Degenaar in Dialogue: An Essay in Four Parts Part Four: What Remains?

Degenaar’s last years

Johan Degenaar died on 22 July 2015, at the age of eighty-nine. He had withdrawn from public life a decade or more before. This withdrawal was probably not a conscious decision on his part, but the result of his increasing frailty and deteriorating eyesight, and the increasing frailty of his wife Jetty, to whom he was devoted.

Degenaar continued to publish academic and popular articles regularly until 2000, engaging vigorously with a range of contemporary issues. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Stellenbosch University In 2002. He took part in a biographical interview with Pieter Duvenage in 2005.[1] In what may have been his final public contribution in his own voice, he did a short interview with Anton van Niekerk in 2006, looking back on his career on the occasion of his eightieth birthday.[2]

In 2007, the Degenaars moved from their house in Stellenbosch, where they had lived for more than fifty years, to a retirement village in Somerset West, the town where their children and grandchildren lived. Degenaar gave away many thousands of books, mostly to the library of Stellenbosch University. There was talk of creating an archive of his documents at the Stellenbosch library, but it’s not clear whether that ever happened, or will happen.

Jetty Degenaar died in 2011. After Jetty’s death, it seemed at times as if, for Johan, the world had ended. At other times, he was lively and cheerful; in love with the world, even as it gently slipped away from him. I remember walking with him at the Strand not long after Jetty’s death, and seeing him stop to watch children building a sand-castle. They quickly recognized him as a friend and fell into eager conversation with him. Later, on the drive back to Somerset West, he exclaimed at the beauty of tall poplar trees, on the side of the road, waving slowly in the wind. A year or two after Jetty’s death, he moved from their small flat at the retirement village to a room in the frail care unit.

After Degenaar’s death in 2015, the meaning of his legacy became a public question, in a way it probably never was during his lifetime. His life and work had long been the subject of discussion and contestation, and discussion later took on a more formal character, with the publication of a festschrift to mark his sixtieth birthday in 1986, later followed by other tributes of that kind.

Degenaar seemed to treat these tributes and recollections with polite amusement, as if he could neither quite accept that all this fuss was being made about him, nor yet refuse it. He was neither shy nor retiring, and he listened attentively, even critically, when his work was discussed or praised. But his interest was not in the praise itself, but in developing a shared point of view. He wanted to know what the reader found interesting in it, and why. In this way, he would turn the focus from himself and towards a joint effort to clarify an argument that, in the process, became a collective achievement, rather than his own.

While Degenaar lived, everyone was entitled to their opinion of him, and that opinion was no more than their own, often limited to their own experience of him. After his death, however, almost every opinion seemed to present itself as if it had become a definitive view, and thus became a challenge to others to formulate their views in an equally definitive way.

While he lived, no single view of him could claim such definitive authority. But death changes things; it overrides the wishes of the living to carry on as before, as if their conversation with the one who has died might somehow continue. And death sometimes places the living in conflict with each other, or brings longstanding conflicts into the open, in ways they may not have expected or intended.

The commemoration of Degenaar’s life, held at Stellenbosch University on 1 August 2015, was the moment for conflicting views to be articulated, although not resolved. My sense is that these views have not yet been properly aired or debated; and I now wonder if that will ever happen.

Commemorating Degenaar

What I take to be the central question at stake in commemorating Degenaar—at the event of 1 August 2015, and more generally—was set out in the opening tribute to Degenaar at that event by André du Toit: “What becomes of Degenaar’s Socratic questioning, when he is appropriated and celebrated as an ornament [sieraad] of the same institution which marginalized him for so long? We owe it to him to reflect thoroughly on this question. As we know, his Socratic watchword was always that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living.’ What a pity that the process cannot be accompanied by his liberating laughter and inexhaustible capacity for wonderment.”[3]

I do not mean that Degenaar’s relationship to the dominant ideology at Stellenbosch is the only significant question about the meaning of his life and work. But the question of his role as a critic and provocateur in the specific context of Stellenbosch, where he had been both denounced and celebrated, cannot be avoided in any honest appraisal.

The majority of the tributes to Degenaar that followed André du Toit’s talk did not touch directly on this question. It is understandable, especially with many speakers and limited time, that most of them focused on encounters with Degenaar that were especially memorable for them personally.[4] However, it seemed to me that there were at least two somewhat direct responses to the question formulated by du Toit.

I will give the main thrust of these two responses, quoting from a report of the commemoration which appeared some days later in Die Burger.

Die Burger reports that the rector of Stellenbosch University, Professor Wim de Villiers, stated that Degenaar had “eventually received ample [ruim] institutional recognition.” He continues, “When the university awarded an honorary doctorate to Professor Degenaar in 2002, in recognition of his major contribution to philosophy and thought in South African society, we said that he is an excellent role model, and I agree whole-heartedly with that.”

“It is, of course, ironic, that Professor Degenaar’s alma mater put difficulties in his way [hom opdraande gegee het] at an earlier stage, precisely because he raised these difficult questions, but I think it is accepted on all sides that it is thanks to the critical foundations that he helped to lay that this institution could later come to insight and acknowledge our part in the injustices of the past. We therefore owe him much thanks for being our intellectual conscience.”[5]

The second response to the question of Degenaar’s critical role in the face of official hostility, was my own. Die Burger reported my view that the need for Degenaar’s attitude of critique continued: “Especially if we look at the crisis of the whole project of 1994, the crisis of the project of overcoming racial domination on the basis of capitalism, from Nkandla to what is happening in higher education.”

“Perhaps Degenaar knew of the enemy in the church and of the school principal and so on. But he had not yet encountered the enemy in the bureaucracy, which has now more or less taken over university life. The danger is that the holy trinity that he had to stand up against has been replaced now by another: constitution, global market, academic excellence as measured by the ranking lists.”

“The task of critique is still important. There are still touchstones against which it must be measured: What happens in the university itself, what happens in South Africa after Marikana? What does the university say about Marikana? Do they have anything to say? What do they say about what happens in the world?”[6]

I had written two versions of my talk the night before, was not happy with either of them, and then decided, when my turn came, to speak just as the words came to me. I had accepted the invitation to speak at the event, while sensing or fearing that it would be the occasion for making Degenaar into an emblem—of a kind he often made fun of, and sometimes viewed with gentle scorn—affirming the importance of those present.

I take no pleasure in quoting my own words. I do not disown them, however, although I recognize that their viewpoint is limited and my formulation hasty and rough. Did Degenaar really think of the church as an enemy, for example, or rather as an unwilling or overly dogmatic interlocutor?

