(Published - 26 September 2018)
Despite the turbulent 1970s, a group of former University of the Western Cape students, mostly hostel dwellers, celebrated their days at the institution - all thanks to a WhatsApp group that bloomed into a reunion.
The alumni, or “Hostelites”, were all students from 1975 to 1979, and met on 22 September 2018 at the University to reconnect and reflect, and to celebrate the launch of Hostel: Autobiographical Narratives of the 1975-1980 University of the Western Cape Student Generation.
The UWC Sports Hall got a facelift for the day, but the real transformation came as the chattering dignitaries entered the room. Everyone was equal – name tags bore no titles, despite as many as 15 PhD graduates being present.
UWC’s Director for Institutional Advancement, Patricia Lawrence, called the occasion a true homecoming and described similar gatherings, including the 40th Dentistry reunion and UWC alumni reunions in Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg, New York, Washington and the United Arab Emirates.
“It’s all about connecting and reconnecting our alumni to the University to create opportunities to give you a voice,” Lawrence said. “Wherever we are in the world, it’s important to remember that there is so much that holds us together, and so little that divides us.”
UWC’s Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Tyrone Pretorius, spoke about the University’s long journey from an apartheid institution to an intellectual home of the left, and its struggles to find its way in the new South Africa.
He said post-1994, “UWC did not benefit”, with top academics being snatched for public service, student numbers dropping to only 8 000 and the University facing closure.
“We were the protest struggle university, but public perception dwindled,” he said, “and we had to discover who we were going to be going forward.”
Today, the University is going strong, ranked among the top research institutions in the world and as Africa’s Greenest University, and producing students who excel in everything from accounting to zoology.
Professor Pretorius even reflected on the University’s former nickname – Bush College.
“It’s no longer Bush - the locals now call it UDubs. I take that as a sign we have arrived,” Pretorius said.
Everyone was a VIP for the day - but none more so than former University employees Freda and Peter Neethling, affectionately known to everyone in the room as Ma and Pa. Freda, 87, was the first hostel matron. Peter, 93, spoke fondly of his time at UWC.
“We didn’t forget to pray for the students, and to pray together. That was our first priority. And when we look back we are very proud of them. But now they all have different names,” he joked.
Unsurprisingly, love connections grew from the hostels. Many couples were present on the day, including Lucia and Henry Petersen, who have been married for 38 years.
Said Henry: “Looking back, and being here today, we just feel so grateful.”