Edwin Cameron | Stellenbosch University deserves to be free from hate and degradation

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Newly installed chancellor of Stellenbosch University, Edwin Cameron.  Photo: Elizabeth Sejakee
Newly installed chancellor of Stellenbosch University, Edwin Cameron. Photo: Elizabeth Sejakee

A sense of dignity demands that we should have capable institutions and capable government and honest politicians and dedicated public servants – and honest truth-seeking, courageous judges, says Justice Edwin Cameron. He was speaking at his official installation as Chancellor of Stellenbosch University on Wednesday night. Here is his address. 

What a significant occasion this is. Thank you to the choir, and the musicians, who have brought such light and beauty to the venue and thank you to the imbongi (praise singer) for his affirming and memorable praise-songs.

Enkosi, mbongi, ngalawo mazwi amnandi!

Thank you also to the Council of the University, the Rector, Professor Wim de Villiers, and his Executive Team and the Electoral College, for putting their faith and trust in me to perform this role.

It is not one that I ever thought of accepting. And yet I did. Why?

Mostly for selfish reasons.

I have to confess that the past two and a half years have brought me exceptional joy. 

First, in interacting with diverse young people on campus – black, white, gay, straight, and from urban and rural places across the country and the continent – Stellenbosch students with the drive and tenacity and purposefulness that give me a burst of hope for this country.

Proud alumnus

In addition, the joy of being associated with the University that is so clearly on the way up – up in intellectual output, up in teaching skills, up in research and scholarly publications, up in international renown, up even (though this counts the least) in international ranking. 

Joy particularly in being able to preside over quite a number of graduation ceremonies over the last two and a half years. It has been an honour to confer degrees and witness elated students graduating, some the first in their families to attend a tertiary institution.

When I took office on 1 January 2020, Covid-19 was already insidiously spreading into our world – and three months later, it had seized the countries and societies of the globe by their throats.

We knew so little. Would this dreadful virus inflict Armageddon on us?

READ | SA's terrible Covid-19 toll - researchers find nearly 300 000 excess deaths in two years

It didn’t, but our country has lost 300 000 people who died from Covid (measuring ‘excess deaths’) – and many, many more have suffered sickness, bereavement, disablement and loss of their jobs, their businesses, their ability to feed their families.

So merely that we are here this afternoon, together, is an affirmation to be respectfully celebrated.

A second reason I took this job is about Stellenbosch University itself.   

I studied here, I spent nearly five years on campus, I am a proud alumnus.

And I think what Stellenbosch University represents, and what it aims to be, is important – important to the world, to South Africa and to Africa.

Recently, I was asked to speak at the inaugural meeting of the South African University Chancellors’ Forum (SAUCF), at the University of Pretoria, where a number of Vice Chancellors and Chancellors were present.

For our dignity 

I asked the question: why care about South Africa’s universities?

And I answered it: for our own dignity, for our own sense of self-worth as South Africans.

We entered our democracy with so much hope, with so much soaring aspiration.  

Twenty-eight years later, we are bruised, disheartened and battered - battered by the service-delivery failures, the disintegrating public institutions, the looting, corruption, ineptitude, and rank criminality of government.

So much of this (though not all of it) stems from the Zuma era – nine years in which criminals within the very highest offices of our land conspired – to steal our country from us, to rob our young people of their future, and to enrich themselves at the cost of our hopes and dreams.

To succeed in this, the criminal masterminds of state capture had to disrupt, dismantle and destroy –

  • national crime intelligence,
  • state security,
  • the leadership of the police,
  • the national prosecuting authority –
  • and they had to weaken the resolve of Parliament and the governing party.

They very nearly succeeded. In fact, we are still engaged in a gigantic effort to save our country from looters and corruption and systemic and institutional disintegration.

Our country was saved by honest, purposeful and determined people in three institutions.

First, our fearless and independent media and civil society, who exposed and opposed state capture through the justly famous Gupta Leaks, and who continue to investigate and reveal grotesque malfeasance.

Second, the former Public Protector. I see that Professor Thuli Madonsela from our Law Faculty is here this afternoon. I ask her to stand up. We justly pay her honour and tribute. Without the quite astonishing courage and clarity of her State of Capture Report, and the bold recommendations she made, we might have fallen prey to the crocodiles and hyenas.

READ | Karyn Maughan: How Mlambo, Zondo dismantled the 'anti-transformation' attack on the Constitution

Third, the Judiciary. Here, I make no personal claim, since the brave judges were – 

(a) those of the Gauteng Provincial Division, led by Judge President Dunstan Mlambo and 

(b) Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, who in his judgment of 31 March 2016 delivered a sermon to the nation, to Parliament, and to President Zuma on the elementary ethics of public duty and honest service.  

(c) The many judges across the divisions who have continued to prove their firm allegiance to the rule of law and the Constitution.

All of this work set the path for Chief Justice Zondo’s State Capture Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector, including Organs of State. Our hope is that accountability manifests in swift criminal prosecutions.

We deserve this

And why is all of this important? Because of our self-respect. Because of our demand for accountability. Because we as a country, as a nation, put dignity at the centre of our Bill of Rights as its pivotal foundational value: not just individual dignity, not just group dignity, but our dignity as a people.

Our dignity demands that we should have capable institutions and capable government and honest politicians and dedicated public servants – and honest, truth-seeking, courageous judges.

Our dignity, our sense of self-worth tells us that we deserve all of this.

And that is why we also deserve well-functioning tertiary institutions of true excellence, that will shape our future generation of leaders and trailblazers: like Stellenbosch University.

We as a country deserve outstanding teaching and dedicated learning and world-improving research.  

And conceptual breakthroughs in knowledge and knowledge systems and in human and artificial intelligence.

Free of disrespect

We deserve a University that is free of the disrespect and hatred and degradation that were manifested in the ghastly incident in Huis Marais on Sunday, when a white student urinated on the study materials of a black student, Babalo Ndwayana.

READ | 'I was ashamed as a white man' - Stellenbosch University chancellor Edwin Cameron on urination incident

All these things are what our national sense of dignity and self-worth entitles us to claim, and I am honoured to be associated with all the ways in which Stellenbosch University embodies these.

In a recent BBC interview, two Chancellors of Oxford University were in conversation with each other. One was Mr Roy Jenkins, a former leader in the Labour Party. The other was Lord Chris Patten, a former Tory Cabinet Minister who was the last British Governor of Hong Kong.  

Roy Jenkins remarked that to be Chancellor of a University embodies "impotence assuaged by magnificence".

Like many of the aphorisms of the English ruling elite, this is clever – but it is untrue.

Far from impotent

First, there is very little magnificent about being Chancellor (unless the funny hat I am wearing counts as magnificent).

Second, the job is far from impotent. 

It has been a real thrill to be asked to become involved with many aspects of this University’s teaching, research and knowledge-expanding energies, and to get to know some of its student leaders.

In addition, the Chancellor is anything but impotent in trying to unlock the partnerships with private institutions and industrial and commercial corporations that are absolutely essential if universities in South Africa are to flourish.

So, while not magnificent, this job brings a huge amount of joy.

It has bountiful energies attached to it and flowing through it.  

It is my enormous privilege to be the recipient of that energy and to commit myself for the rest of my term to contributing to it.

Thank you.

- Edwin Cameron is a former Constitutional judge and the Chancellor of Stellenbosch University.

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