The question at stake, then and now, is essentially: What remains of Degenaar’s life and work, and the spirit in which it was conducted, now that his life has ended? Was his work essentially completed by his providing Stellenbosch with a sense of conscience in relation to apartheid? Or does his dialogical practice of philosophy not only remain, but have the capacity to live on—passed from one generation to the next, without new generations necessarily knowing their source and lineage, enriched also from other dialogical sources, known and unknown—becoming a resource for a difficult future, already approaching?

Was Degenaar the intellectual conscience of Stellenbosch?

Was Degenaar the “intellectual conscience” of Stellenbosch, as de Villiers said, in explaining the university’s award of an honorary doctorate to him in 2002?

It seems to me that the meaning of a term like this depends mainly on the extent and reality of the crisis of conscience that had arisen at Stellenbosch by the end of apartheid, and the transformative effect that an awakening of conscience had within the institution.

Conscience, by definition, prompts us to change in ways that are guided by principle. An act of conscience is an act which shows your willingness to risk or to sacrifice safety and acceptance, and give priority instead to doing what is right. If your conscience guides you always towards the safe and convenient option, then it is self-interest that is guiding you, rather than conscience.

Degenaar understood conscience in this way. He urged students to take its promptings seriously. For male students facing military conscription in the last years of apartheid, there was much at stake; also, for other students affected by conscription dilemmas facing friends and relatives.

If Stellenbosch University now celebrates Degenaar as its intellectual conscience, then we have to ask: Did that celebration go along with a commitment to real change in the direction of the life and work of the university? Did it lead the university to commit itself collectively to new goals, and especially goals that put at risk its standing, its resources, perhaps even its survival? Did it lead to even a modest re-orientation of Stellenbosch intellectual and institutional life?

If not, then we have to ask whether what de Villiers proclaimed as “conscience” was anything more than an exercise in public relations, facilitating the university’s pragmatic adjustment to the new relations of power established by the end of apartheid. This seems to accord with de Villiers’ account of the honorary doctorate awarded to Degenaar, which I have quoted above.

It’s possible that the example of Degenaar and others could have provided a way forward for Stellenbosch after apartheid that was indeed guided by conscience. But there is no sign that Stellenbosch sought to take that route, or even to reflect on what it involved. Instead, it sought to benefit from the credibility that Degenaar’s legacy offered in the post-apartheid context.

Conscience and the university, then and now

The question of conscience is all the more demanding in this case, because the the establishment of the university itself in 1918 was the result of choices driven by conscience. For the decade-long struggle to establish a primarily Dutch-language university at Stellenbosch, in the face of massive pressures to establish the domination of the English language in the higher education of the newly-unified South African state, or even its exclusive use, must surely be seen in this light.[7]

That struggle sought to thwart Cecil Rhodes’ plans for a South African university system committed to the expansion of the British Empire, in which Dutch, and later Afrikaans, could effectively be eliminated from South African intellectual life. The establishment of a university at Stellenbosch enabled young Afrikaners to prepare themselves for a modernizing world, without cutting themselves off from their families and communities, in the way that Anglicization would have entailed. It also enabled them to join the white English-speaking professional classes in growing prosperity, built on the exploitation of black labour during the twentieth century.

Seen from the perspective of the present, the struggle for a university at Stellenbosch was a deeply ambiguous project. On the one hand, it created opportunity for young Afrikaners to remain true to their roots, preserving ties of language, culture and community; it enabled them to gain access to the world of scholarship, to enter the professions and develop a modern literary culture. Even those who believed that the only realistic option for defeated Afrikaners was assimilation into the English language and the values of the British Empire, could have recognized the integrity of this project.

At the same time, this project depended on and affirmed the racial inequality inherited from Dutch East India Company rule, which was also essential to the expansion of the British Empire. It largely dispensed with the British imperialist project of creating a small black professional elite and gradually extending civic rights to them. From the perspective of those involved at that time in contestation over higher education, this ambiguity may have been hardly visible. The struggle for the establishment of the university was a matter of conscience, insofar as it was a struggle against the dominant and expanding power of that time, the British Empire. At the same time, it prepared the ground for Stellenbosch’s defence of apartheid.

The exemplar of conscience in this early context was Tobie Muller, the outstanding intellect of the generation formed by the struggle for a university at Stellenbosch. Muller was offered the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship in 1903, but declined it because he saw it as tainted by imperialist war against his own people. As a young minister at the Dutch Reformed Church in Stellenbosch, he incurred the wrath of his elders by being the first to preach in Afrikaans, instead of Dutch, in 1913. He was offered the chair of philosophy at Stellenbosch in 1916, but declined it, after receiving a call to the ministry at Philippolis in the Orange Free State. He died there during the influenza epidemic, ministering tirelessly to the sick. For those of his generation who survived him, he became an iconic figure, representing the best aspirations of Afrikaner nationalism, in a time when the defeated people sought to uphold its dignity, and had no prospect of wielding state power.[8]

This is the background to my question: Was there a similar examination of conscience that followed, or accompanied, the negotiated settlement of the early 1990s and the election of an ANC government in 1994? Stellenbosch had little choice but to shift away from its political alignment with Afrikaner nationalism and white privilege. What has taken the place of that alignment?

Stellenbosch has not replaced its apartheid-era commitment to white privilege with a commitment to social justice in the educational sphere. It has abandoned its policies of racial exclusion, although at a slower pace than most South African universities. Its main commitment has been to the norms of “excellence”—that is, market competition, oriented towards a global ratings system, guided by the norms and practices of the wealthiest universities in the world; a system which counts publications, research grants postgraduate degrees and the like, and quantifies prestige.

It is a commitment to emulating the institutions with wealth and power, thereby systematically contributing to educational inequality on a global scale.[9] This commitment to competitive individualism in academic life has also boosted the global turn towards English as the language of research and teaching.

My own view is that this commitment is already proving to be massively destructive of higher education on a global scale, and will continue on that path. Critiques developed by eminent academic figures, and gone largely without reply.[10] The case for “excellence” has relied instead on the marketing offices and the anxieties of young people (and academics) about their future prospects in a neoliberal world.

Whether universities will be sustained by such forces is far from certain. This is the gamble that Stellenbosch has taken, as have many other universities in South Africa and around the world. However, Stellenbosch had an alternative.

The question of Afrikaans, then and now

The part of this recasting of the goals of Stellenbosch which has attracted most public controversy has been the move away from Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, and communication within the university more generally. Defenders of Afrikaans were quick to point out that the bequest of Jan Marais, which made the establishment of the university possible, included the condition that Dutch (or Afrikaans) should have “no lesser place” than English in the life of the university, and that Afrikaans is the most widely spoken language in the Western Cape, which already has three other English-language universities.

It should be said that Stellenbosch is not the only South African university to have changed its language policies in the decades during and after the transition from apartheid to democracy. The earliest of these processes took place at the University of the Western Cape, especially after Jakes Gerwel became rector of UWC in 1987.

