Don's diary: Cape Town and gown

October 10, 2003

April 2001
I am summonsed to my tailor in a back street in Cape Town to pick up my robe. As I squeeze past the choristers of an African Pentecostal church, I suspect I am in for a treat. So it proves. This is my Birmingham PhD gown, but not as I have known it. I behold purple ruches and enough orange silk for a small parachute.

July 2001
Having my own robes is essential to performing my ritual duties as dean of humanities at the University of Cape Town. This is my first degree ceremony and I need a lesson in the pronunciation of Xhosa names. I am initiated into the mysteries of the three clicks - deep throat, roof of the mouth, top of the front teeth. Students of every shape, size and colour step forward. Fortunately, my mumbled version of some students' names is masked by the ululations of their loyal supporters.

December 2002
Another degree-awarding ceremony and this time our chancellor, Graca Machel, is definitely going to be here as her son is graduating.

Disaster has struck. I have lost my front tooth. The original was severely compromised in the 1960s by my only act of political heroism, when a thug head-butted me at an anti-apartheid demonstration. The thing-on-a-plastic-plate that temporarily covers the gap has disappeared.

My long-suffering partner is dispatched to get another from the dentist. We have already started the procession when she discreetly palms the replacement to me.

My diction is a sad joke - the combination of blind panic and the alien object in my mouth. I look up and see Machel's husband, Nelson Mandela, sitting gravely in the audience. He looks at me intently, then smiles. We are as one - his years in jail, my front tooth. I move into a Zen space.

I click, I whir, I sing out the names with resonance and panache.

July 2003
I am bereft. A bad case of laryngitis, picked up on a recent trip to London, has left me speechless. My consolation is sitting next to one of our honorary graduates, Pieter-Dirk Uys, South Africa's rather superior answer to Barry Humphries. He has done wonders as an Aids campaigner preaching safe sex to schools in the remotest places. Without any notes, he socks it to the government, mocking its health policies with trenchant sarcasm and mordant wit.

September 2003
I show our scenic campus to a visiting colleague from Warwick.

We notice a sea of unfamiliar blue graduation robes and sneak up the back steps to watch. It is a ceremony for the employees of Pick 'n' Pay, a local supermarket. A motivational speaker is pumping them up. "We have been to the gates of hell, but we will emerge stronger from this experience," she avows. The allusion is to a blackmailer who had, apparently, injected arsenic into the sardines. Irreverent wags have rebranded the store "Pick 'n' Pray".

At first I'm outraged by the use of academic iconography for commercial purposes, but then decide I like it. So much of what is good in the new South Africa is giving the shelf-stackers, cashiers and cleaners the dignity that was stripped from them during the apartheid regime. My university in the UK should offer its facilities to Tesco. I shall be there in my vibrant gown.

Robin Cohen will return to his professorship in sociology at the University of Warwick next January after spending three years as dean of humanities at the University of Cape Town.

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