Reconfiguring ‘The Violent Black man’, and the succesful black woman: a critical response to Jonathan Jansen

Gcobani Qambela
Gcobani Qambela

By Gcobani Qambela

I have just read a highly disturbing and problematic piece by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, Professor Jonathan Jansen. In this piece he notes that

“more women, compared to men are graduating from high school and from university with dire consequences for our still patriarchal society.”

Understandably, he questions the sociological impact that this will have on South Africa’s patriarchal society, with a large focus on the impact on heterosexual marriages.

In this piece Jansen, using American focused research in the book ‘Is Marriage for White People‘ by Stanford University’s Ralp Banks whose research shows that as black women succeed, many black women remain unmarried (as they do not want to compromise or settle for a less educated man). Jansen correctly notes that many men in South Africa have been socialised as the head of the household, however I disagree with his gloomy and pessimistic, almost urgent conclusion that these

“emasculated” (black) South African men who in ten years time will find themselves overridden by women occupying important and influential occupations will result in “tension and violence in many homes as men struggle to come to terms with their changed status.”

I do not agree with Jansen because he wrongly equates women’s access to education as a threat to (black) men, and that is not correct. While Jansen has colourblinded and tried to keep his article race neutral, his utilisation of American centric research amongst black African-American men, implies his piece is focused primarily on black South African men, and not all races.

Jansen sees black men as inherently violent and patriarchal, so it’s only natural to him that if black women assume powerful positions of power in both academic institutions and the corporate world, then necessarily black men (seeing their status threatened by black succesful women) will retaliate in violence and consequently continue to fill up the prisons. Jansen further goes on to perpetuate the racist stereotype of the political arena in South Africa being a domain for only uneducated black men who cannot find occupation anywhere else. He says he imagines

“more and more of these emasculated [uneducated black] men following their role models into politics, where in this country you need neither a degree nor any limits on your appetites for the intimate.”

It is not clear if this is directed at a particular political party or not, but I wonder where he places all the black people in South African politics with Masters degrees and PhD’s from reputable institution?

I see his piece as not only  deeply  sexist, but also an innately racist piece of writing, and contributes to essential white supremacists colonial misrepresentations of black men. In ‘We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity‘ American feminist scholar and cultural critic bell hooks for instance notes that black men are often easily

“seen as animals brutes, natural-born racists, and murderers, black men have had no real dramatic say when it comes to the way they are represented. They have made few interventions on the stereotype. As a consequence they are victimised by stereotypes that were first articulated in the nineteenth century but [still] hold sway over the minds and imaginations of citizens of this nation in the present day.”

While Jansen notes that patriarchy is learnt through socialisation, I am surprised that he seems so ardent and sure that amongst black males it cannot be unlearned through the same process of (re)socialisation.

Jonathan Jansen misses the point that women, especially black women doing well professionally and academically, could be an important teachable moment in the lives of South African men, especially for black men to rise up. I’ve been blessed to have been surrounded by incredible young black succesful women during my time at university and in my working life, and most of these women were not only working to pay off student loans and supporting their families, but were often educating their younger brothers and sisters. Many leading world thinkers including Oprah Winfrey, (who was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2011 under Jansen’s leadership at the University of the Free State) have long recognised ‘to change the world, educate a woman’, for women as opposed to males are able to use their education to further advance their families, as opposed to the common focus on self-enrichment amongst men.

Jonathan Jansen further sees stay at home fathers, as inherently emasculated consequently perpetuating harmful patriarchal understandings of fatherhood, with men being portrayed as incapable of being nurturers, and women bearing the sole responsibility for rearing children. He sees fathers who stay at home (whether by choice or circumstance) to raise their children  as beaten down, emasculated and failed men.

It’s highly problematic that a man of stature such as Jansen would not see the fringe benefits of educating women. Jansen in his piece does not question patriarchy and the negative remnants its left behind for men and women. His piece assumes that just because a black woman is successful, then that necessarily puts her in danger of the failed violent black South African man, so as to assume women less are less likely to suffer violence when their economic circumstances are less than those of men.  With SA’s painful history of forced marriages, I am surprised that Jansen assumes it to be a bad sociological choice for women to choose NOT to get married where they feel they are better able to support themselves/happier alone.

