Honorary doctorate for Diana Ferrus

Diana Ferrrus and Rector and Vice-Chancellor, professor Wim de Villiers at the graduation ceremony. PICTURE: STEFAN ELS

Renowned South African writer, poet and activist Diana Ferrus was awarded an honorary doctorate by Stellenbosch University (SU) at its autumn graduation last week.

Ms Ferrus received the degree Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil), honoris causa, on Wednesday April 6, at an in-person graduation ceremony for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

She was honoured for using her writing and poetry to educate and empower, displaying commitment to the development of a new generation of writers, and utilising her art to offer a tool of expression to others as well.

In her acceptance speech, Ms Ferrus emphasised the importance of stories in our lives and said stories come from somewhere and bring us together.

“What does the storyteller tell? What is the purpose of the storyteller? The storyteller connects the past to the present, provides food for thought for the future.”

Ms Ferrus thanked SU for connecting her to its story and for the opportunity to now be able to include the institution in her story.

“Overall, I am grateful that I will have a name in your story. So many characters are in stories without names.

“Storytellers should never forget names, [they] must resurrect names, must imagine names, must always try to tell the complete story. It’s only by telling our stories that we can free ourselves from inner bondage,” she said.

She added that we meet each other in our stories and that it is here where we will find the truth and reconciliation.

She ended her acceptance speech with a short poem about “bloedbande” (blood ties).

Ms Ferrus’ work is widely recognised for its political impact. Growing up in Worcester in the Western Cape, she started writing about her personal experiences at the age of 14. Since then, her work tackling questions of race, identity, gender, class and reconciliation has garnered many awards.

Among others, Ms Ferrus earned acclaim for the poem “I’ve come to take you home” written for Sarah Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman who was exhibited as a freak show attraction in 19th-century Europe. The poem is part victory song, part condemnation of the abuse that Baartman suffered.

It was read out loud at the French Senate during its discussion regarding the repatriation of Baartman’s remains and is widely believed to have inspired the subsequent unanimous vote for Baartman’s remains to be returned to South Africa. Ms Ferrus travelled to France and recited the poem at the formal handover of Baartman’s remains, which she then accompanied back home.

A strong advocate of creative writing as a vehicle for personal and social interrogation, she also presents creative writing workshops for learners and adults, encouraging them to write about their stories. Her work has been published in various collections, and some of her texts have been prescribed for high-school learners.