Background & History

The Society of South African Geographers was founded in 1994 when the Society for Geography and South African Geographical Society joined together. The union of South Africa’s two Geographical Societies was an historic event. The merger initiative started in earnest in 1992, when the two societies agreed to test the feasibility of unification. The process was long and complex, with key behind-the-scenes contributions by many colleagues.  They are too many to name here, but they deserve our sincere thanks.

Finally tying the knot was of course the most satisfying achievement, but another occasion will remain imprinted in the memories of many of those involved in the merger.  This was the special plenary session at the Port Elizabeth Geographical Conference of 1991, where delegates not only approved the merger, but also demonstrated a unity of purpose that is perhaps unprecedented in South African Geography.  Although the Society is aware that the vision of a vigorous, representative and bridge-building geographical association is not yet realised, that vision remains more than ever appropriate in contemporary South African society and we shall continues to strive to achieve it.


The history of the South African Geographical Society (SAGS) is linked with the growth and changes in status of Geography as an academic discipline.  In 1917 James Hutcheon, then in charge of geography at the South African School of Mines, founded the society and declared that it would strive to promote geography as an educational subject. Membership of the Society was unrestricted and the Governor General accepted the office of Patron.  In 1921 John Wellington succeeded James Hutcheon and was given the chair of geography when the School Mines became the University of the Witwatersrand in 1922.  Wellington offered the Society generous and energetic support.  In the difficult period of 1922-39, when enthusiasm for the Society had diminished and the effects of the depression were noticeable, he managed to find speakers for the meetings and material for the journal.  He stimulated the interest of other academics and did much to give the Society a South African character.

The Society was gaining recognition; its journal was recognised as a medium for the publication of new work and the list of international contacts was growing.  In 1938, the government approved an annual grant of fifty pounds towards the cost of the South African Geographical Journal.

The war years were difficult.  Attending of meetings was sometimes impossible, members were away on war service and the subscriptions of such members were remitted.  The Society carried on and the publication of the Journal was not interrupted – nor indeed for more than 75 years.

After the war conditions improved, new members joined and recognition from academic geographers increased, the annual state grant continued, but early in the 1960’s the society was informed by the Department of National Education that the grant would be subject to the condition that membership was limited to white persons only.  Although the Society declined to accept this condition and the Council took a stand on open membership and all it implied, the grant was not stopped.

Since 1948 the SAGS has acted as co-sponsor of the biennial A L du Toit memorial lecture.  In the late 1950s the SAGS established the tradition of a quadrennial conference; the first of these was in 1961 and the theme was land utilisation.  After the founding of the Society for Geography, jointly organised biennial conferences became the rule, despite initial differences about open and restricted attendance.  The Jubilee Conference was held in natal in 1967, and subsequent conferences have been hosted by various universities.  In the 1970s, the constitution was changed to make provision for the election of Fellows, in recognition of outstanding scholarly contributions to geography, and for the award of medals.  The South African Geographical Journal initially took the form of an annual publication, but since 1974 there have been two issues per annum and in 1989 the format was changed to A4 size with a glossy cover.

Recent initiatives undertaken by the councillors and members have focussed on: producing publications that include a Guide to University Departments, a Directory of Professional Geographers, leaflets promoting the discipline, Newsletters and Geogram publications especially for teachers; support for the Enviro competition; the establishment of the 75th Jubilee Bursary Fund; forging links with the international community through the International Geographical Union and other bodies; nationally liasing with curriculum initiatives; and promoting regional activities and special interest groups.

Sensing a need for co-operation, a new constitution that will unite the SAGS and the Society for Geography under one umbrella has recently been completed and the ‘new’ society is about to be launched.

by  S.P.Jackson


The Society for Geography (SG) was founded in Stellenbosch on 5 April 1957.  The 47 founder members mainly Afrikaans speaking geography teachers and lecturers from the Cape named their society The Society for the Teaching Geography.  Their prime concern was the educational value of their subject at all levels of education.  The Society’s Journal for Geography would serve as a forum for the exchange of ideas among teachers, college and university lecturers – provided, according to the first constitution, they were ‘adult white persons’.  That the interests of geography as a school subject and as a discipline would diverge, was not anticipated.  The initial target of the SG was Cape high schools were geography was regarded as a neglected subject.  The Society’s mediation resulted in refresher courses, better equipment and ultimately, in 1965, in new geography syllabi for secondary schools.  At that time, the Society became involved at the tertiary level: the Journal published research articles, honorary membership was awarded almost exclusively to academics, and the organising of conferences was shared with the South African Geographical Society (SAGS); the first conference to be the sole responsibility of the SG, was held in Stellenbosch in 1964.

Towards the mid-sixties, university geographers clambered onto the quantification bandwagon.  Research articles in what was then an exciting new paradigm crowded the Journal and the ties with planning became as important as those with teaching.  In 1972, this shift in emphasis manifested itself in new names: the society became the Society for Geography and the journal The South African Geographer.  In 1976, the annual general meeting changed the constitution to mark the discipline – rather than the school subject – the focus of the Society.  At the same occasion – two months before the political unrest in Soweto – the “white” qualification was scrapped from the constitution.

Owing to the Society’s inheritance of a broad membership, a journal circulation of 1 500 and a healthy financial state, initiatives such as the Serton Memorial Lecture and ambitious special publications were allowed to continue.  These assets proved their worth in the more difficult 1980’s when the South African Geographer shrank to one double-numbered volume per year.  At the end of the decade, the old paradigms were spent and a differently constituted geographical community insisted on a more inclusive network than could be provided by the SG and the SAGS as two separate societies.  Consequently informal discussions on amalgamation started in 1989, became official in 1992 and this process culminates in the gathering on 29 September 1994.

Retrospectively, the SG made its contribution at two levels.  In the first place it acted as a pressure group in geography education, initially in the Cape and later nationally.  The society’s participation in the 1972 core curriculum and enlargement of textbook series, turned school geography into the prestige subject of today.  Secondly, The South African Geographer and the Serton Memorial Lectures created communication channels for geographers to obtain DNE subsidies, pursue courses and recognise geographers of standing.  Geography has come through its days of neglect of the 1950’s but it has lost the self-confidence of the 1970’s.  The amalgamated society has some old tasks to tackle anew.

By W.S. Barnard



Conferences has been organized since 1978. For a list of student (annual) and main conferences (biennial), please click here.