Stuart Saunders: ‘a man of integrity, honour and loyalty’

24 February 2021 | Story Bill Frankel. Photo Supplied. Read time 5 min.
Bill Frankel pays tribute to former UCT VC Dr Stuart Saunders.
Bill Frankel pays tribute to former UCT VC Dr Stuart Saunders.

Bill Frankel, the chairman of the Claude Leon Foundation, pays tribute to the former vice-chancellor (VC) of the University of Cape Town (UCT) Dr Stuart Saunders, who passed away on 12 February 2021, after a short illness. Frankel studied law at UCT in the early 1960s.

I feel so privileged and grateful to have known Stuart, both as a colleague and a friend.

Stuart was a man of considerable intellect and medical skill. But first and foremost, he was a man of integrity, honour and loyalty. And a great raconteur!

I first met Stuart when I was a young law student at UCT in the early 1960s, staying at the old university residence barracks known as Driekoppen. Stuart was the warden. Even in those days, he had a formidable presence.

Shortly after completing the first degree of my law qualification in 1964, I left South Africa rather hurriedly, as I was under threat of detention for my anti-apartheid activities. Many years later, in 2001, when I was able to return to South Africa after the release of Madiba and the election of a democratic government in South Africa, I became a trustee and chairman of the Claude Leon Foundation. Stuart was already a trustee of the foundation, and had been for at least 10 years.


“Scientific research in South Africa owes Stuart a huge debt of gratitude for his enormous involvement.”

Stuart’s impact and quiet guidance on the foundation’s grant-giving was enormous. He was the inspiration for the foundation’s hugely successful postdoctoral fellowship programme in the sciences – not only guiding the trustees in policy issues relating to the programme, but also playing an active part in the day-to-day administration of the programme by participating in the sub-committee that approved postdoctoral applications, approving reports and dealing with special requests.

During the 20 years or so of the programme (it will close down next year), the foundation contributed over R200 million in grants to postdoctoral fellows to carry out research at South African universities. Scientific research in South Africa owes Stuart a huge debt of gratitude for his enormous involvement.

Stuart also successfully guided the foundation to support grants for honours bursaries for students at various universities in South Africa, as well as grants for merit awards for young university lecturers in need of mentoring.

But it was not only in the tertiary education field that Stuart’s impact on the foundation’s deliberations and grant-giving was considerable. He recognised the needs in pre-tertiary education – and particularly in the field of after-school education, where the foundation has made a mark. He also embraced the foundation’s decision to concentrate grant-giving on social justice and human rights issues, and was fully supportive of my initiative some years ago to establish the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance at UCT, with Pierre de Vos as the first (and an impressive) holder of that Chair.


“Stuart’s courageous stance on academic freedom during the dark days of apartheid was a beacon of light and enlightenment.”

Stuart’s courageous stance on academic freedom during the dark days of apartheid was a beacon of light and enlightenment. He had considerable leadership skills, and was skilful in handling complex political and other discussions and negotiations. He always brought a measured and balanced approach to a discussion; always objective and never judgmental. His wisdom was profound.

Like so many others, I loved the social occasions with Stuart – the dinners with him and Anita and friends at their home, or the lunches with Stuart alone or together with one or two other colleagues. Stuart would regale us with so many interesting (and often amusing) stories from the past and give us his insight on current affairs. His involvement in all walks of life in South Africa has been enormous.

Cricket was a passion, and he had a love for music and opera, particularly Puccini’s La Bohème. I fondly recall his wonderful 80th birthday party, where the UCT Opera School enthralled us all with their tribute to him.

Stuart remained an active trustee of the Claude Leon Foundation right up until his death. He will be sorely missed by my colleagues, and by me.

Bill Frankel OBE
Chairman of the Claude Leon Foundation

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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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