he left the Potchefstroom
University for Christian Higher Education in South Africa
in 1978, Emory law professor Johan Van der Vyver (above) did
not imagine he would be returning a quarter-century later to
accept that institutions highest honor.
parting, though polite, was not a pleasant one. After openly
challenging South Africas racial policies and security
legislation under the apartheid government, Van der Vyver was
asked to subject himself to regular censorship by the university
council. Instead, he chose to resign.
in May he will return to accept the degree of Doctor Legum Honoris
Causa from the university where he graduated and served on the
faculty, spending a total of nearly thirty years.
is a special moment in my life, Van der Vyver says. This
gesture of Potchefstroom also bears evidence of the dramatic
change of heart that has set in in South Africa after the political
transition of 1994.
white native of South Africa and member of the Afrikaans community,
Van der Vyver was a student at the Christian-based Potchefstroom
from 1952 until 1956. In 1958, he joined the faculty and served
as dean of the law faculty from 1972-74. Ironically, it was
his loyalty to the very principles on which the university stood
that moved him to speak out against the government and stirred
discomfort among Potchefstroom leaders.
was a Christian university, very Calvinistic, and the university
principles were not supportive of the apartheid system,
Van der Vyver says. There was a growing dichotomy between
what was preached from the pulpit on Sunday and what was done
politically on Monday that began to bother me.
1974, at a criminology conference at the University of Capetown,
Van der Vyver spoke critically of the government misusing criminal
law to impose apartheid on black South Africans. Consequently,
he was invited to give a series of lectures at the University
of Capetown on human rights, which were eventually published
in a book. One thing led to another, and I became known
as someone who was rocking the boat, he says.
boat rocked too far in 1978, when Van der Vyver wrote an editorial
for the Sunday Johannesburg Times, highlighting what he thought
wrong with the governments controversial security legislation.
was not a legitimate system, and it did not have the peoples
support, Van der Vyver says. It had strong opposition
from its victims and also from some whites. In order to maintain
it, the government enacted extremely repressive legislation
to deal with its opponents.
surprisingly, Van der Vyvers article drew objection from
at least one member of the Potchefstroom University Council,
who was also a cabinet minister. He was told that from that
point forward, before he could speak publicly or publish material
about potentially contentious issues, he must first get permission
from a forum of the council.
of course, I just could not do, Van der Vyver says.
Van der Vyver left the place that had been the sole setting
of his three-decade scholarly career. He was offered a position
at the University of the Witwatersrand
in Johannesburg, an institution he describes as very liberal,
where he remained on the law
faculty until receiving an invitation from Emory in 1995
to become the I.T. Cohen Professor of International Law and
der Vyver says he is eagerly anticipating his return to Potchefstroom
to accept the honorary degree. Since the fall of apartheid,
the university has become fully integrated. I find it
very encouraging that the whole atmosphere, the ethos of the
university has changed, Van der Vyver says.
the door of Van der Vyvers office in Gambrell Hall, there
are stacks of boxes filled with cast-off legal textbooks, which
he is collecting to ship over to Potchefstroom at his own expensesomething
he has done many times since his arrival at Emory. Here, he
says, they would simply be thrown away, but there they are a
valuable resource to South African legal students. While his
tenure at Emory continues to constitute a rich and rewarding
chapter in Van der Vyvers academic career, it is clear
that his alma mater still tugs convincingly at his heart.P.P.P.