At the same time as Mavis Ngcongolo’s ECD learners were winding their way back to Injongo after their graduation ceremony on Saturday, another education event of a very different kind was getting underway in the neighbouring township of Philippi. Sivuka!, which means “Wake up!” in isiXhosa was organized by my friend and UWC colleague, Iris Vernekohl, on behalf of the University of the Western Cape and with the help of DAAD (the South African German Centre for Development Research and Criminal Justice). Dubbed an education Indaba, the purpose of Sivuka! was to encourage local youth and high school students to begin to imagine the possibility of a tertiary education, particularly in such fields as science and politics.
Although the number of South African high school leavers going on to university has grown steadily in recent years, a university degree is still seen as a remote option by many, particularly amongst the socio-economically deprived youth in the locations. Some of this is grounded in reality. Universities are expensive and the pressure is on for many young people to find work and contribute to the family income rather than continue their studies. But it is also a question of perceptions. The value of a tertiary education is not yet acknowledged by all, a fact not helped by the tendency amongst many of South Africa’s new ruling elite to make a point of stressing their lack of a university education as though a university education is a luxury, or even a frivolity, that can be ignored on the road to success.
Sikuva! was supported by a number of local celebrities who donated their time gratis, including the South African stand up comic Nik Rabinowitz, the popular rock group Freshly Ground and a number of academics and scientists from UWC who both spoke and conducted interactive scientific experiments for the assembled crowd. However, the star of the show, as far as I was concerned, was the ever charming, ever straight talking, Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Tutu holds a special place in the hearts of many South Africans. His humility and dedication to the spiritual and social upliftment of the South African people is undeniable. He is also a man of rare integrity and courage. Tutu has never been afraid to speak truth to power. He did it during Apartheid and he continues to do it now that we have a black majority leadership.
However, I have also always admired Tutu because of his ability, like the great Mandela, to inspire South Africans to imagine another story for themselves, one which does not ignore or deny the crimes of our past, or the challenges of our present, but which nonetheless encourages us to imagine our potential to shape a more noble future. It was Tutu who coined the phrase, ‘the Rainbow nation’. It was he too who reminded us of the spirit of Ubuntu. In the fragile and sensitive years of our new democracy post 1994, Tutu said, we are the Rainbow nation and we let ourselves imagine that we maybe, just maybe, we could be. Tutu said, South Africa is the home of Ubuntu, and we said, yes, why not. Let’s try.
On Saturday he inspired his young audience to imagine the possibility for a better future for themselves, one which included a tertiary education. I have no doubt that many of those assembled, would be the first in their families to attend university. I have no doubt too that before they heard Tutu speak, they were probably more interested in hearing the local bands and watching the local dance acts, than in engaging with Sivuka’s educational themes. However, seeing how many of the young people clutched a UWC undergraduate prospectus after the Archbishop’s speech, I feel hopeful that at least for some, Tutu’s words planted a powerful seed, and that now they have begun the process of at least beginning to imagine the possibility of a tertiary degree and with it a future, wider and brighter than what they envisaged for themselves before.