(Honorary graduand, Rhodes University, 10 April 2015)

By Professor Paul Maylam

Eight years ago, in 2007, Dr Saleem Badat stood on this stage to deliver his first graduation address as Rhodes’ new vice-chancellor. Today he stands here to receive an honorary doctorate. It has been Rhodes’ tradition to award honorary doctorates to its former vice-chancellors, but Dr Badat is a person who would not want us to be bound by tradition, and today we are not simply following tradition – we are honouring a person who has made an outstanding contribution to higher education in South Africa over a period of twenty-five years, and particularly to Rhodes University during his eight-year term of office.

A career in higher education was always likely, given his fine record as a social science student at what was the University of Natal in Durban in the late 1970s, and then at UCT. A likely career, yes, but not a certain one – his political activism might have taken him in a different direction.

As an eighteen-year-old his political awakening came with the 1976 Soweto uprising – this developing into activism during his student days – reading radical literature, meeting other activists, serving on the student wages commission, joining the Release Mandela Committee. Then during the 1980s becoming even more deeply involved in the anti-apartheid struggle, at considerable personal cost. At first aligned to the black consciousness movement, but soon deciding to work for the United Democratic Front following its founding in 1983, then editing a western Cape community newspaper, called Grassroots.

This involvement during the turbulent mid-1980s brought tribulation and pain – in 1983, detention, solitary confinement and brutal torture at the hands of a team of security police at a railway siding. Then something else happened – manacled, battered and bloodied, he was taken to the Robertson police station, where the white station commander summoned medical assistance, setting in train a chain of events that prevented further assaults and provided evidence for a lawsuit against the security police. This station commander reaffirmed Saleem’s belief in humanity and non-racialism.

He continued, though, to be a victim of repression – in 1985, forty-two days in solitary confinement in Pollsmoor Prison, followed soon after by eighty-three days in a single cell, embarking on a five-day hunger strike during this stint; then in 1986 placed under a banning order, going into hiding, and leaving the country at the end of the year for the UK – there pursuing postgraduate study at the University of York, and working at the University of Essex as a research assistant to Harold Wolpe, who is viewed by Saleem as one of his most important mentors in his intellectual life.

Another inspirational role-model was Jakes Gerwel, formerly principal of the University of the Western Cape (UWC), and later chancellor of Rhodes University. Saleem worked at UWC for ten years following his return to South Africa in the late 1980s – lecturing in the faculty of education, working with talented students from working-class backgrounds, and rising to become director of the university’s education policy unit.

In 1999 Dr Badat was appointed chief executive officer of the Council on Higher Education – a new body which he had to build up from scratch, starting out as the sole staff member, leaving in 2006 at the head of a staff complement of fifty-five. Its tasks – advising the minister of education, directing research into higher education matters, assisting in the formulation of policy.

In June 2006 he took up the position of vice-chancellor at Rhodes – tasked with both promoting transformation and maintaining academic excellence – two challenges which he has always insisted are not incompatible with each other. Indeed, this insistence is borne out by Rhodes’ record during his eight-year term of office, when he presided over a growing university – overall student numbers rising from about 5900 in 2006 to almost 7500 in 2014; the number of black students increasing from just under 3000 (about 51% of the total student enrolment) to over 4700 (about 64% of total enrolment); then a 70% rise in the number of PhD graduates – from forty-six to seventy-eight in 2014, and of those seventy-eight, 60% were black and 48% were women; the number of postdoctoral fellows at Rhodes increasing more than threefold, from nineteen to sixty-eight; the number of permanent black academic staff rising from 16% to 25% of the total staff complement over the same period. But Dr Badat would be the first to accept that transformation still has a long way to go at Rhodes.

This growth has necessitated infrastructural expansion during his term of office – seven new residences and two new halls built; the library expanded and refurbished; an environmental learning centre and a new education building constructed; new buildings for the life sciences and school of languages initiated.

All this placed enormous demands on the vice-chancellor’s time, as there were many other responsibilities – chairing senate and numerous committees; chairing, too, for a time the collective body of South African university principals, known as HESA; and fund-raising, with externally raised funds more than doubling during his term of office.

And so Saleem Badat had to work 80-hour weeks, but still found time for research and writing – publishing a book, The Forgotten People – a history of those who were victims of banishment during the apartheid era – a publication to add to his already extensive research output of books, articles, book chapters, conference papers, keynote addresses and guest lectures.

One of Saleem Badat’s main concerns – a concern often expressed in his graduation addresses on this stage over the years – has been rising inequality in the world, especially in South Africa, and noticeable in the rapidly growing gulf between the earnings of CEOs and those of ordinary workers. Disavowing this tendency he has donated a sizeable chunk of his salary each year to the Jakes Gerwel Fund which provides financial assistance to needy Eastern Cape students - also putting an end to some of management’s perks and frills – such as business class travel.

I believe that I can speak for many others in saying that Saleem Badat as vice-chancellor gave enormous support and affirmation to the staff of Rhodes University. This was certainly so in my own case – his support, and interest in my work, helping to make these years at Rhodes the happiest of my academic career.

He himself has, in turn, enjoyed the support of his family – his parents, who had only ten years of formal education between them, but instilled in him a love of reading; and the support of his partner, Shireen, who has also been much missed in Grahamstown these past few months.

This morning Saleem Badat will receive his third honorary doctorate, confirming that today’s award is not simply determined by tradition. We honour a former activist who through his early political engagement not only endured pain but also acquired a schooling in ethics, a commitment to social justice, a sense of democratic practice, an egalitarian outlook, and a fierce rejection of crass materialism, corruption and the abuse of power. He has been described as a courageous leader, a straight talker, an exemplary scholar. He has been driven by a passion for higher education – a passion which has enriched, enlivened and uplifted life at Rhodes University.

Mr Chancellor, I have the honour to request you to confer on Saleem Badat the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.