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