Magdalene de Koker
Magdalena de Koker accepts a posthumous degree on behalf of her late son, Mervin Hershel van Wyk.

A grieving mother brought tears to the eyes of almost everyone present during a graduation ceremony at the University of the Free State (UFS) on Thursday 20 April, when she took to the stage to accept her late son’s posthumously awarded master’s degree.

The usually festive and jovial graduation spirit inside the Callie Human Centre at the University of the Free State’s Bloemfontein Campus turned sombre in a matter of seconds as Magdalena de Koker ascended the stage to receive her son Mervin Hershel van Wyk’s degree. The Faculty of Theology and Religion student had been on track to receive a Master of Theology degree with a specialisation in Church History and Polity, but passed away before his graduation ceremony. The posthumous degree awarding honoured Van Wyk’s memory and acknowledged his family’s support throughout his academic journey.

“My emotions are conflicted,” De Koker said. “I feel a sense of pride for my son’s accomplishments, and eagerly anticipated celebrating his graduation. However, the profound loss of my son has left me devastated. Instead of being a spectator, cheering him on from the audience, I now find myself standing in his place on stage, wearing unfamiliar shoes, unsure where the toe or heel lies.” 

His legacy lives on

Before closing the ceremony Professor Bonang Mohale, Chancellor of the UFS, said he cried because this degree had to be conferred posthumously. 

“This is sad, tragic, and regrettable,” Prof Mohale said. “We all pray and hope that our children will bury us. Mama, we pray that you get peace by acknowledging the current trauma and pain, so that there can be some acceptance in order to start the process of healing. And with that process of healing comes forgiveness. The wonderful thing about forgiveness is that it allows more healing. May the good Jehovah be with the family and the whole clan. When we pray, we say ‘Thy will be done’. Thank you, in the wake of your pain, for making the time to be with this greater family of Kovsies.” 

Dr Eugene Fortein, Senior Lecturer in Church History and Polity, said his late student was an inspiration to many. “He firmly believed that God cared about the suffering of the impoverished and oppressed, and that justice would be served to those often overlooked. These convictions fuelled his involvement in politics, unafraid to use his Christian beliefs to advocate for change through protests. His trial sermon last year from Amos 5 – ‘But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream’ – embodied his unwavering conviction that justice and righteousness were integral to his faith.” 

Van Wyk’s passing is huge a loss for his family, friends, and the UFS and South African academic communities. His dedication and commitment to his studies serve as an inspiration to all those who knew him. The UFS community mourns the loss of a talented student and scholar, but his legacy will continue to live on through his contributions to the field of theology.

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