The atmosphere in the auditorium is electric, undoubtedly because tonight’s guest of honour is seen by the public as a man who speaks truth to power. In a country where politicians and office holders of the ruling party compete to outdo each other in a race to the bottom of poor leadership, tonight’s guest of honour is a model public leader, a living reminder that our universities remain a beacon of hope in a time when so many public institutions have fallen prey to the rot.
In about five minutes, tonight’s host and the guest of honour will take the stage. Except for one open front row seat, there is not even standing room left. Through the side door closest to the stage, a couple has just entered, making their way slowly towards the open seat. The striking sight of the couple, a middle-aged man gently pushing a severely handicapped young female in a wheelchair, has apparently caught the attention of the audience, adding to the general buzz in the auditorium. As the man parks the wheelchair next to the open seat and sits down in the seat, he gently props up the young female’s head, which has slipped out of her headrest to hang limply for a brief moment. Approving remarks are murmured by members of the audience.
The audience seems to be so captivated by this tender scene that many of them only now notice the diminutive figure of the vice-rector for community engagement on the stage, as she starts to speak: “Dear members of the public, colleagues and students, goeienaand, dumela, good evening. It is my pleasure to welcome you all here tonight for this exciting intellectual happening, but please join me in first listening to our university’s student male a cappella ensemble’s rendition of Nkalakatha.”
As the diverse group of young men, all dressed in black shirts and white bow ties, files onto the stage, the audience applauds ecstatically, while here and there ululation rings out as a reminder that the diversity displayed on the stage is also embodied by the audience. The initial silence with which the audience listens to the ensemble soon starts to give way to spontaneous rhythmic clapping, as they collectively yield to the infectious beat of the music. The end of the song is greeted by even more raucous applause and ululation. The middle-aged man in the front seat passes a gentle smile to the young female in the wheelchair as she struggles to clap with violent jerking gestures. The applause takes quite a while to die down before the vice-rector can resume.
“Dear audience, I am sure that you will agree with me that what we have just witnessed is a testimony to the humane culture of true diversity that tonight’s guest of honour cultivated while he led our institution. Tonight, for the first time since he left us, we welcome him back for the launch of the much-anticipated book that he has just published. And to lead tonight’s discussion with him, our very own Professor Joan H Craven, a world-renowned scholar in her own right. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome them to the stage!”
With this, the lights in the auditorium are dimmed, and a spotlight guides the two figures onto the stage to some more tumultuous applause. Professor Craven leads the guest of honour to two wing-back chairs in the middle of the stage. Craven is her impeccably dressed self, with the spotlight creating something of an aura around her perfectly coiffed blonde hair. The guest of honour, true to his initial training as an actor, gives his trademark goosestep shuffle and waves to the audience, who shout their approval at this little comic touch. A man of the people, if ever there was one. With a perfectly manicured hand, Craven smoothly gestures the guest of honour to take his seat, her red nails momentarily flashing in the spotlight. Presently, she gestures with the same manicured hand for the audience to quiet down, effecting a smile that shows off her beautiful teeth.
Once silence has been restored, Craven brings the microphone to her full lips, gestures towards the audience and says: “Clearly, they still love you, Professor.” Cue more raucous applause and ululating. The guest of honour is radiant, and takes the handkerchief from his breast pocket and gently pads his eyes. More than one audience member follows suit.
Craven resumes: “On a more serious note, Professor, you spent the last twelve months in various countries. You were visiting lecturer at a number of Ivy League universities, you received a number of international awards and in between you still found time to write this new book. Tell us about these twelve months.”
The guest of honour loosens his tie slightly and takes his microphone. “Oh, Professor, you are too kind. I simply did what is required of a man in my position. You know, despite my humble upbringing and all the prejudice I had to face in my career, I ultimately received so much. The least I can do is to give back. But I can tell you this: in all the places I went to, I missed our beautiful people and the sweet koeksisters so much!” The audience erupts again, and if it were not for the way he pronounced “koeksisters”, nobody could have guessed his roots.
Craven flashes another smile and resumes: “Now, Professor, your new book is called South Africa: a race to the bottom? Why this negative-sounding title from a man known for his positive attitude?”
“Thank you for that question, Joan. Well, as you and many of the people in the audience know, I have dedicated my life to the struggle to eradicate racism from our beautiful country. We all know that more than twenty years into our democracy, racism often still rears its head. You have these types appealing to language rights for a separatist agenda. You have the Penny Sparrows of this world and all the vitriolic race reactions that they elicit from the other side, threatening to drag us into a racist race to the bottom. But, you know, that is not the whole story of who we are. In writing my new book, I came to the conclusion that we need to turn our racist heritage on its head by positively embracing it. Deep down, we are all one race; right to the very bottom of our being, we are all one race – a race to the bottom, if you like. In this book, I am, therefore, challenging our people to take a long hard look at themselves and admit that we can no longer have things like racism keeping us from admitting our oneness. You know, when I was in charge of this institution, I always made it clear that here we are one in our diversity. When you come here, you are no longer Afrikaner, Zulu or Indian; Christian or Muslim or atheist; Afrikaans or Xhosa or whatever. Here, we leave those things at the door to admit that, at bottom, we are one race, grateful for what we share and what makes us the same. And, let me tell you, Joan, over there in the US and Britain, they loved me for this; they loved this idea. I can’t tell you how many deans and vice-chancellors asked me publicly and privately what our success recipe was at this university.”
