Bitter knowledge

How is it possible that young white students, born around the time of Nelson Mandela's release from prison, could hold such firm views about the past, such rigid views about black people and, especially among the boys, such fatalistic views about the future? This was the question that dogged me during my early years as the first black dean of education at the historically white University of Pretoria. It made no sense. These white students had no direct experience of apartheid; they did not live as masters and madams through the worst years of racial oppression; they did not police the townships during states of emergency; and the boys did not have to face the trauma of compulsory military service on and often beyond the borders of South Africa. Despite the fact that these were, technically speaking, post-apartheid children, their beliefs and behaviours mirrored those of their parents – the people who upheld, supported and benefited directly from white domination in the decades before they were born. The more I listened to my almost all-white undergraduate class of more than 2,000 students, the more this question besieged me. After seven years as dean I resigned to complete a book that seeks to answer that question. Knowledge in the blood: How white students remember and enact the past, should appear in late 2008. In many ways it predicts the recent racist behaviour of white male students at the University of the Free State.

The answer to the opening question first emerged in one of my regular visits to a Pretoria bookshop with my teenagers, where I stumbled across a new book by the acclaimed author, Eva Hoffman, called After Such Knowledge. Hoffman poses the question personally: how is it, she asks, that as second generation Jews, who did not live through the horrors of the Holocaust as did our parents, we nevertheless behave as if we were there? The author of Lost in Translation (the book, not the movie) names this phenomenon "the paradox of indirect knowledges". She attributes this indirect knowledge to the inter-generational transmission of spoken and unspoken knowledge from the parents who were there, to the children who were not. The consequences are devastating for the second generation, for they bear and express the bitterness and the loss of their parents long after the initial terror was actually lived. I knew immediately that this insight stretched way beyond the trauma of the Holocaust; it explained the beliefs and the behaviours of my white students.

For those seven years I tried to immerse myself inside the lives of my white students. I attended and spoke in their different Afrikaans churches. I visited their homes. I spent time with their parents, often talking about adjustment and change to the promised non-racial order. I observed teaching and learning in white Afrikaans primary and high schools. I did speeches at Afrikaans cultural festivals and workshops at Afrikaans cultural associations. I did training with principals and teachers from the Afrikaans school community, and did endless talks about sameness and difference at school events such as prize-givings. I took the students to malls and the movies, and accepted their invitations to watch them run, box, jump and play rugby and netball. We ate together, we cried together and we prayed together. In their university residences and in bush camps, we talked for countless hours about race, identity and the transition into a new country and a changing university. And this is what I found.

The single most important finding from this intense experience working with white (mainly) Afrikaans students is that like all South African youth, they are decent, idealistic and committed to their country; and that they are capable of change. These young people are not, in general, wide-eyed racists going about the residence halls seeking out black people for racial attack and humiliation. This is not my experience. There is however a serious problem. They carry within them the seeds of bitter knowledge that, left unchallenged, can easily germinate into the most vile and vicious racial attacks on and outside the university campus.

In the case of white Afrikaner youth, how is this troubled knowledge transmitted? It is channelled through five influential agencies: the family, the church, the school, cultural associations and the peer group. In itself, such an observation about knowledge transmission is hardly novel within sociological observation. The problem is that these agencies transmit the same dangerous messages in all-white social circles over and over again; worse, these messages have not been interrupted over the period of transition despite the spectacular changes in the formal institutions of democracy. To be sure, some of the potency of these messages might have been diluted as a result of the collapse of some of these historical agencies of socialisation – such as the state media under apartheid. But by and large, the three core messages of transmission have remained intact.

The first message is about racial exclusivity (we belong by ourselves); the second is about racial supremacy (we are better than them); and the third is about racial victimisation (we are being targeted by them). What reinforces these messages in the hearts of young white people is the threat of social collapse around them through things like rampant crime, electricity failures, corruption in government, and affirmative action. In the belief system of white youth, these social events are interpreted through a singular lens: black incompetence, black greed, black barbarism, and black retaliation.

It is not hard to understand, therefore, why white students stepping into their first integrated experiences in the undergraduate university years would revolt against learning and especially living together with black students. It is also not hard to grasp why right-wing political parties, without any chance of prominence within broader society, would exploit the bitter knowledge of white students. This has been the primary strategy of the Freedom Front Plus as it infiltrated the white Afrikaans universities to wreak racial havoc on them.

The strategy of the Freedom Front Plus was brilliant in its perversity. It would not appeal to ‘race’ to purvey its inflammatory ideas; it would appeal to ‘rights’. Students should not be forced to live together; they have rights of association. Students have the right to learn in their own languages, implying Afrikaans and therefore largely if not exclusively white classes. Students who pay for their education (erroneously implying only white students) should have the right to choose where they live on campus and in what language they are taught.

For institutions that for many years ran their student elections along party political lines, like the University of Pretoria, the Freedom Front Plus sailed into the perfect storm. It won every student election by substantial margins with election posters that contained the most grievous racial insults. And on campuses like the University of the Free State, where this bitter knowledge was fed through separate residences long after other institutions had deracialised their living arrangements, the advent of the Freedom Front Plus was like fire attracted to an oiled rag.

What does this mean for transformation? It means recognising that the students are not the enemy and that as teachers and leaders in schools and universities, we have failed white youth by not interrupting their troubled knowledge – the consequences of which are now painfully visible throughout the country.

Our educational policies since 1994 have had as their presumptive audience black students in schools and universities – as the revised national curriculum and the proposed pledge of allegiance for schools so clearly demonstrate. Our national policies do not speak to engaging and disrupting the bitter knowledge of white students; from a policy standpoint, it seems as if this knowledge either does not exist, or that by some miraculous feat, white and black thrown together in the same educational spaces would simply find each other despite the rival knowledges they bring into the learning commons.

Within universities, this problem is compounded by the fact that institutional knowledge, beyond simply syllabic knowledge, has not been the subject of a searching national review of what counts as worth teaching and learning and knowing in the first place. The social, psychological and epistemological bases of an essentially white knowledge remain undisturbed inside universities. Even though the exoskeleton of the institutional curriculum shows ready compliance with regulatory demands from bodies like the South African Qualifications Authority, the endoskeleton of institutional knowledge remains firmly intact. Students therefore achieve mastery of technical knowledge in engineering, economics or education, for example, without ever being intellectually challenged about the nature, history, politics and purposes of knowledge in their disciplines in the wake of apartheid.

The white students in this essay do not have a memory problem; they were not there, so to speak. They have a knowledge problem, and it remains a bitter knowledge that must be interrupted. Little can be done to disrupt what a white child learns on his mother's knee or in the church's pews. It can however be eroded by insisting on the integration of all-white Afrikaans public schools. And by the time white students reach university, there has to be a direct recognition of and compassionate engagement with the bitter knowledge of these learners – or we place at risk not only black staff and students at former white universities. We threaten the very foundations of social cohesion in a still fragile democracy.

* Jonathan Jansen is an honorary professor of education at the University of the Witwatersrand and scholar-in-residence at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in Johannesburg. His most recent books are Knowledge in the blood: How white students remember and enact the past (in press) and Diversity High: Class, colour, character and culture in a South African high school (2008, with Saloshna Vandeyar). He is a recent Fulbright Scholar to Stanford University (2007-2008), former dean of education at the University of Pretoria (2001-2007), and Honorary Doctor of Education from the University of Edinburgh.