Matie Voices

Professor JI Marais

SU Chancellor 1918–1919

Stellenbosch University’s (SU’s) first-ever chancellor, Professor Johannes Izaak (JI) Marais, was born in Cape Town on 23 August 1848. After completing his theological training, he spent the first part of his career as a practising Dutch Reformed minister in both Cape Town and the Northern Cape.

During this period he and his wife, Hester Fehrsen, became actively involved in community upliftment in and around Hanover and Richmond, especially the development of young minds.

During 1877, however, Marais’ career started to lean towards higher education and academic research when he joined the Theological Seminary (Kweekskool) in Stellenbosch as a professor. He would also go on to serve as Council chairman of the Stellenbosch College, later renamed Victoria College, between 1882 and 1912.

Marais, who was known as an ardent, lifelong debater himself, embraced the Socratic and catechetical methods when engaging with his students. When SU formally came into being with four faculties in 1918, he was chosen by the convocation to take up the position as the institution’s first chancellor.

SU celebrated another milestone the following year when, on 9 April 1919, it hosted its first graduation ceremony under the patronage of Marais. This was also to be his last, as the academic passed away later that year on 27 August.

As a translator, critical thinker, lecturer, researcher, magazine columnist, prose writer and even at times travel journalist, Marais’ body of written work includes contributions to the International Standard Bible Dictionary and SA Journal of Science, self-penned publications such as Geschiedenis der Christelijke Kerk and Geschiedenis der Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk in Zuid Afrika tot op de Grote Trek, as well as regular features in magazines and newspapers such as the Gereformeerde Maandblad, De Volksbode, and De Zuid-Afrikaan.

In addition, he was the recipient of honorary degrees from both the University of St Andrews in Scotland and the University of South Africa (Unisa).

– Steyn du Toit