Dr Protas Madlala, an anti-apartheid activist who fought for vulnerable people who faced forced removals, was capped Doctor of Social Science (honoris causa) by the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

He expressed his deep gratitude to the University for recognising his many years of service to his fellow South Africans. 

Taking a political stance for his address, he called on all graduates to remedy the current situation in the country by being agents of change: ‘No government will develop you. You have to change your attitude on your own. As South Africans, remember that society owes you nothing.’ 

Madlala lamented some government policies, calling RDP houses and township shebeens a curse. ‘If you are given handouts, your dignity goes out the window and you become a slave,’ he said. 

He added that, while philosopher Karl Marx called religion the “Opium of the Masses”, in South Africa this applies to alcohol: ‘Every township I have come across has taverns and shebeens and seems to be promoted by government. You can’t stand up against the government if you’re drunk!’ 

He advised students to consider their academic garb and their degree as a source of humility. ‘Use it to uplift your families,’ Madlala urged. ‘The country is crying out for servant leadership that addresses the needs of the poor. Don’t allow yourself to be captured for a vote by promises of a first world system. It won’t work if the people continue to be poor.’ 

He received a standing ovation for his speech with many praising him for his truthful words. 

Madlala facilitated the establishment of the “Save St Wendolines” campaign in the 1980s and the area was granted permanent “settlement” status after he spearheaded a petition to the then Minister of Constitutional Development. He has led an exemplary, selfless life and was recently in the headlines for using his own money to pay the salaries of employees in the organisation he works for. 

Words: Melissa Mungroo 

Photograph: Abhi Indrarajan