Tuesday 16 April 2024

Address accepting the award of the degree, Doctor of Theology (honoris causa), University of the Free State, Qwaqwa Campus


University of the Free State


Remarks on receiving the degree

Doctor of Theology (Honoris Causa)

12th April 2024, Qwaqwa Campus

Honourable Chancellor,


Director of Ceremonies,

Parents, Students,

Fellow Graduates,

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am so pleased to be here, not least because the last time I was in this beautiful part of the country, I departed under less auspicious circumstances!

It was some months after the June 16, 1976 uprising against apartheid and I was 16 years old. Although my family had been forcibly removed from Alexandra Township in Johannesburg to Soweto a few years earlier, I was still going to school in Alex, and I got mixed up in the uprising when it spread to Alex two days after June 16. The less said about that, the better, but as student activism grew in intensity in the following weeks and months, my parents – like many parents in Soweto and Alex at the time – decided to move me to a quieter rural area to concentrate on my studies.

The school they chose was Makabelane in Phuthaditjhaba, which I think is down the road from here. I came here by train and then on a bus operated by the Setsokotsane Bus Service. One of my clearest memories of that journey is is how the bus we travelled on lived up to the name of the company! As the bus negotiated the gravel road and its potholes on the way here, it literally shook us up, good and proper!

But within a few weeks, there was some or other kind of disruption – I don't recall what it was about – and we urban boys were expelled from the school. So they packed us and our trunks up, and put us back on a Setsokotsane bus to shake us up as we were dispatched back to Joburg.

So you will understand when I say that in the light of that episode in my life, it is with enormous gratitude and thanksgiving that I return to this campus to receive this honour. To the whole university community – the Chancellor, the Vice-Chancellor, the Council, the Senate, academics, students, staff, and especially the parents – my heartfelt thanks for conferring this degree on me today and for admitting me into the halls of this historic institution. Re a leboha!

I receive this honorary degree on behalf of all the lay people of our respective churches and communities, the people who are the pillars who sustain us and enable us to meet the challenges of today. Many of them had the ability to benefit from a university education but were denied that opportunity in the past, often because of poor schooling, or the colour of their skins, or the combination of both which inflicted our society. It is now still often the case, either because of inadequate education, or because people struggle to find the means to pay, or because NSFAS is failing to pay their fees. So I accept this honour for them too.

Let me also pay a particular tribute today to all who have graduated, and especially to those who have supported them in their studies, their parents, grandparents, guardians and other supporters. Congratulations to you all.

Since the degree you have generously chosen to bestow on me is in theology, let me say a few words today about the doctrine of the Incarnation – the doctrine that holds that Jesus is both fully God and fully human, that he is the divine Son, who was, as we say, made flesh – that he took on a human body and human nature.

What does the Incarnation mean in South Africa today? To me, it means that God is part of the contemporary world. Incarnation communicates to us that God is on our side. In Christ Jesus, God demonstrates God’s solidarity with the human condition. God is with us, among us, and more than that, God is one of us – to a degree we will probably never adequately understand this side of heaven.

So, although the president and members of his Cabinet, or the captains of business and industry, or the leaders of universities and churches, may play important roles in our society, we should be looking for God in other places.

We need to look for God among those the world regards as unimportant – those who are seemingly insignificant; those regarded as illegitimate, illiterate, defenceless, of no worth to the economy and of no consequence in society. It is by focusing on these people living on the margins, excluded from the benefits of our democracy, that we will find God.

That is why I advocate that we should all adopt the New Struggle; as opposed to the old struggle against apartheid, we need to wage a new struggle for a new society, a society of equal opportunity, in which there is real, observable equality, a society in which wealth is more equitably shared among all as a result of the economic growth that will take off if we develop the skills and gifts of all our people, without regard to status or privilege. By joining such a struggle, we can realise the values embedded in our Constitution, the values of democracy, social justice and respect for fundamental human rights. We can create a society which frees the God-given potential of each person, a just, equitable society that cares, so improving the quality of life of all our people.

In such a society, we will build decent housing for all, and end the devastating shack fires which destroy everything that people in informal settlements work for, upending their lives and causing them misery. And such a society will live by and export its values, standing up for those who are the victims of violence and aggression, whether women and children who suffer gender-based violence in our own country, or the people of Ukraine, or the people of Gaza, who face death, disfigurement, starvation and the destruction of their homes on a scale that is unimaginable.

So, as we celebrate all who graduate today, as you look back over the hard work and the support from your families and your sponsors which got you here, let's dedicate ourselves to serving our society in a way that will enable those who are the least among us to live lives as full and as rich as those we aspire to live ourselves.

Let me end by again congratulating all the graduates and those who have supported them. And I congratulate the University of the Free State as you continue the road of transformation into a university fit for purpose for the 21st century in our democratic South Africa. And please, everyone, study the manifestos of the political parties taking part in the elections on May 29th, decide which leaders are actually capable of implementing their policies and fulfilling their promises, then go out and vote. Generations of your forebears struggled for the vote, so please go to the polls and use it wisely.

May God bless you.

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