Stuart Saunders: ‘bold and principled’ mentor and friend

17 February 2021 | Story Niémah Davids. Photo University of Cape Town. Read time 5 min.
Emer Prof Wieland Gevers reflects on his interaction over the years with the late Dr Stuart Saunders.
Emer Prof Wieland Gevers reflects on his interaction over the years with the late Dr Stuart Saunders.

Emeritus Professor Wieland Gevers – the former deputy vice-chancellor (DVC) for planning and academic process at the University of Cape Town (UCT) – paid a heart-warming tribute to the late former vice-chancellor (VC) Dr Stuart Saunders, who passed away peacefully on the morning of Friday, 12 February 2021, after a short illness. He described Dr Saunders as “bold and principled” in the manner in which he led the university during a tumultuous time in South Africa’s history.

Saunders led UCT during the dark days of apartheid and played a leading role in driving the university’s policy to provide education of international excellence and to establish the institution as a leading research university both locally and abroad. It was under his leadership that UCT’s residences were opened to students of all races. This moved challenged the status quo during a time of segregation and created the space for intellectual debates in an unjust society.


“When I saw him on a few occasions last year, his spirit was undimmed and his intellect was bright.”

“I am very sad that a good friend and mentor has passed away. When I saw him on a few occasions last year, his spirt was undimmed and his intellect was bright. He seemed indestructible,” Gevers said.

Leading during the struggle for liberation

Saunders led UCT for 16 years from 1981 to 1996 during “difficult and troubled times”. But, Gevers said, he was always bold and principled in his approach and in the manner in which he handled the apartheid government and the police force. He said that during Saunders’ time as VC he demonstrated an intense and principled interest in the people and their welfare without sentimentality, but with a practical and realistic approach to doing what, in his view, was needed – characteristics, Gevers added, of an excellent doctor and physician.


“He based his administration on values rather than rules.”

Gevers said that Saunders was also an innovative thinker and always found creative ways to do what was “forbidden” at the time. He was also persistent in his efforts to bring about the necessary change at the university.

“He based his administration on values rather than rules and emphasised excellent teaching and research as interdependent core functions that needed to be prioritised at all times. He used humour as a tool and never raised his voice.”

A ‘highly respected’ role model

Saunders was highly respected in the higher education sector in the country – not just for his contributions during his time as VC, but also for his systemic contributions to the sector after his retirement in 1996.

He was instrumental in setting up the Tertiary Education and Research Network (TENET) of South Africa as a system-wide internet solution for the higher education sector in the country. In addition, he acted as a representative for the Andrew W Mellon Foundation as it made large grants available to help develop capacities in the humanities and social sciences in South Africa.

“On a personal level, Saunders was responsible for my return to UCT in 1978, for my appointment as [chairperson] of the university library committee in 1980 and for my move to the Bremner Building as DVC in 1992,” Gevers said.

“He helped me take on many challenging tasks and was at all times a kind and helpful mentor. He accepted the differences between us and was constructive in his criticism.”

Lasting legacy

Gevers said that Saunders leaves behind an indelible legacy.


“His emphasis on research at the decisive ‘edge’ of the institution in its search for academic excellence was the hallmark of his leadership role at UCT.”

“The current ranking of the university in Africa and the world at large can be ascribed in no small part to his insistence on chairing every selection committee for a university professor, making no concessions to special pleading, nepotism or parochialism. His emphasis on research at the decisive ‘edge’ of the institution in its search for academic excellence was the hallmark of his leadership role at UCT,” he said.

Gevers said that Saunders’ approach to executive management can best be encapsulated by the Friday morning team sessions in his office, which he referred to as Monty Python.

“In an atmosphere of humour and toleration of difference, he sought advice on all questions of policy and operations and ensured that nobody was uninformed. Despite the fact that we were dealing with many huge issues, there was never a cross word.

“His overall emphasis on academically informed leadership of a university made the institution what it is today.”

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Dr Stuart Saunders


The University of Cape Town (UCT) hosted an online memorial service for former Vice-Chancellor Dr Stuart Saunders on 24 February. Dr Saunders was a dedicated servant, steward and supporter of UCT. He passed away on Friday morning, 12 February 2021.

Stuart John Saunders was born in Cape Town, South Africa, on 28th August 1931. After graduating MBChB with honours in 1953 at the University of Cape Town, he did post-graduate research at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School at Hammersmith in London and at Harvard University. He received the degree of Doctor of Medicine in 1965 (University of Cape Town). He began his administrative career as the University of Cape Town’s Head of the Department of Medicine (1971-1980) and was co-founder of the university’s Liver Clinic & Liver Research Unit (a field in which he wrote some two hundred articles and co-authored a study that has become a classical reference). He was Vice-Chancellor from January 1981 to August 1996.

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