MAVERICK CITIZEN OP-ED

‘It takes a village to complete a PhD’: My message to the Humanities Class of 2021

By Vuyiseka Dubula-Majola 3 May 2021

Vuyiseka Dubula, in the street with friends and family. (Photo: Sthembele Jnr)

Twenty years ago, Vuyiseka Dubula began her political activism as a volunteer with the Treatment Action Campaign. She had moved from her home in the Eastern Cape to a job at McDonald’s in Cape Town. Diagnosed HIV positive in 2001, she began another journey – this time as a black woman living with HIV and as an Aids treatment activist. Last week, Vuyiseka was awarded a PhD. In a short address to her fellow graduates, she explained what motivates her.

I am Vuyiseka Dubula, born from the dusty town of Dutywa, Eastern Cape. I am humbled by this opportunity to address the Class of 2021 and share my message. When I received this invitation I asked myself who I am to be delivering this message to. And I wanted to share my experience as well as to share with you my message for this graduation.

My research focused on documenting ways in which Aids activists in Khayelitsha and Lusikisiki shifted their advocacy strategies and tactics following the roll-out of antiretrovirals (ARVs) in the public healthcare sector (between 2004 and 2014), which led to Aids treatment access breakthroughs. I hope this research adds value to the growing body of knowledge about social movements and popular participation praxis within the realm of development studies. 

Twenty years ago Vuyiseka Dubula began her political activism
as a volunteer with the Treatment Action Campaign. (Photo: Sthembele Jnr)

My research was born out of concern with social injustice, which emanated from personal and political experiences of participation in Aids policy processes in South Africa. As one of the black African HIV-positive women activists who led the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), my research is an attempt to fundamentally disrupt the continual privileging of some voices in knowledge production.

One of the things I enjoyed about doing this PhD – of course no ever says they enjoy the PhD completely – was the field work. I enjoyed absolutely every bit of it. 

The most memorable moments were when I spent time with my comrades sharing their insights. One could get a sense of their pride that one of them has made it; that one of them has decided to disrupt the norm where HIV-positive women who are black are not counted as part of the knowledge produced in movements. 

Yes, of course this journey has had those memorable moments, but with a good share of lows as well. This journey is a humbling process and it’s true that only a few walk it. But that should not deter any of us from doing it. For as long as it is possible, everybody can do it. I honestly had my low and high moments – just like anyone who is studying, you are not going to enjoy the journey all the time. 

All these experiences have added to my reservoir of resilience. 

I owe completing this degree to so many people. I have a huge fear that I’m going to leave a few names out. In doing justice, I would like to see myself as a child of a village. I would not have completed this degree without that village. That village spreads as far as all the continents of the world. Wherever there is a comrade of mine, wherever there is a person living with HIV, wherever there is a black woman, that’s my village. 

It is that village that helped me to complete this journey. In my lowest moments I reached out to this village for support. 

I am also indebted to my family, my children and my partner for my absence and their understanding. If I were to choose to do this again, I absolutely would do it – of course, without the low encounters.

I would do it because I know that we as black children are born in a racist and unequal society. It is my job and your job as the Class of 2021 to make sure that our degrees and gowns are not dust-collectors. In fact, they should be weapons and tools to disrupt the norm and order of knowledge production, where some people are privileged to be counted as knowledge generators and others not. 

We are the generation that must never accept the status quo. We are the manifestation of black women living with HIV that refused to perish with Aids. We were born to crush injustice. Let us not accept anyone who limits our potential. The sky’s the limit. 

I am the example from your Class of 2021 that the stars are what we should be reaching for. Africa is waiting for us to all rise. 

As I will be graduating with all of you, I am also embarking on another journey. That journey is on the path of continuing my research and writing through a postdoctoral fellowship at the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. 

I urge all of you – let this not be the end.

Let us go out there and change all the injustices. 

Let us go out there in spaces that are toxic and make them conducive for everyone to thrive.

Let us go out there and be counted as the generation of 2021 that made societal change.

Let our degrees make a social impact.

Thank you and good luck in your endeavours in the future. DM/MC

Dr Vuyiseka Dubula-Majola’s PhD is titled “Too Poor to be Treated: Bottom-up Advocacy by HIV-Positive Activists in Khayelitsha and Lusikisiki South Africa.” She is the director of the Africa Centre for HIV/Aids Management at Stellenbosch University and is the former general secretary of the Treatment Action Campaign. Maverick Citizen previously published a profile of Vuyiseka as part of our Friday Activist series, which focuses on the women activists leading civil society in South Africa.

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