Lunch with the chancellor

2010-12-14 00:00

THIS weekend, as a guest of Tito Mboweni, I attended his graduation where he received an honorary doctorate (Comm) from Stellenbosch University, one of the major intellectual centres of the Western Cape. A number of things surprised me.

Firstly, the casual nature of the affair. I was uncharacteristically in suit and tie. The last time I attended a graduation (my own) that is what people wore. But here, the rest of the audience was in short pants and T-shirts (I exaggerate a little, but not very much.)

Secondly, I was surprised by the huge number of black graduands in a thing called military science. No one could explain to me what the attraction might be. Otherwise, this particular graduation was the science graduation. And the lines and lines of white young things who were graduating in various genetic, physics, biology and suchlike degrees was tedious in the extreme, but interesting in comparison. There would be an occasional (apparently unpronounceable) black surname, which would herald whoops and ululation from the black sections of the crowd, while the white bulk of the crowd would tolerate it all good-naturedly. (Or, when it got a bit out of hand, shake their heads slightly and mutter something to each other.)

So, there was an obvious pattern. In general, the lower degrees were dominated overwhelmingly by white students. Higher degrees, however, showed a good mix, if not even a parity of black students. And military science, conversely had the very rare white student. I am sure there must be some explanation for why this is the case, but it certainly looked peculiar to me.

At the luncheon afterwards, the two graduands, honoris causa, gave speeches. The one was Whitey Basson, who is the driving force behind the mighty Shoprite Checkers group. Johann Rupert, inheritor of the Rupert tobacco industry fortune and chancellor of the university, got up to introduce him. They were clearly friends. Basson gave three sentences of his speech in English and the rest in Afrikaans. An American sitting at my table was lost. The South African black, sitting next to me, shook his head.

Then Mboweni got up to speak. He began by saying that he had thought rather hard about accepting a doctorate from Stellenbosch, for three reasons.

Firstly, because he wasn’t sure that the ceremony would be in a language he could understand; Secondly, because Stellenbosch has a very particular negative history in South Africa and he was not convinced that it was engaged in changing that image as fast as it might. Thirdly, because he didn’t know what his comrades in the struggle would have to say about his accepting a doctorate from that university.

I noticed that the Afrikaner couple opposite me got that glazed look my children get when I am telling them something they don’t want to hear. The former Reserve Bank governor went on. He spoke about the drama of returning exiles being faced with turning round what was essentially a bankrupt economy. And, as he had been frequently reminded by the likes of Rupert, they “had never run anything”. Not a shop, not a business, not a city and certainly not a country. They had never run anything.

And then he spoke about the remarkable turnaround which had been effected, by a left-leaning government (no less), consisting of people who had “never run anything”, but who were clever enough to work in close conjunction with the people who had been running the country up to that point. And then to turn the titanic economy of the country around, to a point where, just before the world crash, we enjoyed a surplus.

He emphasised again, that the people who had done this had “never run anything before”. Indeed, the person they appointed as the finance minister was a “skollie” from the Cape Flats who had once apparently stabbed someone.

I saw Rupert’s face become somewhat glum. And I enjoyed it enormously. Of course, he was politely agreeing. But it was polite, nothing more. And then Mboweni went on, talking about the university. There could be no “Afrikaans” university in South Africa. Because all the universities need to belong to all the people of South Africa. All the schools in the country need to belong to all the people of the country.

And so, Mboweni concluded, he had decided to accept. It seems his fears were unfounded. The ceremony was, to a completely acceptable degree, in English. And where it was not, it was translated. Secondly, the vice chancellor, Russel Botman, has managed to change the face of the previously all-white, apartheid-loving institution to one which is at least somewhat more credible. At least it was the case that at the chancellor’s lunch, something more than lip service was being paid to the demands of transformation, by a range of people. And that has to be a good sign. (It was an equally good sign when whites started giving each other Nelson Mandela’s biography for Christmas, many years back.)

But a curious joke, made by Rupert himself, seemed to me to sum up the situation. He said that when the end of the world came, he wanted to be in Stellenbosch – “because Stellenbosch is at least 20 years behind everywhere else in the world”. Personally, I think that could be said for most of the Western Cape.

• Michael Worsnip is the CEO of the Cape Town Carnival.

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