Even the way we dress for graduation must be decolonised


Graduand WANDILE NGCAWENI believes the pomp and ceremony surrounding graduation ceremonies at South African universities is steeped in colonialism. And he’s having none of it.

I am graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Johannesburg in April. My graduation invitation advises on a strict dress code for the occasion as follows: graduates must wear “formal” or “smart traditional”. I have spent a lot of time pondering whether I will dress in “formal” or “smart traditional”. It’s become a tedious deciding process. The problem is that I have not been able to define “smart traditional”. I have no idea why “traditional” has to be preceded by “smart”. I do not know if anyone’s traditional attire can be deemed “unsmart” for any occasion?

Anyway, I have since made a decision. I wish to present myself and assert my being very 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.

I refuse to wear a suit and tie at my graduation because this is foul coloniality in the form of clothing! I refuse to restrict myself to colonially crafted boundaries of self-presentation and expression.

All these assumed norms can’t possibly stand at this decolonial juncture. Is it not enough that the graduate space will be filled with endless echoes of whiteness? Is it not enough that the degree I will be collecting was by design supposed to reproduce white intellectualism?

Well, my decision is to gear up with as much fine skins as I can. Ngizogqoka ibheshu (I will wear my cultural attire). I see this as a much-needed intervention and disruption of the slave celebrating ascendance to slavery norm. My intention is to enter the auditorium, disrupt, and startle coloniality wherever it lurks disguised. This way I will successfully reject colonial dress paternalism loudly.

This is also a sign of humility: by wearing traditional Zulu skins I will be rejecting the academic and societal hierarchy of celebrating being better than the next black human. I will show consideration to all the generations of people that sacrificed their lives to ensure someone like me gets a university education. I am no more human than they were, but in fact, I am human because of them. I am a combination of all indigenous African cultures.

The epistemic establishment is not the only thing that needs a challenge. I want to vindicate anyone that’s been told they are “backward” or deemed “unsmart” by wearing traditional attire. I know the powers that be won’t dare to call me names but their souls will be fuming with anger and hate because I will be telling them they failed to reproduce their ways and thinking in the form of me.

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!

Mina ngeke (I will never).
Sizokhathala abelungu (I am getting tired of white people). 
I will celebrate my achievement wearing Ibheshu lami engilithengelwe Ubaba (my cultural attire that my father bought for me)!

UJ spaces must ready themselves.

Wandile Ngcaweni is graduating with a BA (Development Studies and History) degree from the University of Johannesburg. He is a decolonial literature enthusiast and a registered student at the Thabo Mbeki Leadership Institute.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons 


  1. So, let me get this straight… you’re going to confirm your continued participation in this extremely “colonialist” process by attending the final step in this process (the vetting of your social “stature” via a piece of expensive paper), and you believe that “startling” it with fashion actually constitutes any kind of “rejection” of your own participation in it? What a superficial and shallow activist you are.

  2. See my dad graduated during Apartheid even though he’s not white from wits. Do you kow what he did to show his dissatisfaction with that legitametly backwards system? He didn’t attend. That’s all. IF you don’t want to participate, don’t. If you want to wear your traditional attire do it, I graduated from wits last year with an engineering degree and I beleive one of the mining engineers wore his skins. He didn’t find it necessary to write a piece on it, he just did it, and no body complained. You’re not some hero as you seem to think you are in your mind. BUT you say you will disrupt the ceremony. Now that ,that shows a lack of respect for your fellow man, that shows you do no value the effort your class mates have put into their degree or yours ( I’d make a BA joke of how little effort that is but I’d rather not). I’m sure your ancestors will be proud that you thought so little of that degree they worked so hard for you to obtain. Wear it by all means but just show the ceremony the respect it deserves. It IS a celebration of YOU and ALL THOSE WHO GO YOU THERE! Infact I’d be amazed if the speaker doesn’t highlight that fact before you get your scroll. Our’s did they repeatedly told us how important it was to thank every single person that got us there. MAny graduates who are the first in their families, who’s parents supported them in studying rather than working for 4/5 years. That’s what your graduation is about.

  3. Ok, thats cool but all a bit strange and inconsistent. I did not have to wear a tie or jacket at my very traditional university graduation, just the gown, which shows you earned your stripes, so to speak.
    But if you are going to reject this, and you are of course entitled to do as you wish, are you going to move to decolonise a slew of other adopted moves. The smart suit or clothes that comes with the end of initiation? The overpriced casket and western trappings that surround “traditional” funerals? The mixing with smart young blokes and women, all dressed in the latest and most expensive western fashion, or if not, styling in brand name bling? Eating at McDs and KFC? The list is endless. What future do you really want?
    Think about it – if you want to decolonise then how far do you go? I agree it is time to decolonise but believe the fallists, in their impetuous anxiety to enforce change, fail to realise that real, lasting change takes time and that real revolutions take time, consistency, thought and profound dedication and consideration. Yes, change is needed but are you not changing one thing while hanging onto the strings of a partially considered paradigm?
    Just asking

  4. I applaud this step man! I especially appreciate that you did not do it quietly, and that you have explained your motives so that some of us not awaken yet to the implicit concessions we make to these colonial constructs might become conscious. The biggest problem is that the centre of knowledge and its production has been deemed to be Western and White, necessarily meaning Black creation, historical contribution and thought have been painted over and more recently discarded as not fitting the criteria for inclusion. Forge on!


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