LEARNING TRIUMPHS: Success over adversity at
THE OTHER DAY I was invited to a pre-graduation ceremony at the University of the Western Cape. That was to mark the success of law graduates in Honours, Masters and two very original Doctorates.
I go to these ceremonies to pay my respect to young people who value the attendance of those who weren’t directly connected to their theses. Apart from celebrating their performance, there’s another reason for attending: to find out what they’re doing and why, especially at the University of the Western Cape, where I taught in the early Nineties. I was surprised by the number of Masters students and the high academic standard they had reached. Parents and friends clapped and ululated in joy.
From 1990 onwards, UWC was no longer a “bush college”. When many of those in exile decided to return home they chose that university to work at. Then it was described by its rector as the academic home of the left. In fact, its community law centre made a signal contribution to the evolution of South Africa’s Constitution, through its association with the ANC and others who sought its assistance.
I was surprised by the two young people who were to be honoured for their Doctorates at the informal ceremony. Doctorates are difficult to write, as the authors must make an original contribution to learning. It’s lonely work and requires an enormous amount of time and energy. Many of the students have to hold down a job to enable them to manage the cost of researching a thesis. I write this because it isn’t a self-evident fact to those outside universities as to what’s entailed in completing a doctorate.
The first candidate reflected the fact that UWC can attract students from far afield. He was from Zanzibar and his thesis may appear to be a little obscure but it’s of importance in evaluating British colonial policy, as he looked mainly at primary materials and how British policy was transforming the administration of Islamic law and its institutions in the Busa’Idi sultanate from 1890 to 1963, the period of British rule.
Abdul Kadir’s thesis was highly praised by the examiners. He came through with flying colours, in part due to the university’s exceptional efforts at providing him with knowledgeable supervisors.
The other thesis was by a South African and requires particular attention. Patricia Menaghan’s “The right to freedom of religion in the public domain in South Africa” urgently demands a publisher, as it should be compulsory reading for everyone, especially those in Government.
After reading her monumental work everyone should recognise that SA is a secular state that doesn’t favour one religion over another. She makes a very exciting contribution by adumbrating some creative glosses to that statement. “The separation of State and religion,” she says, “ought not to result in freedom from religion” where religion is actively excluded from the public sphere. Obviously, SA qualifies in ensuring religion to be visible in the public domain. There may be contributors who may not necessarily agree with such an approach.
She has some interesting ideas on how the quest for shared identity “must be replaced by principles of human rights, agreed upon by all and not imposed by a particular majority culture or minorities”.
In a short space of time, our Constitutional Court has had to deliberate on a large number of cases – including the attack on my decision as Minister of Education to ban corporal punishment in schools. Our highest court has affirmed the principle of unity and solidarity, but that – the court has stated – “requires not only toleration of difference but institutional commitment towards accommodating and even celebrating difference”.
Menaghan has made a signal contribution to the study of the sensitive topic of religion and the Constitution. For that we are in her debt.