The crucial difference is that the decision to defy the apartheid policy of treating UWC as a university for people classified coloured came first, and the rapid shift from Afrikaans to English followed it, as a result of UWC’s commitment to non-racialism. The shift to English was a by-product of the need to provide an education, somewhat worthy of the name, to the excluded majority of black South Africans, at a time when the Bantustan universities were characterized by rote-learning, repression of political and cultural activity and frequent educational and administrative collapse. Coloured students at UWC had a long record of resistance to apartheid; they named their residences for fellow students imprisoned on Robben Island; many of them welcomed the influx of African students, who soon came to occupy leadership positions in student politics.

In contrast, Stellenbosch abandoned its historical commitment to Afrikaner nationalism and the Afrikaans language, not in favour of a commitment to social justice, or even any real curiosity about what that would involve, but in favour of a market-oriented elitism, serving aspirations for the individual self-advancement of a few in the context of one of the most unequal societies in the world. The direction it chose was that in which the apartheid order was already moving at the time of its demise.

If Stellenbosch had been moved by conscience to provide an educational home for those who were educationally deprived, it would have been well-placed to do that: the coloured people of the rural Western and Northern Cape are almost entirely Afrikaans-speaking, and they are the demographic group with proportionately least access to higher education in South Africa. Stellenbosch also has the resources to provide support for to provide students not competent in Afrikaans, including black South Africans, with an opportunity to learn it. This would surely have resulted in a shift away from postgraduate studies in prestigious fields, and would not have boosted global ratings. It would also have required very substantial funding to give large numbers of young people from a background of rural poverty access to higher education. But it offered the prospect of an Afrikaans-language university whose language policy would be integral to its commitment to social justice.

Although the demographic facts were not in dispute, it seems that this alternative was never seriously considered. Instead, the beneficiaries of Stellenbosch’s language policies have been mainly children of wealthy English-speaking white people, and to a lesser extent talented rugby-players from rural coloured communities, whose studies at elite rugby-playing schools and then at Stellenbosch University, have been sponsored by wealthy alumni.

Whether the majority of supporters of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch would also have supported an orientation towards the coloured working class of the region, is an open question. An earlier initiative to establish an Afrikaans-language university, on a more modest scale, at Oudtshoorn had by then been quietly abandoned.[11]

Degenaar was not especially active in the various polemics and campaigns for Afrikaans at Stellenbosch. But he made his views clear in several public statements, including an account of Afrikaans as a language of liberation published in 1987 and a collective open letter to President Thabo Mbeki appealing for greater recognition for minority rights, including Afrikaans language rights.[12] In this context, too, it was not Degenaar’s example that prompted the direction taken by Stellenbosch University.

South Africa will be poorer for the loss of Afrikaans as an academic language. And the fate of Afrikaans will probably seal that of African languages in tertiary education in South Africa. It seems just as likely that the hegemony of English in South Africa will play a modest role in creating a second dead language, as English becomes—like Latin in late medieval Europe—the language of hypocrisy and pretence, used for official occasions and for saying what you hope will create the right impression among people who don’t know you and whose goodwill you cannot trust.

Questions of institutional autonomy and academic freedom

The question of conscience can also be seen in a different light than that suggested by Wim de Villiers’ praise of Degenaar. Instead of Degenaar redeeming the conscience of Stellenbosch, he could be seen instead as a burden on the conscience of Stellenbosch, with which the institution should come to terms. This question is examined in an article by Anton van Niekerk, published in 2017, a few years after Degenaar’s death.[13]

Van Niekerk draws on the university’s archives, to clarify the events that led to Degenaar being removed from the Department of Philosophy and assigned to the uncertain endeavour of the yet-to-be-formed Department of Political Philosophy. It seems, however, that the archives are not especially helpful in reconstructing events. It is clear that the decision was made on the basis of a complaint against Degenaar, made by the Dutch Reformed Church, probably at the request of the Curatorium of the Theological Seminary. The complaint was discussed at a meeting in 1957 or 1958, called by the rector, H.B. Thom, and attended by professor of philosophy, J.F. Kirsten, Degenaar, and several members of the Curatorium. The only record of this meeting is an undated and possibly incomplete minute in Thom’s handwriting, noting that “Dr Degenaar is willing to co-operate, and even willing to be constrained regarding the areas in which he will be teaching.”[14]

A proposal for the creation of a new course in political philosophy, initially within the Department of Philosophy, was then approved by the relevant faculty board in 1958—apparently without the board being informed of the complaint of the Curatorium or discussing it—and this was followed by an exchange of letters in which Thom conveyed this decision to J.D. Vorster, the actuary of the DRC Synod, and Vorster replied to convey the DRC’s acceptance of this solution to their problem—a problem which had still not been explicitly formulated, or at least not in the surviving record.

Van Niekerk describes the history of the two streams within the Department of Philosophy until 1966; then the two departments, once Political Philosophy became a fully-fledged department in 1967; and concludes with the process of re-unification of the two departments, beginning in 1987, dealing mostly with administrative questions, rather than the focus and ethos of the departments.

He concludes with the question of what is to be learned from this history, describing the removal of Degenaar from the Department of Philosophy as “most unfortunate”. He explains: “Today it is unthinkable that a church, or individuals promoting a certain type of theology, could interfere in the academic affairs of the university in this way. Few values are as important to university culture as academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Both were seriously violated with these events. It remains an unanswered question why senior and normally quite outspoken academics outside of the Department of Philosophy at the time did not voice more urgent concerns about these matters, unless the process was so handled that the full story behind events was not adequately brought into the open.”[15]

Van Niekerk’s main emphasis is on these questions of academic freedom and institutional autonomy, and I’ll consider them in this light. But his views on these issues are somewhat diluted by his proviso that these “outspoken academics” may not have known the full story, and by his additional comment that the university was, at that time, defining itself as a volksuniversiteit.

Despite these qualifications, van Nierkerk’s formulation reads as a defence of Degenaar and an indictment of those involved in his removal from the Department of Philosophy. Van Niekerk writes sympathetically about Degenaar and at times with some scorn about Degenaar’s main adversary, J.S. Gericke, who is described as “not a theologian of any note; only a wielder of considerable ecclesiastical power.”[16] But the indictment of the university is sufficiently disconnected from historical reality the case cannot really be decided.

What is especially problematic, is van Niekerk’s expectation that Degenaar’s academic colleagues at the time should have been concerned about academic freedom and university autonomy, and protested on those grounds against his removal from the Department of Philosophy; or should have done so, if they had known the full context.

