The South African arts and culture scene has received vast recognition over the past decades. As a result of this, the media has seen many artists cross the stage with pride to earn their honorary doctorate degrees. During its autumn graduation ceremony held on 3 May, the University of Pretoria paid homage to the well-renowned playwright, Mfundi Vundla, and musical giant, Abdullah Ibrahim, for their stellar contributions to the South African entertainment industry by conferring honorary doctorates on the industry veterans. Vundla is known as the founder and chair of Morula Pictures and the creator of Generations: The Legacy, while Ibrahim is an internationally acclaimed jazz legend.

Honorary degrees are extraordinary academic awards conferred by accredited universities for which the usual requirements are waived and thus, awarded honoris causa, or, “for the sake of honour”. The primary purpose of this degree is to recognise the recipient’s exceptional lifetime achievements and contributions to society in their relevant craft. Hence, it is important to understand that recipients of honorary degrees are not subject to any of the typical requirements for an academic doctorate, such as the completion of a thesis.
Previously, conferment of the degree constituted a form of mutual patronage, offering privileges to those who are in positions to provide financial or political support to the institution. Subsequently, this has sparked controversy, as the public questions of whether or not there is honour in bestowing honorary doctorates. People often ask whether an honorary degree is a “real degree”, whether or not it is valid and if it actually means anything. In his article entitled “Where’s the honour”, Rivaan Roopnarain criticises the concept, on the basis that its constituents are mostly highranking politicians that have been “given” honorary doctorates by institutions (usually abroad). Roopnarain goes further to argue that honorary doctorates pale in comparison to merited doctorates, yet there continues to be a long list of political figures that wear the title “doctor” as a result of it. To this extent, it is often held that one’s social standing, rather than merit, has become determinant of receiving what Roopnarain calls the “scant ‘achievement’”. Although the type of recipients granted honorary degrees sometimes supports this claim – sometimes, they do not. During a recent interview with Sowetan Live, Vundla expressed disdain for being referred to as “doctor”, despite his elaborate education background, wherein he obtained a Bachelor of Arts and Master’s Degree in the USA. The titan went further to say: “I am being honoured for the contribution and the mark I made in the society.”

Hence, it is worth noting that these degrees are not equivalent to a Ph.D., which is obtained through completing several years of study beyond the bachelor’s, honour’s, and/or master’s degrees. There are no academic or professional privileges associated with honorary degrees. Furthermore, recipients who note on their resumes that they have been awarded the degree should specify the words honoris causa or “honorary” after the degree, indicative of the fact that the degree was not earned through compliance with the academic requisites of a doctorate (Ph.D.). All universities that award honorary degrees adhere to a selection policy to identify those individuals who, in their opinion, have made significant contributions to society or a specific field. It is not usually a requirement that the recipient is alumni of the university conferring the honorary degree. Some members of the public refute the awarding of honorary degrees as being overly flexible, too accessible, and entirely subjective, while others argue that there are varying views on merit. This begs the question: what constitutes a legend, and, moreover, what renders such a person eligible for this conferment?

In the case of Vundla and Ibrahim, the artists’ respective career records speak for themselves. Vundla’s contributions run across the visual and performing arts landscape of South Africa, from film to television and theatre. His work reflects his political consciousness and is best reflected in popular South African soapies such as Generations, Jozi H, Magic Cellar, and Backstage, among others. The playwright told Sowetan: “It has been a long time coming. It is wonderful to be recognised for what you have done. I think I deserve it.” The creative has paved the path for local television content creation. Moreover, musical great Ibrahim boasts a career that spans well over two decades. The jazz pianist has toured the world, extensively playing with huge bands at major concert halls and festivals. His collaborations with orchestras resulted in renowned recordings such as African Suite (1999) and the Munich Radio Philharmonic Orchestra’s symphonic version, African Symphony (2001). Known by some as “Dollar Brand”, Ibrahim developed a musical vocabulary on a calibre of its own.

Both Ibrahim and Vundla join South African music, theatre, art, film, and television titans who have received the prestigious honorary degree. This includes the likes of the late jazz diva, Sibongile Khumalo, and Dr Esther Mahlangu, who received an honorary degree as South Africa’s leading Ndebele. Acclaimed actress, Lilian Dube, is also amongst the industry icons who now hold the title “Dr” before their names.

Image: Masehle Mailula

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Features journalist in my penultimate year of LLB studies. I am the current chairperson of the Students for Law and Social Justice (SLSJ). I regard myself as a night owl with extreme nocturnal habits. I only truly come alive at night.

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