The more serious turn of the conversation is echoed by somewhat muted applause from the audience, allowing Craven to pose her next question: “Thank you very much for that thoughtful response, Professor. Now, can you tell us a bit of what you see in your crystal ball for this country? Are you optimistic that we are winning the fight against racism?”
“Well, Joan,” says the guest of honour, easing back deeper in his chair, “I have to be honest with you and say that even though the way forward is obvious, as I make clear in my book, I am still very concerned that not everyone is getting the message. Look, I’m not trying to say that students who take to social media to vent against what they see as whiteness and white privilege should not be challenged, but clearly, it’s too easy to say they are practising so-called reverse racism. You know, you have to look at this country’s history. If I may be blunt, given the painful history of four hundred years of colonialism and apartheid, for a poor young black student to attack white privilege is not the same as a white person equating black people to monkeys. These young people are still struggling to find their voices in our public space, and we should support them, even if they struggle to articulate themselves properly. After all, English is not everybody’s first language.”
With a confident gesture, Craven throws back her hair and leans slightly forward for the next question, allowing her blouse to reveal a little more: “Speaking of English, Professor, in your new book you write about its potential to overcome our ugly racial past. What are your thoughts on this?”
“Thank you for that question, Joan. Well, you know, the thing that strikes me time and again when I travel in the United States is not only how powerful the English language is, but what a powerful unifier it is. I mean, there probably isn’t a more diverse country in the world today than the US, and yet, they are ‘one out of many’, as their beautiful national motto goes. And, let me tell you, they couldn’t have done it without English. We should learn from their history of social justice and what English can do to create safe spaces.”
Beaming at the audience, Craven shouts: “Ladies and gentlemen, don’t you just love him for these brave insights!” Cue more rapturous applause and ululation.
When the applause dies down again, Craven announces that the guest of honour will now take a number of questions from the audience. Immediately, a number of hands shoot up in the audience. Craven beams a knowing smile towards the guest of honour, and then allows the first question. Within a flash, it seems, twenty minutes have passed before Craven announces that the guest of honour will now take the last question. When he finishes his answer, Craven takes up her microphone to begin to thank him for his public courage and for how generous he has been with his precious time tonight. “So, Professor,” she says, “this, then, brings us to the end of a most stimulating evening. I want to –”
Somewhat ruffled, Craven looks at the audience, struggling to locate the interrupter. “Excuse me!” he repeats. Craven realises it is the middle-aged man next to the young female in the wheelchair, and she struggles to hide her irritation. “Sir, I’m afraid –”
“Professor Craven, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but this isn’t about me. Perhaps you didn’t notice that Jemima here next to me had her hand raised. She has a question, too. Could you please allow her question?”
A murmur goes through the audience. Craven hesitates, looks to the guest of honour, who indicates that he’ll take the question. Struggling to keep her voice steady, she proceeds: “Of course, sir. I’m sorry. People like Jemima are, after all, the ones to whom Professor White has dedicated so much of his life. Jemima, please go ahead and ask your question.”
Within seconds, the usher with the roving microphone is holding the microphone carefully next to the young female’s mouth. The audience falls completely silent. The young female begins to speak: “Pr-Pr-Pr –” She breaks off, looks desperately to the middle-aged man, who smiles gently and softly squeezes her hands. She begins again: “Pr-Pr-Professor, hoe-hoe-hoekom pr-pr-praat jy n-n-nie meer Afr-Afr-Afrikaans nie?” Visibly fatigued, the young female slumps back in her wheelchair.
Craven and the guest of honour exchange anxious looks. For a moment they confer, holding their microphones at a distance. Then Craven says: “I’m sorry, Jemima, your question wasn’t very clear. Could you please repeat it?”
Another murmur goes through the audience. The guest of honour fiddles with the top button of his shirt. The middle-aged man squeezes the young female’s hands again. The sound of her loud, uneven breath fills the auditorium. She starts speaking again, straining herself: “Pr-pr-profess-sor, hoe-hoe-hoekom –” She breaks off again, wails loudly and slumps forward, nearly knocking the microphone from the usher’s hand. A stunned silence reigns in the auditorium.
Then the guest of honour takes the microphone, blinks in the glare of the spotlight and says, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand you.”
- Photo of Johann Rossouw: Naomi Bruwer