“Graduation is not only my success, but it is for the whole family. I’m the first child at home to complete a degree,” says Xola Sofuthe.
The 27-year-old from Philippi in Cape Town has just completed a four-year nursing science degree at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). For many black students, a graduation ceremony represents a crowning achievement. Their qualification belongs to them as much as it does to their families. Sofuthe is no exception.
But 2020 is a unique year. The pandemic has robbed him of his moment, forcing Sofuthe and other students to miss their graduation ceremony on 17 April.
Among the many Covid-19 restrictions, large gatherings of people were prohibited. Tertiary institutions had to suspend or cancel graduation ceremonies – a devastating blow to students hoping to show off their academic success.
In 2018, Njabulo Ntombela, a graduate from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, famously used the ceremony to honour his then 89-year-old great-grandmother. When his name was called, he took off his academic gown and draped it around her. Together, they ascended the podium. It was a heart-warming moment.
In many black families, where few get an opportunity to study let alone graduate from university, a graduation ceremony is a significant moment. It is a badge of progress.
Pandemic steals the show
This year, Covid-19 came along and stole the show. There was to be no stage-strutting amid jubilant whistles and ululations, no camera clicks or flashes going off.
While sensible, the decision to cancel ceremonies has not gone down well with everyone.
“I was disappointed when the institution decided to conduct an online graduation ceremony. I felt like they were impatient. They should have waited. We didn’t mind graduating in December or even 2021, as long as we were going to graduate,” says Sofuthe.
The road has not been easy for him. After matriculating in 2010, he studied social work. “I went to the University of the Western Cape [UWC], but I dropped out after my first year … because I was computer illiterate. It was so bad that I could not even type my work fast enough to finish on time. In addition to lacking basic computer skills, I stayed outside the university campus and travelled by train, which always delayed me, thus arriving late most of the time.”
After dropping out in 2014, Sofuthe looked for a job. His mother was ill by then and he had to provide for his family. “I had to do something. I worked as a cleaner at GrandWest Casino, earning R650 per month, then I moved on to work for Pick n Pay as a cashier.” He later left his job at the casino and the supermarket, and accompanied his pastor around South Africa, playing the keyboard.
“In 2015, I realised I was surrounded by successful people but my life was stuck in one place. I had given up already. Then one day God woke me up around 2am to say, ‘It’s not over. Remember you attended a class with a 45-year-old woman at UWC. You can’t give up at the age of 23.’”
Motivated, Sofuthe then applied to CPUT. “I got accepted in 2016 for a four-year course, and I finished in 2019.
Virtual ceremony not a consolation
Sofuthe is his mother’s only child. The graduation ceremony would have been the perfect platform to honour her, he says.
“I wanted to graduate in honour of my late mother, who died in 2017 when I was doing my second year. I’m the only child she had. You can imagine what she went through for me to succeed in life. Graduating was going to be my tribute to her because I was no longer doing it for myself but her.”
Sofuthe could not even enjoy the online ceremony. “I was in self-isolation after I tested positive for Covid-19. So at the time, I couldn’t even watch the ceremony with my family,” he says.
On its website, CPUT said it would be holding two digital graduation ceremonies. “Graduation is one of the most important events on the university’s calendar but, like tertiary institutions around the world, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced the institution to find an alternative to a traditional ceremony.”
Garth van Gensen, the director of the marketing and communication department at the university, added: “Actual ceremonies will be taking place but with no graduates or audience present. This is due to Covid-19 social distancing guidelines and a prohibition on events of more than 50 people.
“Students will be invited to upload a photo and personal message on to our portal. These messages and photos will be displayed on the screen along with the name, qualification and, where applicable, cum laude status when the dean reads out the graduate’s name.”
Graduates and their families could watch the proceedings on several online platforms.
Not even an online ceremony
Tokologo Bella Motshwana, 22, says her graduation moment was stolen. Motshwana is a University of Johannesburg (UJ) student. This year, she completed an education degree. She is now working towards obtaining an honours degree.
Her graduation was scheduled for 8 May but it was not to be, as UJ opted for a virtual graduation ceremony.
“I was disappointed, and it broke the momentum for me. However, I am glad to be doing another degree. I graduate next year and hopefully the coronavirus would have been conquered for a ceremony to take place.”
UJ said on its website: “Unfortunately, due to the general lockdown restrictions, we will only be able to arrange for the collection of a certificate … Should you wish to receive the document by courier, you will have to make arrangements with us, and a courier company and the costs will be for your own account. Once the restrictions are lifted or eased, the campus will be open again for all collections.”
Motshwana was looking forward to her graduation party. Like Sofuthe, she is the first in her family to graduate. “My parents are very proud, and I am the first born, leading by a great example,” she says.
Sofuthe says that after his mother died, “my grandmother lost hope … But the graduation ceremony was going to restore all of that.” He had planned to fetch her from the Eastern Cape to attend the ceremony, “so she can witness the wonders of my God”.
The ceremony would have been a chance to document the proud day for future generations of his family. “As we all know, in every household that has a graduate, there is a picture [of them] on the wall, and it serves as a motivation for generations to come. I was denied that opportunity.”
Sofuthe is hopeful about one thing though, that he’ll someday fulfil his dream of becoming a nursing director at one of the biggest hospitals in South Africa.