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Rag memories

In 2017/18 we put out a call for alumni to share their Rag memories and experiences – thank you to all who responded. To add your memories, please email or write to us: Alumni Relations, Private Bag 3, Wits 2050.

Rag tickets in a scrapbook


Giles Sechiari (MBBCh 1957)

Giles Sechiari wrote to us from Ormskirk in Lancashire, UK: “Your enquiry has brought about in me a situation akin to what Marcel Proust was describing in À la Recherche Du Temps Perdu.” He was co-author with his brother Jerome Sechiari and Denis Pryor of an epic poem in Wits Wits 1957 about Lash le Roux. “I realise 60 years is quite a while, although it did not seem so long when we three discussed things over the telephone.”

The opening line of the poem went like this: Lash le Roux went to the Plaza, like Samson to the Gates of Gaza. “Lash is a fictional character composed out of our group deliberations about the likely hero of the motorcyclists whose glimpse of paradise was ownership of a Harley Davidson motorbike!  Their uniform was the leather lumber jacket usually adorned by decoration and a slogan (in their patois a ‘lummy’). The rival young male group was the Ducktails with their winkle picker shoes. There were some unseemly clashes twixt the groups – a notable time at Zoo Lake comes to mind and was news worthy at the time, I seem to recall.

I must add,” said Sechiari, “that the editor of the rag mag was the brother of one of my classmates, which probably played a part in our awful puns and scansion reaching publication!

“I best recall the 1957 Rag, my last, as an event of fun and camaraderie as well as student shenanigans (leg pulling) and of course Wits Wits that had Lash Le Roux emblazoned on its pages! There was a Rag committee to oversee and organise, with several subcommittees for the various elements that went to make up Rag. My details of these are scant but the procession and its progress through town needed planning, the Rag queen and princesses were to be chosen, Rag Ball organised and the appointment of editor of the Rag mag. This time consuming task was rumoured to require the incumbent to take a sabbatical from work (or at least some acknowledgement from the tutors).

“Arrangements for issuing collecting boxes and overseeing their return were strict. A letter of authority went with the box to prove bona fides from the Rag committee. I can recall getting my 'scrounging letter' to prove my official capacity to collect cash for the worthy cause. This letter was also helpful in procuring materials for float building from timber merchants and paint and hardware shops, blackmailed by an army of cunning undergraduate extortionists. I believe that parents were often subjected to this, especially if they enjoyed any connection to larger stores and warehouses!

“For my part in float building I can recall clearly our small group. Abe Rubin, later professor of Obst & Gynae in the USA, Ken Woeber, later leading endocrinologist (USA), Dennis Pryor, later headmaster of a school in Jhb, and not least my brother Jerry, who went on to building and architecture, now in Hermanus.

“Our float could not match those who had corporate backing but my aunt had a property in Muldersdrift near the Sterkfontein Caves and there she had a derelict HP Singer car that had ground to a halt. When I showed interest, she generously and willingly gave it to me. I knew that if I could repair the car we had the basis for a diminutive float and this is where the scrounging letter became so handy.

“With the help of some motor enthusiast friends we found the fault with the engine (worn jockey pulley on the timing chain!) and following a tour of scrap car merchants in Fordsburg, with luck we had the part and our float was soon mobile. We had to discard the superstructure of the saloon, which was decayed, and make way for a verisimilitude of a boat; at least that best describes it.

“On the day we had to drive 25 miles to Milner Park although neither licensed nor properly roadworthy for passengers! Charity prevailed and our scrounging letter found yet further use, protecting us when we were accosted by traffic cops who not only waved us on to RAG but also offered to escort us. We enjoyed ourselves immensely and soon had our box full following the procession and jamboree. After all the excitement we found ourselves at Phins near the neon sign for Lion Beer at the campus front gate as it was, had a bite to eat before going 'up the hill' to our customary oasis in Hillbrow near the Med School at that time. We celebrated our day but it did not dim the memory of a fun day.

“We drove back to Muldersdrift in the dark, but ever resourceful, we had fitted two Lucas Blastfurnace (I think) headlamps and the dark sheltered us from observation, no attention from the bastions of law and soon safe home.

