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.
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.
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