Of thick books, dreams and robotic dogs – UCT’s Open Day attracts multitudes

18 May 2023 | Story Helen Swingler. Photos Lerato Maduna. Videography Ruairi Abrahams and Boikhutso Ntsoko. Video Edit Boikhutso Ntsoko. VP Team Roxanne Harris, Ruairi Abrahams, Boikhutso Ntsoko and Rozanne Engel. Read time 7 min.
Groups of learners and their families thronged the Sarah Baartman Hall where the Faculty of Science set up shop to demonstrate the suite of courses available.

Hundreds of prospective students thronged the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) annual Open Day on Saturday 13 May, some arriving in large school groups from KwaLanga and Khayelitsha, others in peer clusters or with their parents and extended families. On show was a feast of academic offerings from the six faculties at Africa’s top university.

Open Day is aimed at learners in Grade 10, 11 and 12, their families and teachers. And the UCT campuses were buzzing after a two-year hiatus following COVID-19 restrictions. In addition to the faculties and academic departments, various support departments participated in the roster of lectures, providing essential information about financial assistance, and running tours of UCT Libraries.

Academic fair

The popular academic fair gives learners an opportunity to explore some of the vast undergraduate study options and what these involve. This is essential to making good study choices – or at least narrowing the field.


“This is proper old school.”

But it wasn’t only the academic fare on show. There was the unique UCT vibe too.

“This is proper old school,” one young visitor said to his friends, looking up at the campus from the Green Mile.

That’s as old as things got. On the Plaza, UCT’s African Robotics Unit’s (ARU) assistant lecturer in embedded systems Boitumelo Dikoko, and Immanuel Nanyaro, a master’s student in mechatronic engineering, were showing off some of their work on machine learning and animal biomechanics; a robotic dog called Martin (named after the department’s late Professor Martin Braae, who donated the robot) performing tricks. A favourite was the “Ah cute, man!” sit-up-and-beg routine, perfectly choreographed from Nanyaro’s remote control device.

The ARU, part of the Department of Electrical Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment (EBE), describes themselves as “a grouping of robotics researchers at the University of Cape Town who study problems that we as Africans are uniquely positioned to solve”.

Prospective students listen intently to a presentation by the Department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. 

“The robot is being used in robotic mapping and legged robot applications,” said Dikoko, a UCT alumnus with a master’s in engineering mechatronics and currently a PhD candidate.

The Plaza display was meant to show prospective students the kind of projects they can get involved in if they join our [postgraduate] programme of study,” Dikoko explained.

Who can join?

Any honours-level undergraduate degree with a strong mathematics, statistics and programming focus.” 

Books and more books

Earlier, on middle campus, law student volunteers like third-year Joe-Dean Roberts were directing the foot traffic into the Kramer Law Building, answering queries, and helping people along. In Lecture Theatre 1, Dean of Law Professor Danwood Chirwa was sending a thrill – or a chill – through the crowd, packed into every corner to learn about the pros and cons of law as a field of study and career.

“You have to be able to read thick books,” Professor Chirwa said. (Grimace from a young learner in a NASA hoodie). “You need a capacity for reading, and not for short periods. And you must have the capacity for study.

“Have I discouraged you?” Chirwa said to laughter.

But with a law degree you can go far, he added. You can even become a president, like Nelson Mandela and Cyril Ramaphosa, or the head of powerful entities like Ghanaian diplomat Kofi Annan, who was secretary-general of the United Nations (UN) from 1997 to 2006. Annan and the UN were the co-recipients of the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize.


“Lawyers are leaders, and leadership is at the core of law.”

“It takes hard work – lawyers work up to 14 hours a day – but it’s a discipline where hard work pays.”

He added: “Lawyers are leaders, and leadership is at the core of law. Or you can use law to advance social justice causes.”

Why UCT?

“We think we are very good; the leading law faculty on the continent, which produces leaders in the legal field, and this informs the way they teach. The faculty is home to more than 1 000 students, a diverse group, which contributes to a better learning experience.”

Language is key

In the Faculty of Humanities’ KiSwahili information stall in the Leslie Social Sciences Building, lecturer and visiting scholar Dr Elizabeth Mahenge was describing the benefits of studying Africa’s most important and widely studied indigenous language to groups of big-eyed learners.

A new language course on offer at UCT (it was introduced this year as an elective language course, with the aim of launching it as a major subject in 2028), KiSwahili offers diverse careers across the continent and elsewhere in the fields of teaching, translation, the diplomatic corps, industry, medicine and many others, Dr Mahenge said.

In the mall above the Leslie Social Sciences Building, a bright blue Mini advertised some of the work being undertaken in the EBE. “This car emits close to zero pollutants and is powered by the sun’s energy”, read the car’s decal.

Besides the academic side of the university, there were other attractions, which got some reminiscing about their own days as UCT students. Ambling past the Leslie food court with its densely patronised refreshment stalls, a father said to his son, “I spent more time there than in lectures.” (The Leslie is a popular hangout spot.)


“We’re here to attract people so that they can see what a lovely place Fuller is.”

At the historic Fuller Hall women’s residence, down the steps from Sarah Baartman Hall, a group of young residents was battling to keep their pergola from blowing away in the strong Cape wind.

“We’re here to attract people so that they can see what a lovely place Fuller is,” said first-year social sciences student Olwethu Nkabinde from Gauteng. “Fuller is fun. It’s very fun. It’s a warm and sisterly environment. I’ve never been exposed to this many girls!”

100UP and climbing

Visible among the dense crowds were the branded hoodies of the 100UP learners from Langa, Philippi and Mitchells Plain. 100UP is a UCT Schools Development Unit initiative. The holistic programme addresses the problem of demographic under-representation in higher education by targeting school learners from disadvantaged backgrounds and coaching them towards university access. 

A small posse of young women, mostly 100UP learners in Grade 12, were clear about their mission.


“And when you are here [at UCT] you just feel inspired by people just doing these amazing things.”

“We’re here … to see the faculties, the places we want to see,” said Sisipho Danster from Mikaza High School in Khayelitsha, whose dream is to study radiography.

For her buddy, Zikhona Jonga (not in the 100UP programme), participating in Open Day was inspirational.

“I see those students. I want to be here one day,” said Jonga, who is a Grade 12 learner from Sangweni Senior Secondary School in Khayelitsha. “I grew up in a family where we don’t have anyone who went to university. And when you are here [at UCT] you just feel inspired by people just doing these amazing things.”

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