Occupying the 'front seat' is a privilege and responsibility

06 May 2017 | Story Helen Swingler. Photos Robyn Walker.
Guest speaker Prof Heinz Klug urged law and health sciences graduands to “do no harm” but to protect the rights and dignity of all they serve in society.
Guest speaker Prof Heinz Klug urged law and health sciences graduands to “do no harm” but to protect the rights and dignity of all they serve in society.

Do no harm” is the motto guest speaker Professor Heinz Klug urged health sciences and law graduates to take up as they move into the world as new professionals.

Klug was speaking at the Friday morning ceremony, which saw 314 health sciences and law graduands capped. In the afternoon, it was the turn of 398 graduands from the Faculties of Engineering & the Built Environment and Humanities.

Addressing the congregation in Jameson Hall this morning, Klug said that as lawyers and doctors the new graduates would bear the responsibility of shaping the decisions that profoundly affect people's lives.

“I'm aware that the last two years at the university have been difficult but today it is time to look to the future. Though we can't see the future, today marks the beginning of your professional journey. As medical and legal professionals you will have the privilege to sit in the front row of life's dramas; to help the decisions that profoundly affect people's lives; to address conflicts of resources and power…

“Occupying the front seat is an extra privilege, but a significant burden.”

The South African-born anti-apartheid activist and comparative constitutional law doyen is now based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison but still has many links to this country. As a young man in apartheid South Africa he chose exile to Botswana over conscription to the army, later making his way to the USA where he studied law at the University of California-Hastings School of Law.  

After graduating, many of his classmates headed for various law firms, but he came back to Africa, returning to the unknown, he said. When he left South Africa Nelson Mandela was in jail. When he returned, Mandela was free.

But Klug was able to participate in creating the country's Constitution as a research assistant for the chair of the ANC Constitution Committee and as a member of the ANC Land Commission.

“Sometimes life takes unexpected turns. I had the extraordinary good fortune to serve and become involved in the transition to democracy in South Africa as a young lawyer and to participate in the debates that formed part of our country's Constitution-making process. Those experiences shaped the way I still think.”

Renewed political uncertainty

Looking to the future, Klug said that graduates should use their skills to rebuild the vision of a free and just society in the wake of colonialism and apartheid.

“The task is not simple, nor easy. But our highest institutions, such as Parliament and the Constitutional Court, have faced repeated challenges: the Constitutional Court has been called on repeatedly to interpret, reshape and reconsider the substantive meaning of our new Constitutional order. The decisions that have followed have had a profound impact on our society and the court has been increasingly called on to deal with new problems, including political patronage and corruption that at times challenges its institutional capacity.

“We live today in a time of renewed political uncertainty. We as professionals and citizens should remain aware of how important it is to build and maintain institutions, even as they struggle to transform themselves.”

While the present is laden with many uncertainties, he reminded the graduands that during the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the legal and health professions had stood up for the principles espoused by the Constitution.

“While ARVs and medicines that would ultimately transform the disease were just emerging, their global price and our government's commitment to international trade deals led to a tragic policy of denials and an all-too-slow response to the pandemic. In the face of this tragedy there were health professionals, doctors and lawyers and social movements such as the Treatment Action Campaign who refused to accept the limits placed on our institutions. Instead, they took seriously their professional commitments and the promise of our Constitution.”

He added, “It was this commitment to the ideal enshrined in the Constitution, that everyone has the right to access health services, that saw our institutions rise up to the challenge of the pandemic.”

He concluded, “As legal and health professionals serve to the best of your ability and do no harm, living up to the ideals of our democracy and Constitution.”

Inspiring stories

On the back of his inspirational message came more inspiration as graduands took to the platform to receive their honours. Among them were the health sciences faculty's Dr Matthew Amoni and Dr Nicholas Thomford.

Amoni was greeted by a standing ovation when he stepped onto the platform this morning. He scored a 'two-in-one', graduating MBChB and with a Master of Medicine in Physiology, both with distinctions, combining his twin passions: science and medicine. What is remarkable about Amoni's academic journey is that he completed the master's degree in tandem with the last years of his MBChB.

Occupying the 'front seat' is a privilege and responsibility
Dr Matthew Amoni scored a 'two-in-one': he was awarded an MBChB and Master of Medicine in Physiology, which he did in tandem with his medical studies. His parents, John and Mary Amoni, were in Cape Town to share the happy occasion.

Thomford graduated with his PhD in Human Genetics. Three years ago, he travelled from Ghana to pursue doctoral studies in pharmacogenomics. UCT was never on his list of preferred universities (the field is rare and most of the expertise resides in Europe), but he was to find that his journey south involved more than a doctoral thesis. When his baby son was diagnosed with a defective heart, the UCT medical network put him in touch with highly skilled surgeons who performed life-saving surgery on the baby.

Occupying the 'front seat' is a privilege and responsibility
Ghanaian Dr Nicholas Thomford, being capped in Jameson Hall. He graduated with a PhD in Human Genetics.

Watch the recorded ceremonies:

Faculty of Health Sciences: all Health Sciences postgraduates. Faculty of Law: all Law programmes, 5 May at 10:00

Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment and the Faculty of Humanities: all Built Environment programmes (incl. Civil Eng), BA Honours, 5 May at 15:00

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