“My final word is that I never went to the Rag Ball, most regrettably. It was my Cinderella moment. The subject of my desire, alas, had a better offer!  Perhaps I had aspirations too high! Happily there is a fairytale ending as I went on to meet and marry a gem.”

Rhoda Toker (Ellis) (BA 1971)

“Oh my goodness – memories from a gazillion years ago! I often joke that I did a BA Rag! Well, for me 1967-1970 was a very exciting, busy time. I spent four years dedicated to Rag and more time in Rag office than in lectures!

“My happiest memory was, of course, being the winning debutante in 1967 and winning a trip on the Edinburgh Castle to Southampton and then joining a NUSAS tour of Europe. NUSAS used to organise student tours in those days. Students joined us in Cape Town from UCT as well! There was a Tukkies group of students on the boat as well – they heard the word NUSAS and avoided us totally the entire trip! It was just an amazing experience meeting new people and touring wonderful countries and visiting all the museums and art galleries and special sights of each country. Eating cheaply and gaining a fortune of weight! 

“Back to Rag, which was generally a frenetic time on campus, recruiting of first years to be debutantes, preparing to put together the magazine and then selling Wits Wits on street corners – a huge undertaking – taking a bit of abuse from motorists but really having fun dressed up and trying to collect as much money as possible.

“Mrs Lal Colman, our Rag secretary, was amazing – tiny in stature but she ran that office for years! She would procure a premiere every year at the Civic and the debs, royalty and drummies had to sell advertising space for the programme and sell tickets.

“Then the highlight of everything was the Rag procession through the streets of Johannesburg. One funny memory I have was when in 1969 I convened the deb portfolio and we built our float at the home in Waverley of one of my committee members with permission from her parents. We literally took over their home for a week, with students in every inch of their home, making flowers and the truck in their garden being made ready and decorated. All was going well – we worked through the night before the procession – still not making enough flowers though. But then discovered to our horror that we could not fit our float through their gates – we hadn’t thought about that. The family allowed us to dismantle their gates and part of the brick wall to get out of the driveway. Kindness personified!

“Our float had been sponsored by Ster Kinekor to advertise the movie Sweet Charity. It was very embarrassing that we never finished it and the big brass from Ster Kinekor were waiting with the Mayor to see us. I also didn’t think it would be right for my little first years to be dressed like sweet charity. Such a prude!”

Helen (Carman) (BSc Physio 1964) and Noel Joughin (BSc 1961, BSc Eng 1962, PhD 1966)

Helen writes: “I am the scribe in this partnership, so I will give you Noel’s and my memories of Rag. As I remember, there was a lot of imbibing during float building and on the day. The floats were lorries or trucks covered in chicken wire, and we made thousands of tissue-paper flowers to stick into the wire to disguise the vehicles and make them into fantastic creations. We sold the Rag Mag, Wits Wits, all over Joburg, and most people bought them willingly, but some needed a lot of persuasion or coercion! 

“Men’s and women’s res students took part enthusiastically. We all dressed up and carried collection boxes. I remember Noel in a nappy, painted yellow, with red ears, with his collection box. We walked next to the floats, and exhorted spectators to give us money. Money was also thrown down on the parade from the higher buildings that we passed. Towards the end of the procession, most students climbed onto the floats, and coins rained down on them. However the students were generally too tired (or too full of beer) to care.

“The prettiest girls with the best figures were chosen as drum majorettes, and drilled to perfection. They looked grand in royal blue, white and gold. Alas, I never made the squad. However, as physiotherapy students, we were all delighted when one of our class was made Rag Queen (Louie Louw, 1963).

John Buttress (BSc Eng 1962)

“I have one clear memory of Rag from about 1959 or 19660. It involves Nick Gay, who rose to be Prof. NC Gay of the Bernard Price Institute. It was the time of nuclear disarmament and hyper intelligent Nick carried a large placard reading Build Bigger and Better Bombs. (Interpret it as you will.) It is a tribute to the power of alliteration that I can remember it 60 years later.

