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Two octogenarians not letting age stop them from achieving their PhD, Master’s degrees

Rosemary Lapping-Sellars, 80, will receive her Master’s in Visual Arts during a virtual ceremony from Stellenbosch University (SU). Picture: Supplied

Rosemary Lapping-Sellars, 80, will receive her Master’s in Visual Arts during a virtual ceremony from Stellenbosch University (SU). Picture: Supplied

Published Dec 13, 2021


Cape Town - Two graduates in their eighties have proven the validity of the CS Lewis quote ‘you are never too old to dream a new dream’ as they will graduate today at Stellenbosch University.

At advanced ages, these two enrolled on postgraduate academic programmes, successfully completed them and made their dreams a reality.

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On Monday afternoon, Antoinette Swart, 83, will receive a PhD degree in Ancient Cultures at the SU Konservatorium in Stellenbosch, while Rosemary Lapping-Sellars, 80, will receive her Master’s in Visual Arts during a virtual ceremony from Stellenbosch University (SU).

Antoinette Swart

Swart believes one can never stop learning. She said it felt “unreal” to have obtained her PhD at such a grand age.

“I didn’t really intend to do another degree but was persuaded to do so by two friends, who are professors at Stellenbosch University. I thought about it and decided, ‘well, why not?’” she said in an interview.

Swart, who stays in George, lives by the motto “Carpe Diem” and believes one should make the most of all opportunities “to the best of your ability”.

“It takes time and perseverance, but the rewards are never-ending.”

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Her PhD studies saw her visiting Persepolis (the ancient ceremonial capital of the Achaemenes Empire) in Iran twice to study the remains of the monuments there, an experience she described as “amazing”.

“I have a vivid imagination, so I was able to resurrect all the columns that had fallen down.”

Swart, who matriculated from Rustenburg High in North West at the age of 16, always dreamt of studying at Stellenbosch after listening to the stories her father, an ex-Matie, told her as a child.

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Prior to that, she achieved the following degrees: 1957 – BSc (Botany and Zoology); 1958 – BSc (Hons) cum laude (Botany); 1960 – MSc (Botany); 2011 – BPhil (Bible Interpretation); and, in 2013 – MPhil cum laude (Bible Interpretation).

She also holds two post-graduate diplomas – in library science and higher education – from Unisa.

“There’s no end to the fountain of knowledge and so much to learn,” said Swart, whose mother described her as a “professional student”.

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As a young graduate, Swart worked as a junior lecturer in Botany at SU before taking a position as a technical research officer at the Fruit Research Station in Stellenbosch.

While her husband was furthering his studies at the Agricultural Campus of the University of Toronto, she worked as a research assistant in the Botany Department.

She was a full-time mother for about ten years before starting a career in education.

She taught Biology at Grey College in Bloemfontein and at Afrikaans Girls’ High in Pretoria and then became a senior lecturer in Botany at CEFT (College of Education for Further Training) and as an acting lecturer in the Didactics of Biology at UNISA for six months.

Swart stopped working when her husband retired but was an active volunteer at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town for years.

Asked what is next for her, Swart said she hopes to become a co-author of a few articles with her granddaughter, Elanij Swart, who received her PhD in Biblical archaeology from Unisa a few days before she receives her PhD.

Swart also intends to classify her extensive collection of shells from all over the world and to write her memoirs “on request of my grandchildren”.

When she is not studying, Swart loves to travel, read and listen to classical music, as well as to spend time with her husband, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“I want to enjoy life while it lasts. Once the day is over, it never returns.”

Rosemary Lapping-Sellars

For Rosemary Lapping-Sellars, “being eighty is no different from being twenty to forty – it’s just a number! My life as an honest art maker was bound into the fabric of a woman who ploughed the fields despite the drought and who perceived each day as a moment full of potential and opportunity.”

Lapping-Sellars said doing her Master’s degree came about because of a seminal turning point in her life – when her husband Sean Sellars, Emeritus Professor of Otolaryngology (ENT) at the University of Cape Town (Groote Schuur Hospital), died suddenly in 2019.

“My four children all live overseas, and I was, quite simply, compelled to realign the algorithm in my head,” Lapping-Sellars said.

“Later that year, a friend came to visit and said quite bluntly, ‘You have no choice but to rethink your life. Go back to study – do your Master’s – it will be marvellous for you’.”

Lapping-Sellars’ MA was, in her own words, “deeply influenced by Covid-19”.

“It has been a creative endeavour to trap the sensation of profound vulnerability in an art medium and to portray sensation in the form of gesture and expression, giving silent voice to such sentiment as a form of language,” she wrote in her introduction.

In a life committed to art and ceramics, Lapping-Sellars obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts and Psychology from the then Natal University, after which, she took up a teaching post as head of the ceramic department at the Port Elizabeth Technikon.

A year later, she returned to her hometown of Pretoria to open a child art studio. She lived in France for two years and for some time taught art at the Nato base in Fontainebleau. She now lives in Cape Town.

Lapping-Sellars completed a BAFA (Hons) through Unisa in 1985. She worked as the associate editor of the magazine for the Ceramics Association of South Africa and gave lectures, which, she believes, led to a fresh way of looking at fired clay in this country.

In 1983, Lapping-Sellars started the ceramic department at Herschel School and grew it to an operation that had 140 students.

She and her husband lived in Ireland for six years, from 1999, where she completed a correspondence course at the Opus School of Textiles, leading to her exhibiting in London with the school in 2004.

On her return to Cape Town in 2006, she opened a multimedia teaching studio for adults, which she ran until 2016.

Asked what is next for her, Lapping-Sellars said: “I will continue to work in my studio and teach and travel and perhaps write a book.”

Cape Argus