Hon doc for social activist at humanities graduation

18 June 2014 | Story by Newsroom

UCT's June graduation roster ended with the Faculty of Humanities on 13 June. Close to 200 graduands were hooded in the Jameson Hall.

Before young scholars could make their way onto the stage for their hooding, there was a Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, for social activist Dr William Carmichael. The economics graduate of Yale, Princeton and Oxford came to South Africa in the mid-1970s as head of the Ford Foundation's office for the Middle East and Africa.

The university hailed Carmichael's contribution to its mission and to South African society.

"He has dedicated his life to advancing the causes of human rights and social justice," said university orator Professor Alison Lewis.

Having scaled great academic heights at a tender age, Carmichael "was all set up for making his way in the world, with an excellent, but probably comfortable, career in government", said Lewis.


Global events like the Vietnam War, coupled with his growing compulsion to work practically with human rights issues in developing countries, prompted Carmichael to head the Ford Foundation's programmes in Brazil.

"When Carmichael came to South Africa in the mid-1970s as the head of the Ford Foundation's office for the Middle East and Africa, he says that he knew nothing about either region," reported Lewis. "'Good. Then you won't bring any biases to the job', said his boss."

But the knowledge that he had gained in Latin America '“ of not just working to the book, but engaging with people on the ground was what he brought.

"On his first day in South Africa, Sheena Duncan, president of the Black Sash, took him to a court that was hearing pass law cases. He sat for a few hours absorbing the reality of the South African human rights abuses. Then he got down to work."

Carmichael refocused the Ford Foundation's South Africa programme and found creative ways to support change, such as through the Legal Resources Centre and the South African Council on Higher Education.

"Bill Carmichael has exceptional academic credibility and political acumen, but with this comes an amazing ability to be truly compassionate," concluded Lewis. "He uses his intellect and his logical mind to clarify and contextualise, but he is also able to connect with people, respond to their stories and, most of all, help them to see the broader meaning and impact of their purpose."

Story by Yusuf Omar. Image by Michael Hammond.

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