Hold your head up high and make the right choice

Speech delivered at UCT graduation on 3 May 2017

Thank you very much programme director. Deputy Vice-Chancellor, SRC President, President of Convocation, academic staff, pass staff, graduating students, parents, ladies and gentlemen.

I am delighted to be with you this afternoon. Thank you for allowing me to share this very special moment with you. Today is a celebration. It is a celebration of time well spent: A celebration of the cooperation between you, your parents and family, your teachers and other staff at this university. Never forget all those who have given a helping hand or provided a stepping-stone to ease your way.

When we have a goal and have the right people around us, we can only succeed.

I want you to hold your head up high when you walk across this stage and be fully who you are. Don’t try to be like someone else. You have your own special gifts and personality. Your life’s work is to bring this fully to the fore and not to waste your talents.

It is unfortunate that we are still grappling with making our universities places that reflect and affirm us fully. For too long we have existed in one culture at home and then have to slip onto another one when we attend university. This is not acceptable. No British parent would accept that his or her children go to university where French culture dominates. Yet year after year we send our children into situations where they have to learn within a British or Dutch cultural milieu and not a South African one.

Fortunately your generation has cried out against this and increasingly we are beginning to create a truly South African university where we will study within an African context and draw from knowledge sources across the world. We will take the best ideas and develop homegrown solutions to solve our tough social problems.

Your years of study have given you basic tools to figure out life and it is up to you to develop your skills further for the benefit of your immediate family and eventually for your community and then for your country. Learning is a life-long process.

South Africa is in the midst of a very serious leadership crisis. It is shameful to watch how some political leaders and some business leaders cheat, lie and steal with impunity.

You can choose to follow the actions of those who have gained ascendancy in 2017 or you can choose to remain committed to basic principles of human decency, building a life that will give you and your children a good foundation.

Long long ago there were other young people who lay the foundations for you to flourish. Our first two indigenous South African graduates were Tiyo Soga and Charlotte Mannya Maxeke. Tiyo Soga graduated way back in 1856 while Charlotte Mannya Maxeke graduated in 1901. I have been fortunate to research and write the story of Mam Charlotte and have learned of her commitment to improving herself and her country. She graduated in the United States and came home to run a night school for the herd boys of Ramakgopa Village outside Polokwane. She helped to build schools that continue to function today. At that time only colonialists could study at universities in our country.

She did not present herself as a victim because she understood that as a graduate the buck stopped with her. She was part of the most privileged strata of her country.

As young people, Tiyo Soga and Charlotte Mannya Maxeke opened our path to higher education. They have paved the way for all of you to sit where you are sitting today. You have to ask yourselves the question what you will do when you leave here and go into the world to earn a living. Will you choose to build a solid reputation as a citizen or will you choose to allow a free for all that will deepen the tragedy of our lives?

In the end it is up to each one of us. We have to look at ourselves first and examine our conduct and not point fingers at every one else.

Forty years ago, I made my choice. I did not walk across this stage to graduate. We were a handful of black students at UCT. I chose not to graduate to say very strongly that I despised the system of apartheid that forced me to apply for special permission from the Coloured Affairs Department to study at UCT. We were excluded from staying at the residences and participating in any mixed race activities such as sport.

It was a very different UCT then.

17 years ago I was helping my dad write his speech for his 80th birthday. He said he had one regret. That he was not able to leave money to his six children. I was so surprised and said: “Dad, what you gave us money cannot buy. You gave us a good name.”

Reputation that flows from right action is everything. If you lose money you can recover. If you lose your reputation it is almost impossible to regain this.

Young people are often the innovators and historically have been the driving force of our story. I have no doubt that you will find the strength to take our story further and help our people reach their full potential. Our hope lies in you.

I have no doubt that forty years from now when you look back you will say with certainty that you made the right choice as I believe I did and helped to provide the leadership to put our country back on track.

I thank you.

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