It might reveal something about her character that Lorna Houston, who was elected as President of UCT’s Convocation – its official alumni forum – in February this year, didn’t want the position.
“I didn’t actually have any interest in being the President of Convocation, to be honest,” Houston admits.
What she did have an interest in was who that president would be, and so had initiated conversations with students, the Black Academic Caucus, alumni and other constituencies, ahead of the Convocation annual general meeting in 2016, to find a candidate.
The group considered a few people, “but we still didn’t hit the right note”, says Houston. People were either not available, not interested or there was too little agreement about a potential leader.
“In that process of conversation at some point, people said to me that actually I was getting them to talk to each other, and that they had not been talking to each other and collaborating in this way, and they felt I was somebody who was bringing a sense of unity and that is what they would anticipate from the president of Convocation,” she says.
She agreed with that argument, and the rest is documented in Convocation’s latest AGM minutes.
Houston’s role, in her own words, is symbolic and ambassadorial – not operational. This puts her in a “difficult space”, at times, especially when she wants to express opinions as an alumnus. Not that there aren’t aspects of it she enjoys, graduation ceremonies being high on the list.
“It’s great fun and something I enjoy doing … because I know how hard it is to get a degree,” she says.
“I’m one of those people whose degree did not come easily to them, not because I do not have the intellectual capacity but because I didn’t have the economic capacity,” Houston adds. “I had to work very hard, having jobs, children, [being a] single mom, and also studying, so I know what it means when students actually manage to walk up to the podium and get their degree.
“So I appreciate that moment. I think it’s an important moment for us as an institution to acknowledge – and whether we fully acknowledge, really, what people have gone through is another question ... .”
And that sums up Houston’s key interest as a representative of Convocation – how do people make it through the trials and tribulations to ascend the podium and be hooded and capped?
“I am concerned about how we ensure that our UCT students are treated with the respect that they deserve; [how we ensure that students are] getting the best kind of quality education that as a university we not only claim to provide, but I think … do provide.”
Who do we really choose to serve?
At the same time, says Houston, we have to listen when both our academic staff and our students are saying, “But some of what we’re teaching is no longer relevant. Some of what we’re teaching is a very narrow perspective on a subject. Some of what we’re teaching is directing people into global capital and doesn’t serve the numerous socio-economic challenges that we face not only in Cape Town and South Africa but [on] the continent of Africa.”
There’s a lot of “cleaning up” that needs to happen at UCT, she says, not least when it comes to institutional racism.
“Where the racism is insidious and becomes part of the institutional structure, I’m not sure ... [we] know how we are actually addressing some of that, and the white privilege that is located there as well,” she argues. “It’s lodged in the plaster on the walls, somewhere between the bricks and the paint. How do we undo that? How do we begin to systematically – because it’s a system that needs to be addressed – carefully and with sensitivity, begin to deal with what I can only think of as a cleansing process.”
The questions that the university faces, then, revolve around what its purpose is, “who do we really choose to serve”, what the most critical values that guide how we teach should be, and the nature of the student’s experience.
“Those are the things that we really need to scrutinise and those are things that make one say, ‘I want to engage more in the university in general’.”
In seeking out engagement, Houston has found herself in spaces where she has heard the stories of students’ experiences and those of recently in-sourced workers in particular.
“I think that I have tried to encourage those who raise their voices in the institution against some of the issues that people experience as oppressive, that people experience as othering, to engage more, to talk more, to identify practical ways that issues can be raised as well as actions that people can take, whether themselves or whether to highlight something elsewhere, so that we have a strong voice and a clear voice about what is not working in the university and what is working.”
Houston puts herself in the shoes of many black alumni who might have conflicting emotions when looking back at their time at UCT.
In April this year, she was invited to attend the memorial service of struggle icon Philip Kgosana at UCT. Kgosana, as one of the few black students at UCT in the mid-20th century, was not allowed to live on campus and stayed at workers' hostels in Langa instead.
Houston says: “How does one feel about a university that you attended but you couldn’t live at? How does one feel about a university [where] you were clearly told, you go to the library, and you go to your classes, and you go to the toilets that are designated for you, but that’s all the facilities that you use.”
This brings Houston to a project idea that could help alumni who shared similar experiences to Kgosana to reconnect with UCT and perhaps resolve some lingering hurt.
To this end, she has opened talks with the Centre for African Studies about a project that welcomes some of those people back to UCT, acknowledges that what happened was wrong, and begins the process “to honour the people that have walked before us, people that in fact have been made to feel less than human in this space”.
There’s no blueprint, she cautions.
“There is no recipe. What it really requires is courage and empathy and action and a will to make this project happen.”
UCT will host the next Annual General Meeting of Convocation at 17:30 on Thursday, 14 December 2017, in Lecture Theatre 1 in the Kramer Building on middle campus.
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