Wikimedia photo by Julien Carnot

The Birth of Universities in South Africa

Because it was forged out of Boer and English colonies as well as independent African chiefdoms, South Africa had a bit of a late start in creating its national universities.  The United States had produced Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and the College of William and Mary in the 18th century.  South Africa, on the other hand, produced the University of the Cape of Good Hope in 1873.  This University, however, operated on an rather different model; its mission was to test candidates for degrees, not to train students to be ready for such testing.  For South Africa, 1916 was the banner year in which its first Universities were created.


The South African College was created in 1829 as a high school for boys.  It had begun training undergraduate students in the final years of the 19th century.  Its growth into a university, however, required substantial funds and legislation.  Money was provided by the estate of Alfred Beit for a South African university, and mining magnates Julius Wernher and Otto Beit contributed substantial sums of money, as well.  The plan, however, was to apply these funds for the creation of an institution in the rapidly growing Johannesburg, not the more established Cape Town.  The terms of the Beit bequest (totaling £500,000) specified that the funds were to be used within ten years of his 1906 death.  The South African College also had a site; John Cecil Rhodes had suggested in 1891 that his vast Groote Schuur estate would be an excellent site for a university.

The town of Stellenbosch, approximately 53 km inland from Cape Town, represents the complement of that city in several respects.  Many Boers considered it their cultural capital, without the cast of English superiority that was endemic to Cape Town.  In 1863, the Stellenbosch Gymnasium was created for higher education.  In 1886, a college building was constructed for this organization, and in 1887, it was renamed Victoria College to celebrate the 50th anniversary (“Golden Jubilee”) of Queen Victoria’s reign.  As with the South African College, a major benefactor brought matters to a tipping point.  Jan Marais contributed a £100,000 bequest in his 1915 will and testament.

By 1916, the Union government realized that the time for action had come (keep in mind that the Union was only six years old at this point).  Any further delay would lose the opportunity of the Beit bequest!  Three laws were passed in rapid succession.  The first changed the University of the Cape of Good Hope into UNISA, amalgamating six minor colleges into one network.  The second raised the status of Victoria College to that of the University of Stellenbosch.  The third declared that the South African College would become the University of Cape Town, and it would gain a new campus to be constructed at Groote Schuur, on the slopes of Devil’s Peak.

These decisions introduced plenty of interlaced issues.  Members of Parliament from the area of Johannesburg cried foul, since Alfred Beit’s will had specified that £200,000 was intended for a university in Johannesburg!  The University of Witwatersrand would have to wait another six years (1922) for university status.  The University of Pretoria would wait until 1930.  The will of Jan Marais had given Stellenbosch University its start, but it had also provided the funds to start Die Burger newspaper.  The first editor of that paper, of course, was D. F. Malan.  You can be sure that the population soon to describe themselves as Afrikaners were very invested in making Stellenbosch University a success.

Howard Phillips‘ “The University of Cape Town 1918-1948: The formative years” talks about the growth of the new university in considerable detail.  I was fortunate to see him speak recently in connection with the Jewish community celebrating 175 years of their congregation in Cape Town.  I’d like to share a couple of interesting vignettes from his book:

  • In 1916, J.M. Solomon actively sought to become the architect who designed what we now call the UCT “Upper Campus.” At 32 years of age, he was considered to be too young for such a task, and a more senior architect was assigned to consult with him.  Solomon was required to tour Europe for ideas before starting, and decided the Sorbonne was the best model for the new project.  Solomon received considerable pressure to economize in the construction of the campus.  When he shared his plan of terraces and columns, both the senior architect and the UCT Council were elated.  By the time of the earth-breaking ceremony in 1920, though, the second-guessing pressures on the architect had grown nearly intolerable.  The midwinter downpour for the ceremony made it into a fiasco.  Two months later, Solomon had committed suicide.  The plan continued, though, largely on the design he had set in place.  The only major changes were that the buildings were arranged in an arc rather than on a straight line, and the dome of Jameson Hall was omitted due to economize the project.
  • The rivalry between UCT and Stellenbosch University goes back to the legislation that raised both colleges to university status.  Their intercollegiate sports furthered that rivalry.  The Stellenbosch team is called the “Maties.”  UCT developed an early association with the Jewish community of Cape Town and the Scottish academic world from which it had drawn most of its first professors.  Phillips reported that UCT was waggishly called the “Scottish mission to the Jews.”  At the 1919 Intervarsity rugby match, the fans of the “Maties” sang a song nicknaming the other team the “Ikeys” in reference to the number of Jewish students.  The UCT Student Representative Council made formal protest, but the name had stuck.  Ironically, some schools at UCT were very densely populated with Afrikaners.  The medical school was one example; the medical school for Stellenbosch University (my workplace, incidentally) did not open its doors until 1956.

2 thoughts on “The Birth of Universities in South Africa

  1. Pingback: The University of Manchester and Manchester Museum | Picking Up The Tabb

  2. Pingback: Oudtshoorn: Connecting with C.J. Langenhoven at Arbeidsgenot | Picking Up The Tabb

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