22 April 2021 | Story Dr Cindé Greyling | Photo Evert Kleynhans

An award-winning South African short-story writer, novelist, and poet; an acclaimed business leader who worked in former president Nelson Mandela’s government; and a former judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. These are some of the well-known South Africans celebrated during the University of the Free State’s (UFS) April virtual graduation ceremonies

Over the course of four days, from 19 to 22 April 2021, the UFS awarded just over 7 900 qualifications to under- and postgraduate students, as well as three honorary doctorates, during its biggest virtual graduation ceremonies to date.

Recognising their outstanding achievements in South Africa and abroad, the UFS awarded honorary doctorates to Dr Dolf van Niekerk (DLitt (h.c.)), Dr Sipho Pityana (DPhil (h.c.)), and Dr Zak Yacoob (LLD (h.c.)). Honorary degrees are given to individuals to recognise their exceptional contributions to society, or lifetime achievement in their field. 

Excellence is an action 

Dr Dolf van Niekerk received a Doctor of Letters (DLitt (h.c.)) from the UFS on 19 April 2021. He is an award-winning short-story writer, novelist, and poet. Among others, he has received the Eugene Marais Prize, the MER Prize, and the Scheepers Award for Youth Literature in the course of his career. He was an emeritus professor at the University of Pretoria until his retirement in 1994. Dr Van Niekerk registered as a first-year student at the UFS seventy-four years ago. “My years of study there were an adventure to me,” he remembered, “opening new worlds of philosophy, literature, and science. I learned to think independently, to really think.” Much is written and said about excellence, he told graduandi. “But this is what I have learned – excellence is not a thought or a word, excellence is an action.” 

Be courageous 

Acclaimed business leader, Dr Sipho Pityana, received a Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil (h.c.)) from the UFS on 21 April 2021. He has served in executive capacity on several local and international boards and blue-chip companies. He is the founder and Chairman of the private investment firms, Izingwe Capital and Izingwe Holdings. He has a passion for education and was Registrar of the University of Fort Hare, Chairperson of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), and former Chairperson of the University of Cape Town Council. Dr Pityana advised graduandi to be resilient, disciplined, and dedicated – never to be discouraged by obstacles that come their way. “For every door that shuts in your face,” he reminded them, “there are yet many more that open. If you lament over those that shut, you may be blind to the many that not only open to you but are endowed with beautifully nourished greener pastures all waiting for you.”

Stay humble 

As judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa from 1998 to 2013, Dr Zak Yacoob became known nationally and internationally for his contribution to the socio-economic rights jurisprudence of South Africa. He was a member of the Fundamental Rights Committee that helped with the preparation of the Bill of Rights in South Africa’s interim Constitution, of the Independent Electoral Commission responsible for ensuring that the first democratic elections in 1994 were free and fair, and of the panel of experts appointed by the Constitutional Assembly to advise during negotiations on and the drafting of the final Constitution. A Doctor of Laws (LLD (h.c.)) was awarded to him on 22 April 2021. Dr Yacoob noted that many people have contributed to who he is today, and that graduates should appreciate the support teams behind them too. “I must express the genuine hope that you will not enter society for material progress alone,” he cautioned, “but that you will be honest, caring, and sensitive members of our society.”

Change agents 

In echoing their encouraging thoughts, Prof Bonang Mohale, UFS Chancellor, told graduates that they are now all role models and South Africa needed their leadership.

“Your involvement in what matters most in this country, your willingness to act against injustice and inequality, and your courage to stand up for what is right – these actions will define you and speak volumes. Our country needs your leadership, and many have been waiting for the likes of you to come along. You hold so much power – you have earned your degree and it is now up to you to use it.”

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