UWC honours Professor Richard van der Ross

In the turbulent days of apartheid, many students at the University of the Western Cape could not afford to go home during holidays and would hide at residences on campus. At the time, the university’s first Rector and Vice-Chancellor of colour knew where they hid but would look the other way. That man was Professor Richard van der Ross, and one of those students who hid on campus was a young Professor Tyrone Pretorius, the current Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

Prof Van der Ross had come across as austere-looking, but he was anything but cold. He is revered for his moral courage, leadership during tumultuous times, and commitment to the well-being of students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

On Tuesday, 9 April 2024, Prof Van der Ross, a servant of lifelong learning and teaching, will be memorialised and honoured at the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) new Faculty of Education building, where a bust of Prof Van der Ross – affectionately known as Dickie – will be unveiled. A resource centre in the new state-of-the-art Faculty of Education building, unveiled by Minister Blade Ndzimande last year, will also be named after Prof Van der Ross. The building represents the future of educator training in South Africa.

Prof Van der Ross was appointed as the Rector and Vice-Chancellor in 1975, and under his leadership, the university underwent a drastic transformation. Despite immense political upheaval and violence during apartheid, he demonstrated moral courage by promoting hard work and humane values and reasoned discussion on campus and in society. He was often seen in the midst of confrontations between students and police. His legacy extends beyond UWC, leaving an indelible mark on South African higher education.

Prof Pretorius said: “I remember, as a student, many of us could not afford to travel home during the holidays and had to squat in our residences. Prof Van der Ross knew about this but did not have us removed. Behind his intimidating presence and stern face was a passionate man who knew the struggle of poor students and understood where we came from,” said Prof Pretorius.

Prof Van der Ross was UWC’s Vice-Chancellor during the Soweto Uprising in June 1976, and oversaw UWC’s transition from being a College of the University of South Africa to a fully autonomous university in 1983. In a graduation speech shortly thereafter, he reflected on the University’s new autonomy, saying: “I shall not presume to judge, and the evidence will be those students who have passed through the University of the Western Cape.”

Prof Van der Ross helped define UWC’s identity, character, and commitment to social justice. In a 1984 graduation speech, he reflected on the university’s new autonomy: “I shall not presume to judge, and the evidence will be those students who have passed through the University of the Western Cape.”

One of those students would be Jakes Gerwel, his successor, who would help complete the university’s transition to the “intellectual home of the left”.