The Future of the Rainbow Nation

Written by  Susan Cairnie February 3, 2011

This captures the experience of recognizing the dedication and sacrifice of low income, black and mixed race first generation graduates in gaining degrees, as they are joyously cheered on by their families, many of whom can not read or write.


While studying and volunteering in Stellenbosch, South Africa, I attended the graduation ceremony of a classmate of mine.  I knew how hard my friend had worked to achieve his Bachelor of Arts in sociology, coming from a low income family and having to make tough choices between buying textbooks and buying food. 

Proudly dressed in the new clothes he had spent months saving up for, I watched as he kissed his family, put on his gown and joined the line of graduates. While the majority of graduates around him came from well-off white families with a long line of graduates in their history, about a quarter of the students there were of black and mixed race, many of whom were becoming the first generation of university graduates their families had ever had.

Sitting in the audience, I watched as most of the families in the audience politely clapped and smiled when their graduates walked on onstage.  I quickly noticed, however, that when the first generation students received their diplomas, their families reacted in a much more striking way. I watched as they erupted into loud cheers, the women jumping up in their bright, colorful dresses and dancing, while the men yelled and cheered and clapped their hands, their eyes fixed on their graduate alone.

Seeing these spontaneous outbursts of joy gave me a deeper appreciation of the sacrifice, dedication and hard work which had led these students to achieve degrees, against significant economic and cultural odds.  While many of their proud parents in the audience could not read or write themselves, their sincere and heartfelt joy at the achievements of their children was overwhelming. 

I thought about how much education is taken for granted in my country, Canada, and how humbling it was to be surrounded by those who were deeply aware of the enormity of this incredible achievement.  As I looked at the rainbow of eager students standing in front of me, I saw the future of South Africa reflected in their hopeful eyes. I saw too how this was only made possible by the strong support and love of their families, who had pushed their children to better themselves and to achieve more than had been possible for earlier generations.

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