Academics, deputies bid farewell to UCT vice-chancellor Stuart Saunders
By Sam Spiller 29m ago
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UCT academics and former institution leaders are voicing their respects following the death of former Vice-Chancellor, Dr Stuart Saunders.
Saunders died in his sleep on Friday after a long battle with an illness. He was 89 years old.
“Dr Saunders was a titan of South African academia in the 1980s and 1990s,” said Professor Tom Moultrie of the Centre for Actuarial Research. “With good grace, charm, humour and compassion, he was able to lead the institution through difficult and turbulent times.”
Born on August 28, 1931, in Cape Town, Saunders graduated from UCT in 1953 with Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degrees. He did postgraduate research at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London and at Harvard University, before returning to South Africa and receiving his doctorate in medicine at UCT in 1965.
He began his administrative career at the institution as the Head of Department of Medicine, during which time he co-founded the Liver Clinic and Liver Research Unit.
Saunders is most well-known for his tenure as vice-chancellor from 1981 to 1996, a period marked by racial tensions and his attempts to increase the number of black students at the institution.
“He stuck his neck out in a way for the country that was absolutely earth shattering,” said former Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Crain Soudien.
“He brought black students onto UCT campus in complete defiance of the state at that time. The state threatened to take away funding. He had to manage all of this. Often the students were suspicious of what he was wanting to do. To have a figure like that at that particular time was really important.”
Saunders was also one of several medical practitioners to resign from the South African Medical Association following the death and cover-up of activist Steve Biko.
“Stuart was a very intimidating person in some ways,” Soudien continued. “He was very self-assured. In some ways, a lot of us were pretty scared of him and that changed as we got to work more closely with him, but he was an absolutely formidable persona and when in a group of people, was able to keep his composure.”
Professor Thandabantu Nhlapo, former Deputy vice-chancellor and commissioner of the South African Law Reform Commission championed Saunders for his racial policies, having been appointed by him to various transformation initiatives in the early 1990s.
“Dr Stuart Saunders, among his many other talents of engagement and relationship building, genuinely did not believe in tokenism,” Nhlapo said. “I am quite touched that, not knowing me from a bar of soap, he was comfortable to entrust some of these foundational institutional developments to a junior newcomer like myself.”
Saunders was married to Anita Saunders of the UCT Department of Cultural History, who died in 2017. His autobiography, Vice-Chancellor on a Tightrope, was published in 2000 and in 2002, he was awarded the Order of the Baobab, one of the highest civilian national honours.
He is survived by his two children, Jane and John.