Research and Policy Brief: Would the Presidential penis have mattered if it was in a book? Presidential address to the SAIRR by Professor Jonathan Jansen, 27 September 2012.

In his address to the South African Institute of Race Relations in his capacity as its president Professor Jonathan Jansen examines what the state of education tells us about the state of South Africa.

 Would the presidential penis have mattered if it was in a book?

Presidential Address
South African Institute of Race Relations

Jonathan D Jansen
University of the Free State
27 September 2012


An eminent historian recently made the interesting argument that as a visual and aural society South Africans rely on the stimulation of sensual images in the public sphere to inform our behaviours. In a literate society, on the other hand, that is, one in which reading mattered, there would probably be much less fuss about controversies like The Spear if the medium was a book and not a public display in a gallery. In retrospect, what was it in fact that made the dogs-on-illegal immigrants (2001) or the Reitz incident (2008) or the Marikana massacre (2012) such massive events of public emotion, introspection and protest? It was the camera, the visual and aural record of an atrocity that could be played over and over and over again until the public outcry was so intense that commissions of inquiry would be promised and human rights bodies called to action. If there was, for example, a visual record of screaming security guards being cut-up and burnt alive in that car on the Marikana site before the police shootings, our sense of emotion and empathy towards the miners might well have gone the other way. If The Spear was depicted in graphically descriptive words in a book, there would probably not have been the kind of upheaval at the time.

But that is a separate issue for what the historian draws our attention to with his observation of our visual and aural society, is the relationship between a book literate, or educated culture, and the public behaviour of citizens, for
“in properly functioning societies which read extensively, the instantly visual and the immediately aural would not triumph so easily over reasoned objections that come from extensive engagement with the written word and the formulation of measured positions.”

We are of course a society that has long despised books, as the historic burning of banned books deemed undesirable for citizen consumption attest; this history is powerfully told in Archie Dick’s (2012) new book, The hidden history of South Africa’s book and reading cultures (University of Toronto Press). Today we regularly burn libraries in protest action and close down places of learning.

And so the question I wish to address this morning is what does the state of education tell us about the state of the country? What are the most important shifts in education that we need to be alert to as we contemplate the future?

Seven dangerous shifts in the public education crisis

I take it as my task in this annual Lecture not to tell you what everybody else already said or what is easily observed, but to probe more deeply into the meaning of what is happening in school and society and what this might portend for the future. Going beneath the skin, or the surface features of the drama that is education, will not only help only explain the stable crisis in education, they also hint at the kinds of social actions that could break the political stalemate in public schools and universities.

1. A shift in the valuing of public education---Olifantshoek

In the Olifantshoek case in the Northern Cape the community closed down schools for more than three months. What kind of society closes down its schools for months on end because of demands for a tarred road and for the ejection of a single person, the mayor? Think about this for a minute. I am not contesting, for the moment, the legitimacy of the community’s demands for better services or more competent officials. I am asking a broader question: why would a community sacrifice the one route out of poverty for rural youth in a socially and economically oppressed community like Olifantshoek and other areas of the Northern Cape? There can be only one conclusion: that the value of education has lost all meaning for these rural communities. In this scenario children are useful pawns in local struggles for things other than education; and those who still see some value in the education of the youth are too scared or intimidated to go against the barbarians in their midst.

This shift is important because it has never happened before in the post-1994 period. In the 1980s there was that brief episode in which some activists called for “liberation now education later” but that sentiment did not have broad support, and it certainly was understandable in the context of the violence and oppression under the apartheid state. But how do you explain “tarred road now education later” or “mayor fired or education later?”

My interview with one of the activists was disturbing in part because his own child was being kept home and in part because he was prepared for this withholding of education to continue “until 2020 if necessary.” Now I understand the hyperbole of South African politics but the notion that children could be kept out of school for months for causes that have nothing to do with education is something worth pondering.

In these now routinely violent community protests education is no longer accorded the same value as in the previous century. It is not the route out of poverty. My informant mentioned unemployed youth who finished school as another reason for this lack of faith in education as solving any of the pressing social and economic problems of the area.

I have a sense that this negation of the value of education is spreading in the poorest communities of the country, and the reasons are many: the inability to keep enrolled students in school for reasons that include poor quality education; an unpredictable timetable; unreliable teaching; the shortage of basic resources (textbooks and basic science materials etc); the lack of responsiveness from local, provincial and national education authorities; and the visible lack of connection between education and economic well-being in local communities.

This should serve as a solemn warning: when poor communities no longer believe in education as offering private value or having public merits, then expect more hostage-taking of children, more libraries burnt, and more teachers opting out of education even though their bodies—for reasons of money alone—remain in the classroom.

2. The mobilisation of sentiment rather than thought---Goodman Gallery

In a society that responds to images rather than words, it is easy to mobilise mass sentiment rather than appeal to the logic of ideas. What drew the masses towards the Goodman gallery was the powerful image of a protruding penis in a hyper-conservative society where sight overwhelms thought. So disturbing was the image that it had to be physically destroyed, as if the vandalism of the two men was sufficient to suppress the ideas behind the painting. That is what happens not only in a socially illiterate society.

