Learning Lessons

Learning Lessons

Jonathan Jansen



LESSON 1 Pay attention

LESSON 2 You are smarter than you think

LESSON 3 You must show up

LESSON 4 Make things happen when they do not

LESSON 5 Set high standards

LESSON 6 Set a goal – then move heaven and earth to get there

LESSON 7 Beware the riptide

LESSON 8 Find your passion – and pursue it

LESSON 9 Plough back

LESSON 10 Keep your feet on the ground

Parting thoughts




Set a goal – then move heaven and earth to get there


Saloshna Vandeyar was one of the most determined young academics I had ever met. When I decided to elevate the scholarship of the youthful bunch of potential academic stars at the University of Pretoria, she stood out. Saloshna was married, a mother, and at least one of her children struggled with disability. None of that hampered her fierce desire for academic success. She attended every workshop and handed in every development assignment ahead of time, determined to get feedback. Unfortunately, she, like most of her colleagues, had done her PhD at Pretoria under some very mediocre senior academics. When I told the group (after reading some of their theses) that they should take their dissertations back to the registrar and say there was a mistake, Saloshna would have done that if it were possible.

So she started from scratch with the goal of moving from lecturer to professor. I had never seen someone throw everything into her academic career. Before long, she raced up the ranks to full professor, became director of her own Centre for Diversity and Social Cohesion, and chair of the Research Committee. After writing a book with me as second author, Diversity High: Class, color, culture and character in a South African high school (2008), she raced off to publish some of the most impressive publications on education, race and inclusion. In no time, the accolades poured in, including several international awards for outstanding scholarship from the premier research academies in the world. She had set herself a simple, singular goal and put everything into achieving what she set out to do.

* * *

I was always competitive. It started with soccer. My schoolboy team was Hellenic in Cape Town and the only reason I chose this Greek-named franchise was because all the other friends in my primary school class chose Cape Town City and I wanted to support another team out of a sense of contrariness. It hurt badly that my Bible-believing parents would not allow me to go to Hartleyvale or one of the other stadiums of the ungodly on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons to watch the games. I would have to hear my friends recall goals scored or saved every Monday morning. But I was in there, competing to win.

When my teachers lit the academic fire under me, I also became competitive in tests and examinations. There were three other high school students in my grade who were really smart and I worked hard to compete with them. They always seemed to do better and that only motivated me to study harder than Alan Newkirk, Heather Augustine and a quiet girl in the Afrikaans class. Strangely enough, I never thought of competition as a bad thing. Rather, I saw it as a way of bringing out the best in me, as stretching my own talents. When I was the first student in my high school class to gain a first-class pass, that energised me to continue to do better.

After my experiences of Cornell and Stanford, I had the confidence and the content to compete, but there was an added edge to the commitment to excel. I was now aware of the fact that re-entering South Africa meant that I had to compete within a highly racialised society. I knew that the decks were stacked in favour of white academics at the resource-rich universities. It soon became clear that I had an important advantage – I did not owe my academic attainments to any of them. I was truly independent.

South Africa has a strange culture in that you never quite outlive the influence of, and the obeisance due to, your supervisor. The person who supervised you somehow has an abiding hold over your progress if not also your destiny, like a guru in Indian culture. Some of my colleagues in Durban even call the supervisor the guru. This is good and bad – good in the sense that it signals respect and gratitude for supervision; bad in that you never grow up and away from the influence of your supervisor. ‘She was Wally Morrow’s student,’ or ‘He was Owen van der Berg’s student.’ I found that unpalatable.

