Remembering former VC, Dr Stuart Saunders

13 February 2021 | From Kgethi

Dear colleagues and students

It is with a heavy heart that I write to you to convey the sad news of the passing of former University of Cape Town Vice-Chancellor, Dr Stuart Saunders. He died peacefully in his sleep on 12 February 2021, after a short illness.

In light of this sad news, the UCT flag is flying at half-mast as of yesterday morning. Dr Saunders served the university exceptionally well for a remarkable 16 years, holding the role of vice-chancellor from 1981 until 1996.

A former chair of medicine at UCT, he has remained an active part of the UCT family in various ways. The most recent is through the annual Dr Stuart John Saunders Lecture, held in his honour annually for the past two years. The lecture was launched in May 2018 and was made possible by his late wife, Anita Johanna Saunders. Her intention was to pay tribute to the values demonstrated during Dr Saunders’ tenure as vice-chancellor and his impactful medical research.

Dr Saunders led UCT, for the most part, during the darkest days of apartheid. During that period, he played a leading role in driving the university’s policy to provide education of international excellence and to be a leading research university.

It was under his venerated leadership that UCT’s residences were opened to students of all races. This move not only challenged the status quo during a time of segregation, but it also created the space for intellectual debates in an intolerant society. He is also regarded as being among those who played a role in putting an end to the racially segregated training of medical registrars. He will further, always be remembered for initiating fundraising efforts among South African universities to ensure their academic freedom.

In 2002, Dr Saunders was awarded The Order of the Baobab (Silver), a national honour for South Africans for distinguished service to their country. This spoke volumes, considering his immense and immeasurable contribution to higher education.

A physician by training, his cutting-edge medical research was recognised by no less than seven local and international universities conferring honorary degrees on him. In addition to UCT, he was honoured by the universities of Aberdeen, Sheffield, Rhodes, Princeton, Toronto and Wits.

In the early 1990s, he established the UCT Trust in the United Kingdom. Post his time as vice-chancellor – and in illustrating his unwavering commitment to the institution – he served as board member for the trust. Over a period of two decades, Dr Saunders played an instrumental role within the trust, spreading UCT’s name in the UK specifically and in most parts of Europe. In his role as board member, he forged meaningful relationships and helped the trust to raise millions for the university from foundations, companies, alumni and friends. He retired from the Board of the UCT Trust in May 2012, a year after celebrating his 80th birthday.

Regarded as one of the university’s most committed and called-upon supporters, Dr Saunders also served as president of the UCT Heritage Society. He founded the society in the mid-1990s to honour alumni and friends who had left a legacy – a bequest or provision – to the university in their wills.

He authored a book titled Vice-Chancellor on a Tightrope: A personal account of climactic years in South Africa. The book title is a reference to the balancing act he had to perform while leading the institution through those turbulent and tumultuous years in the country. It provides “a personal memoir of a vice-chancellor of a university at the centre of a political storm and the period which immediately followed it”.

Dr Saunders certainly navigated UCT through those stormy years, and as a result even in the many years following his tenure, the university remained on the right footing. His contribution to the institution, the medical field, the higher education sector and to society at large will always bear testimony of the great man he was.

It is not possible to reflect fully on the legacy of Dr Saunders, his involvement with the institution and the many roles he has held within, and outside the university and do justice to this, in just a few words. The Communication and Marketing Department will therefore be publishing further content reflecting on and celebrating his life over the next few days. This will be published on a dedicated feature page paying tribute to Dr Saunders.

We convey our heartfelt condolences to his children, Jane and John, the entire Saunders family and to those who knew or worked with him.


Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng

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