TB Davie: champion of academic freedom

13 August 2007
TB Davie
Champion: Prof Thomas Benjamin Davie, in whose honour the TB Davie Memorial Lecture was founded.

The 43rd TB Davie Memorial Lecture takes place on 14 August. Here we reflect on its history, its founder, and those who have spoken out against any infringement of that freedom.

The annual TB Davie Memorial Lecture, a highlight of the UCT calendar, is named after former UCT vice-chancellor, Thomas Benjamin Davie.

Organised by the Academic Freedom Committee, the lecture is delivered by distinguished speakers who are invited to speak on a theme related to academic and human freedom.

Next year will mark the 50th year in the series.

TB Davie led the university during the crucial development years post World War II, from 1948 until his death in 1955. He is remembered as a fearless defender of the principles of academic freedom and this legacy continues in the memorial lecture series.


He courageously championed the cause of academic freedom and university autonomy, defining academic freedom as the university's right to determine who shall be taught, who shall teach, what shall be taught and how it should be taught, without regard to any criterion except academic merit.

The policy of successive Nationalist Party governments since 1948 was to entrench segregation through legislation. The first such legislation dealing with universities, the Extension of University Act, No 45 of 1959, was enacted by Parliament in the same year.


Controversial in its mandate, the Act provided that no black person who was not registered as a student in one of the existing, mainly white South African universities when the Act came into operation on 1 January 1960, might attend that university without the written consent of the responsible minister.

From the time it was first mooted, UCT opposed the draft legislation that became the Extension of the University Education Act.

On 12 December 1956, the Council passed a resolution opposing, in principle, academic segregation on racial grounds. On 7 June the following year, members of the UCT community marched through the streets of Cape Town to protest the introduction of the Act.

UCT was joined by Wits University, contesting every step the government took to place this plan on the statute book, as did many other political opponents and organisations. Nevertheless, the Bill became law in 1959.

Years later, in 1983, the government introduced a Bill to repeal both sections of the Extension of University Education Act regulating the admission of students to universities. At the same time, however, amendments were proposed to the Universities' Act to allow the minister to set conditions subject to which other population groups might be admitted.

The amending bill was vigorously opposed by UCT, Wits and the Universities of Natal and Rhodes. Nonetheless, the Bill passed into law as the Universities' Amendment Act, No 83 of 1983, and the provisions allowing the minister to set conditions regulating admission became law.

In November 1983, the minister decided not to exercise the power to set racial quotas. He did, however, set a condition: that African people would require the written consent of a minister to register for undergraduate degrees and diplomas in medicine, paramedical programmes, nursing and surveying. In 1985, the minister withdrew this condition and in 1991 the offending clause in the Universities' Act was repealed.

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