The terms academic freedom and institutional autonomy were indeed coming into prominence in South Africa around that time. But both terms were almost entirely associated with the quite different issue of freedom of universities to admit students and employ lecturers without regard to race.[17] That was an issue which had no foothold or currency at Stellenbosch in those years, or for many years to come.[18]

Academic freedom became a public issue in South Africa after the National Party’s election manifesto of 1948 included a commitment to segregate universities on the basis of race. When the NP government finally tabled legislation to this effect in 1957 (the University Education Bill, which later became the Extension of University Education Act of 1959), liberal opposition to it coalesced around the idea of defending academic freedom, emphasizing the right of each university to decide which students to admit and which academics to employ, without regard to race.[19]

In response to this legislation, the liberal English-language universities formed Academic Freedom Committees, held protest marches, established annual lectures, and the like. In the 1970s, this commitment to academic freedom was extended into other areas, including the rights of individual academics. The South African constitution of 1996 is unusual in treating academic freedom as an individual right, linked to freedom of speech.

This clause in the South African constitution of 1996 may be closer to what van Niekerk has in mind, in reproaching his colleagues of 1958 for their silence about Degenaar. But it is hard to see how it is relevant to the context of Stellenbosch of forty years before.

The question of institutional autonomy—even if it is treated as quite separate from academic freedom—is even more difficult to invoke on Degenaar’s behalf in the context of 1958. It is true that powerful figures in the Dutch Reformed Church objected to Degenaar’s ideas and arguments. But the Theological Seminary was governed from 1920 by the Dutch Reformed Church, together with academics from the university, from the Departments of Biblical Languages and Philosophy. The university’s official history suggests that the main difference between the seminary and the faculty was that the church paid the salaries of those appointed by the church, and the university paid the salaries of those appointed by the university. In 1963, the seminary and the faculty became one and the same, and the university took responsibility for the salaries for all involved. But it remained an institution of both the Dutch Reformed Church and the university for some time to come. [20]

If there was a problem concerning the institutional autonomy of the university in relation to the Dutch Reformed Church, the university had created that problem by agreeing in 1920 to dual authority, shared with the church, and maintaining it thereafter. There is no indication that this alignment of university and church was contested in the 1950s. It may have been continued until 2000, when the faculty began to train ministers for churches other than the DRC.[21]

Indeed, the same principle of dual authority within the university applied when the Military Academy of the South African Defence Force, which was at the same time the Faculty of Military Science of the University of Stellenbosch, was established at Saldanha Bay in 1955.[22] Could Stellenbosch’s Faculty of Military Science have invoked its autonomy to declare itself a neutral party when the South African Defence Force invaded Angola in the 1970s and 80s? If not, what was the meaning of institutional autonomy in that context?

If we want to know about the capacity or willingness of Stellenbosch to guard its institutional autonomy against the influence of political parties and government, do we need go further than listing the chancellors of the university in the apartheid era: D.F. Malan, leader of the National Party and Prime Minister (chancellor, 1941-59); Eben Dönges, Minister of Finance and leader of the Cape National Party (1959-68); John Vorster, leader of the National Party and Prime Minister (1968-83); P.W. Botha, leader of the National Party and Prime Minister (1984-88)? These were the figures Stellenbosch chose as symbols of its identity.

Verwoerd on academic freedom at Stellenbosch in 1959

In this context, it’s hard to believe that academic freedom was a recognized concern at Stellenbosch in 1958, with clear application to Degenaar’s case. It seems that Degenaar himself never raised it. When it became a public question, the whole concept was vigorously rejected at the official opening of the Stellenbosch academic year in February 1959, by the newly-elected Prime Minister of South Africa, Dr. H.F. Verwoerd.[23]

Verwoerd was quick to dismiss the idea of academic freedom: “When people speak so lightly about the ‘freedom of the university’ as if it should be unlimited, then they do not take account of how the privileges of the university imply duties of the university, and that any duty is restrictive. . . . Any pursuit at a university of a freedom that exceeds its duty, and especially its duty to the volk so that it negates its ties [gebondenheid] to the volk in the name of academic freedom, usually arises from international currents which arise among the great nations and serve their interests and ideologies. That is not freedom, but enslavement to a foreign power trying to wean the learned people [geleerdes] of a small volk away from their own volk into subjection to that which poses as universal. In that way, such a university actually becomes totally deprived of foundations and is precisely not free or independent. Freedom from the tyranny of other nations’ demands and views is the freedom which a university must demand for itself. A university’s freedom is restricted by its own aims and values, as well as the continued existence of its volk.”[24]

Verwoerd then locates this idea within a larger account of Afrikaner history. He begins by describing a generation of Afrikaner intellectuals, who studied in Europe in the nineteenth century, and had been Europeanised in the process, and turned their backs on their own people. They wanted to be open-minded [breed van gees], but instead they committed treason—“as seriously as is usually meant by this concept”— against their own volk.[25]

It was only after the defeat and destruction of the South African War that a new generation of Afrikaner intellectuals learned to serve their own people and “found a home among them.” Verwoerd continues: “the whole growth of Afrikanerdom as a civilized people, who could hold their heads high among the peoples of the world [wêreldvolke], was the result of the dedication of the geleerdes of that time.”[26]

Once Afrikaners had universities of their own (beginning with Stellenbosch in 1918), a period of consolidation began, assimilating the knowledge of the world, making it relevant to the needs of their own volk, and building for the future. “Now the universities could produce the leaders of the volk in every terrain of life, because the university and the volk were one, as they should be. And they remained as one.”[27]

Finally, Verwoerd turns to the present (of 1959), in which massive change is in gestation, on a scale unprecedented in the history of humanity, driven largely by science and technology, extending into outer space and leaving no stone of human life, habit and thought unturned. In this moment of challenge, the universities become more important than ever before, not only in teaching and research, but also in the greater task of “ensuring that faith in certain eternal truths remains.” To do this, “in the midst of all that happens around us, we must remain, in the first place, members of our own volk, our own nation. The university is the body that must ensure that this happens. . . . Then we will have a contribution to make to humanity and to life.”[28]

In an epic tale of this kind, there is no place for questioning, doubt and dissent. Afrikaner survival depends on unity, ensured by holding fast to eternal truths. Every Afrikaner has a role to play, but especially every educated Afrikaner. Only in this way can Afrikaners contribute meaningfully to humanity at large. Talk of academic freedom is a fantasy and a dangerous distraction from a historic task.

There is no reason to suppose that Verwoerd had any knowledge of the steps taken by Stellenbosch to remove Degenaar from the Department of Philosophy, about six months earlier.[29] However, it is quite possible to read Verwoerd’s speech as if he were addressing the questions raised by the removal of Degenaar from his departmental home. And we can imagine how entirely opposed Degenaar would have been to Verwoerd’s call for unchanging and unquestioned belief.

