As part of its ongoing series of Thought Leaders’ events, Accelerate Cape Town, together with Vodacom, recently hosted Professor Jonathan Jansen, of the University of the Free State, at a breakfast for the business leadership of the region. Professor Jansen was his usual engaging – and challenging – self, and called for better leadership at the national level, and different leadership from business.

Jansen began his address by talking about the enormous wastage in the school system. “When you look at last year’s Grade 12 results, you will see that less than 25% of pupils achieved 50% in physical science, mathematics and life sciences. If you are talking about talent, start there.” He said that this failure comes down to our school system’s inability to give every child a fair chance at success in their lives after school. “Unless you sort out the schools, you cannot have anything resembling a decent society. The business sector will not be able to resolve the issue of the talent shortage until we have a stable school system for at least 80% of our children, instead of the 20% we are currently sitting with.”

The problem, he says, is not one of education – it is one of politics and power, and as such it can only be resolved politically. Calling on the national leadership, he said, “We need our President to step in and tell his partners in the unions, specifically Cosatu and the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU), that government is taking back the schools. Government then needs to run our schools in a way that does not undermine the children of the poorest of the poor.” He was furious over SADTU’s ongoing strikes and the go-slow that has affected schools across the country. “It is immoral for our union leaders to disrupt schools for the vast number of poor children in our country, while their children attend schools which are undisturbed.”

Immense hope for the next generation

Despite the enormous challenges faced by the South African education system, Jansen was full of praise and hope for the next generation of leaders emerging in the country. “Aside from the broken education system, our other key challenge to ensure a healthy society is one of human relationships. South Africans have great difficulty in understanding each other, which is a result of our administration systems that insist that we are divided into four types of people – African, white, coloured and Indian – and which gets in the way of us simply living as human beings.” From his own experience as the head of the University of the Free State, he says he saw first-hand the incredible anger and separation between white and black during the Reitz saga. “This was a problem of intimacy, an inherent distrust between two groups of students that led to a crisis. In an effort to resolve this, we put black and white students together, in the same residencies, to overcome the fear and distrust. To the surprise of many, no further crises or controversies reared their head.”

His message to business was framed in the context of his experience in handling racial conflict at the University of the Free State. Focusing on the business leaders in the room, he encouraged the development of a corporate culture which emphasises nearness –not just in physical terms, but through social media. He stressed that distant and inaccessible leadership is an unacceptable legacy of the past. He also encouraged the concept of reciprocation – that any assistance given should be matched by some form of giving by the recipient. Adam Rabie, Executive Head of Enterprise Business at Accelerate Cape Town corporate sponsor Vodacom, who sponsored the Thought Leaders’ Breakfast, summarised by saying: “It is through meaningful conversation and collaboration such as this that companies can achieve continued growth and greater success. Accelerate Cape Town are the leaders in facilitating platforms for these conversations and should continue to create these invaluable thought leadership opportunities, especially in the Cape business community where meaningful conversation is required.”