Why Gaudeamus igitur has no place at graduations in African universities

Why should African graduates be honoured with a Latin song when the continent has plenty of its own music and ways of celebrating? Direct Relief/Flickr

If you have attended a university graduation ceremony, or even just watched one in a movie, you will recognise Gaudeamus igitur. This Latin song has become the default graduation march around the world, including Africa.

This is just one example of the African epistemicide - or war on African knowledge - that is decried by many of the continent’s academics and intellectuals. They are rightfully suspicious of a tendency by universities to ignore African ways of knowing, learning and celebrating. In their place one finds canonical rituals of the West - like Gaudeamus igitur.

2015 has been a year of challenges to South African universities’ status quo. It began with the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which led to the removal of a statue of colonialist Cecil John Rhodes from the University of Cape Town. Then students at Stellenbosch University stood up against the institution’s language policy.

This all culminated in the #Feesmutfall movement. So: Rhodes fell; fees have fallen…why shouldn’t Gaudeamus igitur?

The University of South Africa’s choir performs Gaudeamus igitur at a graduation ceremony.

The baby with the bath water

Are African university academics so intellectually incapacitated that they can’t shed practises which exclude the continent’s own knowledge systems? Is it not time that African thinking, and indeed African ways of knowing, should come to the fore is such spaces?

This should not be equated with throwing the baby out with the bath water. For instance, some have debated whether William Shakespeare should be taught in Africa’s classrooms. My answer is yes. For as long as English is the subject of study in Africa, Shakespeare should always be viewed as a relevant resource.

This view is also held by esteemed African English scholar and chair of the University of South Africa’s English Department, Professor Lesibana Rafapa. In his maiden lecture as a full professor Rafapa argued that:

Characterising, recognising and appreciating the “strangeness” of South African English literature written by blacks is a gateway to the unity we aspire to as a nation.

Such an advocacy should not be misconstrued as condemning Shakespeare to the dustbin. In fact, the professor is suggesting that in the hands of a capable and well-meaning English educator, the study of Shakespeare can be liberating and fulfilling indeed.

How, then, does Shakespeare relate to a graduation march?

African rituals ignored

The cardinal point is that Western tradition, through many of its agents - including music - has supplanted most cultural rituals. Surely Africans knew how to celebrate before contact was made with the West? Most African weddings and ceremonies have always been splendid and engaging. But many on the continent are ignorant of this fact. Instead, they swallow Western rituals hook, line and sinker: singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow” at birthday parties or watching a woman walk down the aisle to the strains of “Here comes the bride”.

As a musician, educator and member of the African academic corps, I feel challenged by the status quo. Perhaps even more so by the urgency displayed by students across the country. All self respecting African universities should do away with the singing of Gaudeamus igitur for several reasons.

Firstly, the students for whom the graduation ceremony is about, parents and guardians who toiled to get them there, do not relate to a song that started out in the 1870s as a German student song. At worst, it literally celebrates colonial conquest. Whenever it is sung, the African is momentarily banished to some imaginary cave as the conqueror’s culture is celebrated.

Secondly, eradicating such songs from our intellectual and communal repertoire will free up the much needed space for African musical innovations and inventions.

Time for a new grad march

This sort of discussion is not new in South Africa. It has featured in debates about the country’s multilingual national anthem, which was adopted in 1994. In the same vein I challenge academics, choristers, musicians and composers to raise their hands. Gaudeamus igitur, like so many other foreign-originated rituals, must fall.