When Jonathan Jansen, newly appointed Vice-Chancellor at the University of the Free State, announced that he was dropping disciplinary charges against four students who had made a racist and demeaning video of university cleaners, his decision was hailed by The Times as “breathtakingly brave”. In an editorial published on October 19, the newspaper went on to say that the gesture “might be just the tonic needed by the still-divided university”.
Exactly one week later – a week in which Jansen faced a torrent of criticism from student organisations, trade unions and the government, forcing him to reconsider - The Times has changed its tune. The newspaper’s editorial today labels the decision a “mistake”, and criticises Jansen for not consulting widely enough or insisting thast the perpetrators apologise to their victims. Jansen’s decision to reopen discussions on the pardon, The Times opines, is a “positive step”, which “might lead to the kind of dialogue at the university that would result in genuine reconciliation.”
Why the about-turn? How did a decision that was lauded one week as a “tonic” suddenly become a “mistake”, incapable of producing “genuine” reconciliation at the racially divided university? Was The Times simply bowing to the winds of public opinion?
The Times’ sister newspaper, the Sunday Times, didn’t do much better.
In an editorial headlined “Jansen needs to admit his error“, the newspaper on Sunday described the decision to drop disciplinary charges against the students as akin to “sprinkl(ing) chilli into the wounds of the women who had fallen victim to racist boys who dehumanised them by making them consume foodstuffs that they had urinated into”. Fair enough. The Sunday Times has the right to take a stance on this issue, and express it in the strongest possible terms. But it goes on to say:
It is hard to fathom what was going on in Jansen’s mind when he unilaterally decided to drop charges against the four students who meted out racist and shameful treatment that shook the country. It is even more difficult to figure out why he chose the occasion of his inauguration to announce this ill-informed decision.
We would have expected Jansen to know better that any true reconciliation should be preceded by an expression of remorse on the part of the perpetrator. That ethos is the blue print of our much-vaunted Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
There is so much that is wrong with those three paragraphs that I hardly know where to start. Difficult to fathom what Jansen was thinking? Not if you bothered to read his inaugural lecture, in which he went to great lengths to explain his motivations. You may disagree with his nuanced argument that racism should not be reduced to “individual pathologies” – that kicking the four students off campus won’t change the institutional culture - but simply ignoring it does not serve the debate.
And since when is remorse a precondition for “true” reconciliation? Not only did the Sunday Times’s leader writer not read Jansen’s address, he also hadn’t read what he calls the “blue print” for our Truth and Reconciliation Commission (the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act). If he had, he would have known that remorse was not a requirement for amnesty in the Truth And Reconciliation process. Full disclosure was the only requirement.
In the Free State University case, disclosure has been made and the students have apologised to the university. They are facing criminal charges – which Jansen hasn’t squashed, and cannot even if he wanted to – and apologising publicly to the victims at this stage would amount to an admission of guilt, which, according to their legal representatives, is why they aren’t prepared to do so at this stage. Again, you may disagree with the reasoning, but it should at least be explained to your readers. The editorial makes no effort to plumb the complexities of the issue.
Newspapers are in the business of printing news. But that is only part of what they do. They also provide entertainment, information such as television schedules, and, yes, opinion. In their editorial columns, newspapers state their position on important matters. If they read them at all, readers look to these editorials to guide and inform their own thoughts. It follows that newspaper editorials should at least be well-informed and logically argued. Newspapers, if they want to be taken seriously, should be opinion leaders, not followers.
As opinion leaders, newspaper have an immesely powerful role in society. But if they squander their readers’ respect, the lose the ability to inform and influence.
The Sunday Times’ editorial does not contribute to the debate about Jansen’s actions. It simply climbs on the bandwagon with the most simplistic of Jansen’s critics. Its readers surely deserve better.