(Published - 1 June 2020)
Author: Llewellyn MacMaster
Professor Rev Dr Mary-Anne Plaatjies-van Huffel (15 December 1959 – 19 May 2020) passed away on Tuesday, 19 May 2010, following complications after surgery to remove a cancerous growth.
Born in Prieska, the second of seven daughters, she matriculated at Bergrivier Senior Secondary School in Wellington in 1977. She completed her teacher’s diploma at UWC and taught for several years before returning to UWC to enrol at the Faculty of Theology.
After completing her BTh (Hons) degree, she became the second woman to be licensed for ministry and the first woman in the then Dutch Reformed Mission Church (now Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa, URCSA) to be ordained in the Robertson East congregation in November 1992.
She served the congregation for 17 years before she was appointed as a senior lecturer in Church History and Church Polity at Stellenbosch University (SU). Prof Plaatjies-van Huffel also completed her MTh at UWC. She went on to obtain two doctoral degrees from UNISA and UP. She was appointed associate professor in May 2014, and at the end of 2019, she became the first Black woman to be appointed full professor in the Faculty of Theology at SU. This remarkable achievement would have been recognised at her inaugural lecture as Professor in Ecclesiology later this year.
Prof Plaatjies-van Huffel is described by many as a “pioneer”, a “glass ceiling breaker” and a “trail-blazer” who played a remarkable role in her denomination, as well as ecumenical circles nationally and internationally.
She became the first woman to be elected in the position of actuarius (church polity officer) of the Cape Regional Synod in 2002 – a position she held for two four-year terms. She was elected vice-moderator in 2008 and in 2012, and became the first woman elected as moderator of the General Synod of URCSA. In 2013 she was also elected as one of the vice-presidents of the World Council of Churches (WCC), thus becoming the president for Africa.
In the meantime, she also served as co-minister with her husband and two other colleagues in the congregation of Scottsdene, Kraaifontein.
“While she has been a staunch activist for causes like black theology, women’s rights and transformation on many levels, and has represented our continent in prominent positions including in the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the World Council of Churches, she has also been a passionate church historian, church law expert and pedagogue. Her career at the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University commenced fairly recently. Still, she made an indelible impression in her field and in the hearts and minds of her colleagues and students. She was the first black woman to be promoted to full professor at the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University” (Prof Reggie Nel, Dean; Faculty of Theology SU).
She was indeed a pioneer who transformed the spaces she occupied. At the same time, she mentored and nurtured many students as well as ministers.
In one of her last published articles titled, “A history of gender insensitivity in URCSA”, and utilising the auto-ethnographical methodology, she was “hopeful that this research would sensitise readers to issues of identity politics in URCSA, enlighten readers to experiences shrouded in silence in URCSA, and would deepen knowledge about the struggles women in ordained positions in URCSA have had to endure.”
We recognise her many remarkable talents, achievements and contributions, but above all, we remember her for her indomitable courage, her lovely person and her kind heart.
We honour the extraordinary and exceptional legacy of such a phenomenal woman and leader, and celebrate her life.
We mourn her passing with her husband, Rev Dawid van Huffel, her five sisters, family, friends and colleagues.
Professor Vivienne Lawack
Acting Rector and Vice-Chancellor