The University of the Western Cape [UWC] was founded half a century ago by the old apartheid government as a university reserved for the mixed race people whom South Africa calls Coloured. This is a primarily Afrikaans speaking group of people situated in the Western Cape, in and around Cape Town. When Jakes Gerwel was appointed Rector in '88 [I think], he declared UWC South Africa's "University of the Left," and it played an important role in the successful struggle against apartheid. Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and many other ANC leaders were imprisoned, lies off the coast within sight of Cape Town. UWC, when I first visited it in 1986, was a small university of perhaps 7,000 students. It has now grown to 18,000 or more, and enrolls large numbers of African students as well as Coloured students, along with much smaller numbers of Indian students and a small number of White students.
In South Africa, the principal administrative officer of a university holds the title of Vice-Chancellor and Rector. The Chancellorship is an honorary title. The current Vice-Chancellor, a man whom I am proud to call my good friend, is Brian O'Connell. Brian has led the way in the growth and development of UWC, and has also taken a courageous leadership position in the fight against HIV-AIDS on the UWC campus. He long ago appointed Dr. Tania Vergnani to head up that effort, and she, with her aide Joachim Jacobs, has created the best HIV-AIDS awareness and prevention campaign in the country. More about that tomorrow.
I was awarded an honorary doctorate to recognize the work of University Scholarships for South African Students, a little one-man organization I started twenty-one years ago to provide bursaries [i.e., scholarships] for poor Black students going to historically Black universities and technikons in South Africa. [See my autobiography, in the archives of this blog, for a full description, or visit www.ussas.com.] UWC's commencements are held in five or six parts over more than a week. The session in which I received my degree was held on Tuesday evening last, in a beautiful hall [in a newly opened building] holding perhaps a thousand people.
After gathering for a little finger food with senior administrators and guests, we were led into the hall to the strains of Gaudeamus Igitur in academic procession. I took along my bright crimson Harvard doctoral robes, which I have worn all too infrequently over the past fifty-four years. [They were a graduate present from my parents in 1957.] The ceremony itself is quite formal, drawing on Continental and English traditions. The Chancellor sits on a raised chair in the middle of the first row on the stage, and as each graduate for any degree is announced, he or she walks across the stage and kneels before the Chancellor on a red velvet stool. The Chancellor then "caps" the candidate, which is to say taps him or her with a big floppy velvet academic cap. The candidate continues to along the stage and is "hooded" [receives his or her hood] before returning to the audience. A candidate for the doctorate is accompanied by the dissertation director, who reads out a summary of the research that the candidate has completed. Each degree recipient is applauded by the faculty on the stage and the students and guests in the audience.
My honorary doctorate was awarded first, and I am deeply proud to be able to say that the Chancellor who capped me was none other than retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who for twenty-four years has served as the Chancellor of UWC, and is stepping down this year from that post. When I was invited to receive the honor, I immediately composed in my head a one hour address to the students, but Cheryl Jason of the Vice-Chancellor's office told me, after I had accepted the honor, that they hoped I would speak "for three to five minutes." Well, as I explained to the students, anyone who has sat through academic lectures knows that in a one hour lecture there at most three to five minutes worth hearing, so I pared things away to the following remarks, which I duly delivered after receiving my degree:
"Chancellor Tutu, Vice-Chancellor O'Connell, Distinguished Deans and Faculty, Graduates and Friends,
I accept this great honor with pleasure, with gratitude, and with pride. I accept it, not for myself, but for the more than one thousand American men and women who have, over the past two decades, donated faithfully to our scholarship fund so that deserving young men and women here in South Africa may have the opportunity to seek a higher education. I accept it for those generous men and women in South Africa without whose efforts our scholarship programme could not have succeeded: for the late Prem Singh, who taught for many years at the University of Durban-Westville, for Dr. Tania Vergnani, who runs here on the campus of UWC the finest AIDS awareness and prevention campaign in the country, for Rensche Bell, formerly of your Financial Aid Office, who for years looked after the bursary recipients, for your former Chair of Council Sheila Tyeku, who manages the funds I am able to send from America, and I accept it for the bursary recipients, past and present, who have made all of us in the United States so proud.
Twenty-one years ago, on February 3rd, 1990, I had the great privilege of meeting for an hour with His Grace, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, during one of his many visits to America. It was just eight days before Nelson Mandela was to be released from Robben Island, and during the meeting, the Archbishop spoke movingly about the need for re-investment in what would shortly be the new South Africa. Inspired by his words, I founded University Scholarships for South African Students in the hope that I could, in some small way, be a part of the historic transformation about to take place in this beautiful land. Each year, I send appeals to my donors and bring here the bits of money they are generous enough to donate. The amounts are not large -- they dwindle into insignificance in comparison to the need -- but over these twenty-one years we have been able to help more than one thousand five hundred young Black men and women attend South Africa's historically Black universities.
Let me address a few words to those of you who will in a very few moments be awarded the degrees you have worked so hard for. This is a day of joy for you, a day of triumph, and a day of joy and triumph as well for your parents and family who are here today to witness the ceremony. I bring you congratulations from all of my American donors -- from Nobel Laureates, from Professors, from Doctors, from Lawyers, to all of whom I will carry back the happy news that you have successfully completed your studies. This is your day, and you have every right to enjoy it.
But I also bring to you a message, a challenge, an admonition. One hundred fifteen years ago a group of Black women in America founded the National Association of Colored Women, to fight the horrors of lynching and to seek complete equality of all Americans. These women, born as slaves or the daughters of slaves, chose as the motto of their new organization "Lifting As We Climb." They meant by this that as each of them climbed the ladder of success, winning for herself some measure of freedom and equality, she would look back, reach down, and offer a hand to others who were lower down on that ladder. They were not content merely to gain advantage for themselves. They committed themselves to fighting for all of their brothers and sisters, not stopping until they could all say, in the words of the old hymn, "free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last."
As you receive your well earned recognition on this happy day, I call on you to commit yourselves to helping others in South Africa who have not yet had your advantages. Take as your personal motto, Lifting As I Climb. Find some way in your work, in your daily lives, to look back, reach down, and offer a hand to someone lower on the ladder of success. If you will do that, then I will know that our little organization has truly been a success.
It remains only for me to give to your Rector, Professor O'Connell, a check for this year's USSAS donation to UWC, in the amount of 250,000 Rand. The money sits in a Pretoria bank, and as soon as Sheila Tyeku can pry it loose, it will be sent to this campus to aid more young people to earn their degrees. Thank you once again for this great honor.
Nkosi sikelel iAfrica."