Obituary: Professor Deneys Schreiner — scientist, activist and humanitarian

2008-04-29 00:00

Professor Deneys Schreiner, who died on April 26 after a long illness, was for nearly 30 years a towering figure on the Pietermaritzburg campus of what was then the University of Natal.

He was appointed as professor of Inorganic and Analytical Chemistry in 1959, was later dean of the Faculty of Science, and in 1976 became the vice principal of the Pietermaritzburg campus, a post from which he retired in 1987.

Born in 1923, he had degrees from Wits and Cambridge, fought in World War 2, and had been a researcher in the United States.

He was an active scientist, his published research concentrating on the dating and chemical properties of igneous rocks. He was a member of the Royal Society of South Africa and was involved in the Association for the Advancement of Science. He was also concerned about the teaching of science in schools.

But he had a very wide range of interests and concerns, and soon became influential within the university as a man of deep humanity, with a lively awareness of social, political and educational issues.

In this respect, he followed worthily in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessors — his father, O.D. Schreiner, who as chief justice resisted apartheid; his grandfather, W.P. Schreiner, who was prime minister of the Cape and later came to Natal to defend Dinuzulu when he was tried for treason after the 1906 uprising; and his famous great-aunt, Olive Schreiner, the novelist and campaigner for justice.

It was partly through Deneys Schreiner that the university managed to maintain a broadly liberal ethos during the dark years of apartheid.

He was involved in every aspect of the university’s administration, but also in a wide variety of campus activities, including debating, drama and sport. In 1992, the university’s main lecture theatre was named after him.

His activities extended beyond the university, and he became a significant public figure.

He was a leading member of the SA Institute of Race Relations; he was a member of the 1961 Natal Convention; he chaired the fundraising committee of the Pietermaritzburg and District Malnutrition Relief Organisation; and in 1978 he was instrumental in convening a conference on models of constitutional change.

This led to his appointment as chair of the Buthelezi Commission of 1980-82, which looked at new modes of governance.

In later years, he and his wife Else were greatly involved in the setting up of Tembaletu Community Education Centre in Burger Street. They were also over the years collectors of art and patrons of some artists. They were particularly interested in the work of black South Africans, and also made notable donations to the Tatham Art Gallery, one of whose rooms is named after them.

His friends knew Schreiner as a man with a large white beard and a twinkle in his eyes, who combined dignity with warm friendliness and who enjoyed playing the devil’s advocate in discussions.

But they knew him too as a person of integrity and generosity, who was always alert and fearless, and was prepared to question everything.

In a farewell speech on his retirement he was described as a person of "sincerity, energy and dedication … man-in-charge, friend, arbiter, facilitator, innovator, catalyst".

To his family he has been a loving and challenging husband, father and grandfather.

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