“Another memory is of using my motor scooter in about 1960 to try to marshal the Rag procession. I had a battery-powered loudspeaker but it was like trying to herd cats! As for the Rag queen and princess part of it, we saw it as a bit of fun. They were beautiful girls with personality and intelligence – most of the girls at Wits were intelligent.”

Adjunct Professor Rosemary Crouch (BSc OT 1971, MSc OT 1984)

“I was an occupational therapy student at Medical School from 1957 to 1960. Rag was very exciting, only in 1st and 2nd year for us because our final year was taken up with clinical practice and I was assigned to Cape Town. In first year (1957) we built our coelacanth float on a dirty old coal lorry that had to be cleaned first. We came third and were absolutely delighted! We stayed up all night and then took part in the procession the next day. I don’t know where we got the energy!

“For 1958 Rag I decided to audition for a drum majorette and was very delighted to make it. We were given a pile of material and a diagram and were told to get our uniforms made. I made my own. It was a great moment in my university days and, although frowned on today, it was the greatest of fun. It had something to do with the military precision and we had very skilled trainers – we could not put a foot out of time!

“One event after Rag was at Grand Central racetrack and we processed before the racing cars started. I can remember flying off the track when we heard the engines roaring!

“These types of events allowed us to bond as students and work together. The drum majorettes brought us in contact with other students and I still meet some of them today at the age of 78. Someone will come up to me and say: ‘Weren’t you a drummie?’ This often happens at the lovely annual alumni tea.

“Times have changed and in many ways for the best, but when it comes to women’s rights, even then we really held our own both in building our float (we were mostly women students) and also as drum majorettes.”

Peter Sutherland (BSc Eng 1960)

“Only vague memories -- many of them I've been trying hard to banish from my brain! The freshmen at Men's Res in 1957 (class of '60) were, like happens every year, treated like dirt. For Rag, we dressed and made-up as ridiculously as possible and were chain-ganged into going begging in all areas of Jozi, starting early in the day and continuing until we were ‘exhausted’ (wink) or our tins were full. It was actually a fun day, enabling us to accost (terrorise?) random, innocent citizens without fear of arrest.”

Professor Patrick Fitzgerald (BA 1976)

“In my second year I co-ordinated some selling of the Rag magazine in Germiston (where I lived) but I never did anything else. I was a radical activist while Rag was for all the goody-goody middle-class liberals!

“In 1975, as an SRC member I opposed Rag giving money to the South African Defence Force Border Fund (in support of the ‘boys on the border’). It was taken to a mass meeting where I spoke against the Chairperson of Rag (Michael Rakusin, a fellow KES boy). The vote was lost with the majority in a packed Great Hall endorsing this decision by Rag.

“The losing side (us), bolstered by the forces of the South African Voluntary Society (a university-based student society which built schools in the rural areas during the university vacation), marched out of the hall. This event in some way began what later became the war resistance movement and the End Conscription Campaign.

“The mass meeting where I was outvoted was quite vociferous – I was shocked to see the support for the apartheid army at ‘liberal’ Wits). I received abusive phone calls and several death threats leading into the mass meeting and afterwards.

“A small anecdote. These events happened at the same time The Rocky Horror Picture Show (a highly censored version) hit our screens. Before the main picture there was something called Killarney News (this was pre-TV times). Much to my surprise the first item was the mass meeting at Wits and myself facing down the crowd/mob and making a point – the editor must have had some sympathy with me or shared some anti-apartheid sentiments. This vision of myself on the big screen restored some confidence to my battered psyche. And then The Rocky Horror Picture Show began in all its glory, with the song “It’s just a jump to the left”. What a beautiful release from the vicissitudes of apartheid South Africa and the vicissitudes of being an anti-apartheid activist in those times! Rocky Horror always had a special place in my heart after that night.