A different perspective on Degenaar

It seems to me that an entirely different perspective is needed, if we are to understand the process of removing Degenaar from the Department of Philosophy. I’ll attempt to develop such a perspective here, beginning at the point at which I am most fully in agreement with van Niekerk’s account.

“In all my research,” van Niekerk writes, “I could not find a single document containing the response of Degenaar himself to this train of events [leading to his removal from the Department of Philosophy], except for the minutes of the initial meeting in which he, according to Thom, pledged his intended co-operation to the ruling.”

“It is notable,” van Niekerk continues, “that, in the interviews I had with Rossouw and du Toit about their recollections of these events . . . neither of them has a memory of any in-depth discussion of the matter with Degenaar himself.”[30] To me, this account of Degenaar’s apparent indifference to his removal from the department seems entirely in character. The idea that his indifference could have been a pretence, sustained for decades after that, seems impossible to believe.

Is it not equally possible that Degenaar had decided, long before, simply to speak his mind and let the consequences be what they may? It may not have been a conscious decision, but simply a way of being in the world, which came to him intuitively at first and became second nature in time.

This also matches the relaxed tone of the only published account I have been able to locate of Degenaar’s own view of these events, in an interview with Pieter Duvenage: “I began paying attention to political philosophy, because the university asked us to offer a course in political science [staatsleer]. It worked well [dit het goed te pas gekom], because there were objections from the church to my Socratic style and my publications on the mortality of the soul in the 1950s. I felt sorry for Kirsten, because aspiring theologians were encouraged not to take philosophy, because of my presence in the department. The creation of a separate course in political philosophy, which later became the Department of Political Philosophy helped to solve the problem.”[31]

Once these events are seen from this perspective, a different picture emerges. What stands out, is not so much the persecution of Degenaar as his apparently cheerful resilience; his capacity to take this in his stride, and to make a new adventure of it; his willingness to extend his dialogical quest into new, even more intensely contested, areas of contention, after his move to political philosophy.

We can also see the silence of the Faculty Board in a different light. It’s possible that they were quite aware that steps were being taken to sideline Degenaar, either to ensure that he had no academic contact with prospective theology students, or to put pressure on him to look for a position at another university, if he could find one. But they may also have recognized—even if only approximately, in his lightness of being, his pleasure at the world, his ready laughter, his love of dialectical reversal—the spirit behind Degenaar’s acceptance of the changed situation.

What also then stands out more fully, is the extraordinary history of Degenaar’s teaching after his removal from the Department of Philosophy, first in the “B stream” of the department and then from 1967 in the Department of Political Philosophy. Would he have flourished in the new department, if he had been constantly on guard against further endangering his career prospects? The perspective that should inform our interpretation, I believe, is that Degenaar did not see philosophy primarily as a career, but as a calling or as a way of life, somewhat in the manner described by Pierre Hadot.[32]

We cannot prove the validity of a specific perspective. Sometimes we can say that it makes better sense of the evidence at our disposal than alternative perspectives. Our perspective on Degenaar also reflects how we hope his dialogical instincts and aspirations might be developed and realized.

In praise of the Department of Political Philosophy, 1967-1986

Was Degenaar’s relocation from the Department of Philosophy to the newly-formed Department of Political Philosophy “most unfortunate,” as van Niekerk puts it? My answer is: Yes, to some extent; but mainly, no.

Yes, it seems very likely that Degenaar’s removal from the Department of Philosophy was intended to isolate and stigmatize him, and make his situation at Stellenbosch precarious. Others would have found this a difficult burden to bear, but Degenaar carried it lightly.

No, what Degenaar made of his relocation to Political Philosophy became an extraordinary and life-changing experience for generations of his students. His own sense of freedom was infectious. He never spoke about his removal from the Department of Philosophy. When he indicated that his views were frowned upon by those in authority, he spoke as if this was a joke at their expense, and we laughed at it. We experienced his move to Political Philosophy as our good fortune.

The department had a distinctive culture of teaching and learning; a way of engaging with seminal works of philosophy without detracting from its focus on contemporary issues; and it gave rise to a political culture among students that was principled, radical and inventive.

I’ve already spoken of Degenaar as a teacher, and the experience of being in dialogue with him.[33] His younger colleague, André du Toit, was also an extraordinarily gifted and dedicated teacher, and essential to the experience of learning, formation and discovery we went through in the department.

Du Toit’s style of teaching was different, but complemented that of Degenaar. Du Toit was the more rigorous of the two, more focused on clarifying methods of philosophical analysis, more insistent on establishing precise shades of meaning. Each of them enhanced the experience of learning from the other. They were skilled in combining their contributions to collective discussion, and also in letting each other take the lead. It is hard to imagine the experience of the department without both of them.

Being a student in the Department of Political Philosophy was a learning experience unlike any other I’ve encountered: constant discovery and stimulation; a sense of being active participants both in a larger tradition and enquiry that was vital to our own lives. The department enabled students themselves to play a major role in deciding what they would take from their courses and would bring to them, and allowed them a degree of initiative we did not experience in other courses.

What made it unique—among departments that I have known, at least—was its consistent focus on the self-formation of students through a process of reasoned enquiry, in which limits were set by philosophical argument and imagination, rather than institutional necessity or convention. If students were serious about a question, then the teachers would take it equally seriously. We read the great philosophers, with a sense of momentarily being their equals, and always being allowed to differ, and always required and empowered by the process of articulating our reasons to differ.

Because of its contentious history, the department attracted students committed to overcoming the limits of the present, defined by apartheid and capitalism. Its context was marked by two peculiar features. First, we were always conscious of being one of two philosophy departments at the university, and being the department formed by rejection from the mainstream (the rejection of Degenaar, in the first place). Second, within the context of South African universities of the time, we were unusual in being part of a culture of student radicalism that was primarily philosophical in orientation, at a time when university radicalism was rooted in the social sciences, mainly at the English-language campuses.[34] Sometimes the same texts were central to radical politics in both contexts, but for different reasons. At Stellenbosch, we read Gramsci for his philosophy of history, not for his strategy and tactics.

The affinity and contrast among Political Philosophy students at Stellenbosch with student radicalism on other campuses became more evident in the 1980s, after the formation of the End Conscription Campaign, the United Democratic Front, and Stellenbosch student organizations aligned with what became known as the mass democratic movement, including a Stellenbosch branch of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) and the spread of labour advice offices to the winelands. Political Philosophy students played a central role in local initiatives, including the establishment of advice offices, and were active in regional student politics and the End Conscription Campaign.

