Opinionista Mako Muzenda 4 May 2017

The graduates of 2017 represent the potential trajectory that society can take

Graduation weeks are a period of celebration and giving credit where it’s due. For South Africa’s Class of 2016, it’s attention that’s well earned.

Dr Hleze Kunju graduated with a doctorate on 20 March 2017. The subject of his thesis was on isiXhosa in Zimbabwe, focusing on a small group of amaXhosa in Mbembesi, a small town just outside of Bulawayo. Kunju’s thesis is groundbreaking in that it brought to light long-forgotten ties between isiXhosa communities in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, and the smaller communities in Zimbabwe. What makes Kungu’s thesis – and his doctorate in general – special is not its subject, but rather its delivery.

When Dr Kunju graduated, he became the first person to write a PhD thesis in isiXhosa at Rhodes University. His success is a highlight of the 2017 graduation season, a period where thousands of graduands don their billowing black gowns and walk across the stage to the sound of jubilant attendees.

Graduation weeks are a period of celebration and giving credit where it’s due. For South Africa’s Class of 2016, it’s attention that’s well earned. The past two years of university life have been marked by protest after protest, police violence, increasing frustration with university managements, and the heavy question of tuition. There’s also been the issue of decolonisation and transformation, ideals that serve as the rallying call for the Fallist movement. The roller-coaster ride of the past two academic years in South Africa demonstrate three different but equally important realities. First, that African universities deserve to be celebrated as spaces of innovation and subversion, where ideas and movements that counter the dominant forces can be born and can grow. Second, that these institutions of higher learning are under threat. Because they create and encourage a space for debate and critical thinking, African universities, students and lecturers are too often targeted as agents of dissent; and last, that as mundane and regular as graduation may seem, it is important to recognise the achievement of graduating with a degree or equivalent qualification.

The graduates of 2017 represent a sliver of the population, but also the potential trajectory that society can take. After years of studying, seminars and late nights, Africa’s best and brightest head out into the adult world in a continent and world that is turbulent, to say the least. Twenty-three years after the end of apartheid, young South Africans – the born-free generations – are frustrated at the lack of transformation. Racial, social and economic inequality still mar the country’s landscape, and with youth unemployment sitting at 48.6% as of 2016, the euphoria of graduation is undercut by the increasingly tangible reality of joblessness. Many of the graduates this year were on the front lines during the 2016 and 2015 FeesMustFall protests. They were shot at, tear-gassed, and arrested. They went through months of protests and disruptions, only for their pleas to go unheeded.

Across the border in Zimbabwe, unemployment is practically guaranteed. Graduates sit in silence through a painfully long ceremony and listen to an endless drudgery of speeches and acclamations, only to take off the gown to stand in the unemployment queue. The one instance in recent memory that someone dared speak about what kind of working environment graduates were entering was in 2016. The then SRC president of the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) Tonderai Dombo, raised a placard at his graduation ceremony, asking the president of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe to provide jobs. In response, Dombo was thrown in jail (reminiscent of the clampdown on student activism in Zimbabwe in the early 2000s). In 2015, students at Kenya’s Garissa University were targeted by an al-Shabab terrorist attack, which left 147 people dead. Academics are affected too: Uganda’s Dr Stella Nyanzi’s arrest for cyber-harassment demonstrates that the key players in the road to a degree are subject to attack, harassment, and censorship.

How does all this relate to the crop of graduates who have just earned their degrees? University students – and students enrolled in any institution of higher learning – are in a unique position when it comes to social hierarchy, representing the transition from minor to fully-fledged participating citizen. They can vote, they’re more visible than their peers in high school, and they have more power when it comes to how they’re represented. This makes this bunch of scholars a particularly important group whose hearts and minds are battlegrounds for ideologies. Political parties, recruiting agencies and big firms make a point in investing in these institutions and creating a presence on campus. They understand that this demographic does not occupy neutral ground: the university student is inherently political, a force for social change, subversion and disruption. They also understand that a student’s experience in the university space plays a fundamental role in shaping what kind of citizen they’ll become and how they influence society, and the experiences of this recent graduation class has been rough.

No graduation speech is complete without the obligatory praise of how far they have come and how the best is yet to come. As cliché as it is, it is true: graduates have gone through the most to get to where they are now, to use Twitterspeak. They have overcome financial strain. They have overcome the heavy demands of academic life. They have overcome the emotional strain and trauma of protest action and violence. As much as it occurs every year, it’s important to step back and congratulate them on what they’ve achieved. They represent a crucial turning point in society, and their beliefs and new ways of thinking (as evidenced in Kunju’s thesis) will play a fundamental role when they assume leadership positions on a national and continental scale. So, here’s to the Graduation Class of 2016. This is your moment, enjoy every minute of it, and never forget the bravery and determination that got you to this moment. DM

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