“When I think back, and there may an element of the arbitrary here, this was the symbolic moment when the struggle against the draft of young white men began in earnest. I think this Rag event at Wits caused us to realise that we had a hard job in front of us to campaign against the apartheid war machine and compulsory military service. A decade later the End Conscription Campaign was in full swing and the Congress of South African War Resistors highly active from exile, both playing an important role in the broad front which ultimately ended the apartheid regime. So thank you Rag for accelerating the understanding of what needed to be done to break the psychological hold of the apartheid system over even supposedly ‘charitable’ white youth…”

Michael Cohen (BSc Eng 1961)

“I’m going back over 60 years; I am now 79, I graduated from Wits in Civil Engineering in 1961.

“I think it was in my first year of Rag that we dressed up in schoolgirls’ uniforms. When I look at the picture I wonder how I could ever have done that. It felt very odd – it was my cousin’s old uniform. In another year we dressed in sackcloth as people form the Stone Age. People found the outfits hilarious.

“In 1958, my second year of Rag, they put me in the deadest part of town where there was no activity and I sold 119 Rag mags. They couldn’t believe it; maybe people felt sorry for me. Rag was a lot of fun and I wasn’t one for alcohol so I had a lot of fun without alcohol and it was for a worthy cause.”

Fred Bihl (BSc QS 1959)

“I contacted two of my friends who were with me at Men’s Res and asked them if they could also comment (Alick Costa and Bert Brown). The summary is as follows:

“As freshers at Res we all had to sell Rag raffle tickets to the public. This enabled us to earn points towards the ‘qualification’ to obtain a Wits blazer at the end of first year. It involved groups of us from res (safety in numbers to avoid being harassed by the Braamfontein ‘ducktails’ on leaving and returning to the campus), dressed in our undergraduate gowns, travelling into Jhb Central in the evenings (by bus) to sell tickets to residents living in the apartments in town. Residents in the Fattis and Monis building in Jeppe Street were particularly generous.

“We participated in the building of a res float each year, including scrounging materials and obtaining a truck for the week before Rag on which we built the float and a driver on the day.

“On Rag Day we were all armed with collection boxes to collect funds from the crowds lining the route the procession took. The Rag Committee always arranged insurance cover for a significant sum in case the event had to be cancelled due to inclement weather.

“Alick Costa – assistant cheerleader in 1957 – amongst other achievements, in first year, was made to dress up as a red devil. His job was to clear the streets of unattended children to ensure ease of passage for the drum majorettes and the procession of floats. He was very successful. Some of the kids, and several adults, we learned, unfortunately had nightmares for several weeks thereafter. He and several of his law student friends in his third year dressed up as skeletons and joined the procession. The effect on the crowds was similar to that achieved by Alick when he dressed up as a red devil two years earlier. 

“As we were travelling into town on the res float one year one of our friends fell off the float (mainly due to the effects of alcohol) and was hit by a tram (they were still running in those days!) – but fortunately didn’t suffer any serious injury – the tram nearly derailed itself!

“My wife (Clarissa Bozzoli) found two pictures taken on Rag Day in circa 1959. One is of the float built by the Wits Choral Society and the other of a group of ‘dressed up’ female choristers who occupied the float during the procession.”

Gerron Elferink (BSc QS 1960)

“Alas, I was a part-time Quantity Surveying student and, as such, the closest I ever got to the Rag processions was as an observer (who had to work on Saturdays), from the third-floor level of Belfast Buildings, Market Street, which gave a commanding, bird’s-eye view. Being a QS-in-training and, as such, making a study of figures, one’s attention was always concentrated upon the multitudinous bevy of female beauties who graced the floats.”

Shaun Brassell (BSc Eng 1998, MSc Eng 2001)

“It’s mad, mad, mad to think I was at Wits participating in Rag a whole 24 years ago as an engineering student. When I started at Wits in 1994, Rag was still very active with float processions and the legendary Rag pub-crawl from club to club on campus, sponsored by SAB, for which you bought tickets to raise money. I was heavily involved in the Wits Ski Club and we had a very popular pub. As part of the Rag pub-crawl, I recall that the Explorers Club had a three-storey beer funnel! I was not a bad funneller, not the best but not the worst! There was a wonderful camaraderie and all the clubs had a little pub; you had so many opportunities to socialise from club to club and meet people during Rag and throughout the year. That was the mood of the times, and everyone would get together and build their floats; we would all be given bags and bags of polystyrene and reels of plastic to make the flowers that would be fitted into chicken wire mesh. We would build floats and party between the floats and trailers in the parking lot above Flower Hall on West Campus. A lot of students would build their floats through the night and even sleep there, and the following day the procession would take place. In 1995 the Ski Club did a snowwoman. The processions were amazing; it was a Johannesburg spectacle and we would collect money – the Ski Club members always wore long johns and goggles, looking very dodgy – and everyone would run around madly. I loved Rag and I loved my time at Wits. The core mates I still have today I met through the Wits Ski Club.”

