Purposeful: Jonathan Jansen has returned from Stanford University. He says he has just turned 60 and still wants to do ‘a whole lot of stuff’. Picture: SUPPLIED
Purposeful: Jonathan Jansen has returned from Stanford University. He says he has just turned 60 and still wants to do ‘a whole lot of stuff’. Picture: SUPPLIED

SONG FOR SARAH: Lessons from my motherJonathan Jansen with Naomi JansenBookstorm

Jonathan Jansen writes books in such abundance that his publishers can’t keep up with his output. He has two new ones out and a third is ready in a warehouse. One of his publishers, Bookstorm, "thought it wasn’t a good idea to have three new books by the same author out simultaneously", he explains.

Jansen recently returned from one of his alma maters, Stanford University, where he spent a year as a fellow. After seven tough years as vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State he welcomed the opportunity to recuperate, "to just eat, write and think, which is all you are required to do. You share your thoughts once a day over a meal."

After his return he hit the ground running to promote his latest work. Already he’s been booked for 40 talks across SA before the year ends.

He has come back from Stanford where he says he would live a longer, healthier life than in SA, "because I need purpose. My mother, Sarah, ground into me the duty, if you get an education, to plough back."

The extent of Sarah Jansen’s powerful mothering is evocatively captured in this small, handsome hardcover book. It is the closest that SA’s education expert Jansen, who has written 20 books and plans another 23 at least, will get to a memoir for many years. "I’m too young for that, I’ve just turned 60 and I still want to do a whole lot of stuff," he says.

He wrote Song for Sarah — the title comes from a poem Diana Ferrus wrote about Saartjie Baartman — in response to his irritation at the stereotype of Cape Flats mothers as foul-mouthed, drunk, clownish, oversexed and gap-toothed.

"My book is an attempt to shine a light on my mother, and many others from the Cape Flats who, to borrow from an Albie Sachs book, live the soft power of a dignified life," he says.

Jansen talks about neat, impeccably clean houses run by mothers who, like his, refused to "bend the back" to the harshness of apartheid or the straitened circumstances of their lives.

His mother grew up in the stable, middle-class comfort of a Montagu home, living in the centre of the picturesque Western Cape town.

That was before the apartheid government ripped them from their six-bedroom home and dumped them in a tiny structure with outside toilets and no running water in a location on the town’s outskirts.

Jansen’s grandfather, a wine vat craftsman, turned inexplicably blind from the trauma yet neither he nor his wife seemed, to their puzzled grandchildren, to vent any outrage.

Sarah found a job in Milnerton, Cape Town, after training as a nurse. It was there that she met her equally religious husband, Abraham Jansen.

They made their council house home in Retreat.

Jansen writes movingly about the manner in which his unflappable, rock-like mother ensured he and his four siblings were brought up with strict morals, discipline and respect for all, regardless of race or gender. There was little sympathy for a child complaining about a teacher’s hiding and he was likely to get a second one from Sarah, "because your teacher must have had a reason for caning you".

Abraham Jansen had various jobs before arriving home one day to announce he was going to be a missionary and would not be bringing in a regular income.

Sarah became the breadwinner and despite her meagre nurse’s salary — black nurses earned less than their white colleagues — the family never went hungry. To this day Jansen cannot explain it, "outside of a deep-seated spiritual notion. It was quite amazing."

But even Sarah wept when her son, doing a bursary-funded BSc degree in 1979 at the University of the Western Cape, asked her one day for the required taxi, train and bus fare because he didn’t want to be late for an exam. He normally hitch-hiked the two-hour trip. She told him to fetch her ragged purse — it was empty.

He was so enraged, "I grew up an angry young man", that he decided to drop out of his studies and get a job. Sarah entreated an uncle to stop him.

Jansen writes that if he had not listened, he might now be selling fish on the roadside.

Instead, he secured a Bishop Tutu scholarship to do a two-year master’s degree at Cornell University in upstate New York.

When her first grandson was born Sarah borrowed money for an air ticket to meet the baby, such was her sense of family and tradition. You may shed a tear as I did when Sarah dies, such is the simple power of Jansen’s prose.

He asked his sister Naomi Jansen to help him write the book. She adds her perspective on their family and particularly Sarah’s life.

The effect of Sarah’s strict, religious and generous upbringing — no one was ever turned away hungry from their door — is evident in her son today. He has turned his back on a comfortable and less stressful lifestyle at Stanford to become involved in public life in SA.

He has meetings lined up in mosques, temples, churches, small businesses, big corporations, farms and primary schools, "to answer the questions people ask me: is there hope for our country, our schools, our universities? I believe so. It is precisely because I feel we can turn the situation around that I came back."

I asked Jansen five years ago if he would consider becoming minister of education and he responded he could never sit in a cabinet that denied the Dalai Lama a visa.

Now, he gives a different answer. "If a new government, post 2019, asked me to lead in terms of education, I would do it. But not, God knows, for political reasons. If we don’t fix the foundational years — grades one to three — where you make or break children’s future, then we are gone." He talks about societal breakdown, the anger and violence, "coming out of a failure to reason. That is the result of the failure of our school system."

Meanwhile, he will continue writing between five and 20 pages a day. Asked how he finds the time, he replies: "I love two things in life — writing and eating. Nobody’s asked me where I find the time to eat."

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