty ideals with no action plan

One of my favourite classes in post-graduate studies had the simple title "The Politics of Planning".

School not for sissies

During the early years I was hopeless at everything in school. I was the first boy in the history of my school to be lapped in the 400m race. "How," you ask, "is that possible when this is a one-lap race?"

Testing times for kids

With these ubiquitous examinations upon us once more, it is a good time to ask a very unsettling question: how much learning actually goes on inside South African schools and universities?

Simple refusal to hate

For a Palestinian man whose daughters were maimed and killed, one decapitated, by a shell from an Israeli tank, Izzeldin Abuelaish is astonishingly without any bitterness.

Courage to change

I have been thinking a lot about how we behave in different kinds of social spaces in South Africa.

No hope for teachers

So, yet another report tells the sad story that many of our primary school teachers cannot do simple fractions. We know this, of course, from so many other research reports over the years, such as the recent national assessments on numeracy and countless international studies of achievement in mathematics among South African pupils.

When the tail wags the dog

IT WAS one of the most disturbing images I had ever seen. On the inside pages of a major newspaper last week, a photograph is shown of a principal running away from his pupils at Chris Hani High School in Khayelitsha, Cape Town.

Reconcile our children's future

AS THE professor stood before his first-year class at the end of his lecture on the fascinating question, "Did God really say?", he suddenly found himself unable to speak.

To party or not to party

There is an important debate breaking in the national press about the place of student politics on university campuses.

Lead across divisions

You come into leadership at a difficult time in our country's history. You have seen the wanton violence of youth as they destroyed the inner-city of Johannesburg around Luthuli House.

A day in SA's miracle school

IT IS 4pm on September 6 2011. Every child is in school, not a soul has left. Every teacher is on site, not a car has moved. I follow the pairs of neat, black shoes gathered in two rows down the length of the inner courtyard of the school - there is no school hall, and there is no loud hailer. My voice would have to carry through the open air.

An open letter to SA's youth

THIS must be a very confusing week for you. You saw the children of Cosmos High trying to overturn a police van with school bags still strapped to their backs. You saw the pupils of Goldfields High ripping into each other with blood streaming from the mouth of one of the fighting girls.

Lethargic leadership to blame

SOME words outlive their sell-by date without the user even knowing it. One such tag is the word "ungovernable", claimed to be issued recently, like a fatwa, by the head of the National Youth Development Agency.

Saluting science teacher Saleh

"MY BOY, if your marks do not improve I will dissolve you in sulphuric acid!"

Unionless and united to learn

THE road trip into rural Umkomaas is deceptively beautiful. You drive along a winding road surrounded by green hills looking down on the spectacular ocean below. This is the land that Alan Paton wrote about.

Broken past back to haunt us

WHEN a beefy man named Abel Malan beat up Stellenbosch philosophy professor Anton van Niekerk in his office recently, the more depressing drama was the reaction of South Africans across the country. That reaction spoke volumes about the state of social and educational transformation in our broken country.

The real heroics of change

THE first thing that strikes you as you enter Masipumelele is the number of white youth along the broken road into this sprawling township.

An untold story of forgiveness

THIS is by far the best book written and published in 2011, and I would be very surprised if it did not win the Alan Paton award for non-fiction in 2012.

Let's read for our kids' sake

THE year is 2044. The government of the day establishes a commission of pro-regime so-called "experts" who for some reason believe that they can literally plan the country out of trouble.

In defence of books, at a time when they're scorned

In 2009 something strange happened in the northeastern part of South Africa. In quick succession, a community torched and burnt down five libraries in what the media called "protests against the nondelivery of services".

Goosebump moments

FROM the moment it was confirmed that Oprah Winfrey would visit the University of the Free State, a core planning team of about 30 people, meeting almost every day, kicked into gear.

Triumph of the human spirit

The wrinkled old man addressing the captains of finance and insurance on the shiny upper floors of Alexander Forbes in Sandton was not supposed to be there.

The season of reason is gone

It all started as a civil discussion on my Facebook page.