Deputy Dean for Postgraduate Education in the Faculty of Health Sciences Professor Elelwani Ramugondo facilitated a Youth Day webinar on behalf of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Residence Academic Development Committee (RADC) on 16 June 2021.
The RADC is a body founded to promote academic development within the living and learning spaces at the university by bridging the gap between faculties and residences. In doing this, the RADC aims to foster student success.
The Youth Day webinar forms part of a series of weekly webinars that are focused on academic needs. Themes for the events are inspired by current events and seek to promote three issues that are inextricably linked to one another: a greater sense of belonging for members of the student body, student retention and academic success.
“The idea was to connect the relevance of Youth Month, as well as its history and the activism that has gone with it, to academic success.”
According to RADC logistics coordinator, Tendai Mbanje, the Youth Month theme was chosen due to its importance for students and the youth in general. The focus was not only on honouring those who fought for the freedoms we currently enjoy, but also to understand how our history is pertinent to current situations.
“Youth Month is very important for students and youth. The idea was to connect the relevance of Youth Month, as well as its history and the activism that has gone with it, to academic success, which is a core value of the RADC,” said Mbanje.
This goal is even more important at a time when, the Human Sciences Research Council reports, close to 40% of South Africans born between 1997 and 2005 are not aware of the historical events that took place on 16 June 1976.
Standing against injustices
Professor Ramugondo is undoubtedly an excellent choice for achieving the goal of highlighting the relevance of past struggles for overcoming current challenges, Mbanje said.
“We chose Professor Ramugondo because of her history in activism and her academic achievements.”
Although only six years old when the student uprisings took place, Ramugondo has vivid memories of the hardships and consequences of standing against the injustices exacted by the state – a viewpoint that has given her great insight into the value of persistence and solidarity in relation to academic excellence.
“Youth Day is a day on which we commemorate the lives and the courage of young people in 1976, who really took this activism seriously and who also got us noticed globally when we were forging ahead with the struggle for humanity,” she said.
“I was struck by the intergenerational nature of the protests and activism in 1976 that also emerged in 2015.”
“It is a strong message for those who face oppression; a message for them to never give up, to persist. It reminds them that eventually the shackles that are meant to keep them from benefitting from civilisation and from being part of the community can be broken; that they can enjoy human rights, can speak for themselves and can push forward with their own struggle – of course, supported by others who join in solidarity.”
Ramugondo also pointed out the similarities between the events of 1976 and the more recent Rhodes Must Fall movement. “In reflecting on the similarities, I was struck by the intergenerational nature of the protests and activism in 1976 that also emerged in 2015,” she noted.
“In 1976, there were clear links between university students and high school students. In 2015, Rhodes Must Fall made a great effort to engage with schools, because their struggles intersected. Then there was the role of academics. Black academics, in particular, in 1976 and 2015 played a critical role both in terms of texts that students were reading, but also engagements around conscioustisation.”
However, the core idea that Ramugondo sought to share with attendees was the intersection between activism and academic success. “The main message is that there is no need for a trade-off between activism and academic excellence. In fact, it is activism that will drive excellence in your academic endeavours,” she stressed.
Questions drive academic excellence
Speaking about the challenges that many students – especially those, like herself, who come from rural or informal settlement contexts – face when entering academia, Ramugondo encouraged them to persist.
“Remember that it’s often really just learning the language of academia, with all its faults. To find resonance in what you are being taught is not always easy. So, I want to encourage you to pursue this and know that it gets better,” she said.
“It was when I was doing my master’s and my PhD that I began to understand my activism; to really push for excellence that otherwise couldn’t be found in the spaces that illustrate my work.”
“Research, in particular, is a great space for activism.”
On this point, the deputy dean noted that research is a hotbed for accelerating both activism and academic excellence.
“It’s not surprising that often people like me will find their voices in the research space. It’s a space for innovation. Research, in particular, is a great space for activism because postgraduate studies, as well as research by nature, is inherently question-led,” she said.
In concluding, Ramugondo pointed out that this question-led approach is the true driver of academic excellence, whether in the postgraduate or undergraduate environment. However, the students and academics must focus sharply on the quality of the questions they are asking.
“It’s the quality of the question that will drive academic excellence – questions that are often unsettling; questions that come from the spaces that you call your community. Don’t be afraid of asking those questions. Academia gives you the licence to question. Research and publishing allow us to change the narrative and amplify voices that otherwise might not have been heard.”
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