Matie Voices

Judge HS van Zyl

SU Vice-Chancellor 1933–1950

Judge Hendrik Stephanus (HS) van Zyl was born on 27 January 1876 on the farm Hexrivier in the Clanwilliam district. Until the age of 14 he had virtually no formal schooling, but in 1890 he started to attend the Blaauw Valley School near Wellington. In June 1892, he enrolled at the Victoria College in Stellenbosch. After matriculating, he obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kaap die Goeie Hoop before taking up employment with the government of the then Cape Colony.

During 1898, Van Zyl left South Africa and embarked on what would turn out to be a lifelong career in law and politics. He enrolled at St John’s College, Cambridge for an LLB degree. After qualifying, he returned to the country and passed his bar exam in 1903. He remained active in politics during this period, and was elected as a member of parliament for Paarl as early as 1905.

When South Africa became a Union in 1910, Van Zyl filled the role as its very first parliamentary legislator. Five years later, he became one of the founding members of the National Party in the then Cape Province. However, after his appointment as judge of the Cape High Court in 1920, he made a break from politics to perform this function. He remained in this position for 26 years, of which the last 11 were as judge president until his retirement in 1946. One of the matters he was tasked with during his tenure as judge president was to look into the possibility of incorporating South West Africa (today Namibia) as a fifth province of the Union.

Throughout his life, Van Zyl also displayed a passion for the preservation of culture. He was chairperson of the Historic Monument Commission (later the Board of National Memorabilia) between 1941 and 1955, as well as of the South African Public Library. He was also a founding member of the Riebeeck Society and served as the organisation’s chair from 1941 to 1955. After his retirement, he was appointed to the local council of Barclays National Bank.

In addition, Van Zyl served on the Council of Stellenbosch University (SU) for 32 years (between 1918 and 1950), with the last 17 years thereof as the institution’s vice-chancellor. He passed away in Cape Town five years later on 26 October 1955.