In 2021 I watched with pride as the University of Cape Town (UCT) beat the odds to deliver another year of excellent teaching, learning and research amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, and its second, third and fourth waves.
I was elected to take up the position of chancellor at UCT in 2020, just ahead of what would become one of the most difficult crises the world has encountered. It was a privilege to work alongside UCT’s committed, hard-working leadership as the university navigated this challenging terrain.
As you know, the pandemic disrupted every part of our lives and every aspect of university life. As a leading institution of higher education in South Africa and on the continent, we could not respond to the pandemic by putting teaching, learning and research on hold. The university’s long-standing investment in new forms of technology-based education and scholarship enabled staff and students to continue to fulfil the mission of UCT, while ensuring that no student was left behind in the process.
Despite challenges presented by the global pandemic, UCT marched forward with a singular focus on education. By the end of the 2021 academic year, staff and students had successfully and memorably met their obligations in spite of the very real setbacks the university and its community faced.
Knowing the enormous effort UCT deployed to meet all of its mandates in the second year of the pandemic, and to uphold its standard of excellence while doing so, I was especially moved by the ceremony that marked my installation as chancellor on 10 December 2021. Being invested with the symbolic chancellor’s robe is part of a long tradition; I am honoured to continue this tradition and to participate in shaping UCT in this time of national and institutional renewal. The blended event celebrated many aspects of UCT across its generations. It was both wonderful and humbling to be formally admitted to the UCT community during a perfectly executed ceremony that demonstrated the talent and hard work of students, staff and alumni.
It was also an opportunity to set out my vision of the contribution I hope to make at UCT over my term in the years ahead. South Africa and UCT both face pressing challenges as well as a wealth of opportunities. The impact of COVID-19 is a sharp reminder that we live in a very unequal society. UCT has an important role to play in addressing this inequality across its multiple disciplines and faculties, as expressed in UCT’s Vision 2030, which calls on us to unleash human potential for a fair and just society.
As I said at the investiture ceremony, as chancellor I would like to see UCT grow even further as an inclusive centre of excellence, embedded in society, nurturing compassionate citizens and helping Africa take a leading place in a technology-oriented world.
If we maintain our focus on what is truly important, if we do our best, tirelessly and selflessly, then we will grow what is already excellent at UCT and in our society and continue to shape the university as an institution for the future, for our children and their children.
In 2021, as fresh challenges arose, I witnessed the students, staff and leadership of UCT systematically tackle each new ordeal with compassionate urgency and ubuntu. Our ability to move ahead decisively throughout the second year of the pandemic has contributed to the self-confidence of the diverse UCT community. Today, we see the benefits as the conditions for in-person teaching and interaction reopen, and the institution demonstrates its agility in responding to the opportunities this presents.
South Africans face great social and economic challenges as we tackle the post-COVID-19 recovery. The pandemic affected everyone, but it has had the greatest impact on poor households and communities. UCT and other higher education institutions have an important role to play in responding to this need. Through scholarship, community-based research and student action, UCT has long supported vulnerable communities. The need is even greater now.
In 2021, students had their education disrupted in ways that were unpredictable and difficult to manage. Despite this, students, academics and the administration tackled each challenging day together, with unity of purpose, finding new strength to face the hurdles that arose. Together, we prevailed and together we move forward to contribute to knowledge creation and to build the skills we need to create a fair and just society locally and globally.
Over this time, many of the seemingly small privileges of campus life, which may have been taken for granted, were abruptly removed; little things that make the university so special and memorable: meeting up with friends between lectures, making use of quiet study time in well-equipped libraries, sitting on the steps below Sarah Baartman Hall, and moving around the beautiful campus precincts with all its history – old and new.
Of all the sacrifices made by students during this time, the absence of a well-deserved graduation ceremony was among the most painful. While grad is a brief moment in time, it marks a significant achievement following years of hard work and dedication. It is an important and joyful ceremony that allows us to honour our students and wish them well as they begin the next part of their lives.
Graduation ceremonies reflect traditions from our past and our aspirations for the future. They include families and loved ones in recognising that when we achieve as individuals, we are also part of a community that supports us. The chancellor’s most eminent role is to confer degrees in the name of the university. As many of us are the first generation of university graduates in our families, graduation has an added meaning for parents, siblings and other relatives who are part of this success.
As 2021 drew to a close with the Omicron wave still active, UCT invited graduates to be part of a graduation walk of celebration. With all the precautionary COVID-19 protocols in place, this allowed graduates, their families and communities to be present on campus to celebrate their achievements with faculties and UCT staff members. It was a creative response to the challenges of the times, reflecting the commitment of Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng and her team to meet the holistic needs of the UCT community, no matter the obstacles.
As we reflect on the past year, the rich experience of university life is becoming available again. This must be enjoyed and celebrated! I have no doubt that new and returning students and staff will make the most of everything the university offers, including the very vibrant campus life that distinguishes UCT and defines us, both inside and outside the lecture theatres and laboratories.
Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe
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