Law graduate Njabulo Ntombela of Nkandla sporting traditional Zulu gear, left the graduation ceremony agog when he draped his great grandmother Nomkikilizo Ntombela with his graduation gown. The symbol was a gesture of her contribution to his success, as she has raised him and other grandchildren.
Graduation ceremonies are attended with a jumble of emotions including relief and anxiety. In this regard, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) is setting a trend for ceremonies that are spirited and theatrical, but relaxed.

This goes to the heart of embracing our diversity. UKZN, of course, is a melting pot of talent, culture and intellect.

Durban's dynamic higher learning institutions lure students from all over, with many from rural areas and townships.

Given their upbringing and background, they know how to celebrate - beyond Western conventions.

The raw emotions of students and parents burst out, taking the form of song and dance, ululation and praise singing, or through contemporary dance and even drag queen expression.

Fashionista Ms Chrysantha Palan graduated with Honours cum laude in Media and Cultural Studies from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Palan, who is passionate about fashion, chose to pursue her postgraduate degree because she wanted to merge creativity with academia.UKZN Chancellor Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng oversaw the proceedings of the ceremony.Photo : Abhi Indrarajan

This is a vote of confidence in UKZN’s transformation path, as no one is censored on how to express themselves.

The graduation hall erupts with thunderous applause at many of the outbursts of joy, shock and celebration for a job well done.

This year, I attended two ceremonies, and a few things caught my eye and warmed my heart.

The first entailed a man who was studying social work in 1993 and could not complete his degree. He returned to his studies in recent years and graduated this past week.

Such tales of suspended completion with an undying commitment to triumph, demonstrate what is humanly possible and people's appreciation of the education project.

The second incident involved a mother who burst into tears the moment her child walked on stage to be capped.

Her tears were accompanied by a strained expression and she went near the ramp to hug her child, then returned to her seat, still crying. Two women with her comforted her, but she maintained that weary visage.

The researcher in me was struck by that image, and I started hypothesizing what could have prompted such clear emotions of happiness, coupled with a sense of despair.

The reality is that some parents have struggled immensely to put their children through university.

Some send their kids at the start of the year with R500 - enough for them to secure a deal with UKZN.

From then, the child is told to make plans; there is no food money, no secure accommodation, no registration money, no NSFAS confirmation - nothing.

Law graduate Njabulo Ntombela of Nkandla sporting traditional Zulu gear, left the graduation ceremony agog when he draped his great grandmother Nomkikilizo Ntombela with his graduation gown. The symbol was a gesture of her contribution to his success, as she has raised him and other grandchildren.
Law graduate Njabulo Ntombela of Nkandla sporting traditional Zulu gear, left the graduation ceremony agog when he draped his great grandmother Nomkikilizo Ntombela with his graduation gown. The symbol was a gesture of her contribution to his success, as she has raised him and other grandchildren.

The parents just hope all will be all right. They cannot even afford to accompany their children to university in their first year, partly due to a lack of funds, and also because they themselves have never been to Durban, and would not be of much assistance to the child.

Next to this mother, I did not see a man who could be the child's father. There could be many reasons for such an absence, but we know the prevalence of single mothers in our society.

We understand little of their plight, as we have not tried to craft policies targeting them to cushion their socio-economic burden.

A study conducted by Laurie C Maldonado & Rense Nieuwenhuis, published in 2015, in 18 OECD countries using data from 1978-2008, is instructive.

The results showed “single-parent households have a higher poverty risk than their two-parent counterparts, and that single mothers face a substantially higher poverty risk than single fathers.”

This calls for the development of policies focused on single mothers because I suspect the weeping mother could have been an embodiment of many single mothers, who raise children in extreme cultural, social and economic hardships.

The students themselves have outbursts of happiness. Studying, even in pristine conditions, is demanding. How many students complete their studies without food security, adequate accommodation, book allowances and other necessities for the education journey?

For any student, walking on that stage is a moment of victory, irrespective of circumstances. To some, it is a moment of affirmation.

A growing number of students express their sexuality on that stage, affirming being members of the LGBTIQ community.

This affirmation forces even the most homophobic, at that moment, to acknowledge the equality of all human beings. It is a learning moment and an important one.

In this way, UKZN becomes a theatre through which people exercise their liberation, and anachronistic prejudices are dismantled.

The graduation stage serves as a liberating platform since education is the greatest weapon in the liberation of the people.

These ceremonies are the grandest and most glaring markers of our 1994 democratic breakthrough.

Parents come from far, with no restrictions on movement. They celebrate their children's graduations in institutions that used to be designated for certain races. They see their children graduate in careers that were reserved, through legislation, for some races.

The education breakthrough is our biggest achievement of the democratic dispensation.

But, we now need to focus on the quality and affordability of this education. We deny so many dreams, aspirations and our future if we do not embark on improvements to our education system.

Beyond the declaration of a higher threshold for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme to R350000, there is still a long way to travel in reshaping higher education. We must be equal to the task, and invite all of society to be involved, not leave such an important a task to academics alone.

* Lukhona Mnguni is a political analyst and PhD intern at the Maurice Webb Race Relations Unit in the University of KwaZulu-Natal

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Independent Media.