Professor Jaap Durand tricked the apartheid government into spending money for infrastructure at the university that was built to offer limited training for coloureds only.
But UWC defied the authorities and opened its doors to all students and became the “intellectual home of the left”.
When UWC’s library was built, Durand secretly convinced the architect to build a glass brick into the atrium on the ground floor. The library was officially opened in 1989.
“It was a parody of what was happening at the Voortrekker Monument,” Durand said, while on a rare visit to the university earlier this year.
At the Voortrekker Monument on December 16 - the commemoration of the Day of the Vow/Covenant - the dome is opened at the monument and a ray of light shines on a cenotaph.
He explained that he wanted the light from the library’s glass ceiling to permeate the brick into the dark auditorium in the basement. This serves to commemorate June 16, 1976, as well as to remember the UWC students who fought against apartheid.
Durand has kept his tribute to the students secret, even from his closest colleagues, for more than 30 years.
This year, when he visited the university, he was surprised to see the modest glass brick still embedded in the floor of the atrium.
And when he made his way down to the auditorium, he could see the light shining through.
Director of UWC’s Institutional Advancement Patricia Lawrence describes the brick in the library as a powerful symbol.
“It might look innocuous, but it is a very powerful symbol of what the institution stands for,” she said.
In the mid-1970s, UWC was finding its way from being a bush college to being an institution that was critically engaged with the realities of apartheid South Africa.
In 1980, Durand became UWC’s first vice-rector, and with the support of rector Richard van der Ross, he began the process of reimagining the university’s identity.
With the likes of Professor Jakes Gerwel and others, they led public demonstrations and faced the rubber bullets and tear gas, but, through it all. Durand was uncompromising in his drive for excellence at UWC.
Professor Johannes Jacobus (Jaap) Fourie Durand, a theologian, was in charge of academic and physical planning. Carefully allocating resources, guiding new appointments and working with some of South Africa’s best architects, Prof Durand - one of UWCs pillars during the fight against apartheid - helped UWC transform into one of South Africa’s leading institutions.
He was born on June 5, 1934, in the Free State and studied philosophy and theology at the University of the Free State.
He continued his studies at Stellenbosch University, and then at the Free University in Amsterdam.
Prof Durand began his career as a working minister in the Transkei, before moving into academia and taking up a position as professor of systematic theology at UWC, where he proved himself so valuable that he was appointed deputy vice-chancellor, in 1981.
“He began the process of reconceptualising UWC’s intellectual vision, drawing the deans and other leaders together around the process and unleashing exciting intellectual vitality in a university in the thick of political upheaval,” the late UWC Professor Stanley Ridge once said.