Of Rag, Rugby and Raucousness
Life as an academic was much tougher (and much more fun) in the 1960s and 1970s. Research funds were scarce, some lecturers often were more scarce, usually consulting, but a few did do research. High student attrition rates were encouraged, and the statistically significant thirty-three and one third exclusion was thought to be a fair reflection at first-year level in some departments. Teaching was a haphazard affair.
Students were often berated by irritated lecturers, and academics were spared the traumas of form-filling and justifying high failure rates. A bad lecturer was unentertaining and lost students while a good lecturer never could find a classroom big enough to house the transfer. Black students and lecturers, this being the apartheid days, were few and far between. The Witsies fought this exclusion via the SRC and NUSAS, on the streets and from prison cells. A movie, Wits Protest, I shot between 1970 and 1974, attests to this. The deeper history has been written by Glen Moss in: The New Radicals: A Generational Memoir of the 1970s (Jacana, 2014).
Most students actually came to class and a few professors still wore gowns. Hot pants (worn by females) then became the rage. The gowns, suits and ties disappeared as the ageing professors retired. The students who made the grade and those who could not cope dug their own graves indicated by the high failure rates.
Rag was a week-long drunken party and the float procession through the city at the end of the week was its highlight. Sore heads, sleep-deprived bodies and exhaustion were traded for a good cause. I made a movie that documented one Rag-sponsored township educational project. The kids went crazy when they saw the camera, so we fled and returned a week later. One of the crew was given a huge obsolete camera and he pretended to be making a TV programme on the soccer field where he attracted the rowdy mob. The rest of us locked ourselves inside the school and got on with the job.
Intervarsity rugby matches were something else. We’d practice our sing-alongs for a week before major matches in the university Amphitheatre, choreographed by strapping male cheer leaders like Franco Frescura. Convoys of cars would take us to the Loftus stadium or Ellis Park where the inebriated Witsies writhed (I cannot say sat). The Witsies were sensibly separated from the Tukkies all dressed in club colours, mostly sober, well-behaved and a credit to good upbringing. The Wits drunken masses twisted and slid from top to bottom on upturned hands, and staggered up again. They insulted the players, ribbed the Tukkies and confirmed the boorishness of English popular culture.
The Tukkies in contrast, swayed wonderfully in musical concert, with discipline, patterned on North Korean choreographed style without the menace.
The souties’ (English speakers) behaviour was partially a comment on the adversary, and I won’t mention the pejoratives used in this now more polite age framed by the Malemas on the one hand and the hate speech (Equality Court) on the other. My movie on Intervarsity attests to this. Only now do I sense that these spectator performances could have provided wonderful sites for doing ethnography and making deeper Boer:Brit symbolic inferences. We were all too caught up in the moment to think intellectually.
Campuses were open to anyone, no fences, no turn styles, no theft nor violence. The only violence perpetrated was by the Security Police when they attacked protestors. But woe betide any National Party politician game enough to address students in the Wits Great Hall. The rotten tomatoes flew liberally.
The one campus night guard whom I do remember was a well-built middle aged Induna, armed with his greatcoat, cap and fearsome knobkerrie. An imposing personality, he would habitually come in at the start of weekly films shown in one of the lecture theatres. From the front he would bang his kierrie on the desk, and then yell at the student audience: “RRRRRRRemember, when you are finished, to close the doors, cover the canary and put the cat out”. He brought the house down every time.
The residences were segregated by gender; curfews were imposed by attentive wardens and doors locked when the guys came to serenade the female dorms. Very innocent and chaste compared to the shenanigans that students get up to nowadays.
About a decade ago when the UKZN residences were taken over by all manner of nefarious activities and being sub-let by the square metre to non-students, I threatened to inform the then Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Malegapuru Makgoba that a Swazi female student who had arrived with her mother to register for an MA degree had been placed in an undergrad male residence between a room operating as a shebeen on the one side and a drug den on the other. The noise level – worse than a rag float-building event – was ear splitting. The house warden was unphased, so I called the Director of Students, who was thankfully still in his office on a Friday afternoon. On invoking Makgoba’s name, I said that neither he nor I were going home that night until my Swazi student had been suitably relocated. He delivered just before knocking off time. Things have improved since then.
So where did all the fun go? Once elite institutions have now taken on the role of welfare provider in the post-apartheid era. We could still have fun, but I sense that social media have fractured sociality. Time and space have been reconfigured electronically, and night-time campus events have lost their allure. We’re too busy checking our cellphones than engaging in social activities. Massification and blended learning have muted a sense of institutional identity and students sometimes don’t even know the names of their lecturers.
But the UKZN Media do a sterling job in communicating what we do within and beyond the Institution. That’s a wrap for 2018 folks.
Keyan G Tomaselli is Distinguished Professor, University of Johannesburg and Professor Emeritus and Fellow, UKZN.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this column are the author’s own.