Doug Smollan (BCom 1970)

“It was 1968, I was Rag Chair and we were the first Rag committee to break R100 000 in donations. We sold about 100 000 copies of Wits Wits that year. We had a wonderful Rag committee, everything was meticulously planned and many of the committee members have been very successful in their lives, including Tony Tabatznik, who heads one of the leading pharmaceutical manufacturers in the world, Dr Larry Distiller, a world-renowned authority on diabetes and endocrinology, Martin Glatt, the name behind Tiger Wheel and Tyre, Sasfin Bank, Wechsler Eetrite and Business Against Crime, and so it goes.

“Rag was a major event and in 1968 I appeared on the front page of the Rand Daily Mail with Rag Queen Gillian Shepherd, a second year arts student. She was crowned by the Mayor of Johannesburg and it is the only time I’ve been on the front page of a newspaper! Being a Rag Queen or Rag Princess was not about walking around with a crown on your head and attending glittering charity events, it was all about raising funds; it was really quite onerous on those who won as they had real work to do.

“In addition to the Rag procession through the centre of Joburg, other highlights were the Debutantes, Coronation and Rag balls; we would have 2000 people at the Rag ball and outstanding musicians such as a band called The Basement with Ralph Simon, who in the 1970s founded Zomba Records with Clive Calder. Today he is internationally recognised as one of the founders of the mobile entertainment industry. He heads the London-based Mobilium Global Grou, which gives strategic guidance to major artists.

“Overall, Rag was a joyous, carefree time on campus when students could raise money, have a good time and see the fruits of their efforts going to institutions in need.

“Fortunately for me, I also met my wife Carolyn (nee Delaloy) through Rag. She was a Rag Princess in 1967 and I saw her for the first time at the Coronation Ball. I thought she was lovely and sent her a note. I subsequently found out she was a science student and waited outside her lecture hall. We went on a date and that was good and it all happened from there. She has five university degrees and we have been married for 46 years.”

 Rag street collection

Past SRC Presidents share their Rag memories and views

John Kane-Berman (BA 1968), SRC President 1967/8, is the former Chief Executive of the South African Institute of Race Relations:

The Rag committee was a sub-committee of the SRC – we appointed it – and we were responsible for its operations. We were very involved in politics at the time – the key issue at Wits was the imposition of the apartheid policy on the university and that had been a very sore point for Wits. There were a handful of black students who required special permits to study at Wits and we wanted to ensure the indignities in society did not extend on campus. No societies with racial exclusion clauses could be permitted.

The SRC therefore took a decision with endorsement by a mass meeting in the Great Hall that the social functions organised by the Rag committee should be open to all students. This meant the Rag Ball could be held in the exams hall but it was not a popular venue and the Rag committee and students wanted something more glamorous. It was difficult to find, but we found one near Hartebeestpoort Dam, and pitched a tent there and the Rag Ball was held there. The Afrikaans press attacked Wits and said it would damage Rag but that year we broke all previous records for fundraising. The amount raised was about R82 000, which was a lot of money in those days.

Rag supported several charities and the largest single beneficiary was an organisation that operated health clinics and various other kinds of projects in the townships, Witsco in Riverlea, a so-called Coloured township west of Joburg, and the Alexandra Health Clinic.

The Rag committee was concerned with meeting fund-raising targets and there was a great deal of fun around it; they raised money for the charities very successfully through all sorts of activities and functions, including the Coronation Ball – men in black tie and women in beautiful dresses. The campus was generally very proud of the Rag queen and princesses, who, apart from the glamour, had to go and see people in business and raise money, be highly intelligent and well spoken, and explain how the funds were audited.

