As the vice chancellor of a university in South Africa, Jonathan Jansen knows college students in his country are up against some horrific odds. It’s estimated that 19 percent of postsecondary school students are infected with HIV/AIDS. Depending on socioeconomic factors, the rate of infection at any one school could be as low as 2 to 3 percent or as high as 25 to 30 percent.
"You can’t simply focus on academic attainment," said Jansen, vice-chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State in South Africa who visited UCLA this week to meet with campus leaders and students. "You must also make sure that students don’t drop dead on their way to getting a degree."
Jonathan Jansen, vice chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State in South Africa, talked about the difficulties facing college educators in his country. He was at UCLA to explore opportunities for research collaboration and exchanges.
During his visit to Westwood, Jansen talked about some of the most pressing issues facing South African youth with students and faculty who attended two public talks.
In a nation with a strong patriarchal and misogynistic culture, one where many believe that AIDS is a colonial conspiracy invented to benefit pharmaceutical companies and wrongly depicts Africans as barbaric, out-of-control and promiscuous, AIDS is a difficult issue to address, he told an audience attending a talk Monday in the Global Health Lecture Series. The series is an initiative of UCLA’s Program in Global Health.
Adding an extra dimension of difficulty is the attitude of national leaders who don’t acknowledge that HIV is directly linked to AIDS and who behave in a way that doesn’t encourage safe and responsible sexual practices, he said.
"In a country like ours, it matters that our leadership is a walking example," Jansen added.
What’s needed, he argued, is a single consistent public health message, a shift in the personal behavior and political will of South African leaders to encourage change, and a willingness to challenge cultural prejudices. The nation’s youth must feel hopeful about their abilities and their futures. And education is a critical part of this, he said.
Creating a strong, equitable and internationalized postsecondary school system in South Africa is not only a goal for Jansen, it’s something that consumes his heart and mind.
During his visit, Jansen also explored opportunities for research collaboration and student and faculty exchanges. It’s important for Americans to think of Africa and South Africa not simply as places where you go to give, but also as places to learn and grow, he urged.
"Send young people, whether high school or university students, to broaden their minds, develop a sense of compassion, build cross-cultural understanding and create lasting friendships," he said.
Jansen, who serves as president of the South African Institute of Race Relations and chairperson of the Toyota Foundation in South Africa, also spoke about post-apartheid reconciliation at a talk sponsored by the UCLA African Studies Center.
He shared the story of the "Reitz Four," an infamous incident that occurred at the University of the Free State prior to his appointment in 2009. In this case, four male white students were criminally charged after filming and distributing a video that depicted five black residence workers eating and drinking a mixture that allegedly contained urine.
Staff and students formed a prayer circle on the campus of the University of the Free State shortly after the racially charged Reitz incident rattled the nation. Prayer groups met on campus every morning for almost a month.
Created to protest efforts to racially integrate campus residences, the video triggered severe unrest both on campus and off. "The country shook at its foundation," he said.
But it also led to an opportunity to address the racial division that existed on that campus and sparked an interest in seeking solutions to bring students together.
When Jansen started his new role at the University of the Free State, he told students: "You cannot come into the new South Africa … if you don’t want to learn to live with your brother and sister. This is a public university, not your parents’ home. You must learn to live with other people or get out of here."
Strong leadership has led to an acceptance of change. Today, a culture of unity can be witnessed at his university, he said.
South African educators face many other challenges. The quality of education, funding, high failure and drop-out rates, and campus violence cause grave concern, said Jansen, who writes a weekly newspaper column, An Educated Guess.
"In any given year, there are two or three universities where buildings are burned down and campuses are forced to close," Jansen said. "Students have not learned to protest in a way that is dignified and that leads to constructive outcomes. There’s a lot of anger in the system."
Despite this, there is also hope and potential in the system, said Jansen, who served as an adviser and teacher at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in Meyerton, South Africa.
Oprah Winfrey visits Free State's International Institute for Studies in Race, Reconciliation and Social Justice with Jansen. The institute was established in response to the Reitz incident. Jansen once served as an adviser and teacher at the girls' academy that Winfrey founded in South Africa.
"What Oprah did with her typical generosity was to establish a school for girls from the worst schools in the country, from the most abusive communities and homes in the country. She made them — through this school — the smartest and most ambitious young women I’ve seen in the world."
The first students from the acadent graduated last year and are now attending universities, some in the United States, he said. "I only have respect for her foresight to see that in this rather mediocre school system, you can have an oasis in which excellent and decency are important values."
In this overarching quest for excellence and decency, he said that love and discipline are the two most important things that a student can receive from their teachers and schools, no matter the level of funding or location.
It’s important that students have a safe place to learn, staffed by good teachers who care about them and can inspire them to meet their potential, said Jansen.