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 Professor 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 Bachelor of Arts 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 Bachelor of Science and, in 1970, a Bachelor of Economics subject. With increasing numbers the staff contingent reached a total of nine 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).