Masculinity, patriarchy along with violence are all learnt, and can similarly be unlearned. Unlearning however is the hard part, but it is possible to break the cycle of patriarchal thinking and violence. It seems to me however, Jansen has given up that we can reconstruct and reconfigure masculinity and patriarchy, but it appears to me that he is preoccupied with managing it, than overhauling it completely.

Since Jansen is using American research to understand black South African males, I would further counter the book (which he uses to support his predictions), by directing him to a 2012 study released by the University of Pennsylvania’s newly founded Centre for the Study of Race and Equity in Education which actually highlights that the achievement among black male undergraduates often goes unnoticed by most education experts. Dr Shaun Harper focusing on black undergraduate males notes that for instance

“To increase their educational attainment, the popular one-sided emphasis on failure and low-performing black male undergraduate must  be counterbalanced with insights gathered from those who somehow manage to navigate their way to and through higher education, despite all that is stacked against them.”

This is further supported by bell hooks who notes that

“negative stereotypes about the nature of black masculinity continue to undermine the identities black males are allowed to fashion for themselves.”

Jansen, makes the same mistakes that these education researchers Dr Shaun Harper is talking about, by focusing on studies of black men who have strayed, as opposed to looking at those who have succeeded not only professionally and academically, but as whole and fully realised black men in stable non-violent relationships with women (or even men)  who earn more/less than them.

There are many powerful and succesful black women in South Africa and internationally who command a lot of money and power (with relatively less affluent black husbands/partners), who don’t seem to fall into violent patriarchal blanket  terms that Jansen seems to us to address all black men.

I don’t see a pessimistic future for relations between black women and men, I see a more equitable one, where women have choices, are increasingly free from violence and better educated along with their black male counterparts. Just last week for instance we were celebrating one of Jansens black students, Sibusiso Tshabalala (20) who has recently been named one of Google’s top 10 young innovators, and there are many other young black males doing extraordinary things right next to the females.

As we highlight and celebrate them, along with their female counterparts, I believe the few left behind/straying will gather inspiration to become more better self-aware men. That’s why the work of organizations and programs such as One Man Can and Brothers for Life are important in introducing young men to new forms of masculinity, to counter patriarchal socialisation. It’s too early for Jansen to promote such a negative image of black men, especially when he himself is in a position to help change it.


4 thoughts on “Reconfiguring ‘The Violent Black man’, and the succesful black woman: a critical response to Jonathan Jansen”

  1. I had actually skimmed over Prof Jansen’s column before and couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t ok with it. On re-reading it, I now understand why. The problem with this whole Feminism and Patriarchy thing is that there is a ‘power over’ mentality and opposed to a ‘power with’. The emancipation of women is not at the expense of men. Feminism does not seek to emasculate men.

    Also, I have a problem when American (or any other foreign studies) are used to explain SA issues. You have also highlighted this. The same thing was done with the Outcomes based Education thing…which everybody said wouldn’t work, but it was implemented anyway and lo and behold….it didn’t work. But I digress…

    South Africa is diverse, but people want to blanket everyone’s experiences as the same. Even among black people, our experiences are different. And I can’t stand it when generalisations are made. And stereotypes are used to prove a point.

    Otherwise, thanks for writing this, Gcobani. You make some good and valid points.


  2. Thanks for the comment Unathi, and I agree with you fully. In this particular instance, I wanted to use solely American focused research to counter Jansen’s misguided conclusion(s) about black males, but otherwise I also agree, international research is helpful in helping us understand common connections and mistakes, but its no subsitute for SA focused research as the American social context differs significantly to the SA one, but I’m glad the piece you found meaning in the piece and that it helped you understand what you found wrong with Jansens column! Thank you, Gcobani.


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