Recent graduates of the University of the Free State received a very inspirational speech from the first black dean in South Africa. Professor Jonathan Jansen, known for his outspoken personality, shared a message of reconciliation with the crowd of hopeful graduates. He considered the message to be a very important lesson that every student on the campus needed to learn.
Jansen, one of South Africa’s leading intellectuals, opened his graduation ceremony speech by urging his students to “never respond by rage, respond through reason.” This, in Jansen’s opinion, is the key to gaining “not just a degree, but an education.” Jansen has had an extensive educational career and hopes to make education the primary focus of the graduating class. “The way out of poverty is through learning,” said Jansen, and he certainly would be the one to know. Born as the son of a preacher in a gang-infested area on the outskirts of Cape Town, Jansen learned what it took to fight against all odds. Growing up as a black boy in Cape Flats meant he had a “greater chance” of going to prison than going to university. Despite all these challenges and hardships, Jansen grew to be a widely renowned author, newspaper columnist, and the president of the South African Institute of Race Relations. Overcoming obstacles wasn’t easy, but he gives all the credit to his parents.
Jansen describes his parents as “Old Testament figures.” In his eyes, his father was Abraham and his mother was Sarah. “Here you had parents that raised you in a bubble of decency, of this is what you do and don’t do, this is the direction out of poverty,” said Jansen. He claimed that growing up he could literally look out his window and see women being raped and people being killed. Even as he grew up in the midst of violence, he never lost his focus on education. “In this bubble that Abraham and Sarah raised us, there was an understanding of yourself that was unshakeable—central to that was education,” he informed the gown-clad students.
Remarkably, the man who came from such rough beginnings would be the man known for his unconditional forgiveness. In 2008, four white students would be seen on video forcing five black housekeepers to eat urine infested stew. The students would face legal consequences, but the merciful dean would offer all four of the students the chance to come back and continue their education. Jansen became a prime example of mercy and forgiveness, and this would be the very lesson he hoped to teach the graduates during the ceremony.
Jansen pushed the importance of reconciliation over retribution. “I don’t care what else you’ve learned at the University of the Free State but you know this is a university that in the world is regarded as a place that chooses reconciliation over revenge, that chooses compassion over striking back, that chooses mercy over retaliation,” Jansen told the graduates.