When 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 institution’s highest honor.

His parting, though polite, was not a pleasant one. After openly challenging South Africa’s 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.

But 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.

“This 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.”

A 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.

“Potchefstroom 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.”

In 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.

The 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 government’s controversial security legislation.

“Apartheid was not a legitimate system, and it did not have the people’s 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.”

Not surprisingly, Van der Vyver’s 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.

“That, of course, I just could not do,” Van der Vyver says.

So 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 Human Rights.

Van 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.

Near the door of Van der Vyver’s 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 expense–something 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 Vyver’s academic career, it is clear that his alma mater still tugs convincingly at his heart.–P.P.P.



© 2003 Emory University