25 July 2005

In the name of ceremony

Again, it was that time of the year when friends and family thronged into the Jameson Hall to witness the conferment of degrees and diplomas on loved ones. With the sun gradually piercing through the isolated thick, dark clouds on that late Friday morning, prospects of a memorable ceremony had never looked this great.

As if to further add colour to an already buoyant mood, one that befits such pomp and ceremony, the congregation had just learned that English premiership football dynamo and erstwhile South African captain, Lucas Radebe, was to receive a Master of Social Science honoris causa. A quick glance at the graduation programme also confirmed earlier speculation that the National Anthem was to be sung as part of the formal proceedings for the day.

With members of the congregation now awaiting, in such great anticipation, the start of formal proceedings, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Martin Hall made a hastened entry into the hall to make known a few but important house rules, which he implored the congregation to observe and respect throughout the ceremony.

One rule was that while friends and family could join in the celebration, they should exercise restraint, keeping celebrations to a reasonably acceptable level. He took issue with a new form of celebration, which he said was customary in many soccer circles. He quipped that a letter-to-the-editor from a disgruntled guest (containing a scathing broadside against the university's apparent complicity in unacceptable conduct at a graduation ceremony) had been published in one of the local newspapers last year. The writer was apparently irked by what he saw as rather unsavoury conduct, not befitting the awe and status of a UCT graduation ceremony. Thus the message to members of the congregation on this day was that although they were at liberty to celebrate in whatever way they deemed fit; any celebration that bore some resemblance to soccer would be unwelcome.

From where I sat, I could see highly-spirited faces of friends and family now suddenly perplexed and bewildered. They were left stone cold. Still pondering what they had just heard, one gentleman behind me broke the ice and chided: "I wonder how we are to celebrate in this place - maybe the rugby way."

I must confess that I am unable to speculate about those forms of soccer expression that officialdom found unsavoury. However, experience does point out that, in fact, there is very little, if anything at all, that distinguishes forms of celebration in soccer to those of other sporting codes (a loud cheer, clapping of hands and spontaneous singing are customary trademarks). Maybe the vuvuzela horns were at issue. I heard a few eruptions from the magic horn in one of the ceremonies last year and, unlike my disgruntled compatriot, I thought the sound occasionally added some exuberance and colour to what could potentially have been a relatively dull affair. Notwithstanding the infamous ban at Ellis Park, the Swiss in Zurich did not seem to harbour any prejudices against the horn. It became one of the most conspicuous instruments to mark the successful 2010 Soccer World Cup Bid, of which we should all be proud. One wonders what the 2010 victory celebrations would have been without the magic flute.

In case I am wrong in my speculation about the vuvuzela horn (and I do hope I am), one then wonders what other forms of soccer celebration are actually outmoded at a UCT graduation ceremony.

In a country where majority of soccer fans are mostly black and the working classes, to launch such a scathing attack on one single code may, rightly or wrongly, be interpreted as an attack on this collective (blacks and the working classes) - whatever the noble intentions or otherwise of the speaker may have had. On this particular occasion, the irony of it all was that it was on this day that an honorary degree was to be conferred to a footballer par excellence, Lucas Radebe.

Apart from the soccer-like celebration furore, there were a few other treats that left a bit of an aftertaste. Although I wish to commend the university, and in particular Senate, in agreeing to the National Anthem being sung at graduation ceremonies, I was particularly perturbed that it played second fiddle to the Latin graduation anthem. Elsewhere in the world, it would have been common course for the National Anthem to have been sung first, particularly at an occasion such as this one. At this critical time we have all made a pledge to build a new nation together and it is important that we simultaneously begin to send the correct messages - ones that are consistent with the pledge made in our mission statement that we "recognise our location in Africa" and that "we strive to transcend the legacy of apartheid in South Africa". I am worried that the type of messages conveyed in this particular ceremony may have provided more fertile grounds for further racial polarisation.

On a positive note, the degree conferred on Radebe was well deserved. I must congratulate the university on its gesture to one of our most beloved ambassadors. Let's wish him and his family well.

Abraham Chupe Serote
Department of Sociology

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Martin Hall replies:

Firstly, some corrections. I didn't mention "house rules" (there aren't any). Gaudeamus didn't play "second fiddle" to the National Anthem - Gaudeamus was sung as the procession entered, and the National Anthem was sung formally to open the ceremony (it would have been profoundly disrespectful the other way around). But I did indeed ask people not to blow vuvuzelas, as most of my fellow DVCs have also done at other graduation ceremonies.

Was this an attack on "blacks and the working classes"? I hardly think so. Graduations are important ceremonies for most people who take part in them. Families often travel large distances to get to the ceremony, dress formally and celebrate a significant rite of passage. Blown in a closed space and formal ceremony, vuvuzelas are loud and disruptive. Chupe Serote will recall that, in my informal comments before the ceremony started, I welcomed people, begged them to turn off their cellphones, told them something about the origins of graduation ceremonies, and invited them to celebrate freely, but with consideration for others (the vuvuzela bit). Serote also fails to record that, at the end of the ceremony I welcomed all new graduates to the community of alumnae of the university and invited them to show their appreciation to the academic staff on the platform who had taught and mentored them. This elicited a sustained, standing ovation from all those who had graduated - hardly participants crushed by "officialdom".

This said, the question of appropriate symbolism at graduation ceremonies is of course of great importance as part of the wider discussion of the transformation of institutional culture, and the debate that Serote's essay opens up is central. Symbolism is at the heart of our campus design, which is inspired by Thomas Jefferson's design for the University of Virginia, the architecture of ancient Italian universities and the cloisters of Oxford and Cambridge (in the designs of Smuts Hall and Fuller Hall). Jameson Hall's neo-classic façade is to be found in one form or another in many European and colonial university designs. Graduation ceremonies are key performances on this stage, with academic dress, ceremonial and the conferral of status. Some participants love them, others endure them, and others still hate them.

So what are we to do with them as opportunities for transformation? What is the right balance between tradition - the 176 years of UCT's history - and the new order of a democratic society? How should we combine celebration with reflection? How do we respond to the fact that we are a privileged enclave in one of the most unequal societies in the world? How do we acknowledge race without essentialising distinctions? The design and form of our campuses will continue to unfold as we put up new buildings in the future. How should we mark our heritage in architecture and layout, in the naming and re-naming of buildings, in the commission of new public art, in the creation of spaces where the campus community can congregate and interact?

These are all questions in a debate that has only just begun. And this debate should of course include graduation procedures and the way we mark the achievements of those that graduate, and the justified pride of their families and friends. We need open spaces of discourses where these and other issues of transformation - sometimes difficult and contentious - can be argued out. Mr Serote has opened up this discussion. Perhaps part of our new symbolism should a chorus of vuvuzelas blown at orientation, to welcome new students to UCT and to proclaim our belief in freedom of expression, criticism and debate as key agencies of transformation. Viva the vuvuzela!

back to top

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.