Hon doc adds last signature in UCT’s first Golden Book

19 December 2023 | Story Helen Swingler. Photos Je’nine May. Read time 4 min.
Dr Mitchell Besser signs UCT’s Golden Book, the last name to this repository of history. A new Golden Book will be ‘opened’ next year. Dr Besser was awarded a DScMed at the Faculty of Health Sciences’ graduation ceremony on 14 December.
Dr Mitchell Besser signs UCT’s Golden Book, the last name to this repository of history. A new Golden Book will be ‘opened’ next year. Dr Besser was awarded a DScMed at the Faculty of Health Sciences’ graduation ceremony on 14 December.

When honorary doctorate recipient Dr Mitchell Besser signed the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Golden Book after being awarded a Doctor of Science in Medicine (honoris causa), his was the final signature in a book that has seen over 100 years of UCT history.

A Harvard Medical School graduate, Dr Besser was awarded a DScMed at the Faculty of Health Sciences graduation ceremony on 14 December, the second of five ceremonies in the end-of-year graduation season.

The founder of Mothers2Mothers (M2M) for HIV-positive pregnant women, Besser is a highly respected public health and global health practitioner and clinician whose professional career has been dedicated to the public health needs of women.

In 1999, Dr Besser joined UCT’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, assisting with the development of services to meet the needs of pregnant women living with HIV and to prevent the transmission of HIV from mothers to their children.

The honorary doctorate from UCT recognised his public services and meeting the public health needs of women living with HIV in South Africa and beyond.

Archive of history 

After the ceremony, Besser signed the book in the Ben Beinart Room, the last signature in a historical repository that is over 100 years old and features Nobel Prize winners and other luminaries.

Registrar Royston Pillay, who is the custodian of the Golden Book, said the first entry was made in 1918, the year UCT was established as a university. In all that time, the only person to have signed the book twice is activist Zackie Achmat; once in 2002 when he received a Master of Social Science (honoris causa) and again in 2017 when he was awarded a Doctor of Laws (honoris causa).

Registrar Royston Pillay (right) guides Dr Mitchell Besser through the Golden Book prior to the graduation ceremony.

It started out as a visitors’ book, collecting the signatures of esteemed visitors to UCT. It was then opened to include chancellors and vice-chancellors through the years, with space for more to come in future years. The back section is where the recipients of honorary degrees sign their names.

“I’ve penned an inscription on the last page to bring this book to an end and is a segue from this book to the next,” said Pillay. “It will take another 100 years to fill the next Golden Book.”

Paging through the book before being robed for the graduation ceremony, Besser exclaimed, “What an extraordinary archive of history!”

Last, but not least

Reading names aloud as he paged through it, Besser was astounded by some of the luminaries that have signed the book. Among those who caught his eye were Miriam Makeba (Doctor of Music, 1993), Raymond Ackerman (Doctor of Commerce, 2001), Amartya Sen (Doctor of Commerce, 2006),  Marlene Dumas (Doctor of Fine Art, 2016), Kader Asmal and Graça Machel (Doctor of Philosophy, 1999), Mark Shuttleworth (Doctor of Philosophy, 2002), Mahomed Abdullah (Doctor of Science in Medicine, 2005), Jerry Coovadia (Doctor of Medicine, 2010), Letta Mbulu and |Caiuphus Semenya (Doctor of Music, 2013), Salim Abdool Kariem (Doctor of Science in Medicine, 2014), William Kentridge (Doctor of Literature, 2014), Thuli Madonsela (Doctor of Laws, 2015), Ahmed Kathrada (Doctor of Laws 2017), Johaar Mosaval (Doctor of Music, 2021), Xuu Katrina Esau (Doctor of Literature, 2023).


“It’s wonderful being the last rather than the first.”

“These are people I read about in newspapers, whose books I read,” said Besser. “And these are people I worked with.”

Besser said he was honoured to be the last to add his signature to the chronicle of history.

“It’s wonderful being the last rather than the first.” He later added, “[But] it’s so sad to start a new book because there won’t be any history in it.”

Picking out other leaders in the book, those such as Nelson Mandela (Doctor of Laws, 1990), Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Doctor of Laws, 1993), and Kofi Annan (Doctor of Laws, 2002), Besser said, “Heroes, all.”

He added, “I’m not in the same group [league], but I’m very happy to bring up the tail end!”

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