There were drum majorettes and the late Jack Shapiro – who became a successful stockbroker – drilled 50 or 60 women students in miniskirts to bugle and trumpets. I know some women today (and I am not going to mention their names) who were eager to be drum majorettes.

And then you had the bummies marching around – they were a bunch of male students who would mimic the drum majorettes and generally play the fool and try to create as many laughs from the general public as possible; the more people enjoyed themselves the more funds were had. On Rag day a great procession of floats would parade through the streets of Johannesburg and pass by the City Hall, the Mayor would participate, the best float would win a prize and the Chinese Society won a prize for the best float over several years. Students in outrageous costumes would charge around the floats with collection boxes and the public would put money into them. The money was counted under very strict supervision and then everybody would go off to the Rag Ball.

Mark Orkin, SRC President in 1969/70

I don’t remember too much as it was about 50 years ago. I can mainly offer vague generalities, such as that the Rag Committee, with Doug Smollan as Rag Chair in my year, was highly organised, worked hard, involved huge numbers of students in a lot of constructive effort and serious partying, raised an impressive amount of money, had an astonishing parade of floats through the streets, were obviously more middle of the road than the SRC, and – given the context of the time, with no African students at all on main campus and “women’s lib”, the phrasing then, just beginning to gain traction – did a lot more good than bad.

Linda Vilakazi (BPrimEd 1992) was the first black SRC President at Wits, in 1992/3. She is CEO of the Oliver & Adelaide Tambo Foundation:

By the time I was on campus there was a general feeling about what Rag represented and what it lacked. Our SRC did not have a close relationship with the Rag committee as it was seen as being all about white students having a carnival to raise funds. We felt the bigger issue was to change the system and values that guided the country and to address the structural imbalances in the country. We felt the Rag-style giving to charity continued to perpetuate inequality because instead of addressing the systemic ills in society, it simply helped people to get by.

We also felt that to be holding a carnival while we were dealing with sticks and rocks and bullets was inappropriate and so we worked more with the student political organisations towards creating a cohesive students’ representative body. You must remember that we were students at the time, with student ideas and ideologies, and there certainly is a massive need and place for giving and support.

As part of this I have always maintained my relationship with and commitment to Wits and that is why as alumni we formed the South Africa Student Solidarity Foundation for Education (SASSFE) towards the end of 2016 to support students in need and to meet with the SRC, not to tell them what to think and do, but to revisit the principles of student activism, which has played a very active, constructive role in shaping the university and the nation.

Advocate Muzi Sikhakhane (BA 1996, LLB 2000), SRC President 1994/95, is now Senior Counsel at the Johannesburg Bar:

It is very difficult to assess the whole Rag period but at the time I got to know about Rag because I was in student leadership, the perception was that it was about white students having fun. That perception notwithstanding, it did much more than this, but one of the difficulties is that its membership was largely white students at a time when black students were facing difficult conditions, and so it was looked at with that sort of lens. I engaged openly with students involved in Rag about the perceptions, and by the time I left, which was two decades ago, there were some black members who were joining Rag. They were, however, still seen as black students who had assimilated into white culture rather than as a sign of change.

1994/5 was a difficult period – a fluid period where all of us were being challenged to find ourselves in the new South Africa because it was a new government and all institutions, not just academic, were battling with change.

As a post-1994 student you were supposed not to protest anymore, given that it was a new democratic dispensation, yet the circumstances hadn’t changed. We continued to protest but this was much more difficult compared to the 1980s when the mass democratic movement and the ANC would support you.

So I was not surprised by #FMF as we were caught up in the euphoria for a long time, and spent too much time patting ourselves on the back as a rainbow nation and forgot to do the real job. Which brings me back to Rag – we never got to the bottom of the debate of charity or giving versus dismantling systemic apartheid, but for Rag to gain acceptance by the broad student body then and now, it would be to focus fund-raising on the hardships faced by fellow students.