I belonged to none of them and that independence meant a lot to me because I owed nobody anything in the South African firmament. As a young black academic with credentials from outside the South African system, I would, however, feel my outsider status. These mainly white academics had their own established networks, their own internal languages and their own conferences, such as Kenton-upon-something. I was not invited to any of those events when I returned home in 1991. I did not speak the language of Bernstein and Bourdieu, which still seem to thread through every single paper of these English university academics. I was certainly working outside the conservative ideologies spouted by my Afrikaans colleagues when they routinely cited the godfathers of fundamental pedagogics like Van der Stoep and Landman. When the Spencer Foundation (an organisation that investigates ways education might be improved) liberally supported doctoral studies at the white English universities, a discussion was held about whether to include me and my faculty at Pretoria; the decision was to exclude. So I found myself stranded as a young academic but remained determined to pursue my independent research and set my own standards for scholarship.

I did this over the years by creating my own research teams with their own identities in Durban, Pretoria, the Free State and now Stellenbosch, and I built formidable funding opportunities around these programmes.

When Tyler Perry made his speech at the 2019 BET Awards, I thought the brother was talking to me: ‘While everybody was fighting for a seat at the table … I said, “Y’all go ahead and do that. But while you’re fighting for a seat at the table, I’ll be down in Atlanta building my own.” Because what I know for sure is that if I could just build this table, God will prepare it for me in the presence of my enemies.’ I knew exactly what the movie mogul was saying.

We built that table by planting strong research programmes and capacities through institution building. But this investment in building strong faculties came at a personal cost to my own research.

It is the case that I always kept an active research programme around my own interests in the politics of knowledge. But it was hard to convert those activities into substantial publications when I was running a faculty, let alone a whole university. I started to invest more time in my own research even as I invested in institution building. With the advice of colleagues, I decided to test the waters via the one system that offered a more-or-less objective account of your scholarship and that was the rating system of the National Research Foundation (NRF). You are on top of your game as an A-rated scholar (‘leading international researcher’) and fairly competitive as a B-rated scholar (‘internationally acclaimed researcher’), while a C-rating (‘established researcher’) is certainly respectable compared to no rating at all. For younger scholars, the apex rating is a P (‘prestigious awards’) and then a Y (‘promising young researchers’) for competitive but less accomplished academicians.

After a long process, I got a B. It was okay, I suppose, but I wanted what only a few researchers in South African universities had achieved – an A-rating. At that time, very few non-science scholars got this rating and nobody in education had. In the process of participating in this rating exercise, I discovered two other surprising things – teaching counts for nothing, and institution building or community development even less so. The only thing that mattered was the depth, quality and focus of your research as adjudged by your national and international peers. The A-rated scholars were, for the most part, people who invested only in themselves, though there were notable exceptions.

So I made a change to my work habits because I wanted to be the best. I took a year off between UP and the UFS and returned to my old university, Stanford, on a Fulbright Fellowship for Senior Scholars. In that year, I wrote my first major scholarly book but its origins lay on the main campus of the University of Pretoria.

During my time as dean at UP, I would often find myself frustrated with the deep conservatism of the institution, the authoritarian behaviour of my seniors and the often outright racist or sexist actions of some academic and administrative staff. I would vent my frustration after another negative episode during the weekly meetings with the vice-rector (the preferred term in the Afrikaans universities for the deputy vice-chancellor of the English universities), to whom I reported as dean. I was fortunate to have mostly outstanding men (they were all male) as my senior colleagues in Die Skip (The Ship), the administration building that housed the rectorate.

One of my reporting vice-rectors, another black man, was not very helpful because he himself struggled openly, or so it seemed, with the whiteness of the institution. Before I could rant, he would offload his own frustrations with the place. One day, I came for our weekly meeting and he took off: ‘Bra J, here they treat me like a baboon!’ At that very moment his mobile phone went off to the tune of ‘Bobbejaan klim die berg’ (‘Baboon climbs the mountain’). That was the end of the meeting for I simply could not compose myself for any serious interaction after that. I completed my laughing spell in the men’s toilets next to the elevators of the building.

But Professor Chabani Manganyi was different. When he was assigned as my reporting vice-rector, I found a genuine mentor. A clinical psychologist by profession, Chabani was a deep thinker and every offensive episode or troubling observation would be the subject of long hours of analysis and discussion. I really looked forward to these regular engagements, which had less to do with the latest opdrag (instruction) from on high and more to do with things like the nature of knowledge and the problem of authority.

