‘A place where reason triumphs over rage’

13 December 2019 | Story Helen Swingler. Photos Roger Sedres. Read time 6 min.
Prof Jonathan Jansen was awarded a Doctor of Education (honoris causa) from UCT, presented by VC Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng at this morning’s humanities graduation.
Prof Jonathan Jansen was awarded a Doctor of Education (honoris causa) from UCT, presented by VC Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng at this morning’s humanities graduation.

The idea of a university is under threat in South Africa today, public intellectual Professor Jonathan Jansen told graduands at the University of Cape Town (UCT) humanities graduation on Friday morning, 13 December. Jansen was awarded a Doctor of Education (honoris causa) at the ceremony and was also a guest speaker.

“I don’t need to tell you that you are graduating from the leading university on the continent and one of the best universities in the world – after the University of the Free State!” he quipped (Jansen is the former vice-chancellor of that university).

“But UCT did not achieve this enviable status overnight, whether for its formidable research reputation or the quality of its academic education.”

Juxtaposing his experiences of the university now and 40 years ago when he approached UCT to study here (he was not admitted as a student), he reflected on the vital social transformation UCT had undergone.

A place where reason triumphs over rage
“The ideal of a university is under threat,” said honorary graduate Prof Jonathan Jansen during his address this morning.

Nature of a university

“I know it acted unjustly during the apartheid years and, yes, it still struggles with its colonial legacy … but today there is the Archie Mafeje Room and this hall is named after Sarah Baartman, and Cecil John Rhodes is nowhere to be seen. And for this the university owes the activist community of this institution.

“And yet, in all the struggles, UCT remained a university … But what is this thing we call a university? A place where reason triumphs over rage. A place that our common humanity matters more than differences. It is only thus that anyone and everyone can speak without being silenced.”

He continued, “This is what makes a university different from a church or a political party or the Boy Scouts. Your membership does not depend on shared views; there is no party whip to keep you in line; there is no secret oath that binds members to a common cause.”

But that ideal of a university is under threat, he warned graduands.

“When you burn down a university because you are angry, you undermine what a university is for. When you conceal artworks … you threaten the idea of a university. When you tell white students and white colleagues they cannot seek in the learning commons, you make a mockery of what a university stands for.


“The idea of a university is also to produce leaders who stand for something and are prepared to stand alone.”

“When you question an academic appointment because the colleague is not a ‘lived South African’, whatever that means, you are hastening the demise of a university. When you refuse to meet and engage with your academic colleagues because they hold different opinions from you or are even critical of your work, then you undermine the idea of a university.”

Jansen also cautioned graduands about guarding and standing up for the purpose of the university as a democratic space in which ideas matter “and not the faults of others, or race or the allure of money, of prestige, of governance”, even though this might mean being marginalised at times.

“You see the idea of a university was never simply to hand students a degree after three to five years … the idea of a university is also to produce leaders who stand for something and are prepared to stand alone.”

Graduates had a public duty to remain unbought, unbiased, unafraid and unintimidated and to “tell the truth”.

UCT Book and Creative Works Awards

At the ceremony the university also formally honoured one of two recipients of the 2019 UCT Book Award, senior lecturer in the School of Fine Art Anna Tietze, for her work A History of the Iziko South African National Gallery: Reflections on art and national identity.

There were also awards made to two of the three winners of the 2019 UCT Creative Works Award: Associate Professor Andrew Lilley and Associate Professor Dizu Plaatjies for their albums Brother Gone and Ubuntu: The Common String, respectively.

A place where reason triumphs over rage
(From left) Winner of a 2019 UCT Book Award Anna Tietze, honorary graduate Prof Jonathan Jansen and winners of a 2019 UCT Creative Works Award, Assoc Prof Dizu Plaatjies and Assoc Prof Andrew Lilley.

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December graduation 2019

The University of Cape Town will be celebrating the graduation of 1 960 of its students over six graduation ceremonies on 12, 13 and 23 December, which include the conferral of three honorary doctorates and the presentation of the UCT Book Award and the UCT Creative Works Award. This graduation season, we also bid a fond farewell to our chancellor, Mrs Graça Machel, who has been the titular head of the university for the past 20 years. Her compassionate and dedicated service to the university will be deeply missed.
Farewell Chancellor Graça Machel

Our stories: inspirational graduates

UCT part of PhD graduand’s destiny As Olivia Matshabane prepared to receive her PhD from UCT this month, she said the highs have outweighed the lows during her journey. 20 Dec 2019
Former Miss SA’s road to graduation Tamaryn Green will graduate with her MBChB from UCT on Monday, 23 December, and says she will forever remember the “challenging yet fulfilling” seven-year journey. 19 Dec 2019
Through dysphoria to a doctoral degree Velile Vilane’s journey to a PhD from the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment goes beyond the degree – it’s about coming into being. 12 Dec 2019
Balancing a baby and the books Rejoice Gorni, a student at UCT’s Graduate School of Business, returned to lectures just days after giving birth to complete her PGDip in management. 12 Dec 2019
‘Education was my only hope’ Monica Damane, who will graduate on Thursday, 12 December, with her MSc in engineering says the road to this achievement has been far from easy. 11 Dec 2019
‘I refused to be called a failure’ Having endured personal setbacks and defied the odds, Furaha Abwe will graduate with his PhD in Architecture and Planning on Thursday, 12 December. 11 Dec 2019
Swimming upstream – the second-chance graduand This week UCT celebrates its inspirational graduands, students such as staffer Nombuso Shabalala who reclaimed her life after a traumatic event had left her becalmed. 10 Dec 2019
Burn the boat to win the island Having worked her way through to her doctoral studies, Delta Ndou will soon don the sought-after red robe to receive her PhD in Media Studies at UCT. 10 Dec 2019
Dream big and apply yourself fully Musa Kika arrived at UCT to study for an LLM, but his master’s was upgraded and he will be graduating in December with a PhD. 09 Dec 2019
Graduation speakers