With the help of his guide dog, blind paralympic swimmer makes history at Stellenbosch University

Blind paralympic swimmer Hendri Herbst with his guide dog Julian.

Blind paralympic swimmer Hendri Herbst with his guide dog Julian.

Published Dec 17, 2023


Accompanied by his guide dog Julian to his doctoral oral examination, blind paralympic swimmer Hendri Herbst became the first blind student in Stellenbosch University (SU) Faculty of Law to obtain his doctoral degree (LLD) in mercantile law on Friday.

Hailing from Letsitele near Tzaneen in Limpopo, Herbst is the first blind student in SU’s Faculty of Law to be awarded a LLD. He is also the first student in the SU’s Faculty of Law to receive a joint doctorate from the Faculty and Hasselt University in Belgium. His supervisors were Dr Izelle du Plessis from SU and Prof Dr Niels Appermont from Hasselt University.

“I had to overcome a few obstacles, especially during the pandemic when it was difficult to access literature and prescribed sources. Sometimes I had to work through as many as 20 books just to write one paragraph. I had to listen to each book to decide whether I could use it or not,” he said.

Herbst said he was very grateful to his wife Brigitte, 2-year-old daughter Alexis, his parents and supervisors for their support. His guide dog Julian, who sadly died, travelled with him to Belgium and accompanied him to his doctoral oral examination.

As a visually impaired person who overcame many challenges on his road to success in sports and academia, Herbst said he firmly believes that a disability should not prevent you from reaching your goals.

“Your disability should not be an excuse for not achieving excellence. While it will take more sacrifice and much harder work than your able-bodied counterparts, it is doable,” he said.

To access sources, Herbst used a text-to-speech computer screen reader programme as well as software that converts image PDFs to readable text. He was able to discuss his work with his supervisors through online meetings, emails and WhatsApp messages. They also provided feedback via voice notes.

For his doctorate, Herbst evaluated South Africa’s income tax regime for trusts by comparing the South African position with that of the UK and Belgium, with the aim of making it more investor friendly. He says he chose this topic because it is a combination of law that he finds particularly interesting, namely the law of trusts and tax law.

“South Africa is currently facing a multitude of economic, political and social challenges. By adopting the appropriate tax policies, the tax system can be leveraged to unlock the country’s potential through investment, thereby aiding resolving its challenges.”

Hendri Herbst

Du Plessis said their entire faculty were very proud of Herbst.

“He showed so much perseverance to achieve this degree, not only because he is blind, but also because he had to work on his LLD through the difficult Covid-19 period.

“Hendri is a remarkable and very intelligent person with the ability to process and remember large amounts of information. He is a very bright lawyer who can identify and research problems thoroughly and come up with solutions,” Du Plessis said.

Now that he has his LLD, Herbst will be working as a tax manager at a company in Stellenbosch.

Cape Times