From matric at 16 to a PhD at 83: George resident celebrates milestone

Two 80+ women graduate from Stellenbosch University on Monday

Rosemary Lapping-Sellars decided to study for her Master's after rethinking her future following her husband's death.
Rosemary Lapping-Sellars decided to study for her Master's after rethinking her future following her husband's death.
Image: Stefan Els via Stellenbosch University

Two octogenarians are graduating at Stellenbosch University (SU) on Monday after successfully completing their postgraduate academic programmes.

Antoinette Swart, 83, will receive a PhD in ancient cultures and Rosemary Lapping-Sellars, 80, will receive her Master’s in visual arts.

Swart, who lives in George, believes people should make the most of all opportunities “to the best of your ability”.

“It takes time and perseverance but the rewards are never-ending.”

Her PhD studies saw her visit Persepolis, the ancient ceremonial capital of the Achaemenes Empire, in Iran twice to study the remains of monuments there — an experience she described as “amazing”.

“I have a vivid imagination, so I was able to resurrect all the columns that had fallen down.”

Swart, who matriculated from Rustenburg High in the North West at the age of 16, always dreamt of studying at Stellenbosch after listening to the stories her father, an ex-Matie, told her as a child.

Before her doctorate she achieved the following degrees:

  • BSc (botany and zoology) — 1957;
  • BSc (Hons) cum laude (botany) — 1958;
  • MSc (botany) — 1960;
  • BPhil (Bible interpretation) — 2011; and
  • MPhil cum laude (Bible interpretation) — 2013.

She also holds two postgraduate diplomas, in library science and higher education, from Unisa.

“There’s no end to the fountain of knowledge and so much to learn,” she said.

Life journey and new goals

As a young graduate, Swart worked as a junior lecturer in botany at SU before taking a position as a technical research officer at the Fruit Research Station in Stellenbosch. While her husband was furthering his studies at the agricultural campus of the University of Toronto, Canada, she worked as a research assistant in the botany department.

She was a full-time mother for about 10 years before starting a career in education.

She taught biology at Grey College in Bloemfontein and at Afrikaans Girls’ High in Pretoria and then became a senior lecturer in botany at the College of Education for Further Training and as an acting lecturer in the didactics of biology at Unisa for six months.

She stopped working when her husband retired but was a volunteer at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town for years.

Asked what is next for her, Swart said she hopes to become co-author of articles with her granddaughter, Elanij Swart, who received her PhD in Biblical archaeology from Unisa a few days before she receives her PhD.

She also intends to classify her extensive collection of shells from all over the world and write her memoirs “at the request of my grandchildren”.

When she is not studying, Swart loves to travel, read and listen to classical music and spends time with her husband, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“I want to enjoy life while it lasts. Once the day is over, it never returns.”

Rebounding from loss

Being 80 is no different from being 20 to 40. It is just a number.
Rosemary Lapping-Sellars

For Lapping-Sellars “being 80 is no different from being 20 to 40. It’s just a number”.

Doing her Master’s degree came about because of a seminal turning point in her life when her husband, Sean Sellars, emeritus professor of otolaryngology (ENT) at the University of Cape Town's Groote Schuur Hospital, died in 2019.

“My four children all live overseas and I was, quite simply, compelled to realign the algorithm in my head. Later that year, a friend came to visit and said quite bluntly, ‘You have no choice but to rethink your life, go back to study. Do your Master’s. It will be marvellous for you.’”

Lapping-Sellars’ MA was “deeply influenced by Covid-19. It has been a creative endeavour to trap the sensation of profound vulnerability in an art medium and to portray sensation in the form of gesture and expression, giving silent voice to such sentiment as a form of language”, she wrote in her introduction.

During a lifetime committed to art and ceramics, Lapping-Sellars obtained a Bachelor’s degree in fine arts and psychology from the then Natal University, after which she took up a teaching post as head of the ceramic department at the Port Elizabeth Technikon. A year later, she returned to her hometown of Pretoria to open a child art studio.

She lived in France for two years and for some time taught art at the Nato base in Fontainebleau. She now lives in Cape Town.

Lapping-Sellars completed a BA in Fine Arts (Hons) through Unisa in 1985. She worked as the associate editor of the magazine for the Ceramics Association of SA and gave lectures, which she believe led to a fresh way of looking at fired clay in this country.

In 1983, Lapping-Sellars started the ceramic department at Herschel School and grew it to an operation with 140 students.

She and her husband lived in Ireland for six years, from 1999, where she completed a correspondence course at the Opus School of Textiles, leading to her exhibiting in London with the school in 2004.

On her return to Cape Town in 2006, she opened a multimedia teaching studio for adults,  which she ran until 2016.

Asked what is next for her, Lapping-Sellars said: “I will continue to work in my studio and teach and travel and perhaps write a book.”



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