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Prof Richard van der Ross passes away Reflections on an extraordinary life

With the sad passing of UWC’s former Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Richard van der Ross, Prof Tyrone Pretorius shares a few thoughts about the man affectionately known as Dickie.

Prof Richard van der Ross passes away: Reflections on an extraordinary life

Dear Campus Community,

It is with great sadness that I must announce that our former Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Richard van der Ross - affectionately known as Dickie - passed away at his home on the morning of 13 December.

A writer, activist and educator, Prof van der Ross is a man whose contributions to South Africa - and especially to South African higher education - cannot be overstated.

Change in UWC’s character began with the appointment of Prof van der Ross as Rector in 1975.

In 1978 the University Council rejected the ideological basis upon which the University had been founded, providing the basis for the development of a university-wide partnership of staff and students, which gradually (and at times painfully) found its form.

Prof van der Ross oversaw UWC’s transition from being a College of the University of South Africa to a fully autonomous university, open to all, and dedicated to empowering students with a world-class education.

A naturally civil, sensible and compassionate man, Prof van der Ross believed passionately in fighting for a better life for all, and was not one to shy away from a challenge.

As UWC’s Vice-Chancellor during the Soweto Uprising in June 1976, he was often seen in the midst of confrontations between students and police, preaching the virtues of hard work, humane values and reasoned discussion. He demonstrated his moral courage in promoting those values even at a time of immense political upheaval and violence by the apartheid police, and continued to do so throughout his long life.


He helped the University navigate a period of political turmoil and social upheaval. He helped us define who we were, what we wanted to be, and what we stood for. And he set a truly inspirational example, demonstrating great courage and conviction by always standing up for what he believed in, while respecting the rights of others to do the same.

I am blessed to have been a student during his tenure as Vice-Chancellor. I thank Prof van der Ross for not only shaping the University’s character but my own, and those of my peers.

He was, in many ways, the soul of this University - and he leaves behind a legacy of transformation and compassion at UWC and beyond.

About Richard van der Ross: A Life Well-Lived

Richard Ernest “Dick” van der Ross was born on 17 November 1921 in Plumstead, Cape Town to parents who were both teachers. He studied at the University of Cape Town - a remarkable feat for a coloured man during the 1930s and 1940s. He first trained as a teacher at UCT, then completed a BA degree through the University of South Africa in 1943. In 1944 and 1946, he completed his MA in Philosophy and BEd at UCT.

A believer in the power of education to change lives, he put his own education to good use, becoming the first president of the Labour Party of South Africa, first editor of the Cape Herald, the principal of a teacher training school, and one of the pivotal figures in higher education in South Africa.

Among the honours he has received are honorary doctorates from the University of South Africa (1973), the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape and the University of Stellenbosch. He is a Freeman of the City of Cape Town, and was appointed South Africa’s Ambassador to Spain and to Andorra in recognition of his statesmanship - serving, as always, with distinction.

Prof Richard van der Ross will be remembered for his role as a social rights and political activist, a distinguished educator and historian, and a man who fought to open the doors of learning to all. 

Our thoughts and prayers are with the Van der Ross family and their friends and loved ones during this difficult time. We have lost an intellectual and moral giant.


Prof Tyrone Pretorius
Rector and Vice-Chancellor
University of the Western Cape​

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