It was at political education meetings held by these student organizations that Degenaar first encountered Neville Alexander in the early 1980s. Alexander had been released from Robben Island in 1974, and then placed under a banning order, which expired in 1979. He was unusual within the revolutionary movement of that time in his readiness, even eagerness, to engage with white Afrikaans-speaking students. Degenaar’s major political intervention during and after the transition from apartheid to democracy began as an engagement with Alexander on the question of nation-building in post-apartheid South Africa, with Degenaar arguing for building a democratic political culture instead.[35]

At the liberal English-speaking campuses, university administrators were often sympathetic to student leaders, while the security police were eager to crush protests and other political initiatives. At Stellenbosch, the security police often kept their distance, while the university administration responded to the smallest initiative—an unauthorized student publication, or a placard demonstration protesting deaths in detention—with a mixture of rage and panic. The vice chancellor once complained to Political Philosophy students that the security police had phoned him at midnight to tell him what these students were doing!

The rough formula for the limits of student repression seemed to be that at Stellenbosch the security police would slash the car tyres of student activists; at UCT or Wits, they imposed five-year banning orders, prohibiting them from all political and social activity, or laid criminal charges; at the black universities, they would torture and kill student leaders.

I recall being detained and interrogated, with my friend Lungisile Ntsebeza, at the Manenberg police station in mid-1985, and being released the same night, after claiming—unconvincingly, I thought—that the political material we had with us was related to academic work at Stellenbosch. I wondered if they had a policy of not intervening openly at Stellenbosch. By then, everyone at Stellenbosch was living in the state of emergency, but the two philosophy departments seemed to be on opposite sides of the stark divide created by its powers of detention, banning and state-sponsored assassination.

At the same time as being relatively more protected from harassment and persecution by the state, Stellenbosch student radicals were exposed to the doubt and suspicion of their comrades in national organizations such as NUSAS. In the late 1980s—as ungovernability spread across South Africa, at the same time as the ANC was exploring negotiations with the government in secret—word came from Lusaka that it was time to “flush out the Trotskyists.” It seemed that, if organizations had no Trotskyists in their ranks, they had to invent and reprimand them. The next NUSAS conference discovered that they came from Stellenbosch, and it was true that a handful of Political Philosophy students were active within the Marxist Workers Tendency of the ANC at that time, which may have been what Lusaka had in mind.

I’ve emphasized anti-apartheid activism because it was the exception at Stellenbosch in that time. Activism was never a substitute for analysis, in all of this. Instead, engagement with philosophy was deepened by awareness of the world-historical character of political problems and their stakes.

In the death throes of apartheid

It seemed— to me, at least—that the ethos and orientation of the Department of Philosophy, during the years that I was at close quarters with its academic staff, was very different from that of Political Philosophy. Relations between the departments, and others who shared a tearoom in what was then the B.J. Vorster building, were generally friendly. But there were also fierce political conflicts at times, including a prolonged exchange in Die Burger during the 1980s between verligtes and so-called oorbeligtes (an invented and dismissive term for those who are overly enlightened, or lit-up). Van Niekerk’s account of it as arising from a common concern to end apartheid is perhaps motivated by a kind intention to wish it away, or a sense that the disputes of that time no longer matter.[36]

It was not difficult for the two departments to reach agreement on a process of amalgamation, which came into effect in 1987. Van Niekerk explains: “About the nature of the subject taught by both, there was broad consensus. . . . The realization grew that, whatever purpose the separated departments may have served in the past, the times had changed and that the rationale (if any) for the continuance of two departments no longer existed.”[37] It’s likely that the consensus required concerned practical questions, however, rather than philosophical approaches and principles.

At the beginning of 1987, André du Toit moved to UCT, and I moved to UWC, after many years in which I had taught on contracts renewed from one year to the next. Degenaar moved back to the Department of Philosophy, where he taught until his retirement in 1991. To my mind, the closing of the Department of Political Philosophy at the end of 1986 was an irreplaceable loss. In hindsight, it also seems now like a foregone conclusion.

During the oorbeligte controversy of 1982, the verligtes were confident that P.W. Botha’s promises of reform foretold the future. Only a few years later, those promises lay in ruins. By then, although we may not yet have known it, we were already entering the death throes of apartheid.

Botha gambled that he could co-opt coloured and Indian political leaders into a tricameral parliament, in which there would be an effective veto right for the majority party in the white parliament. He relied on the principle of always being able to find some among the oppressed who would be desperate enough to collaborate; but that principle had been exhausted. He won support from Western governments and from white voters in 1983; but not from the people he hoped to co-opt. No more than 4.9 percent of coloured voters came to the polls in Cape Town in 1984.[38]

Having failed at the first step, the rest of Botha’s reform plan was redundant. The NP government had no clear way of drawing part of the Black population into a similarly rigged arrangement, and hardly made the effort. It was preparing, in a fitful and sulky manner, for a new constitutional order, in which whites would govern and blacks would be included in a pretence of equality that would never effectively challenge white rule. It could not risk being honest with the country, or even with itself.

The NP did all it could to cut back the entitlements of the Black population that it envisaged as remaining within South Africa, if only some kind of constitutional deal could be made. It stopped building houses for black people and established site-and-service plans instead. It privatized whatever state institutions it could. It abolished the hated pass laws, after they had already become impossible to enforce. It relied on vigilantism, death squads and tribal vendettas to defend its power, increasingly violating its own law.[39]

Botha refused further reforms, defying the world in his Rubicon speech of 1985. By then, township activists were aiming to make the country “ungovernable.” With hindsight, it seemed that the NP government was committed to ungovernability as well: random threats and promises, brutal repression, blaming everyone but themselves.

Botha’s successor F.W. de Klerk hoped to take advantage of the support of Western governments and the collapse of Soviet communism in 1989. He unbanned the ANC and other organizations and opened negotiations on a future constitutional order, thinking he could secure white veto power within it. His more calculated gamble also failed, for the same reason that Botha’s gamble had failed: no significant black constituency had anything to gain any longer from an alliance with the hated apartheid government.

The years of negotiated transition from apartheid to democracy were characterized by massive political violence, amounting to low-scale civil war in areas such as the Natal Midlands. Gramsci’s words were often quoted: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”[40] This was often understood optimistically, as if the interregnum would end with Mandela’s rise to power. But the morbid symptoms are with us still.

Mandela’s gamble was to leave racial privilege and inequality intact, in the hope that this would lead to a change of heart among the privileged minority. In this way, the death throes of the old apartheid order were built into the structure of the new, waiting to take their toll in poverty, unemployment, corruption, racism, hunger and despair among the poor and callous indifference among the wealthy. Are the leading universities not breeding grounds for such callous indifference to the lives if the majority, even if that indifference is dressed in varying political colours?

