Smuts 90th Guest Speaker: Neville Isdell

On October 19-21, Smuts Hall celebrated 90 years. Neville Isdell, BSocSc 1966, spoke at the well-attended celebration – here are his remarks:


Thinking back on the very good evening in The George last night, I have to ask myself how on earth any of us managed to become functioning members of society ?

The last time I was at a dinner in Smuts I sat next to Judge Pat Tebbutt and he reminded of one of Smuts’ other traditions which he too had taken part in.

Who remembers Arbour day?

It was part of the initiation ceremonies of those days that are now happily discontinued.

The idea was to bring an animal in the early hours of the morning to fertilise a tree in a way the palms in Smuts have always been fertilized. This took place between Smuts and Fuller Hall and as we were supposed to be minimally dressed but not naked, the Fuller girl used to pour out of their windows, and not on account of the animals I am sure.

Some borrowed a friend’s dog and Dave Barrow (over there) knows of some in his year who borrowed an emu, the outcome of which was not entirely happy. In my year, together with three mates, we decided to borrow four sheep from the Vaccine Station in Rondebosch.

Now, has anyone ever tried to move a sheep, let alone move four of them, 400 yards in the middle of the night and into a car? A dig in the ribs and a kick might get you TWO yards.

Eventually they were installed in the back of the car – we made room by taking out the back seat – in the charge of the son of a Free State farmer who we deemed most competent to handle the situation. The traffic lights in Rondebosch main road were red and so we had to stop. Given the aroma from the frightened sheep, our windows were wound down. A woman about to cross at her green light stood with her mouth wide open. It got worse. A sheep stood on Dirk’s foot and his loud ‘Bluxom’ was added to the sheeps’ continual lament, Baa aaa. She stood there transfixed and I don’t know if she ever managed to cross the road.


We were able to return the sheep before 6.30am undetected, but later in the day a couple of policemen were seen in Porch enquiring after four guys wanted on a count of ‘stock theft’. This brings the story full circle, because it was Pat Tebbutt, a Smuts man from the ‘40s, who brokered the deal to get us off. The compromise was a letter to our parents from the Vice Chancellor, and as I was a policeman’s son, that was not a happy discussion.

Those were innocent times (1962). Or rather, they were if you were a white man (Zambian Independence was to come in 1964). I was on the SRC and active in NUSAS and did my share of social work with CAFTA. I had to travel to Bonteheuvel. Langa and Khaylitsha following up for Red Cross Children’s Hospital Burns Unit and saw firsthand the level of deprivation in the Cape Flats.

We at the university were trying to protect the 3% of the non-whites, as they were called in those days, by trying to protect the Open Universities Act which allowed a degree of multiracialism. There was a huge chunk of humanity out there that many were not even aware of who could not participate at UCT.

It was a thrill to see the evolution of what it is to be Smuts man on the stage tonight. The friendship and commitment to each other of four sub wardens from very diverse backgrounds – Mitchell’s Plain, Zambia, Zimbabwe and an Afrikaner from the Eastern Cape.

In my own way I understood hierarchies. I came from a government school in the then Northern Rhodesia. For four weeks I went to rugby practice without getting a game. Those ‘chosen’ first were from the well-known names, Rondebosch, Michaelhouse and Hilton.

But that motivated me. And that brings me to my point. Striving is fundamental to success. We learn more from our failures than from our successes.

Taking Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I am clearly in the self-actualization phase. It’s time for me to give back to society. It all started here. I walked in here and felt inferior. It did me a lot of good. Initiation was a tough process (sheep and all) and there were very different people in the mix.

The mix is even more different today, and it is not just racial but socio-economic too.

Chris Campbell persuaded me to sponsor a Development Camp over three days in February-March. In effect this replaces initiation and brings together people right at the beginning of their stay at UCT to make friends across all these barriers. Kelly goes, and I’ve also attended and spoken to the new men. The feedback I have had speaks to the positive evolution we have all witnessed this weekend.

The evolution spans 90 years and I hope we all agree that we need to be sure that it goes on for another 90 years.
So tonight I am going to end on a personal note and say that with the expiry of the first five years of the Development Programme, I’m in for another five.

Thank you all for being here.

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