TEARS, ululation and dancing echo across the land as families trek to campuses to see sons and daughters graduate.


In a country that values education, the milestone is a mark of distinction and the promise of a better future. It symbolises a proud sense of self and of progress for families, local communities and for a society caught in a drama of deep change. Campuses repeat the traditions and ceremonies of academic achievement that a society came to know as a rite of passage.


These events follow similar orders of proceedings and use similar symbols of recognition. It starts when the academics enter the hall in a formal procession, lead by the most senior office-bearers who take their seat on stage in front of the congregation.

They wear academic attire – gowns for academics and senior leaders, often with detailed embroidery on the lapels and unique caps to indicate their seniority. The academics wear drapings of various colours over their shoulders to indicate their field of specialisation and level of qualification, known as “hoods”. Students wear black gowns and square-shaped hats, know as mortarboards to distinguish them as prospective graduates – and often as the ceremony finishes, as one they throw these in the air to celebrate.


As the procession concludes the most senior official of the institution, the president or chancellor declares the meeting properly “constituted”. The moment of graduation happens when the president “confers” the qualification. This happens when the student walks across the stage and kneels in front of the president, who then “caps” the student by touching her on the head with a mortarboard.


It is at this moment that tears, dancing and ululation erupts. Before the graduate leaves the stage a hood is draped over her shoulders. She receives her certificate in a red tube as another symbol of graduation. These symbols and proceedings seem strange to those unfamiliar with the academic world that often seems to follow its own ways separate from everyday life.

However, these traditions are centuries old; originating in Europe when learned clergymen were the academics of the day. They travelled from town to town to teach without pay. They wore baggy hoods, in which people put food and other gifts to sustain the teacher.


They wore similar frocks and caps to shade them from the sun. These over time developed into marks of learning that graduations still retain – similar gowns that show the equality of scholars, the hoods that show service to others, and the squared caps that represent the shape of trowels that bricklayers use in construction – a symbol of hard work.


Albeit of western origins, these symbols create rituals that students, teachers, families and local communities around the world recognise as a moment of achievement. The question one should ask is if the knowledge traditions of the West must remain the only well we drink from to symbolise learning and academic achievement?


What further depth in meaning will we add when a president wears a springbok skin over his shoulder, when a kudu horn blows to lead an academic procession and the office-bearers on stage welcome a graduating student into a gathering of academic elders seated in a half-moon in front of a congregation; symbols and traditions that will place ululation and dancing at the dignified heart of a ceremony, rather than the edges of recognition?

  • Rudi Buys is the executive dean and dean of humanities of the private and non-profit higher education institution, Cornerstone Institute.
  • Originally published in The Cape Argus on Thursday, 5 December 2019.