On the lawns of Glenara, under large white umbrellas that shaded the summer sun, the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) class of 1973 gathered to reconnect and reminisce over brunch, in celebration of their Golden Graduation.
It’s been half a century since the cohort were capped and hooded in the then Jameson Hall (now Sarah Baartman Hall) in the early 1970s, among them UCT’s Vice-Chancellor interim Emeritus Professor Daya Reddy and former university registrar Hugh Amore.
To celebrate this milestone, the nineth annual Golden Graduation was held on Thursday, 14 December. The event was organised by UCT’s Development and Alumni Department (DAD) and hosted by Emeritus Professor Reddy. The celebration included an intimate brunch, where guests could mingle and catch up, for some, after years of being out of touch. Thereafter, the cohort made their way to the Sarah Baartman Hall to join the festivities during UCT’s afternoon graduation ceremony. In honour of their Golden Graduation and in line with tradition, the group of alumni joined the academic procession as they entered and exited the hall, each wearing gold sashes to mark the special occasion. UCT’s two-day summer graduation season kicked off that morning.
“It’s wonderful to have you here with us. Welcome to our alumni, our golden graduates and family members who are with you. We are very pleased to have you here with us. I’m sure [that] like me, you’ve wondered where the 50 years have gone,” Reddy said.
A special occasion
Since its inception in 2014, UCT has honoured and celebrated its Golden Graduates every year and the event has become an important occasion on the university’s events calendar.
“It is so special for you to be here with us, and [for us] to acknowledge your 50 years as an alumnus of UCT.”
“It is so special for you to be here with us, and [for us] to acknowledge your 50 years as an alumnus of UCT. And also, the fact that you have clearly maintained your connection with the university or else you wouldn’t be here, is wonderful as well,” Reddy said.
Reflecting on the past few decades, Reddy said a lot transpired in the country and on campus during and in the lead up to their graduation year. He reminded the cohort that South Africa was in the grips of apartheid, and some of the most notable events on campus were student-led and politically motivated. He said the UCT student protests of 1972 against the apartheid government’s education policy, just a few years after students held the Mafeje sit-in at Bremner Building, was one such example. Similarly, and one year later, in 1973, UCT student Paula Ensor and several other students were banned from the university for their actions against apartheid. Ensor went on to become an academic, entered the professoriate and also served as dean of the university’s Faculty of Humanities in 2004. Students’ fight against apartheid didn’t end there. Reddy said that same year the university took a drastic decision to cancel its participation in the Intervarsity Rugby tournament for two years. This after Stellenbosch University, with government’s support, refused to allow the UCT rugby club to select black players or allow black players to sit in whites-only stands.
“In this sense, and thinking about student protests at the time, and also subsequently, in a way our generation have much in common with students of today. [They] continue to hold the university and those who lead the university accountable, to help change society to rectify and overturn injustices and address the many challenges that we face in our world today,” he said.
Achievements and change
Despite the political landscape and students’ political involvement, 1973 was a year of great institutional achievement as well.
The university hosted the first Kimberlite conference at the Geological Science building and the event attracted researchers from all over the world, including North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. That same year, and seven years after Christiaan Barnard and his team performed the world’s first heart transplant, UCT launched the Heart Disease and Transplantation Building at Groote Schuur Hospital, and also began construction on the Life Sciences building at the north end of campus. This building was designed to house the Microbiology and Biochemistry departments, known today as the Department of Molecular Biology.
Much positive change has been under way at the institution since the 1970s. Back then, student enrollment peaked at 8 500, almost 3 000 of whom were women and 94% of the total student intake was white. Fast forward 50 years and the university registered 29 446 students at the beginning of 2023, 16 448 of whom were women and about 30% of the total student intake was white. The institution has also made considerable progress with developing its international student cohort, which today sits at approximately 15%, most of whom come from other parts of Africa.
“Perhaps we’ve been distracted in recent times by various events. But I think we should remind ourselves of what a wonderful institution UCT is. [This includes] what it has to offer, the quality of its staff, the wonderful research we have on the go and the various ways in which we significantly impact communities beyond the university, in civil society, in government and elsewhere,” Reddy said.
An unequal place
Representing the class of 1973, Amore sketched a different picture of the university, which he described as “very unequal in other respects”. He said the 800 available spots in student residences were reserved for whites only. More than that, the medical school had not yet integrated wards and non-white medical students faced restrictions in regard to medical practice in white wards.
Therefore, he said, it’s not surprising that during that period most black students chose to simply not attend a graduation ceremony. He urged the audience to remember that the UCT of 1973 was not a place where all students had equal rights.
On what else he remembered about his time as a student, Amore said deans of faculties were still required to teach students, and the academic programmes were structured very differently compared to now. Back then, he said, students wrote “sudden death examinations” for two and half weeks in November only, and class work did not count towards students’ final examination results.
“My personal view is that this, and other universities have gone to the other extreme and that [there’s] far too much assessment, which is summative as opposed to formative. I think that the amount of testing for marks for the end results is a real problem, and it does give rise to some really difficult issues,” he said. “The demands made [on] our students are way, way beyond the demands made [on] us.”
A second representative of the class of 1973, Marcia Cirota, said she has fond memories of her time at UCT. She recalled cramming in her study notes on the eve of exams, hoping that what she had absorbed would form part of the assessment. She also recounted how she and a group of friends got up to “fun-filled antics” as student residents in the then Fuller Hall.
“We climbed out of windows well after curfew … to visit our friends in Smuts Hall. The problem was how to get back in once the front door was securely locked. I [also] remember the annual Fuller Hall dance and how we deliberated for hours on who our partner would be for the evening,” she said.
The annual Rag Float Parade down Adderley Street in the central business district (CBD) was another high point. The student-led street parade raised much-needed funds for the Students Health and Welfare Centres Organisation (SHAWCO) and was a highlight on UCT’s events calendar. Cirota described this event as fun, even though, on one occasion, she tumbled off one of the floats she helped build – to roars of laughter of the other girls in her residence.
“But best of all, I remember the joy of seeing my friends graduate with me. UCT will always remain a place of wonderful memories and will be close to my heart forever,” she said.
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