One day, I was particularly incensed and began venting even before we had completed the usual greetings. Chabani always reacted slowly and spoke deliberately. He let me rant. When I was done, he said to me, ‘You know, JJ, you get angry before you think.’ That was a turning point, a powerful learning that altered my way of thinking about a problem.

Chabani’s brilliance was that he demanded, in his soft manner, that you ask questions about the behaviour itself, rather than allow offensive human actions to entrap you in unproductive cycles of anger. Where, he would ask, do you think the racists and the murderers under apartheid went? They did not vanish into thin air. They are still with us and among us. Our assumption that 1994 was a clean break with the past was, of course, nonsensical. People’s ideas, emotions, beliefs and commitments did not simply switch on and off with Mandela’s release from prison or the advent of our new democracy.

Chabani gently nudged me to study one of his abiding intellectual concerns, the psychology of the defeated. These were the white South Africans and the regime that had carried them. How does a whole group of people deal with the sudden loss of the power with which they had lorded over the majority for centuries and, just like that, it is gone? Or so we think. I was completely intrigued by the elegance of the question and excited about the pursuit of its resolve.

Of course, Chabani swung his sharp analytical sword both ways. One of the most complex traumas that he studied was the first crowd necklacing, in 1985, of a suspected apartheid police informer, Maki Skosana, subsequently found to be innocent. Where did the people who killed this innocent woman go? They are among us, Chabani would remind me.

In June 2007, with 10 academic months to do nothing else but think and write, I landed at the airport in San Francisco after a long transatlantic flight with a connection from New York to the West Coast (those added five to six hours can destroy any soul), collected the hired car and set off for my rental apartment. After a quick shower, I opened my laptop and started to write the story of how young white, Afrikaans-speaking South African students come to inherit powerful knowledge about a past they themselves did not experience. Chabani had, in the space of a few years, taught me to think and write reflexively and to challenge my own understandings of the young students whom I was privileged to teach and to lead. I did little else in those months than read, write, eat and sleep, for the book project had transformed my understanding of the white students at UP; their fears, anxieties and hopes were my own. One weekend, in the dead of night, I stopped writing. I was emotional and alone. These historical enemies were my people, I realised for the first time in my life.

The book, Knowledge in the Blood: Confronting race and the apartheid past, was published by Stanford University Press in 2009. During that time, my scholarship improved, my book won awards and I was gearing myself to prepare for my next NRF rating application. But I had learnt a tough lesson from friends in the natural sciences who knew the rating system well: you only apply when you are absolutely sure you are ready and that you have done the hard work necessary. While Knowledge in the Blood won prizes I could never imagine, including a handsome cash award from the British Academy for the Social Sciences and Humanities, I wanted to do more before a fresh submission to the NRF.

One of the most valuable lessons I had learnt about scholarly books was from the A-rated historian Charles van Onselen. Charles often made the point to me and the young academics at UP that in laying out your academic career, you need to understand the difference between your first book, your second book, your third book, and so on. In other words, you set the standard for your achievements progressively higher as you go along in your academic journey. Now I knew that Knowledge and Power, my first book, published in 1991, was a trial run. It was not very well-composed and would not win awards but it got me started. This was a book I’d edited and while it took an enormous effort to bring and hold together such a diverse span of authors, many of whom were writing an academic chapter for the first time, it held little value in the assessment of my scholarship as a first-time editor. But I would not have been able to do a second book if I had not sharpened my teeth on the first book.

In between Knowledge and Power (1991) and Knowledge in the Blood (2009), I had written for a broader audience I was serving – South Africans who read my popular weekly columns in The Times. As a public commentator on education, via the newspaper column as well as radio and television, I saw my role as being a public nuisance – to question silly ideas in education policy (like Outcomes Based Education) but also to push back against populist fervour (like corporal punishment). My editor at Bookstorm, a publisher in Johannesburg, suggested we pull together all these columns in a book, We Need to Talk (2011) which continues to sell well, and which was followed by We Need to Act (2013).

