Chief Justice Jacob Abraham Jeremy (Jaap) de Villiers was born in 1868 in Fauresmith in the Orange Free State (now the Free State Province). He completed his graduate studies at the Victoria College (today known as Stellenbosch University [SU]), before travelling abroad to study law at the University of Amsterdam and University of London.
When the Anglo Boer War broke out in 1899, De Villiers joined the Free State armed forces as legal adviser. During the war he was wounded, imprisoned, and spent eighteen months as a prisoner of war in a camp in Bermuda.
As of 1910, De Villiers served as additional judge of appeal for the Supreme Court of Appeal in Cape Town. He held the position for 10 years, until the Appellate Division Act 12 of 1920 stipulated that the number of (ordinary) judges of appeal be increased from two to four (the posts of additional judge of appeal were thus scrapped). As a result, De Villiers and Sir Henry Juta were promoted to the new positions.
Following the death of Sir William H Solomon in 1929, De Villiers was appointed as South Africa’s fourth chief justice and remained in the position until he died in office on 16 September 1932. He was succeeded by Sir JW Wessels.
The year before, in 1931, SU had conferred an honorary doctorate in law on De Villiers. He also accepted the position as the University’s third chancellor, but passed away before he could be inaugurated.
A bust of De Villiers, sculpted by Moses Kottler, can today be seen in the library of the Supreme Court of Appeal in Cape Town. In addition, above the court’s main entrance, the following quote by him (spoken at the court’s opening) is set in stone: “… the Helmet of the armour of Faith, symbolical of the nation’s fast faith in the justice and the power of the law; the Keys of Emancipation from Tyranny, where there is no law; and the Lamp and the Torches of Truth”.