Decolonizing Graduation: Gowns &  Gaudeamus igitur

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BY: Kelia Losa Reinoso
“Graduands must wear graduate gowns and carry the hood appropriate to the degree they are
to receive. They must not appear on the stage wearing hoods from other Universities or for
first Rhodes degrees.”

Taken directly from the Rhodes University site, stated, clearly that gowns have to be worn to
the prestigious event that is Graduation. A couple of grand later, graduates have the attire
ready to get knighted. I mean capped. But why do we wear these Harry Potter cloaks to
celebrate, for many people, the beginning of adulting?

The meaning of the ceremony itself can be seen as the journey belonging to the graduate. She
enters into that space as a separate part of society, having a path behind her and in front of
her. Physically, she sits separately from her parents and from the rest of the congregation.
She has her name called out and walks across the stage to get capped. It’s a symbol of
transformation. She feels wanted and admired. Finally, she returns as an integrated member
of society with a new status: A graduate.

The cap and gown itself actually date back a crazy long time. Academic regalia has existed
since universities began to form in the 12 th and 13 th centuries. Students and teacher wore
clerical clothing because the church was highly influential at the time; many of the professors
were priests, monks and clerks. Scholars wore long robes and hoods to keep warm in the
cold, stone buildings.

The significance of the hood dates back to Celtic groups and Druid priests who wore capes
with hoods that symbolized higher intelligence and superiority. While medieval universities
initially inspired the academic dress, the first recognized schools that officiated graduation
attire were Oxford and Cambridge. By 1321, it was required by everyone to wear long gowns
during ceremonies to create unity.

Seems like a pretty nice story, right? But with a massive movement towards transformation
and the call for decolonisation in South Africa, it seems strange that such an important part of
your university career, if not the most important, is still riddled with colonialism.

“Much of Africa’s story has been told by people who saw it through a Eurocentric lens and
thus it has been distorted to a large degree,” Dr George Sedupane, lecturer of Indigenous
Knowledge Systems (IKS)

Wandile Ngcaweni, UJ graduate, puts it beautifully:
“The whole year we fight for decolonising spaces but then I wear a tie to assimilate? I must
wear a suit and lace-up shoes – symbols of white assimilation (validation of my humanity
from white norms) and I must also wear that overpriced gown and hood? No, sorry, my
decolonial consciousness rejects!”

Ngcaweni graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Johannesburg.
His graduation invitation advised on a strict dress code for the occasion as follows: graduates
must wear “formal” or “smart traditional”. He spent a lot of time pondering whether he
would dress in “formal” or “smart traditional” attire. It became a tedious decision process.
The problem is that there is no real definition of “smart traditional”. I have no idea why
“traditional” has to be preceded by “smart”. He presented himself in the end, traditionally.
“I came to this decision when I deductively identified that the word “smart”, being written
before “traditional” and not “formal”, meant there are some traditions that are deemed
unsmart. I credit this as the opinion of colonialist settlers, thus it is a colonial sentiment to
assume that African traditional clothes could be unsmart”

Dress code is not the only problematic topic here. What about the formalities, or why the
Chamber Choir ‘traditionally’ sing a Latin song at an African graduation ceremony? Member
of the Rhodes choir, Allister de Blocq confirms that they will continue to sing in Latin to
keep traditionalists happy, but have added some spice because he believes the choir is really
about decolonising such spaces. Fine. But I still want to address the issue because even
though the ceremony will include aspects of the continent, it predominantly exists in a space
in relation to colonialism. Gaudeamus igitur, is the go-to grad march in many places in
Africa. This is a prime example of the African epistemicide (the war on African knowledge)
that the continent’s academics and intellectuals condemn. They are rightfully suspicious of a
tendency by universities to ignore African ways of knowing, learning and celebrating. In their
place one finds canonical rituals of the West. I don’t believe these thoughts go far enough to
implement ceremonial policies that reflect the continent.

“African university academics so intellectually incapacitated that they can’t shed practises
which exclude the continent’s own knowledge systems? Is it not time that African thinking,
and indeed African ways of knowing, should come to the fore is such spaces” Geoff Mapaya,
Associate Professor, Department of Music, University of Venda
Lastly, the students for whom the graduation ceremony is about, parents and guardians who
toiled to get them there do not relate to a song that morphed into the 1870s as a
German student song. It literally celebrates colonial conquest. Whenever it is sung, the
African is banished to some imaginary cave as the conqueror’s culture is celebrated.
“Gaudeamus igitur, like so many other foreign-originated rituals, must fall,” Mapaya ends.
Perhaps politically, the reason for this ceremonial rubbish might be ‘tradition’ and has a long
way in moving towards decolonialism, but it’s not all about that. Those parents who toiled-
it’s for them.

The ceremonial stuff isn’t the most important thing to the graduates I chatted to. Some may
agree with the decolonisation of the ceremony but there is something else more central to
their minds. They don’t care that they have to wear the damn cloak. They’d walk naked
across the stage just knowing that they’ve worked their very best to make their parents proud.
Their parents who have worked unbelievably hard to give their children this opportunity.
Graduation is problematic, yes. But it continues to be a ceremony that might not be for you.
Or for the institution. Or for the dress code. Or for the after parties. But instead for the
people that loved and supported you through every overwhelming assignment deadline,
emotional breakdown and homesick feeling. Through over-exhaustion, unhealthy eating
habits, depression and anxiety, social pressures, heart break and finally… they get to be the
proudest humans on earth for seeing you overcoming it all and earning that degree.

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