While these popular writings were, from my point of view, important as a form of public duty, public engagement and even public education, they meant little in the ratings game. I needed to get back into serious academic writing of books if I planned to improve my B-rating into an A.

This is probably the time to indicate why pursuing a treasured A-rating was so important to me in the South African context. It certainly was no vanity project; there are other labours that could satisfy such a superficial need. Anyone who read my first book, Knowledge and Power, would realise that my incentive was the advancement of black scholarship even as the partners in that project – as in all my projects – included white South African scholars. I was, and still am, deeply concerned that we have so few black South African researchers at the top of their game as A-rated academicians. How often would I attend award ceremonies and, time after time, the top researchers winning these awards were our white colleagues, not because they were smarter, but because of accumulated privileges from home to school to university and in society? The odds were stacked in their favour and while this continued, generations of students would think that intellectual brilliance resided only in white minds.

Of course, this was nonsense and nobody would make that public confession but the only way to counter such dangerous thinking in the post-apartheid period was for black academicians to step up to the plate and generate the kind of scholarship that demands the highest rewards and accolades. It is as simple as that. Those who know me would understand that this never was an anti-white stance but a social justice commitment. In academic attainment, the playing fields must also be levelled.

The problem is that black universities and black academics are taking shortcuts to academic excellence. Some institutions drop the standards for academic promotion, offering garbled logic about correcting the wrongs of the past. Others, as already discussed, recruit and advance the limited pool of black talent in an effort to demonstrate progress against the bleak picture of racial inequity in academic achievement. Even the national awards offered by the government to some black academics smack of desperation in the political game of allocating a set of awards called the National Orders. Schools even give awards for ‘most progress’, which makes sense but this is clearly to ensure that the national profile of achievers is not overwhelmingly white.

This is a mistake and it has happened before. For much of the 20th century, this is what Afrikaner institutions did in order to balance the scales when it came to white English universities. Instead of taking the long, hard route to achieving academic excellence, premature promotions were given to white Afrikaner men who displayed unquestioning loyalty to the apartheid state. We have seen this movie before, and as one colleague puts it – all nationalisms are the same, whether white or black.

It is this understanding of the academic project that has fuelled my work in the development of both black and white scholars over the years – that we must not compromise the academic standards in the South African academy for individuals or for groups of scholars. But there is another reason behind this drive to achieve the highest standards: it is not only about individual excellence but also institutional standing. Africa, to put it bluntly, needs strong universities.

This is why I have committed much of my life to institution building. Resources apart, there really is no difference between scholars at Cornell and Stanford, compared to those at UWC or Wits. Nothing. What sets them apart is that the top scholars on the other side of the Atlantic work in institutions that have three characteristics: they value the academic project above all else; they enjoy institutional stability; and they mobilise the resources that they have to attract and retain the best students and academics.

It is that second point – institutional stability – that concerns me greatly about the future prospects of the South African university and led to the book As by Fire: The end of the South African university (2017). As fires brought down residences, computer labs, libraries and science laboratories during the #FeesMustFall student-led protest movement around the country, I genuinely saw the end of our hard-won institutions – not so much the destruction of the physical buildings as the sustained assault on the very idea of the university. I made these points on the occasion of receiving an honorary doctorate of education from UCT in late 2019:

When you burn down things at a university because you’re angry, you undermine what a university is for. When you hide and conceal artworks you don’t like, you threaten the idea of a university. When you tell white students and colleagues that they cannot speak in the learning commons, you make a mockery of what a university stands for.

As by Fire was written as a warning, not as a defeatist manifesto, because we must recognise a trend in postcolonial history – our governments neglect their university assets and our students respond by destroying them. Travel throughout our continent and you will find that the African middle classes catapult their children to universities in Europe and North America and only the desperately poor remain in emaciated institutions, which open and close in response to one riot or protest after another.

