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WSU’s new Vice-Chancellor & Principal flaunted Eastern Cape’s rich heritage in a romantic juxtaposition between amaXhosa oral history and couture to aesthetically deconstruct longstanding Western traditions within African academic institutions.

Professor Rushiella Nolundi Songca was installed officially on Saturday the 9th of October 2021, all the while making a fashion statement that spoke to the institution’s core vision of being an “impactful, technology-infused African University”.  

Adorned in Afro-chic academic regalia that revives a classic orange palette inspired by amaXhosa traditional wear, Songca was a nostalgic sight for patrons of the Home of Legends.

The ochre is a domineering colour on the original colours of umbhaco, the traditional dress of the Xhosa people. The colour on its own symbolises a form of ritual rebirth.

“The inspiration for the designs and colours, came from the beautiful and intricate beadwork made by different women in the former homeland of Transkei, dating as far back as 1932.  The Eastern Cape has a wealth of patterns, everywhere you look you will see repetitions of shapes and colours, textures and lines laid out in all sorts of arrangements,” said WSU Fashion Design Department Fashion Coordinator, Sibusiswe Nodada.

The historic beadwork was collected by Joan Broster, from over 100 women, between 1952 and 1966; made up of at least 3000 items from the amaMpondomise, amaMpondo, amaBomvana, amaXesibe and abaThembu nations.

“These women never knew that their work will have such a profound contribution in years to come and will serve as a source of inspiration for Academic Regalia. They have given us cultural content for our designs in higher education and have inspired Heritage restoration in different formats,” added Nodada.

The Broster collection as it is known was sold to the University of Transkei in 1992. The collection was declared a heritage object by the South Africa Heritage Resources Agency.

On 18 March 2016, Walter Sisulu University unveiled the collection officially at the University’s Mthatha campus.

During Songca’s inauguration, the academic procession stretched one’s imagination a little farther away from Western tradition with an amaXhosa musical composition tribute to Nongqawuse, the Eastern Cape prophetess known for the controversial cattle killings. During the 13 months of cattle killings (April 1856 – May 1857), an estimated 85% of all Xhosa adult men killed their cattle and destroyed their corn in accordance with Nongqawuse’s prophecies.

The song served as a reminder of a past that was once rich as a result of our traditional ways of thinking before the westernization that led to the cattle killings.

The song is a clarion call for Africans to embrace who they are and reclaim their rich heritage – but to also learn from previous mistakes. Guests at the flamboyant ceremony included fellow academics, captains of industry, Ministers and MEC’s, as well as traditional leaders.

By Sinawo Hermans