'Knowledge in the Blood'

June 24, 2009

For a long time, Jonathan Jansen lived between two worlds. As the first black dean of education at South Africa's highly conservative and marginally integrated University of Pretoria, the scholar writes that he gravitated between two different cultures, embracing and disengaging from his black identity and white colleagues. Charged with the task of helping the university to integrate, Jansen worked with both students and faculty to overcome their fears and racist tendencies. Now the appointed rector of the University of the Free State -- also in South Africa -- Jansen spoke to Inside Higher Ed about his new book, Knowledge in the Blood: Confronting Race and the Apartheid Past (Stanford University Press), which describes in detail the journey toward equality at Pretoria.

Q: On post-Apartheid desegregation, you write: "This was university change in the context of a country that was itself transforming dramatically in the aftermath of apartheid. What happened inside took its cue, and gained legitimacy, from what was happening outside. What happened outside heralded clear expectations about what should happen inside." This contrasts with the generally accepted idea that universities are some of society's biggest agents of innovation and progressive thinking. Was the inability of the University of Pretoria to lead the way in cultural reform a failure of higher education or simply a matter of circumstance?

A: Both. Universities are also very conservative in the face of radical changes in society, especially those universities in the apartheid period were regarded as part of the ideological machinery of the racist state. The University of Pretoria, as indicated in the book, was crucial to the function of elaborating and sustaining apartheid. Hence, when change came after Mandela's release from prison, the transformation of this bastion of Afrikaner nationalism would be especially difficult.

Q: While universities in South Africa were segregated to a much greater extent, colleges in the United States are sometimes also seen as bastions of elitism that too often cater to the white middle class. What parallels do you see between segregation in South African universities and segregation in American colleges? What principles used in your attempts to desegregate the University of Pretoria can be applied to diversify American universities?

A: Universities in South Africa and the USA were formed in very similar circumstances where racial formation played crucial roles in knowledge production as well as in patterns of racial socialization and racial segregation. The book produced by Spelman's president [Beverly Daniel Tatum], Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (Basic Books), resonates with the South African experience; and I believe Knowledge in the Blood reflects some of the same tensions and struggles in the USA. The big difference, of course, is that blacks hold power in the Republic of South Africa while blacks remain a minority in the USA, and this has implications for the transformation of these patterns of racial division.

Q: In the book you say that South Africans prefer silence over dialogue about the past, and you call for "a new set of ethnographic studies within schools and families to gain a deeper sense of the politics of the transmission of knowledge within white communities. ..." To what extent has the history and politics of the apartheid begun to be taught in an academic setting across all of South Africa? What is the format of these teachings and what are the focuses of the courses?

A: It is taught unevenly and often as a result of personal initiative on the part of a particular professor. It is more commonly avoided or taught mechanically rather than in ways that encourage critical dialogue that transforms white and black alike. To really understand why these silences persist it is important to study the silences in a much deeper way and over a longer period. By understanding silence/ avoidance, we are better placed to engage it.

Q: You say you were an outsider at the University of Pretoria, not only because of your race, but because the academics you worked with had very different epistemological values from yours. You note in your book that they approached the world as fixed and unchangeable, and also adhered to a very hierarchical power structure -- a far cry from the inquisitive nature of the academics you were used to. Have these same academics been involved in helping to reshape South Africa's government or higher education system? What does this say about the need to bring in people of different viewpoints and backgrounds to reform institutions?

A: It is indeed in the bringing together of diverse voices and epistemologies that we begin to understand and change troubled knowledge and engage rival memories. The whole idea of Knowledge in the Blood is to assert that deep change or what South Africans call transformation cannot happen without such common spaces engaging difference while remaining wary, all the time, of the dangers of sliding into moral relativism.

Q: The prominence of language barriers is a consistent theme in your book, as evidenced by the outcry when classes at the University of Pretoria switched from just Afrikaans to incorporating English as well. Languages seem to represent the clashing of the two cultures in the book and the incomprehensibility of either side to the other. To what extent do you see the breaking down of language barriers as a tool in breaking down the corresponding racial barriers?

A: The two are connected -- language and race -- in the history and politics of South Africa.

Q: You mention that the University of Pretoria is highly patriarchal, a fact that seems to get lost amid the discussion of race. Did the desegregation of the university unravel further biases and inequities, such as gender discrimination? How were these addressed, if at all?

A: No, but the transformation of institutions placed gender on the agenda as well as race. But, unfortunately, not in ways that connected the two identities as part and parcel of a common repression and a common resolution.

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