People finder

Portrait watermark

Dr Theuns Eloff

Honorary Doctorate of Sciences


Theuns Eloff is a theologian, entrepreneur, diplomat and academic leader, who played a key part in the transformation of South Africa from an apartheid state to a modern democracy.

Theuns was born in Potchefstroom, capital of the former Transvaal Province in South Africa, now North West province. His family, who were academics and teachers, had roots deep in the historic Afrikaner soil. He is the great great great grandson of Paul Kruger, the leader of the Boer struggle against British rule after the annexation of the Transvaal in 1877 and became President of the South African Republic from 1880 until the Boer War in 1899.

Theuns attended the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education where he gained degrees in law and then theology, and went on to complete a Masters in Theology and it was there that he met his wife Suzette, who we are delighted to welcome here today. However, his was not to be a conventional student career. For three years in the mid to late 70s he was student president of Potchefstroom. During that time, in 1977, the black student leader Steve Biko was murdered. This had a huge impact outside South Africa, of course, but within the country is aroused the opposition of many young Afrikaners. In 1977 Theuns Eloff co-drafted the Koinonia Declaration – the word from the Greek word meaning fellowship – a major critique of apartheid. He went on to complete a Doctorate on "Government, Justice and Race Classification", a subject of central importance in the politics of the time.

In 1979 he was elected President of the national body of Afrikaans students. A year later he was founder member of POLSTU (the non-racial Political Students' Organisation of SA.) Of course, as we all know, these were turbulent years, when South Africa was isolated and it took enormous courage to take on the regime – especially for someone with such deep roots in the Afrikaner community itself.

For six years Theuns Eloff served as a minister of religion, writing, broadcasting and serving his congregation. But politics was always close by. In 1987 he was part of the famous Dakar Safari, the secret but now famous meeting which took place in Senegal between leading Afrikaans opinion leaders and the exiled leaders of the ANC at Dakar as part of in order to test public opinion over political change.

Theuns' involvement in this controversial but vitally important venture led, eventually, to his relinquishing his position in the church. Instead he became Chief Executive of the Consultative Business Movement, deeply involved in the attempt to achieve political transition.

Three years after the Senegal mission, Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison, and the ANC un-banned. But the negotiations for the transition to a new democratic political system were difficult. Under the chairmanship of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, attempts were made to create an Accord. Theuns Eloff was instrumental in drafting the agreement.

There followed, in 1991 and 1992, two rounds of constitutional conventions, CODESA, but against a background of suspicion and violence, progress was slow.

In 1993, however, following a Record of Agreement between the ANC and the National party a Multi Party Negotiating Forum was established. Theuns Eloff was the natural choice as Head Administrator and Secretary of the Forum, and he played a key part in the facilitation and planning of the Peace Process. It was all extremely delicate, often on the verge of failure through for example the assassination of Chris Hani, leader of the SCAP and then an attempt by a right wing group to smash their way into the negotiations in an armoured car. However in the early hours of the morning of 18 November 1993, the MPNF ratified the interim Constitution and the ending of apartheid. This was a historic moment in which Dr Eloff can rightly claim a central place. It is also a salutary reminder of how much has been achieved in just that short time.

In 1995 Theuns Eloff was appointed Chief Executive of the National Business Initiative, working for the economic reconstruction of South Africa, a task he undertook with great energy and great success. This and his critical role in the peace process was now gaining him international recognition; he was named Harvard Business Club Statesman of the Year, he received the Junior Chamber International's award as one of the "Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World"; and World Economic Forum honoured him as one of "100 Global Leaders for Tomorrow". After seven highly successful years at the NBI, however, Theuns returned to his alma mater, Potchefstroom University, as Vice Chancellor.

However, this was not going to be any quiet life of contemplation. A hundred miles away from Potchefstroom is the town of Mafikeng, famous in the annals of British History of course because of the siege defended by Baden Powell during the early months of the Boer War. The university there was an entirely black institution, in sharp contrast to Potsch. In 2003 the Government of South Africa decided on a major programme of integration of higher education. And it was decided, in a remarkable experiment, to merge Potchefstroom and Mafikeng. Theuns Eloff was appointed as the Vice Chancellor of the new university, North West and since his appointment four years ago; this has been and continues to be his great project.

The university has some of the finest sports facilities there are and last year, the university jointly won an award from the Association of Commonwealth Universities to establish a joint facility for coaching young black footballers in Mafikeng. The dream is to create an academy which will enable world-class football teams to be able to draw on the immense talents of young South Africa.

Dr Eloff has embarked on wider educational leadership – among other roles, he is now chairman of Higher Education South Africa, the equivalent of Universities UK, and he has recently become deputy chair of the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

Recently asked what he enjoys most Theuns responded: "What I like to see in people is Passion and enthusiasm for something." And as for his hopes for South African society he emphasises the values of diversity: "That we accept each other fully, give each other space to differ, and have the ability to laugh at ourselves and each other. "

For his courage, dedication and great achievement in the cause of democratic progress in South Africa, for his engagement with global education and social transformation and for his contribution to partnership with London South Bank University and its values, Dr Theuns Eloff was awarded the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

View my publications at