Blind Paralympic swimmer gets doctorate

Henry

Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

This was proven anew when the blind Paralympic swimmer and medal winner Hendri Herbst obtained his doctorate (LLD) in Commercial Law at Stellenbosch University on Friday.

He sometimes had to listen to 20 books just to write one paragraph, but that didn’t discourage Herbst from fighting to the end.

Herbst is the first blind student in Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Law to receive an LLD degree, as well as the first SU student to receive a joint doctorate from the faculty and the Hasselt University in Belgium.

In a statement from SU, Herbst says he is proud of his latest achievement, but also relieved that he has reached the finish line.

“A PhD is a long road and to a large extent an extremely lonely journey.

“I had to overcome a few obstacles, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic when it was difficult to access literature and prescribed sources. Sometimes I had to work through as many as 20 books just to write one paragraph. I had to listen to each book to decide if I could use it or not.”

Herbst used a text-to-speech computer program to access resources, as well as software that converts PDF documents to readable text. He could discuss his work with his supervisors through online meetings, emails and WhatsApp messages. They also used voice messages to give him feedback.

Although Herbst also achieved success in the sporting field, he explains that the path to his academic excellence looked very different.

“My sports career has produced many more positive milestones over time, but it has been a lifetime of dedication. A PhD is a long winding road until the end when the pressure is relieved.

“Both required absolute sacrifice, but in different ways. I was more rewarded in the short term with my swimming. I had to wait four years to succeed with a PhD! I would say completing my LLD was equivalent to the Olympics!”

For his doctorate, Herbst evaluated South Africa’s income tax system for trusts by comparing the South African position with that of the United Kingdom and Belgium with the aim of making it more investor-friendly.

He chose this subject because it is a combination of two types of law that he finds particularly interesting, namely the law of trusts and tax law.

“South Africa is currently faced with a multitude of economic, political and social challenges. By adopting the appropriate tax policy, the tax system can be used to unlock the country’s potential through investment and thus help solve its challenges.”

Determination

When things got tough, Herbst’s experiences as a swimmer pulled him through.

“There were definitely a few lessons from my days as a swimmer that I was able to apply during my doctoral studies. I learned that perseverance, commitment and sacrifice – just like in sports – also produce results in academia.”

Herbst’s SU supervisor, dr. Izelle du Plessis, is just as impressed with his performance.

“My entire faculty and I are very proud of Hendri’s exceptional performance. He showed so much perseverance to achieve this degree, not only because he is blind, but also because he had to work on his LLD through the difficult Covid-19 period.

“Hendri is a remarkable and very intelligent person who has the ability to process and remember large amounts of information. He is a very clever lawyer who can thoroughly identify and research problems and come up with solutions.”

Herbst’s co-study leader, prof. Niels Appermont from Belgium agrees with these statements.

“Hendri was a remarkable doctoral student who is not only very intelligent and resilient, but also an excellent legal expert. He wrote his thesis under difficult circumstances, but was able to overcome it and defend it in a brilliant way.

Herbst says he is very grateful to his wife, Brigitte, two-year-old daughter, Alexis, his parents and supervisors for their support. His guide dog Julian, who sadly passed away, also deserves a special mention.

Julian traveled with him to Belgium and accompanied him to his doctoral oral examination.

As a visually impaired person who overcame many challenges on his way to sporting and academic success, Herbst firmly believes that a disability should not prevent you from achieving your goals.

“Your disability should not be an excuse not to achieve excellence. Although it requires more sacrifice and much harder work than your peers without disabilities, it can be done.”

Now that he has his LLD under his belt, the time has come to apply the knowledge he has gained during his academic career, says Herbst. He will do this as a tax manager at WTS Renmere in Stellenbosch, a company that specializes in transaction structuring and tax advice. Having recently joined the company, Herbst is looking forward to the new challenges and opportunities that will come his way.

In addition to his LLD degree, Paralympic and world championship medals, Herbst also received the rector’s award for outstanding sporting achievement.

A few years ago, with the support of the SU Legal Clinic, he also won a discrimination case against a Cape wine cellar in the equality court.