A post-apartheid brain drain in South Africa

There are elements in South Africa today, no doubt, who are pleased that Professor Jonathan Jansen, vice chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State, will be taking up a fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University in California. His departure should delight those who want him gone because of his tough, no-nonsense approach to education in general and at universities in particular.

Others will be saddened to see him go, perhaps even feeling that this is a harbinger of a perilous “brain drain” for South Africa.


Raised in the small town of Montagu, Western Cape, Jansen moved as a child to Cape Town. Growing up in a tough neighborhood in a “colored” (a designation for people of mixed-race ancestry) community that had suffered forced removals under apartheid, Jansen trained as a biology teacher before specializing in education at Cornell and then Stanford, where he gained his doctorate. He was also a Fulbright scholar in education at the latter in 2007.

A world-class educator, Jansen served as dean of education at the University of Pretoria from 2001 to 2007 and was appointed to his leadership position at U.F.S. in 2009. Both universities were rooted in an almost all white, Afrikaans-speaking culture, often marked by racism and support for apartheid by many students and staff alike; both were attempting to transform themselves into nonracial institutions committed to being more representative of the population and ethos of the new South Africa.

Jansen’s conviction, driven by a realization that even among young people growing up in the post-apartheid era racial attitudes remained fixed, was that those goals could only be achieved by facilitating encounters between black and white students. At both U.P. and U.F.S. he organized meetings that were jointly presided over by black and white students, creating the space for them to talk about their fears, prejudices, hopes and aspirations, encouraging them to see common ground and to grow together as a community.

A scholar as well as administrator, he wrote a number of highly regarded books and academic articles on education, as well as a weekly syndicated newspaper column. He also advised a number of countries on curriculum reform. He insisted that his university colleagues research and publish regularly. The academic status of both U.P. and U.F.S. grew under his leadership.

Throughout his academic and popular writings he dealt with education and racism and the need for excellence in education at every level as a prerequisite for a democratic and prosperous South Africa. He regularly slammed teachers’ unions driven by self-interest over the interests of students and increasingly took on the government for its incompetence and corruption, especially in education policies and practice. Surprise, surprise: He was not well-liked in the corridors of power.

When he came to U.F.S., he found himself managing new crises, dealing with racist incidents in a student residence, while carrying on the group encounter program he had started at U.P. He tried to be a reconciling voice in the student fees protests at U.F.S. over the last few years, protests that often led to racialized confrontations between students. A pragmatic realist, he acknowledged the justification of student grievances over fees but would not tolerate violent confrontation, racism or destruction of property. This made him unpopular with some students, particularly among hardline student groups, who demanded his removal.

Both radical students and government officials who were the objects of his fierce criticism and objected to his forthright approach to education are no doubt pleased to learn that he is heading to the United States. Others, myself included, are saddened that we are losing Professor Jansen, much as one understands the many good professional reasons he has for going. Stanford’s gain (and it will be a big gain) is South Africa’s loss. To many of us he is the best minister of education South Africa never had.

I cannot but also ask a question: Is Jansen’s imminent departure a sign of things to come, an academic and intellectual flight of the sort last seen during the apartheid era? Given the current climate—mismanagement at every level of education, party political interference in universities, increasingly violent student activism driven by blind ideology—the potential intellectual and leadership void could be devastating for the new South Africa.

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