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RAG: Remember and Give

Remember the Rag parade? Back in the day Wits students took to the streets in an annual procession of  floats and fancy dress, collecting donations and selling the “Wits Blitz” magazine. The day would culminate in the election of a Rag Queen and an elegant ball, also in the name of fundraising.

Rag started in 1922 “to coincide with the official inauguration of the University and its first graduation,” writes Bruce Murray in Wits: The Early Years. “It took the form of a mock funeral to bury the old School of Mines … The students marched from Plein Square to the Town Hall.”  In 1923, vehicles were decorated to illustrate various student activities.

In 1925, the students staged a daring hoax when they got a traffic cop, Constable Gert Coetzee, to impersonate the Prince of Wales – who was actually in town to open Wits’ Central Block, and who gave his permission for the jape.

Only in 1929 did the event come to be used as a charity fundraiser, initially as the “Hospital Rag”. The first beneficiary was the Johannesburg Radium Fund, set up for the treatment of cancer patients. An amount of £1229 was collected. (A view later developed that raising money for medical care allowed the state to evade its responsibilities.)

The humorous (or not, depending on your cup of tea) magazine appeared first in 1931 and raised nearly £500 that year.

The carnival took a break during World War 2. It resumed in 1945 as the University Rag, though the funds still went to medical and welfare projects, specifically benefiting black and poor white people.

In 1948, Principal Humphrey Raikes tried to stop black students from participating in Rag, as part of the University’s policy of social segregation at the time. The SRC and students defied this order.

In the 1950s, the SRC organised stunts to publicise Rag, including “kidnapping” well-known personalities. The Rag Queen was chosen on the basis of applause. Murray writes: “The Rag committee set the theme for the procession, usually somewhat dull. Float builders spent much ingenuity in translating these to reflect students’ obsessions with alcohol and sex.”

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