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The Ninth Annual Neil Aggett Memorial Lecture, Kingswood College, Grahamstown 24 September 2014

Neil 1

There was always something wonderfully counter-intuitive about Neil Aggett as an anti-apartheid campaigner—he was white, qualified in medicine, and young. He had a life of privilege ahead of him and could have chosen to live comfortably with those of his skin feeding off the benefits of white advantage. It would of course have been easy to fit-in with the powerful socialisation that comes through family; as I understand it, his father left Kenya to escape black majority rule and establish home in white South Africa. Then there was the rigid discipline and compliance demanded by his school culture, hardly an environment for breeding left-wing radicals. Yet he stares power and privilege, school and family socialisation, in the face, and goes the other way.

This is what I call uncommon leadership, and it is a quality as rare and needed under apartheid as it is rare and required after apartheid. This is the relevance of Neil Aggett to all of us today. It was much more difficult then to lead against the grain and to defy the expectations of your community for imprisonment, torture and even death were very real threats everywhere, but especially under the sadistic sense of duty of the Eastern Cape High Command. And yet it is difficult today in a culture that allows for expressions like “our turn to eat” and where speaking out against wrong can, once again, threaten life and limb.

And so my approach to this 9th Neil Aggett Lecture is to speak to this important legacy of the first white man to die in detention (at 28 years of age), and to challenge especially our future leaders, the young men and women of this distinguished South African school, to map out for yourselves a path of uncommon leadership in our troubled country.

Read the full lecture

Jonathan Jansen
Jonathan Jansen
Rector of the University of the Free State
Born in Montagu South Africa
Jonathan Jansen is the Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State. He is the Honorary Professor of Education at the University of the Witwatersrand and Visiting Fellow at the National Research Foundation. Jansen also serves as an Independent Non-Executive Director for Advtech Limited and is the Chairman at the School Evaluation and Teacher Appraisal.

Charcoal Portrait of Neil Aggett by Amitabh Mitra


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