There was little attention given to the attempts to infiltrate logic and debate into the public sphere. The nuance and complexity of the painting, the meaning of the overall exhibition, and the importance of art as criticism was something entertained by the reading elites. When a prominent journalist registered the emotional history of the black penis into the reactive debates, even the reading elites backed off in deference to the argument for human dignity.

It mattered little, this debate among reading elites, for in the middle of the day hundreds of unemployed and disgruntled people could be mobilised on sentiment alone for what was clearly nothing more than a second round (the first being the rape and corruption trials) in a politics of victimhood centred on the president. The fact that there was no political reaction to the equally provocative graphics that followed—the Zapiro depiction of the president as a penis and Ayanda Mabulu’s painting of another presidential penis—is evidence enough of a cynical politics that tapped into the sentiments of the poor for optimal effect.

3. The realisation that material prosperity can be achieved without education---Marikana

It is still too early to establish the deeper meanings of Marikana—the sloppy social science of over-eager analysts and activists is an irritation---but one thing that became clear is that the miners understand that great material benefits can accrue without having to pursue the hard, long road of education and training. A demand of R12,500 after tax is more than what a beginning teacher with a degree and teacher’s diploma will take home after deductions. Needless to say, the boldness of the Marikana demands has spread like wildfire across sectors; in fact some of my union colleagues came to demand an increase in salary with the gentle warning ‘we don’t want another Marikana.’

I wish to be clear that this is not a judgment on the obvious need for better wages in the mining sector and for improved living conditions for those who labour in this dangerous segment of the economy. My point is a broader one: the sheer scale of the salary demands and the deadly determination to achieve the same suggests another route to financial well-being other than education and training.

Of course this demand for massive financial reward makes sense when the union bosses themselves drive expensive cars and lead luxurious lifestyles. Yet it is important to note that the miners or truck drivers or other workers are not against the ostentatious display of wealth; it is that they want the same material things without having to build towards such attainment via education and training.

Of course the desperate route to power and privilege that bypasses education and training is amply on display in the political arena. The ready assassination of competing councillors from the poorest areas, such as the recent KZN South Coast killings, affirms the observation of Joel Netshitenze that “with the flick of a pen a man can go from long-term unemployment to a job, house and car”—once again, without the labour of education and training. The institutionalisation of corruption in some provinces and the profitable linkage of party deployees to jobs simply confirm in the minds of ordinary citizens that there are other more immediate routes to escaping poverty. That the most charismatic among our national leaders have themselves accessed enormous wealth and privilege without personal investments in education and training must be enormously attractive to millions of young people failed by school system before and since 1994.

4. The belief that central control is better than local authority in education—Rivonia Primary and others

Another important shift in the education landscape has been the growing shift towards centralization of authority. Where once the clarion call of struggle was for communities to take charge of education at the local level, there is now a creeping tendency to reinvest that authority in the centre.

To be fair, the impulse for centralization is perhaps a natural response to education crises n the provinces over which the national government has little legal control. But the centralization of power invariably carries the potential for abuse, and this is clearly evident in recent cases.

When the Gauteng Department of Education forced Rivonia Primary to take an extra child, it effectively overrode the authority of the school governing body to determine admissions policy. A school that raises private resources to enable quality education for manageable numbers of learners from diverse racial and class backgrounds, found itself being subjected to legal action and its principal under threat of dismissal over one (middle class black) child. The issues of diversity and inclusion are not at stake here—this can and should be achieved through other means; what is at stake is the erosion of the authority of a school to decide over admissions. The central authority knows best.

In the Free State the Minister of Higher Education and Training lost in the courts his attempt to impose administrative authority on the Central University of Technology. I am not making the case for CUT or its leadership; my point is a different one. The impulse to control universities from the centre is the broader threat facing all universities—including the ones with strong financial, managerial and governance systems—under the guise of ensuring accountability. We see this in the push to establish a university in the Northern Cape despite advice from the Council on Higher Education that this was a bad idea—for reasons of numbers alone. We see in the push from the centre to impose the Auditor General’s authority on autonomous institutions with their own established systems of accountability—from external and internal audits to annual financial reporting to government. We see this in the first-ever attempt by a central government to establish humanities centres in public universities and to instruct universities on the vexed issue of differentiation or differentiated missions for higher education institutions. We see it in the daily interference by central government officials to submit the names of students for NSFAS allocations and to plead for individual students to be admitted or readmitted to public institutions despite the fact that admissions policies remain fundamental to the authority and autonomy of universities. Students in trouble, especially those with political connections, now recognize that they can go straight to the national department of education and training to plead for admission to a university.