What I have discovered is that the best universities in the world offer stable institutions where the brightest students can learn and where the smartest scholars can excel. South Africa, it seems, will not learn. We destroy on Fridays what we need on Mondays and then complain in one protest after another about the paucity of black professors. You do not fix that injustice by destroying the institutions you need for a powerful African scholarship that speaks to the problems of underdevelopment as well as the challenges of academic excellence.

To shift the mindset that excellence and equity are contradictory impulses, you simply have to look at the scholarly work of South Africa’s leading researchers. Just before Bongani Mayosi died in 2018, I met with this brilliant scholar in his medical department suites at UCT. He was, as always, smiling and excited about his work. An Oxford-trained medical scientist, Bongani was doing world-class research in the area of poverty and cardiovascular diseases. It struck me that his scholarship earned him an A-rating by his peers in the rest of the world, while at the same time, that research was designed and executed in a context that addressed diseases of the African poor.

In the 2015–16 student protests, I could never understand the rehashing of old antagonisms of ‘north and south’ or ‘the west and the rest of us’ when it came to the conduct of research. What Bongani and many others demonstrated is how African leadership in research often brought young and experienced academicians from the rest of the world to learn together, share ideas and pool resources to address problems in context. These great African scholars did their research in a world of interdependence and co-operation, rather than dependence and inadequacy. That kind of disposition requires a mental and emotional mind-shift from one of inferiority to one where reciprocity becomes the norm in intellectual work.

Bongani Mayosi in medicine, Salim and Quarraisha Abdool Karim in HIV/Aids research and the African historian Ian Phimister became my contemporary role models for working at the cutting edge of one’s disciplines and daring to break new ground in social and scientific inquiry. I knew that in the social sciences and education, the key was to produce a great book of scholarship and so I set upon this task. In the natural sciences, it is different; for scientists, a breakthrough article in journals like Science or Nature or Cell is enough to put you ahead in the game. For education scholars, it is as for sociologists and anthropologists: a great book.

I then wrote Leading for Change: Race, intimacy and leadership on divided university campuses (2016), which is a daring attempt to talk about the political emotions of university leadership, something about which little research had been done. That was followed by a study of interracial intimacies on university campuses titled Making Love in a War Zone: Interracial loving and learning after apartheid (2017) but neither of these books had the same impact in the scholarly community as Knowledge in the Blood.

In the meantime, I was humbled and surprised by the recognition and awards coming from other countries in various forms. Among the honorary doctorates, the one that really made a huge impression on me was from the University of Edinburgh. It was all light fun, with South African friends travelling from the Isle of Wight for the occasion, until the graduation party entered one of the most beautiful halls I had ever seen in my life. As with all things European, the sense of antiquity in the buildings, the beauty of the lighting and the imposition of the elevated graduation stage, the mass of people inside and the haunting music being played … I was overwhelmed by the enormous occasion.

As the main party walked slowly down the carpeted aisle, I remembered an incident at Heathrow the day before. The customs agent was a young black woman who, like all border officials everywhere, had a face that communicated a mix of boredom and irritation.

‘What are you going to do in Scotland?’ she asked me in monotonic syllables.

I piped up, ‘I’m getting an honorary degree!’

Then she hit me. ‘Oh, is that the one you don’t have to work for?’

It was half-funny and I decided to enjoy the humorous part.

It was at this point in my career that I learnt you do not work for awards. You simply produce outstanding research and you publish that work in the right places and the awards will come. Too many young scholars are more worried about applying for one award after another and then find themselves repeatedly disappointed because they have not done the hard yards when it comes to doing outstanding research.