During the transition from apartheid to democracy, my view was that the legacy of apartheid could not be overcome on the basis of capitalism, and I argued for that view then.[41] It is still my view now, more than twenty years later. That legacy lives on, for example, in distorted forms: most conspicuously, as corruption and looting of state resources, leading to the collapse of public services, widening racial and class inequality and increasing ecological destruction. By now, all other questions are in the process of being overtaken by, and made subordinate to, the rapidly unfolding climate and ecological crisis.

These are the questions against which the practice of philosophy in South Africa should measure itself today. Some of them—most obviously, the ecological/climate questions—were not on Johan Degenaar’s horizons. But I have compiled this four-part recollection both in memory of my teacher, colleague and friend and in the belief that his life and work and dialogical spirit provide a luminous example for our collective future.

[1] Pieter Duvenage, Afrikaanse Filosofie: Perspektiewe en Dialoë (Bloemfontein: SUN Media, 2016), pp. 80-106; the first part of the interview was held in September 1997.

[2] Anton van Niekerk, “Degenaar word tagtig: Huldeblyk en gesprek,” in Hertzog et al, ed., Gesprek sonder grense, pp. 314-21; the interview was originally published in Eikestadnuus, 28 April 2006. At least one further supposed interview with Degenaar was published in a newspaper in June 2013, which was largely a compilation of extracts from earlier interviews.

[3] André du Toit, “Johan Degenaar—ter herinnering,” “Wat word van Degenaar se Sokratiese vraagstelling as hy toegeeien en gevier word as sieraad van dieselfde instelling wat hom so lank gemarginaliseer het? Ons is dit aan hom verskuldig om behoorlik daaroor te besin. Soo sons weet, was sy Sokratiese leuse steeds dat ‘ ‘n ongeeksamineerde lewe nie die moeite werd is om te leef nie.’ Net jammer dat dit nie deur sy bevrydende lag en onuitputlike vermoë tot verwondering begelei kan word nie.”

[4] A number of the tributes to Degenaar presented at the commemoration event are available at:

[5] Le Roux Schoeman, “ ‘n Lewe gewy aan vrae,” Die Burger, 6 August 2015. “Degenaar het uiteindelike ruim institusionele erkenning geniet. Toe die universiteit in 2002 ‘n eredoktorsgraad aan prof. Degenaar verleen uit erkenning vir sy groot bydrae tot die filosofie en denke in die Suid-Afrikaanse samelewing, het ons gesê hy is ‘n uitnemende rolmodel, en daarmee stem ek heelhartig saam. Dis natuurlik ironies dat prof. Degenaar se alma mater hom in ‘n vroeëre stadium opdraande gegee het juis omdat hy hierdie moeilike vrae gestel het, maar ek dink dit word alom aanvaar dat dit te danke was aan die kritiese grondslag wat hy help lê het dat hierdie instelling later tot insig kon kom en ook ons aandeel in die ongeregtighede van die verlede kon erken. Ons is hom dus veel dank verskuldig dat hy ons intellektuele gewete was.”

[6] Le Roux Schoeman, “ ‘n Lewe gewy aan vrae,” Die Burger, 6 August 2015. “Veral as ons kyk na die krisis waarin die hele projek van 1994 . . . die krisis waarin die projek van verwydering van rasseheerskappy op die grondslag van kapitalisme, ons gebring het. Vanaf Nkandla tot wat in hoër onderwys gebeur. Miskien het Degenaar geweet van die vyand in die Kerk, en die skoolhoof en so aan. Hy het nog nie geweet van die vyand van die burokrasie wat nou as’t ware die universiteitswese oorgeneem het nie. Die gevaar is dat die drie-enigheid wat hy moes teëstaan, vervang word deur ‘n ander drie-enigheid: Grondwet, wêreldmark, akademiese uitnemendheid soos gemeet deur ranglyste. Die taak van kritiek bly nog ‘n belangrike een. Daar is nog toetstene waaraan jy dit meet: Wat gebeur in die Universiteit self, wat gebeur in Suid-Afrika ná Marikana, wat sê die Universiteit daaroor? Sê hulle iets daaroor? Wat sê hulle oor wat in die wêreld aangaan?”

[7] For a brief overview of the historical background leading to the establishment of the universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch, along with the University of South Africa as an examining university based in Pretoria, see P. S. du Toit and G. S. Venter, “Die Universiteit van Stellenbosch Word ‘n Werklikheid,” in H. B. Thom et al, Stellenbosch 1866-1966: Honderd Jaar Hoër Onderwys (Cape Town: Nasionale Boekhandel, 1966), pp. 62-70.

[8] Cf. B.B. Keet and Gordon Tomlinson, Tobie Muller: ‘n Inspirasie vir Jong Suid-Afrika (Cape Town: Nasionale Pers, 1925); Andrew Nash, The Dialectical Tradition in South Africa (New York and London: Routledge, 2009), pp. 71-74.

[9] I have set out my views on the pursuit of so-called excellence in higher education in many contexts, including “Restructuring South African Universities,” in Richard Pithouse, ed., Asinamali: University Struggles in Post-Apartheid South Africa (Lawrenceville, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2006), pp. 1–10; “A Desert Called Excellence,” Mail & Guardian, November 26, 2010; “Excellence in Higher Education: Is There Really No Alternative?” Kagisano 9 (March 2013), pp. 42–62; “Performance Review: Making Universities into Factories,” Panel Discussion on Academic Performance Review hosted by Faculty of Humanities, University of Pretoria, May 2014, available on this website:

[10] Cf. Stefan Collini, What Are Universities For? (London: Penguin Books, 2012); Mark Edmundson, Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2013).

[11] Cf. Breyten Breytenbach, “Brief oor die ‘Kannaland-projek’,” Fragmente 5 (2000), pp. 7-10, and other articles in the same issue of Fragmente: Tydskrif vir Filosofie en Kultuurkritiek.

[12] J.J. Degenaar, “Afrikaans, die Taal van Bevryding,” in Hans du Plessis and Theo du Plessis, ed., Afrikaans en Taalpolitiek (Pretoria: HAUM, 1987); Chris Barnard et al, “President Mbeki, Luister Asb. Na Ons,” Insig, November 1999, pp. 24-25.

[13] Anton van Niekerk, “A department under siege: How Philosophy at Stellenbosch was split in order to survive,” Stellenbosch Theological Journal 3:1 (2017), pp. 451-73.

[14] Van Niekerk, “Department under siege,” p. 459.

[15] Van Niekerk, “A department under siege,” p. 469.

[16] Van Niekerk, “A department under siege,” p. 471.

[17] The formulation of Dr T.B. Davie, vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, was set out in more abstract terms, with academic freedom involving the freedom of the university “to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught and who may be admitted to study.” In practice, it was only the fourth and last item (“who may be admitted to study”) that was contested at that time (cf. Rosaan Krüger, “The Genesis and Scope of Academic Freedom in the South African Constitution,” Kagisano 8 (2013), p. 8.