The case of the textbooks in Limpopo province present the most visible case of a national department invoking legislation to take-over the authority of the province over matters of delivery on the assumption that a central authority will do better than a corrupt local authority. At least three competing inquiries were launched from the centre, including the president’s office, and the results were clear: the national government was as incompetent to deliver textbooks on time as their local counterparts for a simple reason—“national” had neither the insight nor the capacity to deliver textbooks in a situation hundreds of miles removed from the air-conditioned offices of the central government.

4. The withdrawal of governmental authority in the face of community-level gangsterism around schools---Eastern Cape and others

The most serious shift in education in recent times has been the loss of authority by political authorities over citizens. The fact that the Minister of Basic Education was driven away from the Eastern Cape in her attempts to intervene in the crisis at the beginning of the year that kept thousands of children out of school, is cause for concern. The fact that even a presidential visit later could not persuade the comrades to allow the poorest children to return to learning, should also ring alarm bells.

Since then the reported fear of the Minister to initially visit the Northern Cape schools in Kuruman and Olifantshoek because of the violent response of communities ought to concern all of us. It fell on the shoulders of the Minister of Police, no less, to try and get children back into school, and he too was denied. It was a non-elected official, the Public Protector no less, who in the past few days was able to persuade one of those communities to open their schools to learning.

My point is this: gangsters operating as concerned citizens are holding children hostage in the quest, we are told (I think there is a good case worth investigating by examining local political infighting over the control of resources, that might offer a better explanation for the hostage-taking in the two NC areas), for service delivery and our elected officials at the highest levels have lost their moral and political authority to restore order in those schools.

In this respect I have made the point often that when the most powerful teachers union in our country can also hold-up the education of the poorest children to fight for their immediate demands around teachers, then there is yet further evidence that the control and authority over especially disadvantaged schools have shifted from school governing bodies and government to forces outside the schools.

This should concern all of us not only in education but in society more broadly as people begin to lose faith in—or simply ignore--those they elected and, once again, the people and schools most affected by this shift in authority are those who can least afford the disruption of education.

It would, in the context of the arguments above, be a serious oversight not to make the observation that government officials seem to intervene only in those areas where they can bully citizens into submission—such as in the case of principal Carol Drysdale of Rivonia Primary---but withdraw into a political shell when it comes to those who have a say in their elected futures—such as in the case of angry black citizens and a defiant teachers union.

5. The recourse to the courts to solve deep-seated educational problems—Equal Education and the Eastern Cape schools

It should concern us, the tendency to believe that we can resolve complex problems of institutionalised dysfunction in the administration and management of schools by going to the courts. I understand of course the frustration of activists and parents to establish functionality in the schools by holding government to account for the delivery of basic resources to all schools. But as we now know, government ignores or fails to deliver on court-established deadlines, with no consequences. We also know that changing the long-established cultures of bureaucracies and of schools are much more complex and not responsive to legal injunction.

6. The illusion that well-intentioned policies and plans merely require “implementation”—the NDC and the Thabo Patshwa and Uitenhage Primary schools

This is an abiding illusion in public discourse—we have good policies, we just need to implement them. The problem with this formulation is the separation between policy ideals and practical realities. A policy is, in fact, only as good as its realisation in practice. Some go as far as to argue that the practice is the policy. A good policy, therefore, is something that works, and can work, in the messy reality of South African schools.

It is for this reason that the National Development Plan remains for me an important concern. Nobody I know contests its elegance of composition or its quality of data or even its direction for change. But the NDP means nothing if it does not find purchasing power in social and educational institutions which, for the majority of people, simply do not work. I have made the point before that one way to rescue a brilliant-plan-on-paper is to outline its theories of actions, the paths (if only illustrative) by which the goals for, say, early childhood education, can be attained.

To return to my earlier points, once a community begins to lose faith in the redemptive power of a good school education, no technical or development plan can rescue such a society without being lodged in a serious, engaging discussion of not only educational change BUT social transformation at the same time.

7. The growing acceptance in society that to protest means to threaten, insult, destroy and even kill

Our children learn from their observations of adult behaviour that acceptable forms of protest mean to attack and destroy even those very resources that enable learning. There is no single, clear, authoritative voice on the social or educational landscape that not only condemns but ensures that the necessary protests in a democratic society cannot allow for anarchy and what have now become gratuitous attacks on ordinary citizens by those in power.

It would be a very insightful audit that accounts for the number of school and university buildings, including libraries, which have been destroyed in our democracy. This has to stop but do we have the moral and political authority to create a different kind of society when those in power behave in exactly the same way when it suits them?


The point of this Lecture has been to point to the kinds of consequences that result from a society which is socially and educationally illiterate, where emotions triumph over logic, where reason is displaced by wrath, and where books take second place to rocks (watch the truckers’ strike of the day).

There are no short-cuts to changing society. The only way out is a social revolution that once again places education at the centre of the agenda for change but not in the form of yet another round of rhetoric by the powerful but through a social movement among ordinary people that urgently confronts the rot in the school system before it is too late.