The history of South African geography is the history of Geography at Stellenbosch. Taught as a school subject since 1839, geography evolved into an independent university subject in 1914. The curricular foundation was matured by Dutch Prof. Piet Serton upon his 1920 appointment as the first Professor of Geography at Stellenbosch and indeed in South Africa. Serton was chairman until his retirement in 1958 and led the discipline through its ‘foundational phase’. From 1920 to 1963, geography was a BA subject only, since the discipline was initially placed within the Arts Faculty. However, instruction in geography also formed part of natural and economic sciences degrees.
In 1959, Serton was succeeded by Andries Nel, who spearheaded a fundamental, research-driven transformation of the discipline. In 1963, geography became a full-fledged BSc and, in 1970, a BEcon subject. With increasing numbers the staff contingent reached a total of 9 in 1982 during this ‘research development phase’. A series of books, atlases and a notable volume of research articles led to five Academy awards to departmental staff over the years – the most to any single geography department in South Africa. The Department published its own academic journal (South African Journal of Geography) and established its research arm in the Institute for Cartography in 1975; this was the forerunner of the present expertise in geographical information technology (GIT). The department was initially housed in the Old Main Building, but expanding student and staff numbers necessitated a move to the Natural Sciences building in 1963. From the 1970s the Department invested in and became the South African seat of expertise and infrastructure in cartography, geographical information systems (GIS) and satellite remote sensing. During this phase, two subject-related new departments were spun off from the mother discipline: The Department of Africa Studies (1965 – 1990) and the Department of Town and Regional Planning (1965 – 2004).
Since the 1990s trends in the tertiary education sector combined to alter the structure of the geography department fundamentally, during what can be called its ‘geographical technology phase’. In 1995 the department altered its name to Geography and Environmental Studies, an independent GIS laboratory was established and the Institute was transformed into a virtual entity - the Centre for Geographical Analysis – with substantial investment, from its own funds, in GIT infrastructure. The departmental library was amalgamated with the central library in 2003 and, in 2007, the department was amalgamated with the then Department of Geology to form a ‘cross-cutting entity’ sited in the Chamber of Mines Building. This brief interlude failed to deliver the academic synergies envisaged and the independent Department of Geography and Environmental Studies was reinstated in the same building from 2010. The rejuvenated department underwent major expansion during 2009 through two initiatives: a university Overarching Strategic Plan (OSP) award allowing the addition of three academic staff in its GIT division and the incorporation of a new and externally funded Centre for Urban and Regional Innovation and Statistical Exploration (CRUISE) to swell the staff ranks to 14 academic and three support staff.
During its 90 year history as an independent department Geography was led by a remarkably small contingent of professors who achieved considerable prominence in South African Geography: P. Serton (Dean of Commerce), A. Nel (Dean of Arts), W. S. Barnard, C. J. Swanevelder, I. J. van der Merwe (Dean of Arts), H. L. Zietsman and JH van der Merwe. Its influence as a research generator and doctorate incubator extends widely. In 1970 seven of the fifteen Geography departments in South Africa were headed by Stellenbosch graduates, and others followed. Geography and Environmental Studies continues its tradition of academic excellence in its newly expanded format.