Unisa honoured distinguished star of television, theatre, and film, and committed social activist Harry Belafonte by awarding him a Doctor of Literature and Philosophy (honoris causa). Dubbed the “King of Calypso” for introducing the world to the Caribbean style of music, Belafonte, 86, has experienced success as a singer, songwriter, actor, and producer. Throughout his career he has also been an advocate for civil rights and humanitarian causes.
He received the Unisa honorary doctorate at the Westin Grand Hotel, New York, on 24 September 2013. Over many decades, Belafonte’s life in the performing arts has been seamlessly and inextricably interlocked with his social activism. And it is for his considerable humanitarian contributions, particularly to the struggle for peace and social justice globally, that Unisa, as Africa’s leading open distance learning university, saw fit to award Belafonte with an honorary doctorate.
Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mandla Makhanya described how Belafonte had honoured both Unisa and the nation by accepting yet another recognition from South Africa. He encouraged the audience at the graduation ceremony to “listen to the history of Belafonte and to make the world a better place for all”. The VC further explained that Belafonte had put his art at the service of humanity, and, in the exact Belafonte text, “in the service of the human family”. The VC encouraged everyone to mobilise energies and impart the Harry Belafonte values to the next generation.
With typical humility, Belafonte paid tribute to his parents, remembering especially his late mother. In an effort to narrate how society could conquer adversity in spite of disadvantaged backgrounds, he explained that he was born of immigrant Jamaican parents, and, although his mother was working class, she was strongly optimistic that education would empower her children to be better citizens in life, not only for themselves but for humanity in general. “This honour validates me and my mother, and my mother is in the hereafter gazing at me with a broad smile of content.”
Belafonte started his career in music as a club singer in New York, and the worldwide concert tours that followed repeatedly sold out since the first one in 1956. He has starred in several films, at times with some of the greatest actors of the 21st century. He has worked with, and has been celebrated by entertainment legends such as Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Miles Davis, and Maya Angelou.
During the 1960s he introduced several African artists to American audiences — Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu, amongst others. In 1965, Belafonte received a Grammy Award for his legendary album, An evening with Belafonte/Makeba. This popular album, banned for many years in apartheid South Africa, dealt with the political plight of black South Africans.
Inspired by the legendary singer and political activist Paul Robeson, Belafonte devoted a considerable part of his life to the civil rights struggle in the US. Dr Martin Luther King Jnr once said: “Belafonte’s global popularity and his commitment to our cause is a key ingredient to the global struggle for freedom and a powerful tactical weapon in the civil rights movement here in America.”
In 1985, to raise funds for Africa, Belafonte set in motion the wheels that led to the writing and production of the multi-artist initiative and Grammy award-winning song, We are the world. He has been commended on many occasions for his mentorship of Makeba, Masekela, Semenya, Mbulu, Gwangwa and others, and for connecting Americans to Africa.
Belafonte has been the recipient of numerous national and international awards, including the Albert Einstein Award from Yeshiva University in New York City, the Martin Luther King Jnr Peace Prize, and the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors for Excellence in the Performing Arts. He was also the first recipient of the Nelson Mandela Courage Award, and was honoured with the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton for his contributions to American cultural life.
Honorary degrees bestowed upon Belafonte include, amongst others, a Doctorate of Humane Letters from Park College in Missouri, a Doctorate in the Arts from the New School for Social Research (where he was once a student), a Doctor of Music from Morehouse College in Atlanta, and a Doctor of Fine Arts from the State University of New York.
Belafonte has continued to devote himself globally to civil and human rights issues, focusing in particular on the US and South Africa. His close personal relationship with Unisa alumnus and former South African president Nelson Mandela afforded him the opportunity to host Mandela during his visit to the US in the early 1990s.
Of all the honorary doctorates Belafonte has received, he valued most the degrees received in Jamaica and South Africa. The two countries, he said, share the same kind of history of imperialism. However, they have also demonstrated the resilience of the human spirit by being able to rise from the ashes and become iconic countries that have achieved immense milestones over the years.
The South African Ambassador to the USA, HE Ebrahim Rasool, also attended the graduation. He congratulated Belafonte and encouraged society to do an honest assessment of their inner existence and describe how they are positively impacting future generations.
* Article by Rivonia Naidu-Hoffmeester and David Farirai