Knowledge in the Blood

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My colleagues Andrea van der Merwe, Paul Keursten and I are involved in an exciting new initiative at the University of the Free State to help strengthen a culture of customer service at the University. It is a fascinating time to be working there – earlier in January we had the opportunity to witness the registration process and see the new students finding their way around. This is the first year in which the students’ residences are integrated as a matter of policy. And of course the impact is visible, as residential groups undertake library tours etc together. Students who, in previous years, needed to be segregated by race, happily mixing and socialising together in their first days – as if apartheid had never existed.

Of course, we are not suddenly all living under a glorious rainbow and there may be problems along the way, but this represents an important step forward in transforming the education system in this country. And this is due in no small part to the efforts of Professor Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor of the University. Jansen recently published an important book ‘Knowledge in the Blood’, in which he addresses issues of race in the education system – particularly through the lens of white Afrikaner students as he got to know them in his previous position at the University of Pretoria.

The concept of ‘knowledge in the blood’ he describes as “knowledge embedded in the emotional, psychic, spiritual, social, economic, political and psychological lives of a community”. Jansen acknowledges Irish poet Macdara Woods as the originator of the term, which he (Woods) saw as meaning “the sum total of what we learn … of love, disappointment, age, loss, and how this knowledge can both make the necessary ongoing human reaffirmation of life and hope possible and at the same time hinder it…”

It is this ‘knowledge in the blood’ that sets up a challenge to any well-designed transformation process, as this deep knowledge will not easily be displaced by new value statements or training courses in ubuntu. But it also provides an opportunity – perhaps the key opportunity at this point in South Africa’s history – the opportunity to build a new knowledge, with new stories, heroic leaders, miracles and healing wells. And this knowledge to be a unifying concept - shared and wondered at by future generations.

Idealistic? Perhaps, but I hope these ideas can contribute to addressing very real challenges we face in South Africa.

Jansen, later in his book, provides valuable insights that should be compulsory reading for teachers, facilitators and leaders in our society. His ideas about demonstrative leadership and a dialogue that can help people move towards each other can be valuable also in our political discourse. And give courage to he faint-hearted who may feel a disconnect between their own ‘blood knowledge’ and what passes for political correctness in post-apartheid South Africa.