Probably the most serious unlearning that has to happen with young, ambitious academics is confusing quantity with quality. I understand how it happens. A lecturer is under pressure from her head of department to ‘produce’ more articles for a quick turnaround in research output. The head is in turn under pressure from the dean to ‘up’ the research units produced in his department to earn greater subsidy income. Every week, the dean meets with the deputy vice-chancellor for research where faculties are compared in terms of research productivity, and gets the message: we expect more from your faculty. It hurts a dean when her law or humanities faculty is compared to science and engineering, where the research graph goes upwards year after year. The deputy vice-chancellor’s performance measurement by the vice-chancellor rests almost entirely on whether she is able to improve the university’s slice of the pie when it comes to the research funding divided among 26 public institutions. It is a vicious game bereft of research integrity and explains the widespread academic corruption being reported in the world of scholarly publications.

It is important to focus on quality. The quality of the journal matters. The publishing house for your book matters. The originality of your argument matters. New knowledge matters. Rather spend five years writing a ground-breaking book than ‘salami-slice’ the small body of research for maximum outputs by putting different titles on the same work. You might win on the subsidy income but you will never become a great scholar in your field.

I was still at the University of the Free State when I made the decision to submit my work for an NRF rating in 2015. There were all kinds of risks associated with this move. No vice-chancellor had applied for rating while in the post. Only one or two had achieved A-ratings, like a one-time Rhodes University leader, but that was probably because of his laboratory science prior to assuming the vice-chancellorship. I had pushed the university academics hard on their research standing and promotions; they would no doubt be watching the outcome of my NRF application like hawks. True, I could probably get away with a good rating less than an A, since I was running a multi-campus university with my team. All of these considerations went through my mind but it was time for another reason – set the example.

So eventually I pressed the ‘send’ key on the online submission. As everyone who has done this knows, the waiting kills you. Self-doubt sets in. You talk yourself down in terms of expectations, to manage any disappointment.

Eventually, the A-rating came and I was relieved for myself but especially for my university. I wanted the institution to break free from its image as a rural university in central South Africa to one that for the first time had three A-rated scholars: Max Finkelstein in mathematical statistics, Melanie Walker in human development studies, and me.

So how did this happen? How is it possible to both lead a university and be productive as a researcher? This is what I did. Since my re-appointment as dean at UP, I realised that the only way I was going to live both my dreams – as a scholar and as a leader – was to negotiate ‘time away’ with my bosses. I could do the routines of data collection in the course of my daily work with outstanding senior staff in support, but writing requires disciplined time. Fortunately, the bosses agreed and I ensured that there was always one (or more) vice-rector who could continue the job at the level and intensity required. I also chose the time so that about three of the months away overlapped with dead time at South African universities (like November through January).

Those sabbaticals made all the difference and my California alma mater has become a wonderful oasis for a thirsty scholar. Two different Fulbright scholarships got me there and back, as well as a year at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. My 2020 Knight Hennessy Fellowship (during which I would teach world leaders once a week and spend the rest of my time thinking and writing) has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was, however, not simply about ‘being away’ but also about ‘being with’. Fundamental to advancing learning is being surrounded by really smart people with whom to test your ideas. This was one of the most important learnings on my journey – what matters more than anything in the trajectory of your career is the company you keep.

One of the most erudite scholars in the history of South African science is a friend called Wieland Gevers. Over the years, our paths have crossed often and we still work together as officials in the Academy of Science of South Africa. Before Wieland became a leading academic administrator at UCT, he was a world-famous medical biochemist. I was curious how a boy from Piet Retief in the old Transvaal achieved so much. It turns out his PhD supervisor was the Nobel Laureate Hans Krebs (remember the Krebs cycle from high school biology?) and his postdoctoral adviser was Fritz Lipmann, another Nobel scientist. Imagine working in the laboratories of these famous scientists and publishing with them in scientific journals. That’s the secret – it matters, the company you keep, academically speaking, for they set the standard, create the environment and advance the careers of those in their space.

For similar reasons, I need to reunite on a regular basis with colleagues at Stanford to learn what else is happening in my field of interest. It has helped enormously to know what top scholars are thinking, reading about, teaching and writing. I need to be in an environment where the first thing a fellow researcher asks you is, ‘What are you working on at the moment?’ In other words, I need to be among people who set the standard, to which I too can aspire in the never-ending process of learning how to be a scholar.