The inaugural South African Association of Rhodes Scholars (SAARS) Bon Voyage day took place at the Wits University Club on 29 August in Johannesburg, welcoming 50 Scholars and Scholars-elect, mostly from South Africa but also from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Canada, and the US.
Justice Edwin Cameron opened the conference with a clear call for the day’s proceedings - to reflect on some of the most pressing social justice questions facing South Africa, and to reflect on the real world implications of feelings which are not easily explained away by intellectual endeavours. Public intellectuals Eusebius McKaiser and Waldimar Pelser spent a demanding hour on stage debating the state of South African politics, economics and current affairs, considering questions of wealth creation and redistribution, political leadership, social cohesion and exclusion.
A series of ‘lightning talks’ and a panel discussion showcased the breadth of Scholars’ interests and fields of expertise: Phil Southey brought both physics and humour to the day, speaking on metaphors and the minus sign, whilst Andrew Craig revealed in surprisingly comprehensible terms some of the great remaining mathematical puzzles. Julie Taylor gave the group a whiz tour of the world of online contemporary art, and Rupert Baber described the recent bubble in the wildlife trade, involving rare colour-morphed animals.
Stobo Sniderman’s sobering talk on the Canadian truth and reconciliation commission, and the questions of collective pain and forgiveness, brought the focus of the day sharply back to social justice, which was reinforced by Janet Jobson’s articulate demands for self-reflexive examinations of white privilege among white South Africans, by Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon’s talk on migrants and migration policy in SA, and by Lucy Allais bringing rigorous Kantian philosophy to bear on the troubling predicament of whether or not to give to beggars.
Health and healthcare policy were also part of the day’s proceedings, with Tom Brennan on irrational health choices, Tariro Makadzange on a fungus that causes more AIDS deaths than TB, and Jonny Broomberg on corporates’ role in building powerful incentive schemes for good health.
The Scholars-elect are a brilliant cohort, with interests ranging from astrophysics, public healthcare, humour and psychology. We are going to track their progress at Oxford with keen interest.
The Wits Club proved to be an excellent venue, and the full-day event allowed Scholars to catch up and continue discussions about challenges and opportunities facing the region over coffee, lunch and drinks. To stay abreast of future SAARS events, please get in touch with Rhodes House or write to Scholars@saars.org.za.