Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
Celebrating 30 years of successful internationalisation at SU
Author: Hannelie Booyens
Published: 13/03/2023

​​Robert Kotzé is a man of many talents, but there is one rather unusual skill that has stood him in good stead over the past three decades: the ability to instantly fall asleep on an airplane, even before take-off – a much-​needed ability as there were many years when he spent more weekends abroad as senior director of Stellenbosch University's International Office than at home.

For the next week, however, Kotzé is going nowhere. Many of his international colleagues will congregate in Stellenbosch from 13 to 17 March for a very special occasion: the annual Stellenbosch International Academic Network (SIAN) meeting hosted by SU International, where nearly 120 delegates from 77 universities representing 37 countries will join in the festivities to celebrate 30 years of internationalisation at SU. 

Kotzé prefers not to be called the driving force behind SU's highly successful internationalisation efforts, but rather frames his involvement as “quiet diplomacy and navigating the local environment, working with the faculties – the primary home for internationalisation". He is also quick to credit the “wonderful, willing and wise colleagues" who helped develop and grow SU's international relations with more than 200 international institutions. 

In 1993 Kotzé started his career as an intermediary between SU and universities across the globe after returning from a 14-month stint studying in Germany. At the end of 1992, SU Management had decided the University should engage on an international level and so the Office for International Relations was established within the Division for Research Development. At its inception, Kotzé was the only staff member.

Soon the Office for International Relations became the go-to place for all letters with foreign stamps and phone calls SU received from people with unfamiliar accents. 

“I was able to navigate the SU environment, identify opportunities, develop good working relations with SU colleagues and establish meaningful connections with our first partners at KU Leuven in Belgium, the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, as well as the University of Tübingen in Germany," Kotzé explains. 

With the first group of exchange students arriving from Leiden in February 1994, Kotzé recalls picking up the students at the airport, finding last-minute housing for them in town – where he was bitten by the landlord's dog twice! – and dealing with Home Affairs while working his way through stacks and stacks of paperwork.

From small beginnings, SU International has evolved into a multidimensional entity with global reach through several specialised centres and institutes. SU has become known as a university with a strong reputation for academic excellence, world-class research, and an openness to creative international collaborations. And as international academics can attest after spending time in Stellenbosch, the University looks very well after visitors. “It also helps that the town and surrounding areas are hugely attractive," Kotzé remarks.   

This year a record number of 650 international semester students were welcomed at SU from all over the world and SU International now has 55 permanent staff members and student interns to assist with the kind of planning and logistics Kotzé once managed on his own. The International Office also facilitates many opportunities for SU students and staff members to study and work abroad at partner universities. 

Kotzé has a very personal connection with SU, not only as an alumnus but as a former lecturer, Head of the Helderberg Residence and having acted as interim Dean of Student Affairs, a position he held for almost two years. His wife Annemaré recently retired as a professor at SU's Department of Ancient Studies and both their daughters also studied at SU.

When he takes international guests on a tour of the SU campus Kotzé always stops at the Old Main Building, which now hosts the Law Faculty, to share a fond memory: “This is where I met my wife when I was a lecturer in Hebrew before I changed over to the Office for International Relations. We had our wedding pictures taken in the quad." 

Having grown up in a household with two deaf parents, Kotzé studied theology at SU with a noble motive. “I wanted to become a minister for a deaf congregation. I started off with theology and then got hooked on Greek and Hebrew. I did a master's degree in Hebrew and went to Germany to do research for my PhD. However, starting the International Office and dealing with all the accents, took its toll and the PhD was kicked out of the door!"

On a more serious note, Kotzé says he has never regretted changing course in his career. His academic background combined with his pastoral instincts equipped him perfectly for the role of steering international relations at a university. His passion for improving lives and creating opportunities means that he is always cognisant of the local and regional impact of collaborations. “Our link to the community and to the rest of Africa is vital for the University," he stresses.

Over the past few years, SU International has spent much time dedicated to positioning SU as a leading African university in line with the University's Vision 2040 and strategic framework to build programmes and initiatives rooted in Africa, but global in reach.

SU now has bilateral agreements with more than 20 higher education institutions in the rest of Africa where purposeful partnerships and inclusive networks have been established. 

The Covid-pandemic of the past years has had a massive impact on international academic collaboration, but beyond the challenges, there was a silver lining, Kotzé says. “At the beginning, we felt that it is the end of internationalisation with no student mobility or delegations. Yes, international student numbers went down, but the links grew stronger as we discovered that virtual meetings could facilitate broad discussions and involvement. The pandemic showed us how important the sharing of research and knowledge is – identifying opportunities, building trust and making links beyond the individuals having the privilege to travel and to be at partner institutions."

Given the geopolitical challenges the world currently faces, knowledge diplomacy has become more important than ever, Kotzé believes. 

“For academic institutions, international collaboration is crucial for delivering quality education and contributing to the global knowledge economy. In terms of learning and teaching, it is important for developing the global skills and intercultural awareness of incoming and outgoing students, enhancing their employability. On the level of research and innovation, it is important for building strong research groups and bringing complementary expertise together to address global issues. And on the level of social impact, it is important for local, regional, and continental development, especially for an institution in Africa like SU."

When Kotzé retires in three years, it's unlikely that he'll stop traveling. He still wants to take his time to enjoy Barcelona's architecture; he wants to experience another opera in Sydney, Australia, and he would love to again taste the steaming cottage pie he once had in Chicago. And then there are the many memorable experiences from the time he and his family lived in Germany that he likes to revisit. 

But whatever the future holds for Kotzé, one thing is certain: There is no better feeling in the world than returning to Stellenbosch. “Every time I get off the plane and see the mountains and smell the earth, I know this is my country and this is where I belong. This is home."


• My first European Association for International Education (EAIE) conference in 1994 in The Hague where I stayed at the home of the then Rector Magnificus of Leiden University, sharing my daily experiences with him and his wife over dinner.

• My walk on campus with Mrs Ethel Kennedy in 1996 when the Kennedy family commemorated Robert Kennedy's 1966 visit to Stellenbosch. When walking onto the Rooiplein, she remarked “This is Stanford!" I found it remarkable that the look and feel of Stellenbosch caused a link to Stanford.

• Being involved in the planning process for building the Concordia Residence to provide housing options for international students.

• Transforming the International Office into the Postgraduate and International Office (PGIO) in 2010 when the University asked us to replicate the successful support structures for international postgraduate students for all postgraduate students and to introduce a postgraduate skills programme. Dorothy Stevens then grabbed the opportunity and built the foundations of the Postgraduate Office when they moved from PGIO to the Division for Research Development in 2016.

• Our first Family Meeting in 2003 celebrating 10 years of internationalisation. That was the pre-curser of the annual SIAN meeting we are hosting this week – the first one in-person after the Covid-interruption (we held online meetings for the past three years).

• Our involvement in crafting the B Com (International Business) where students have to complete their sixth semester abroad.