Annually, in September, the University of Johannesburg (UJ) is transformed into a kaleidoscope of colours of many countries across the world, reflecting the national spirit of unity in diversity. This is as students come together to celebrate their respective cultures during Heritage Month (September) in South Africa. The students, who come from various countries across the globe, showcase their cultural attires, cuisine and dance in fierce competition of countries.
Due to the current COVID-19 lockdown restrictions nationally and globally, students will enjoy the festivities virtually. The festivities will culminate with the Annual UJ International Festival on 24 October 2020, which means it will coincide with the United Nations Day. The event will be hosted virtually as a combination of live and pre-recorded activities, under the theme “Socially distant, culturally attached.”
The festival, which is organised by the UJ Internationalisation Division, is a rare occasion where students from various nations come together and celebrate their heritage. It is also part of UJ’s Diversity Week, which is organised in September when South Africa celebrates Heritage Month. The UJ Diversity Week embraces the University’s values which acknowledge the various cultures of people working and studying at UJ. Some of the countries represented in the festival previously include Angola, China, Turkey, Spain, Gabon, Nigeria, Swaziland, Lesotho, Angola, Zimbabwe as well as Mauritius, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Cameroon, Malawi, Somalia.
The festival has grown in leaps and bounds since its inception in 2005, with support for the initiative increasing each year. Hosted at the Auckland Park Kingsway (APK) campus, the festival is a vibrant occasion with an authentic traditional feel where people learn about other countries’ cultures. It seeks to foster the spirit of unity in diversity, as well as tolerance of other cultures and traditions. Participants sing traditional songs that tell stories of their cultural lifestyles and play music composed by their countries’ musicians. During the festival, each represented country has a stall for food tastings and other indigenous ornaments and garments on exhibit.
“It’s really wonderful to have students from across the world enhancing their education at UJ and adding to the excitement that makes Johannesburg such a strong, dynamic and great community,” says Mr Lebethe Malefo, Director: Study Abroad, Division for Internationalisation.
To keep in touch with the international students during the national lockdown in South Africa, the Internationalisation Division has hosted two international student town halls and two consultation sessions with students who study abroad.
Malefo said the University has ensured that students who are abroad are not left behind academically or otherwise during the festivities. “The Division continues to engage with students over e-mail, through the UJ website, social media and a dedicated WhatsApp number. Queries and support are dealt with on case-by-case basis with necessary referrals elsewhere in the University.”
UJ has 4084 international students registered for the 2020 academic year. Of these students, only 168 (a mixture of under- and postgraduates) are currently abroad and are not are not able to travel back to South Africa until cross border travel is permitted. This was established on 27 May 2020 through a UJ survey with all international students.
Malefo said the festival has proved to be an excellent platform to create awareness and foster positive relations with our international students and their embassies, to promote diversity. “For the past sixteen years running, this colourful festival celebrates the values, traditions and beliefs of world cultures and highlights the importance of international collaboration and communication as crucial elements of academic vitality. It is an important highlight each year, attracting an audience of over 5000 students and staff from different countries.”
On how the lockdown affected international students at UJ, Mr Malefo says, “In many ways, but in the same way that South African students have been affected. International students who are currently in South Africa receive the same benefits, support and are as engaged as South African students.
“These students have an option to return to campus if they fall within the categories of those students allowed to return and have received the necessary permits, however, those that are abroad have no such option as borders remain closed. The Division continues to support all these students, negotiating with network providers abroad to provide data to those students to assist them with their academic work. Currently we are only provisioning data to students Lesotho and the Kingdom of eSwatini.”