Reconcile our children's future

Prof. Jonathan Jansen (pic courtesy Timeslive)

As the professor stood before his first-year class at the end of his lecture on the fascinating question, "Did God really say?", he suddenly found himself unable to speak.

This module in a new and innovative core curriculum for undergraduates at the University of the Free State was designed to challenge deep beliefs about authority and (any) scripture in fundamentalist societies.

It was an awkward moment for the class of first years as the middle-aged white man started to become very emotional. He could not teach this critical course without admitting his own culpability under apartheid, and asking his racially diverse class of students for forgiveness.

Nobody expected this. A grown man in silent tears. Then, a young black student leaps out of her seat and makes her way to the emotionally distraught professor. She puts her arms around him offering, without words, the acceptance and forgiveness that he sought.

In the same week a strange letter lands on my desk. A black man writes to his new friend, a young white man, on our rural campus in the eastern Free State.

He writes: "I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the guidance and co-operation you gave us. I thought we were from two different worlds, but with you around it looks like we are the same. You did not even make us feel that you were the boss.

"We did everything together and you guided us each step of the way, and for that I am grateful."

A normal letter of gratitude from one colleague to another, until someone tells me that the letter is written to "Danie", one of the young men involved in the terrible Reitz incident.

How does one deal with the powerful emotions of change as they unfold around you every day? How does one make sense of this counter-cultural stream of toenadering as you witness it day-in and day-out as if the rest of the country is not happening? What do these powerful human encounters tell us about the possibilities for a wounded country? And why is it so difficult for this experience to be taken as normative?

This was the challenge issued by a colleague from another university: "I do not buy into this project. The images of togetherness are 'cheesy'. I do not believe this is true."

For a country where violence, insult and abuse represent the norm, of course there is a sense of dis-ease with harmony and conciliation. English institutions immersed in a culture of cynicism pull up their noses at any signs of human warmth and emotion.

There is a second challenge I pick up from angry people on the book circuit: "This is not the time for togetherness; it is a time for justice. Reconciliation was a mistake; let's take back what belongs to us."

This is the challenge of the moment: how to turn the peace dividend into a social justice dividend. The longer we wait in these times of relative peace, on campus and in country, to deal with the mounting inequalities and growing impatience with basic services, the more we risk the human project of togetherness.

The relative quiet post the Luthuli House riots is temporary. We have proven over and over again that we remain prone to explosive anger and retribution. The times of calm must translate into a felt sense of delivery on the needs of the people. Otherwise expect another season of scape-goating in which we blame everyone who is different - the foreign nationals, the oversupply people in the Western Cape, the farmers, the whites, those with Mbeki tendencies (whatever that is), and more.

Behind this lull remains the as-yet unaddressed crisis for the long- term: a school system that continues to drop tens of thousands of black youth without hope onto the streets of South Africa. Our short-term interventions to deal with housing or health or social welfare are band aid solutions as the army of poorly educated, jobless youth grow with every year of failed schooling.

The question I get asked most often in book sessions around the country is this: is there hope for us?

My answer remains the same: "If the future of the country depended on you older people in the room, we're screwed. But since it depends on your children, I am extremely hopeful."

Let us give our full support to them as our youth once again attempt the fearsome senior certificate examinations which will for so many determine their future careers. And let us be there for them, whatever the outcome.

(This story was provided and used with permission by Timeslive.)