[18] In much of what follows, I will use the term academic freedom to include that of institutional autonomy, as the two terms were closely connected. They become somewhat distinct when the South African constitution protected the individual right to academic freedom, although the legal meaning of that protection, outside of an academic context, is not yet clear.

[19] For a participant’s account, cf. Philip Tobias, Into the Past: A Memoir (Johannesburg: Picador Africa, 2013), pp. 184-201.

[20] Thom, Stellenbosch 1866-1966, pp. 125-29.

[21] The Faculty of Theology provides a random and seemingly evasive history on its website; cf.

[22] Cf. H.B. Thom et al, Stellenbosch 1866-1966: Honderd Jaar Hoër Onderwys (Cape Town: Nasionale Boekhandel, 1966), pp. 152-56. The Military Academy plays no part in the Degenaar saga, but shows how lightly the the issue of institutional autonomy was treated at Stellenbosch. A detailed account of the history of the Military Academy, with some emphasis on governance issues, is accessible at:

[23] This ceremonial event was part of the Stellenbosch academic calendar for many years. Dr Verwoerd had been invited to give the address as a young academic in 1929.

[24] H.F. Verwoerd, “Rede by geleentheid van die opening van die akademiese jaar aan die Universiteit van Stellenbosch, 25 Februarie 1959,” in A.N. Pelzer, ed., Verwoerd aan die Woord: Toesprake 1948–1966 (Pretoria: Afrikaanse Pers Boekhandel, 1966), pp. 230-31. “Wanneer so ligtelik gepraat word oor die ‘vryheid van die universiteit’ wat onbeperk moet wees, dan word nie genoeg daaraan gedink dat die universiteitsvoorregte ook altyd universiteitspligte oplê en dat enige plig inperkend is. . . . Enige strewe by ‘n universiteit na ‘n vryheid groter as sy plig, en vernaamlik sy volksplig sodat hy sy volksgebondenheid wil verloën in die naam van akademiese vryheid, ontstaan gewoonlik uit internasionale strominge wat by groot nasies begin en hul belange en ideologieë moet dien. Dis nie vryheid nie, maar ‘n vreemde slawerny wat die geleerdes van ‘n klein volk prober wegspeen van sy volk na onderworpenheid aan wat skynbaar universeel is. Daardeur word so ‘n universiteit totaal fondamentloos en juis nie vry of selfstandig nie. Vryheid van die dwinglandy van ander volke se eise en beskouings is die vryheid wat ‘n Universiteit moet en mag opeis. ‘n Universiteit se vryheid word ingeperk deur sy eie doel en sy eiewaarde, ook vir sy volk se voortbestaan.”

[25] Verwoerd, “Rede by geleentheid van die opening van die akademiese jaar,” p. 232. “Verraad . . . so erg as wat gewoonlik met dié begrip bedoel word.”

[26] Verwoerd, “Rede by geleentheid van die opening van die akademiese jaar,” p. 232. “Die hele groei van die Afrikanerdom as ‘n beskaafde volk wat tussen die wêreldvolke sy hoof hoog kon hou, was die resultaat van die toewyding van die jong geleerdes van daardie tyd.”

[27] Verwoerd, “Rede by geleentheid van die opening van die akademiese jaar,” p. 235. “Nou kon uit die universiteite die leiers van die volk op elke terrein van die lewe stam, want die Universiteit en die volk was één, soos dit behoort. En hulle het één gebly.”

[28] Verwoerd, “Rede by geleentheid van die opening van die akademiese jaar,” p. 235-36. “Die Universiteit wat sy doseringstaak, sy navorsingstaak en sy vormingstaak het, het daarna nog die grootste taak van alles. Dit is om te sorg dat te midde van die woeling en die verandering, die geloof in sekere ewige waarhede altyd behoue sal bly. . . . Te midde van alles wat gebeur, moet ons in die eerste plek lede van ons eie volk, van ons eie nasie, bly. Die Universiteit is die liggaam wat daarvoor moet sorg. . . . Dan het ons ‘n bydrae te lewer aan die mensdom en die die lewe.”

[29] But it is not impossible that Verwoerd knew of the Degenaar case. Thom and Gericke shared the platform with Verwoerd at this event, who acknowledges them in his salutation. They must have found something to talk about while waiting for the event to begin. All three were prominent members of the Broederbond, which may have had a role in the decision to act against Degenaar.

[30] Van Niekerk, “A department under siege,” p. 460.

[31] Duvenage, Afrikaanse Filosofie, p. 92. “Ek het aandag begin gee aan politieke filosofie, omdat die universiteit gevra het dat ons ‘n kursus in staatsleer moet aanbied. Dit het goed te pas gekom omdat daar van die kant van die kerk beswaar was teen my Sokratiese styl en my publikasies oor die sterflikheid van die siel in die 1950s. Ek het jammer gevoel vir Kirsten omdat aspirant-teoloë aangeraai is om nie filosofie te loop nie omrede my teenwoordigheid in die departement. Die skep van ‘n afsonderlike kursus in Staatsfilosofie, later Politieke Filosofie, het die problem help oplos.”

[32] Cf. Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002). There is no indication that Degenaar knew of Hadot’s work, which became available in English translation late in his life.


[34] The exception at the English-language campuses, for a brief period, was the University of Natal, where Michael Nupen and Richard Turner taught Marxist philosophy. They were based in the Department of Politics, however. Turner had also taught briefly in the Department of Political Philosophy at Stellenbosch. He prohibited him from teaching or writing for publication in 1973, and was assassinated in 1978. Nupen left the university in the mid-1970s. Turner’s book The Eye of the Needle, which was banned soon after publication in 1972, had a considerable impact on Political Philosophy students, especially after its re-issue in 1980. On this context, cf.

[35] Johan Degenaar, “The Myth of a South African Nation,” IDASA Occasional Papers 40 (1991), pp. 1-20.

[36] Cf. van Niekerk, “A department under siege,” p. 465. For a fuller exposition of the debate, cf. Hermann Giliomee, Historikus: ‘n Outobiografie (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2016), pp. 127-33.

[37] Van Niekerk, “A department under siege,” p.466.

[38] Gail M. Gerhart and Clive L. Glaser, From Protest to Challenge: A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882-1990, volume 6: Challenge and Victory 1980-90 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), p. 12.

[39] The chaotic response of the P.W. Botha government is brought out well in Gerhardt and Glaser, From Protest to Challenge, vol. 6: Challenge and Victory 1980-1990, pp. 12-39, 68-74 and further.

[40] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), p. 276. This quotation was the epigraph for a topical novel in this period by Nadine Gordimer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1991.

[41] I set out this view in a talk I gave at UWC in 1995: