Leading change

Not up a blind alley but down a triumphal road to a PhD

Your world is progressively getting darker. Moving around is a challenge as you only have 10% of your vision left and are classified as legally blind. Your study material must be enlarged and you need electronic devices to read. Even so, some days you cannot work for long without headaches and painful eyes.

Prof Michael Temane (Acting Registrar), Dr Nico van Blerk, HE Thabo Mbeki (Chancellor of Unisa), and Prof Fanie Vermaak (Promoter)

Nicolaas Johannes van Blerk was admitted to the degree of Doctor of Literature and Philosophy in Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Unisa on 9 May 2018.

Most people would be sitting on a heap crying, but not Unisan Nico van Blerk. Despite all these challenges, he was admitted to the degree of Doctor of Literature and Philosophy in Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the university on 9 May 2018.

Getting a doctorate when you are completely healthy is a mammoth achievement in itself, but for Van Blerk, who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder that causes the gradual breakdown and degeneration of photoreceptor cells in the eye, it was “extremely difficult and a huge challenge” to complete his studies.

Not that he is whining about it, despite the ignorance he encounters and the lack of understanding of society. “I see myself as ‘normal’ with challenges,” he affirms.

The title of his thesis is Aspects of succession law in Ancient Egypt with specific reference to testamentary dispositions. “I am a lecturer in Ancient Near Eastern Studies, so the ancient world fascinates me. I am also a lawyer—I am an admitted attorney and practised law before I joined the university in 2009.”

His legal background and his interest in and passion for the ancient world, specifically ancient Egypt, combined to draw him into the research for his doctorate. “What fascinates me is that various legal concepts about testamentary dispositions were present in ancient Egypt already during the Old Kingdom, long before Rome (and Roman law) existed.”

Van Blerk’s long road of learning was ‘capped’ when he was capped by the Chancellor himself, former president Thabo Mbeki. “It was very special for me and a fitting way of ending my long years of study at Unisa, first as law student and then as Ancient Near Eastern Studies student.”

While Unisa may have evolved over the past 145 years from an examining body to a fully-fledged teaching university, graduations have always been a highlight on the academic calendar. From the first ceremony awarding seven degrees in 1874 to the many graduations held across the country each autumn and spring these days, they have served to allow students to mark the completion of their studies and to celebrate their success with family, friends, and the Unisa community.

For the 2018 autumn graduations, the total number of qualifications awarded is 33 976, which makes the university an epicentre of South African and African knowledge production. Included in this figure are 139 doctoral, 603 master’s, and 3 647 honours degrees. Bachelor’s degrees numbered 12 018, while there were 6 621 postgraduate diplomas and certificates.

These statistics are still provisional.

He is grateful to his Chair of Department, Prof Elelwani Farisani, and the previous CoD, Prof Madipoane Masenya, for their backing. The Department of Biblical & Ancient Studies also supports him, which he appreciates.

Living a life constantly with a disability and daily challenges is difficult, let alone adding studying to the mix, says Van Blerk. His mobility and independence are hugely compromised. “You must understand that everything I do is a challenge—just getting to my office is a challenge.” Time is another factor; reading is protracted as he uses special electronic magnifying glasses. “But my motto is that everyone has only two choices in life: Either you give up and drown, or you swim and carry on, despite challenges. I tell myself daily: ‘Failure is not an option’. It is only through determination, despite all odds, that anyone will achieve something in life.”

*Compiled by Sharon Farrell