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South African activist teacher gets education doctorate

STANFORD -- When Jonathan Jansen taught science in black South African high schools, disruptions were both common and extraordinary.

"At 9 a.m., I would be teaching science to a perfectly healthy student," Jansen said. "At noon, the police would take the student out of the class. The next day, the student would be a complete nervous wreck. He wouldn't even know where he was. Sometimes, I'd never see the student again.

"During the height of the 1980s protests, this would happen about once a week."

Teaching in black communities is "one of the most stressful occupations" in South Africa, said Jansen, who receives his doctorate in education from Stanford this month before returning home to Cape Town.

He estimates that he is one of no more than 500 South African blacks to hold a doctoral degree. Even that is up from a decade ago, Jansen said, when "you could count them on one hand."

A major reason for the change is a scholarship program chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which brought Jansen to America in 1985. He earned his master's degree at Cornell and came to Stanford in 1987 to pursue his doctorate.

"I was awake many nights," he said, "thinking 'Should I go? What happens to these kids if I go? At least if I stay I can teach on weekends, visit my students in the hospital, console parents.'

"I bonded with students in a way teachers in other countries don't. I was concerned about their very existence."

Because of this concern, Jansen has never stopped really teaching: at least once a week, he said, he has spoken to business, corporate, campus, church, charitable and high school groups about the history and politics of South Africa.

"This has taken up about as much time as my formal academic work," he said.

The birth of his children in the United States -- Mikhail, 4, and Sara-Jane, born last February -- has only deepened his commitment to political reform.

"I have the desire to ensure that our children don't go through the things I have," he said. "That cannot be assumed; it has to be struggled for. With creative political inputs from many, many talented South Africans, both black and white, we can craft a more desirable future."

In addition to family, academic, and political activities, Jansen returns to South Africa about twice a year as a consultant for U.S. minority firms. Such commitment, along with his new degree, have led some to speculate that he will be a major voice in a new South Africa.

"He's very bright; he's been incredibly active, and has an enormous amount of energy," said Prof. Martin Carnoy, Jansen's adviser and chair of Stanford International Development Education Committee (SIDEC). "He's politically astute -- but much depends on where he fits politically."

Although a Ph.D. in education might seem far- removed from the world of politics, Carnoy said that "in South Africa, education has been politically the main issue," with schools serving as the center for boycotts, strikes, and political activity.

"Someone who comes in with expertise in [education] reforms has a big political base, and can be a major organizing force for change. He's going to be very active in redefining black South African education."

Jansen doesn't rule out a future in politics, either.

"I'll always be politically involved with trying to push change at the grass-roots level," he said. "I like politics. After all, everything we do is political."

The first generation under apartheid

Certainly "politics" has overshadowed Jansen's life, which began in 1956, eight years after apartheid began. He remembers the South African government's racial reclassification in the 1950s and 1960s.

"Some members of my family are not as dark-skinned as I am," he said, so his family was classified as "colored" rather than "black" -- "although if you go back to my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, we are a black family."

Jansen described the pain and humiliation caused by the reclassifications, which separated families and resulted in thousands of suicides and arrests, and widespread emigration.

"If you don't have the same classification, you cannot live together, you are not supposed to be seen together after dark, you cannot go to the same hospital or be buried in the same cemetery -- even if you are mother and child," he said.

He also described the "Pencil Test" used at the time to determine "black" and "colored": a pencil is speared through the subject's hair. If it slips out, he or she is "colored." If it sticks, he or she is "black."

"It's the most common way of classification -- to this day," said Jansen, citing The Apartheid Handbook. "It's as silly as that."

'Horrendous' childhood

Against this backdrop, "my own childhood was a fairly horrendous one," Jansen said. During his Cape Town boyhood, he remembers the "daily harassment of black people - - the police coming through and beating up people, with no need even for a pretext."

"I saw many of my friends shot," he said. "I saw the neighbor's children shot. I don't think I know anyone who doesn't know of a friend, neighbor, or family member who was tortured, or killed, or maimed by the authorities."

His father was a "domestic worker," who also worked as a driver for a dry-cleaning firm and later as a vegetable "hawker" in the black townships. His mother was a nurse, whose opportunities were limited to black hospitals, and whose salary was equivalent to a laborer's.

"They struggled to support five children," he said. "Although they were both very talented people, their career opportunities were severely circumscribed by apartheid."

A prosperous farm, which had been owned by the family for generations, was appropriated by the state, with a reimbursement "of about 20 cents" to his grandfather.

"It wasn't as if the government did anything with the farm," he said. "They turned it into a slab of concrete. It was done strictly as part of a strategy to disempower blacks.

"Within a few weeks, my grandfather went blind. It was fairly obvious to us that it was because of the emotional trauma.

"Looking back over the years, there was a lot of stress. A lot of times it looked like I wasn't going to finish high school, let alone university."

'Liberation pedagogy'

Jansen's doctoral dissertation analyzes curriculum reform in Zimbabwe, distinguishing "what factors inhibit radical change, from an inherited curriculum to something more progressive." He has also examined educational systems in Nicaragua, Cuba, and Tanzania.

Jansen said that teacher training and textbooks are important to educational reform -- "but there's something else going on. There are also issues of power, politics, vested interests."

In South Africa, he said, where the Dutch Reformed Church is a powerful influence, "much of the educational theory is based on a perverted Calvinistic view of the world." In this view, "the child is intrinsically sinful, and needs to be molded into subservience."

"It has devastating implications," Jansen said. "For example, corporal punishment is seen as a very necessary instrument for instilling the fear of God."

In this view, too, "the idea that a child is a container needing to be filled with facts makes perfect sense." Consequently, he said, dissenters are seen as "deviants, being misled by evil doctrines, such as communism."

Media misperceptions

Jansen also is concerned about misperceptions in Western news coverage of the South African experience, such as recent conflict among blacks.

"To describe this conflict as ethnic is to play into the hands of the government, which has always said that without its authority the blacks would annihilate each other," he said.

"These problems have nothing to do with tribe. To ascribe them to tribe is to misunderstand the mixed ethnic composition of warring factions. It has nothing to do with ethnicity -- a lot to do with politics."

He said that African National Congress membership has become increasingly ethnically mixed, as is the Zulu- based Inkatha movement.

"The conflict is better explained by the differences between relatively well-off black urban home- owners and urban squatters or hostel dwellers," Jansen said.

In general, he says U.S. coverage "is missing a sense of history.:

"Any society undergoing political transition will have upheaval," he said. "Could you have predicted at the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence that, in eighty years, your nation would be on the brink of disaster with its own warring factions?"

Jansen is less disturbed about the waning interest in South Africa on campuses that, a few years ago, were holding massive anti-apartheid demonstrations.

"I think it's a good thing we're out of the media spotlight," he said. "Now we can identify people with a serious commitment to change in South Africa. Very often, people who aren't very visible are the ones who make a lasting contribution -- much more so than the people who go with the mood of the moment."



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