It was a summer graduation celebration with a difference for the University of Cape Town (UCT) community on Tuesday, 15 December 2020.
The steps below the Sarah Baartman Hall on upper campus were deserted and the hall was under lock and key. A far cry from UCT’s traditional graduation ceremonies – roaring laughter, congratulatory hugs, the best fashion and loads of photos taken of graduands, their loved ones and the academics who contributed to their success.
Instead, the December cohort were glued to their computers to participate in a virtual graduation celebratory event – the first of its kind for the university since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The event followed UCT’s first virtual graduation celebration held on Monday, 14 December, in honour of the March cohort, who graduated in absentia earlier this year.
In keeping with tradition, the pre-recorded celebration included performances by the marimba band and a praise poet. The Cape Town Youth Choir performed the national anthem. In a rare occurrence, the deans from all UCT’s faculties offered their students special congratulatory messages.
The university also conferred a Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) upon Professor James Midgley. Professor Midgley is a UCT alumnus who has produced an expansive and substantive body of work on social development that is not only relevant to the Global South, but also to international social development.
A time of celebration
UCT’s vice-chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, said that 1 500 graduates completed their academic programmes this December. This included more than 200 doctoral degrees – 23 in the Faculty of Commerce, 23 in the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment, 62 in the Faculty of Health Sciences, 35 in the Faculty of Humanities, 13 in the Faculty of Law and 45 in the Faculty of Science.
“Each accomplishment that we acknowledge today is notable.”
“Each accomplishment that we acknowledge today is notable. Not only because of the hard work, energy, discipline and passion you each brought to your work, but also because of the effect your education will have on your personal future, the future of South Africa and the world,” Professor Phakeng said.
She told graduands to go forth and be part of the solutions to what researchers refer to as the “wicked problems of Africa”, including poverty and inequality, sexual and gender-based violence and climate change.
“These are not just African problems, they are universal problems experienced by countries around the world, and their solutions will involve contributions from all around the world,” she said.
“Historically, the world is not in the habit of looking to Africa for solutions to global problems. I believe that pattern is changing, and you will help to make that happen.”
Growing through challenges
Phakeng said that many would describe 2020 as a year of frustration and disappointment, and that the natural human response to the past year is to hope for things to quickly return to normal. But she has a “different hope” for UCT’s new graduates and thought leaders.
Instead of getting back to normal, she urged graduands to use their experiences during 2020 to help take the country and the continent to a completely new level.
“What is the normal for much of Africa [today]? Poverty, inequality, lack of jobs, lack of hope – none of us want that kind of normal. I challenge each of you to look around in your communities and to start thinking of what the new normal should be. I challenge you to have courage to experiment, to think differently and to act on those ideas,” she said.
Further, she also encouraged graduands to be adaptable and to grow through change and adversity. After all, she added, once the COVID-19 pandemic passes, a myriad of other challenges await their creative and innovative problem-solving skills.
“I am confident each of you will contribute to changing the world for the better.”
A ‘profound’ moment
During her address Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe, who officiated her first graduation ceremony as UCT’s chancellor, told graduands that the virtual celebration was not organised to “dampen your spirit or undermine your academic achievement”.
“This remains a profound moment, and we are here to celebrate the years of dedicated hard work, sacrifice and discipline that each of you have shown in order to reach this high point in your journey,” Dr Moloi-Motsepe said.
As graduands prepare to enter a world marred by instability, Moloi-Motsepe said that the university will also help to steer “necessary change” through the work graduates will embark on after their graduation. She encouraged them to adopt the values of Midgley, who she described as a pioneer in international social work and social policy in the developing world.
“These values of courage, compassion, creativity, curiosity, collaboration and optimism are what we hope every UCT graduate will embody throughout life,” she said.
‘Leverage your knowledge’
Moloi-Motsepe said that even though everyone has different definitions of what it means to get to the top, the 2020 cohort is part of the generation that will rebuild what has been “shaken loose” in society by the COVID-19 pandemic.
She said that facing society’s complex challenges, such as climate change, unemployment and gender-based violence, is necessary in order to effect change in the country and the world.
“You have an opportunity to leverage your knowledge and the Fourth Industrial Revolution to solve these challenges and to ensure that no one gets left behind.”
“You have an opportunity to leverage your knowledge and the Fourth Industrial Revolution to solve these challenges and to ensure that no one gets left behind. This is both a privilege and a responsibility,” she said.
“I encourage you to grasp every opportunity to learn more about yourselves and your world, to explore ways that can make a difference and to connect with others with similar ideals.
“Congratulations! The future is yours to build.”
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