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AUGUST 15, 2019
11 July 1935 to 2 July 2019

OBITUARY: Prof UJ Fairhurst

I am honored to present a commendation of the life of a departed academic and friend.  With the passing of Prof Joan Fairhurst on 2 July 1935, South African Geography lost a truly passionate geographer and a successful academic. She passed away from complications related to Mantel Cell Lymphoma that was only diagnosed on 11 June 2019.

How does one sum up her life as an academic and a professional? The one word that comes to mind is ‘star’.  Professor Joan Fairhurst academic star starting rising when she graduated with her Bachelor of Arts Degree at the University of Cape Town in 1954. She continued her studies at UCT and obtained the Secondary Teacher’s Diploma in 1955, after which she entered the teaching profession. From 1972 until 1987, Prof Fairhurst held a variety of positions at different teacher training colleges. In 1975, she completed the Higher Education Diploma (with specialization in pre-primary education).  In 1978, she completed her BA (Honours) in Geography at the University of South Africa, and in 1983 completed her Masters’ Degree in Geography at the same institution.

In 1987, Prof Fairhurst joined the Department of Geography at the University of Pretoria.  Under the supervision of Prof PS Hattingh she completed her D Litt et Phil at the University of Pretoria in 1992 with a thesis entitled “Time-Space perspective on the daily lives of economical active single mothers: A South African Urban study”.  Her thesis was considered to be ground breaking research in the discipline of Geography and more specifically within the field of the Geography of Gender.

She was an extremely hard worker – a perfectionist, meticulous in every detail.  Her intellect, hard work and ability to interact with the ideas of others made her an academic star, in her academic career she sought and gained all the glittering accolades that academics seek and these included over 100 publications and the presentation of over 80 conference papers across the world.   Her students at the University of Pretoria flourished under her dedicated supervision by benefiting from her knowledge, insight, wisdom and care as a mentor and role model.

Prof Fairhurst, academic star shone even brighter after she retired as an Emeritus Professor of the University of Pretoria in 2001.  Retirement was not going to prevent her from giving back to the discipline of Geography, and she held a variety of contract positions after her retirement, the most notable include:

  • The appointment as visiting professor to serve as Head of Department of Geography and Geo-Information Sciences at the University of Venda
  • The appointment as Deputy Director and then Director of the Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Pretoria
  • Various contract geography teaching positions at Universities of Pretoria, Witwatersrand and Johannesburg
  • She was appointed as an Academic Associate in the Department of Geography, at Unisa
  • She remained a very active and efficient language editor of numerous geography books, dissertations and theses
  • The supervision to completion of 4 doctoral students in Geography (Unisa) in the last five years of her life.

Among the many contributions she made to the academic society, the most noteworthy would be the transformation of Geography in South Africa and this included her role as a council member of the South African Geographical Society where she actively campaigned and helped drive the creation of the present Society of South African Geographers. This was accomplished by negotiating the merger of the South African Geographical Society and the Society for Geography. Prof Joan Fairhurst was identified as the President elect and went on to serve as the President of the newly created society in its formative years.

Prof Fairhurst was in her heart and soul a geographer and during her retirement she continued to campaign for her discipline within the midst of the growing popularity of environmental sciences and environmental management in favour of Geography. Prior to her retirement she was part of the research team that investigated the State of the Discipline of Geography at academic institutions in South Africa.  She continued this research directly and indirectly including numerous efforts to ensure that the integrity of the discipline of Geography remained intact within the today’s multi-inter-trans disciplinary environment. She continued to campaign for the retention of the core principles of geography within school and university curriculums and these efforts will form part of her continued academic legacy.  The University of South Africa recognised Prof Fairhurst achievements in 2014 when she was presented with the Unisa Geography Alumni Award for her “distinguished leadership as a Geographer in academia”.

While Prof Fairhurst was clearly an academic giant and she was proud of her achievements, she possessed the essential academic quality of always questioning her own work, always re-examining her own assumptions, her reasoning and her conclusions. Like a true intellectual, she was committed to her intellectual craft and devoted her life to her craft. One thing is clear, Prof Fairhurst was widely and deeply respected for her intellect and it is also common to hear praise of her personal qualities as well.  Not only did she appear as a star in the academic world, she appeared as such in the world of her students and we should considered ourselves blessed for having known such a bright star, however briefly.

Logic reminds us that the better the life commended, the greater the loss to those left behind.  Aligned to the analogy of an academic star we should focus on the light she shone and the way her endeavors shaped our discipline, and in this way Professor Joan Fairhurst memory and legacy will be honored for generations of geographers to come.

Prof Melanie Nicolau (PhD Geography)

Africa Commission

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